One of the most eye-opening experiences I ever had as a pro-life advocate was when I attended a tiny seminar given by a faculty member of a university philosophy department. The seminar was called “Life issues in context” (which, as it happened, turned out to be a terrible title because it in no way reflected the content of the seminar). I had attended pro-life seminars before, but they were usually in the context of a religious conference and focused on the human aspect of abortion – the humanity of the unborn baby, and the very human struggles that drive women to abortion.
This seminar was completely different. The speaker led a fairly abstract discussion on when and how we move from acknowledging that something is wrong, to deciding that something should be illegal. Strangely enough, I had never considered this question before, but it is a very important one. Having never studied philosophy, I had a vague notion that philosophers spent a lot of their time dreaming up thought experiments – this turned out to be the case, for this seminar at least.
One of the thought experiments we considered concerned property rights. We were all pretty much agreed that if you found a stranger on your property, you had the right to insist that they leave. We were definitely agreed that you did not and should not have a legal obligation to provide shelter to a trespasser. If someone was fleeing for their life from an assailant, we agreed that it would be a very good thing to provide them with protection in your house, and went so far as to say it would be wrong not to offer them protection, but most of us stopped short of saying you should be legally obliged to shelter someone – that your right to your property trumped their right to use your property.
Then the speaker threw a spanner in the works – what if your property is an airplane? And what if you discover the trespasser mid-flight, over an ocean? Can you insist they leave your property then? We all agreed that it would be wrong, and should be illegal, to insist that they leave your property in those circumstances – because ejecting someone from a plane mid-flight would lead directly to their death. What if, on discovering the trespasser, you landed the plane in the middle of a large desert? Can you insist that the trespasser leave then? It would certainly be wrong to abandon someone to their almost certain death in this manner, even someone who trespassed on your property. Should it be illegal though?
This is where the group split. After some discussion, it seemed the main point of disagreement was on whether sending the trespasser from the plane into the desert led directly or indirectly to their death. Those who thought it led directly to the trespasser’s death decided this should be illegal. Those who thought it led indirectly to the trespasser’s death thought it was a very wrong thing to do, but should not be illegal.
I attended this seminar in 2010, but found myself returning to everything I learned there over the years, particularly during and since the 2018 referendum campaign. I realised there was and still is an unspoken assumption in the pro-life movement: once we convince people that abortion is wrong, they will obviously and immediately agree it should be illegal. That seemed almost a foregone conclusion.
In hindsight, I think this assumption was the pro-life movement’s downfall in Ireland. I don’t think a huge number of people who used to think abortion was wrong now think it is absolutely justifiable (although some people did surely make this shift. We have other posts on how to engage with these people, depending on whether they think this for bodily autonomy reasons, or because they think unborn babies don’t yet have the moral status of a born human). What I think actually happened was that many people moved from thinking abortion was wrong and therefore should be illegal, to thinking abortion is wrong and yet should be legal. For these people, abortion didn’t move from being in the same category as infanticide (very wrong and should be illegal) to being in the same category as ear piercings (nothing wrong with them, go ahead and get one if you want to). Abortion moved into the same category as getting so drunk you’re practically comatose (distasteful, definitely not something I want for myself or anyone I love – but if someone else wants to do it I shouldn’t really stand in their way and neither should the law (1)).
Understanding this distinction requires a mental gear shift for many pro-life advocates, and may take time. Pro-life advocates should try to understand where their pro-choice friends are coming from. Do they think abortion is an ethically acceptable choice to make? Or do they think abortion is wrong, but should nonetheless be legal? These positions are distinct, and require radically different responses. Once we understand why pro-choice people currently hold the views they hold, we stand a far better chance of explaining our own position, and in moving together towards common ground.
(1) I am not comparing abortion to drinking until you are comatose in any other respect. I do not think women who have abortions are the equivalent of comatose messy drunks. I understand that women have abortions for many complex reasons and often feel they simply have no other alternative, a description which hardly ever applies in the case of a comatose messy drunk. I am only comparing the two in the context outlined: they are both things that many people may not like or want, but don’t think should be illegal.
Some random thoughts about this analogy:
1) I suspect the scenario may have had in mind non-landlords, but in UK law at least, it’s actually quite tricky to remove squatters from your property (IMO this is a fundamentally good thing). An interesting corollary is that if you are opposed to landlords (which I definitely am, I think for-profit landlording should be illegal and result in anything form fines to being forced to give your property to the person you rent to) and think the analogy is correct more generally, then it suggests that the pro-life position should be something more palatable to the left than the right (as has been pointed out on this blog before). Also, https://twitter.com/liz_franczak/status/1204202358596521984/photo/1 seems semi relevant, but see 3) below.
