Last week, protesters gathered to hang coat hangers on the gates of NSW Parliament House. The coat hangers featured the faces of 25 politicians who voted against the Abortion Law Reform Bill; a defeated bill that was originally introduced by Greens MP Mehreen Faruqi to decriminalise abortion access across NSW. The bill’s defeat was heralded as an “attack on women’s rights” by the pro-choice left and social media roared thereafter with a multitude of reactions.
I for one am grateful that the Faruqi bill was defeated.
This represents not only a victory for the pro-life movement but also an indication of how grassroots activism and advocacy will always trump cheap sloganeering and fear mongering. Over 56,000 signatures were collected in a petition against the bill and a new conversation has been kindled.
Indeed, the recent spate of abortion bills introduced in New South Wales and Queensland represents an ever-pervasive shift in our present culture. The right to life is under fire, freedom of expression is being threatened once more and a subtle issue is being reduced to lame slogans. Under the guise of “choice” and “bodily autonomy”, pro-choice advocates put forward a series of challenges to the current legislation which exists to protect women and their unborn children. Before reflecting on the danger these bills posed, it is necessary to lay some philosophical foundations for an issue so often misunderstood.
Buzzwords such as “choice” and “autonomy” are rife throughout the abortion debate. But this is a severe oversimplification of an issue that demands greater reflection. While choice is an important good, not all choices are created equal. Immanuel Kant, one of the champions of autonomy, recognised that our nature as rational agents sets constraints on what we can with our bodies; especially if our actions have consequences for other individuals who are intrinsically valuable as ends in themselves. This understanding of choice is essential: it implies that choices have limits. On a more fundamental level, notions such as choice, liberty and autonomy have a purpose; they exist as a means of securing human flourishing. Therefore, it is prima facie absurd to suggest that one’s autonomy grants them the right to violate the right to life of an innocent human being. Suggesting that individuals have an “absolute right” to do whatever they want with their bodies presupposes a controversial philosophical anthropology and a view of self-ownership which is not obvious at all; one that needs to be justified. The maxim that the right to swing my arms ceases where your nose begins retains its full force in light of these considerations.
The voluntarist view of choice that underlies all appeals to “bodily autonomy” also ultimately destroys any sensible notion of obligation. But clearly, our intuitions strongly suggest that placing someone in a position of neediness and dependency generates an obligation to assist; even when that act that causes the need of assistance is the same act that causes the existence of the needy individual. This is especially strong in the case of the parental relationship where parents have a natural obligation to their children. Hence, the pro-life position is not about “taking away women’s rights” but recognising the proper place of rights and duties.
The second issue is that of personhood. Pro-choice advocates have provided laundry lists of criteria which purport to exclude the unborn from personhood. But such criteria are both arbitrary and gerrymandered; they always fail to establish a conceptual link to moral status. A more fundamental issue is that these arguments confuse being a person with functioning as a person. Appeals to consciousness, sentience, self-awareness and desires as the basis of rights are doomed to fail since these are accidental properties we can gain and lose throughout our lives while retaining our basic moral status (not to mention the fact that pro-choice advocates who appeal to such properties never seem to explain how they are connected to rights at all).
For instance, if I were to suffer brain damage and fall into a reversible coma, I am no longer able function as a person. I have temporarily lost my presently exercisable capacities. However, I retain my right to life in virtue of possessing certain higher-order capacities; the power to acquire immediately exercisable capacities. Hence my personhood is preserved. This is commensurate with the classical understanding of personhood which recognises that a person is an individual substance with a rational nature; even if such a nature is not presently exercisable. Hence, since their inception at fertilisation, the unborn are not “potential persons” but persons with potential. Size, level of development, environment and degree of dependency are ultimately irrelevant in deciding what makes us valuable. Of course, there are several important issues concerning personal identity and metaphysics which I have glossed over here, but my main point is that the pro-life position is rigorous and demands engagement. The unborn are not mere “clusters of cells” but whole and distinct human beings merely at an earlier stage of development.
Did we find a careful and reasoned analysis of the subtleties surrounding abortion in the Faruqi bill? No. Instead the bill called for unrestricted abortion access with no limitations on reason and gestational age of the child, making late term abortions legal for non-medical reasons. There was also no requirement that abortions need be performed by a qualified health professional. It also eliminated protections for healthcare professionals, removing the right to conscientious objection by forcing them to be part of the referral process. A further extreme proposal was the imposition of 150 metre exclusion zones outside abortion clinics, making peaceful demonstration and sidewalk counselling a crime.
