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The Secular Case Against Abortion

by Jennifer Roth


It seems that I was premature in proclaiming that Mr. Carrier and I had reached agreement on a number of key issues. I had hoped to focus attention on the question of the definition of a person, since I believed (and still believe) that to be the primary point of dispute. I plan to use this rebuttal to refute the claim that the prenate prior to 20 weeks is merely a potential individual, and to address the contention that abortion is good for women. However, first I must comment on two issues which are, relatively speaking, peripheral: abortions in the latter half of pregnancy, and the effect of legalizing abortion on population growth.

Abortions in the second half of pregnancy

In his opening statement, Mr. Carrier alleged the following: "... there is effectively no such thing as an elective abortion in the fifth month or later. No competent doctor would advise it, no intelligent mother would risk it. Consequently, I will not argue for the legality or morality of "abortion" after the 20th week." I corrected him by citing statistics which indicated that about 1.4% of abortions occur after week 20. In addition, I gave examples of doctors who claimed that the vast majority of their post-20-week abortions were done for elective reasons. The point was simply to demonstrate that, in fact, there is such a thing as elective abortion in the second half of pregnancy.

In his reply, Mr. Carrier notes that the AMA opposes elective third trimester abortions, the ACOG is "opposed to abortions of viable fetuses", and the Medical Society of New Jersey holds that "abortions should not be performed on fetuses considered viable (about 23 to 24 weeks)" for elective reasons. These policies, while useful to know, are beside the point. The original assertion was not about third-trimester or post-viability abortions; it was about abortions after 20 weeks. None of the policies cited above takes a stand on abortions between 20 and 23-24 weeks.

Mr. Carrier argues that my reference to Dr. Martin Haskell, who admits that most of his 20-24 week abortions are elective, is misleading. He goes on to point out that Haskell uses the "partial-birth" abortion technique in all abortions he performs after 16 weeks, which clouds the issue. I did not claim that the majority of Haskell's "partial-birth" abortions were elective, although that is true. I referred to the specific admission that most of the abortions he performs between 20 and 24 weeks are elective.

Finally, it may be true that the doctors quoted in the Bergen Record misremembered or exaggerated the number of post-20-week abortions performed at their facility. (Although even if they did, they should still know whether the abortions which occurred were elective or not.) However, the "official documents and scientific data collection" Mr. Carrier prefers are not as reliable as they should be, either. The Centers for Disease Control, whose figures he cites, rely on reports from state health agencies to determine the number of abortions taking place. Unfortunately, five states (Alaska, California, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma) do not collect abortion information at all, and the CDC must make estimates for those states. In addition, data gathered by the other 45 states differ in completeness. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, a research affiliate of Planned Parenthood, estimates that the CDC undercounts abortions by an average of 15% per year.[1]

Though nobody can be certain of the exact numbers, reports from abortion providers themselves show that elective (i.e., not medically indicated) abortions do take place after the 20th week.[2]

Slowing population growth

I am not, as Mr. Carrier suggests, unaware of the fact that several states had loosened their restrictions on abortion prior to Roe v. Wade. However, 46 states either banned abortion entirely except when it was necessary to save the mother's life, or allowed it in only a relative handful of circumstances, as specified in the 1962 Model Penal Code. Colorado was the first to adopt MPC-style restrictions, and it did not do so until 1967. Only four states -- New York, Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington -- permitted abortion for any reason throughout most of a woman's pregnancy, and the first to do so was New York in 1970.[3]. While I do not contest the assertion that doctors often "contrive[d] the excuses allowed by the new laws," the fact is that Roe overturned abortion restrictions that were in place in 46 states, making it much easier and more common for women to obtain abortions. Unrestricted abortion did not become widespread until a decade after population-growth rates had begun to fall.

Keep in mind, also, that the growth rate in the period of prosperity following World War II was unusually high. During the 1930's and early 1940's, population growth in the U.S. was slower than it is now. It may be that the decline in population growth in the 1960's was merely part of a social and economic cycle. In any event, there is no reason to believe that it was necessarily due to legalizing abortion.

I agree that I have been remiss in not addressing the possible abortifacient effects of certain kinds of birth control. My position is that the use of any pill or device which works solely by preventing the implantation of an embryo is ethically dubious. (As I indicated in my opening statement, whether the embryo can be considered to have an individual biological identity during the period when twinning and chimerism are still possible is debatable; given that it is possible, however, methods which are meant to bring about the embryo's death should be avoided.) However, birth control which is intended to prevent conception, but which may have the side effect of preventing implantation if it fails, is a different case. There is obviously no intent in this case to destroy the embryo, since the goal is to avoid conceiving in the first place. I believe that this is ethically permissible as long as the method is practiced diligently so as to minimize the risk of conception.