2) In German law, it is actually a criminal offense in some case not to help somebody in need. That said, I am far from clear on the details, and in practice said cases generally boil down to a legal obligation to intervene or call the police, from what I understand. Could do with a fact check here though.
3) I think there are some similarities between the thought experiments above and abortion, but I do think that there is a big distinction between having an unexpected house guest, for a few months, v.s having an unexpected baby inside you, and in truth I probably do have to agree with pro-choice people who argue that it’s slightly sexist and objectifying to assert that the latter isn’t an obligation far greater than the former. I think it totally misses the point of pro-choice analogies like Thompson’s violinist; and in truth the above thought experiment is I think more akin to the obligations of a country to take in refugees, rather than abortion. Incidentally, one corollary I can see is that if you think that such analogies do demonstrate that abortion should to some degree be illegal, then they also prove that a country should have a legal requirement to take in very large numbers of refugees, (similar to the numbers Germany took in), and rebut e.g, bigoted nationalists who for some reason also oppose abortion. Interestingly, the legal case pre 8th amendment referendum which asked if the unborn had any rights other than the right to life concluded that they didn’t was used to deport someone. These are IMO further reasons for the intersectional left to be skeptical of abortion; and I suspect that a lot could be said about UK border control driving abortions (not sure what the laws in Ireland are here).
4) There is one other flaw with this analogy- most of the time someone who has an abortion (at the very least in wealthy countries) doesn’t perform it on themselves, but has another person doing it; or if we go by the above, abortionists are the equivalent of eviction bailiffs who put people on the streets (but worse). If we aren’t careful with the above, it becomes an argument to criminalise most women who have abortions, rather than abortionists- and other than a few very limited cases such as rapists who try to self abort and maybe certain abortions based on the characteristics of the fetus such as abortions based on the child’s gender, with intersex people being aborted particualrly in mind as a thing that might in some cases be worth criminalising now, (even if my preference would be to ban doctors from revealing a child’s sex before birth). I don’t think I’d be happy arguing for criminalising people who have abortions (because that is genuinely sexist and doesn’t do a thing about the root causes); at the very least until we got rid of all the main drivers of abortion and moved to restorative, rather than punitative justice. And before you ask, I would indeed prefer to tackle infanticide with restorative justice (and any existing children being moved to different parents).
5) One other point that could be made is that there is one other option (one which I would go with, but others may not). I at least would simply respond with a particularly socialist viewpoint of denying private property is anything but a social construct, and take this to the most radical conclusion of thinking that nobody actually *owns* their body (and certainly not houses or private jets), but instead controls it (and IMO has some moral obligations not to maim or destroy it); though this shouldn’t be taken as endorsement of authoratarian communism (which I’m not a huge fan of; it like capitalism doesn’t work or respect human rights). If you think as I do that private property doesn’t exist but is only a social construct that ends up fuels class warfare against the poor and marginalised, and that there is instead a right to bodily integrity rather than autonomy (and I think almost everyone agrees with at least some sort of restrictions on the latter, even if they’re something basic like “don’t have sex in public places”, or “don’t randomly assault people”), then there is at least on a socialist worldview something to be said for looking at abortion in the same light- a way in which a capitalist economic system pits humans against eachother (pushing pregnant people to choose abortion or else suffer loss), rather than encouraging solidarity with the marginalised (fetuses and pregnant people). Indeed, there is a lot more I could say about why I think abortion fuels capitalism and other forms of discrimination, but space is limited and I’ve said plenty.
You can find the right to abortion in the Declaration of Independence concerning Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. The Founder’s of America never intended to list all of the rights enjoyed by the States and individual citizens – for that would be impossible – by writing in the Ninth Amendment of the US Constitution addressing the rights of the people that are not specifically enumerated in the Constitution and is part of the Bill of Rights.
The mistake pro-life groups make is protesting at abortion clinics and seeking to outlaw abortion through the state legislatures and Congress; instead of building free clinics and half way houses all over the nation where women can go to give birth privately. Then surrender of their own free will their child (whom they would otherwise have aborted) to be adopted by loving and nurturing parents.