In a recent NSW poll of 1,003 randomly selected people, conducted by Galaxy Research, 61% supported the right to conscientious objection, 56% believed that an unborn child at 23 weeks is a person with rights, 26% knew someone who was pressured to have an abortion and 81% agreed that abortion harm’s women’s health. These statistics are an important consideration from a policy-making perspective and reflect a large segment of the public’s voice which is going unheard. They also constitute a refutation of Faruqi’s claims that her bill was consistent with community attitudes. Faruqi also doesn’t seem interested in discussing the substantial evidence for the negative effects of abortion on women’s mental health or the necessity of legal safeguards to protect women from coercive partners and family members who might push abortion. Her branding of the current legislation as “misogynist” is also misplaced when in fact it has played an important role in protecting women from unqualified medical practice and the prosecution of medical negligence. The 2006 criminal conviction of Dr. Suman Sood for example, for illegally procuring the abortions of five women, resulting in serious complications would not have been possible without the current legislation.
With over 30,000 abortions being conducted every year in NSW and no women having been prosecuted for accessing abortion services, the bill was clearly unnecessary and dangerous. All in all, the coat hanger clad “Never Again” signage at the Parliament House pro-choice protest was a fallacious publicity stunt. It fundamentally begs the question by suggesting that because larger people are harmed or die while killing smaller people (i.e. the unborn), the state should make it safe for them to do so. The protestors also failed to make the critical distinction between intention and foresight. The government’s construction of motorways will inevitably result in the death of innocent people for example, but it does not follow that such a policy kills innocent people. Similarly, even pro-choice philosopher Mary Anne Warren concedes that, “the fact that restricting access to abortion has tragic side effects does not, in itself, show that the restrictions are unjustified, since murder is wrong regardless of the consequences of prohibiting it”. For the argument to work, one needs to show the unborn is not a subject of rights.
And while this episode in Australian legal history is by no means over, especially with NSW Labor MLC Penny Sharpe’s forthcoming bill to enact 150 metre exclusion zones outside abortion clinics, this is a stellar opportunity for the debate to be clarified in many ways. Bad arguments on both sides need to be critiqued and there are virtually no more excuses for ignorance in an age of information.
In my own personal experience, I have witnessed firsthand the sheer intolerance and misinformation which informs many people’s consciences. Misinformation ranging from facts about when life begins and what the unborn are to the rarity of medically necessary abortions and the number of alternatives available for women. The use of marginal cases in debates on abortion is also highly disingenuous, with especially rare instances of pregnancies due to rape and life-threatening situations seen as justifications for a free-for all policy. I am by no means suggesting that such difficult cases need not be considered by the law but rather that their conflation with the clear majority of cases is deceptive.
At the recent 2017 Life Week events, hosted by the Sydney University Catholic Society, protestors and onlookers complained about the lack of substantial female representation on the “Is abortion the solution?” panel. Now while the University of Sydney Women’s Collective was invited to participate (an invitation they declined), this complaint lacks any intellectual content. Arguments do not have genders and one needn’t be personally affected by an issue in any way to hold a reasoned and principled position. Just think of the absurdities that would arise if such an infantile standard was enforced in other domains of inquiry! One sign read “Abortion is a personal choice: NOT a religious/legal debate” which is precisely an attack on freedom of speech and inquiry. No topic is beyond debate, especially in the university environment. Individuals who make such sweeping statements are clearly portraying an important issue in a question-begging manner, one that flies in the face of all published academia. One protestor compared an unborn child to a “bunch of cancer cells”, a comparison which is scientifically flawed on so many counts.
It is also a shame that abortion has become acquainted with feminism in a way that the original feminists never saw as rational. The inversion of moral qualia, the thwarting of debate and the politicisation of one of the most important issues of our generation is an embarrassment. I think that lawyer and feminist Erika Bachiochi summed it up well when she asked:
“What about a culture where women’s childbearing capacity is recognized not as an impediment to our social status and certainly not as the be-all and end-all of women’s capacities as it once was, but as that which calls upon all persons in society to show a bit of gratitude? Rather than structure society around the wombless, unencumbered male, ought not society be structured around those who, in addition to being able to do all that men can do, can also bear new human life?”
It is now time to dispense with the slogans and take action.