Defining the person

All of Mr. Carrier's critiques of my arguments so far have hinged upon the idea that the prenate prior to 20 weeks or so is only a potential person. That idea, in turn, depends upon his assumption that he has correctly defined the traits which define personhood. But that assumption is precisely what I challenge! Thus, we are going around in circles.

Mr. Carrier claims that a individual human person begins to exist, not when the biological individual begins to exist, but only when his/her brain is sufficiently developed to manifest a personality. He defends this claim by asserting that the personality is what we (by which I assume he means society as a whole) value. I have a number of objections to that claim, the most obvious and trivial of which is that many people do value the prenatal human from the beginning of his/her biological life, regardless of developmental stage. The size and strength of the pro-life movement attest to that.

Second, societies have been wrong before when choosing which human beings had valuable traits, and therefore deserved human rights. History does not look kindly upon those societies which denied certain human individuals rights based upon their race, gender, religion, or disability. I believe that future generations will view the denial of rights based on stage of development in a similar light.

My third point is that the personality is not a separate entity, existing independently of the human organism. To say, as Mr. Carrier has, that an individual does not exist prior to the 20th week is to say that the personality is the individual. (Ironically, the idea that the personality is an entity unto itself is one I would expect to hear from a believer in the supernatural. I am currently unaware of any atheistic philosophers who embrace mind/body dualism.) It is, instead, a property of the individual. The human organism itself builds the brain structures necessary for the formation of the personality, and thus can hardly be said to come into existence only after those brain structures have been built. Therefore, it is not a potential human individual, but an actual individual in whom the process of forming the personality is underway. Indeed, this is a process which is never fully completed.

My opponent speculates about regenerating brains and making death illegal, then muses, "These and many similar questions plague my mind and make me very curious just what someone like Ms. Roth really means to advocate." Let me put his mind somewhat at ease by assuring him that I advocate exactly what I say I advocate. There is no hidden agenda here. I believe that all human individuals should have human rights, from the beginning to the end of their lives.

Is abortion a benefit, limited or otherwise?

Mr. Carrier seemed confused by my assertion that "if the morbidity/mortality rates for abortion in general are in fact lower than the rates for carrying to term in still does not follow that abortion is safer than carrying to term for any given woman." My point is that some women, depending upon the state of their health, are at higher risk of dying in childbirth than others. It does not follow that for any given woman, especially a healthy one, abortion is safer than carrying to term. It certainly does not follow that having an abortion is the best way (or even a good way) to avoid the potential risks of carrying to term and giving birth. For most women, having an abortion for that reason would be like removing a healthy breast to guard against the possibility of future breast cancer. But then, my opponent correctly points out that women aren't generally aborting for that reason.

I do agree that if abortion is necessary due to an imminent threat to the mother (such as ectopic pregnancy), then it is beneficial for that woman. I also have no ethical qualms about abortion in such circumstances. However, most women do not abort for health reasons, but for social and economic ones.

Obviously, if the prenate is a person, then the limited good for a woman who is aborting for non-medical reasons is outweighed by the lethal harm done to the prenate in an abortion. Since I argue that s/he is a person, I haven't spent much time on refuting the idea that elective abortion is of benefit to women. But even if s/he is not, I think that most abortions are considered the "lesser of two evils", not a "limited good".

Abortion can't be compared to not having the technology to heal a disease. It's essentially a social problem, the demand for which could be virtually eliminated not by some as-yet-undiscovered technology (although improved contraception would help) but by an exercise of individual, social and political will. The three most frequently cited reasons for abortion are:

  1. having a baby would interfere with work, school or other responsibilities
  2. cannot afford a child
  3. not wishing to be a single parent; or problems with husband/partner [4]

These are not incurable diseases or inevitable forces of nature. They are the result of decisions by individuals and society.

If a mugger threatens to kill me, but instead lets me choose to just get beaten over the head and have my wallet stolen, I would be hard-pressed to consider battery and robbery as "limited goods". Similarly, I do not consider abortion beneficial to those women who feel that their circumstances make it impossible to choose life.

Now read Richard Carrier's Closing Statement

Issues in Brief: The Limitations of U.S. Statistics on Abortion. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, January 1997.

Sprang, ML and Neerhof, MG. Rationale for Banning Abortions Late in Pregnancy. Journal of the American Medical Association. 1998;280:744-747.

State Abortion Laws, from the Abortion Law Homepage.

Facts in Brief: Induced Abortion. The Alan Guttmacher Institute, February 2000.