Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Solving the Abortion Equation

An answer that should satisfy almost everyone

Luc Koch put out a short piece today commenting on the recent spat between antiwoke post-academic James Lindsay and the trad-Christian right over the abortion question. I don’t know the specifics of the drama and nor do I particularly care, but in Luc’s characteristically thoughtful and incisive fashion he emphasized an aspect of the debate which, once he drew attention to it, crystallized the source of the acrimony. Namely, the insistence on a binary distinction between human/not-human, or living/not-living.

The abortion debate revolves around the issue of when life begins. At one extreme are Christian fundamentalists who insist that life begins at conception, a position lampooned by Monty Python’s ‘Every Sperm is Sacred’ skit. At the other extreme are feminists with side-shaves and blue armpit hair who shout their abortion as a prayer to Moloch and demand the right to smash open a baby’s head with a hammer as it pokes out during birth. Both sides are ridiculous in their own way, and I think the vast majority of people fall somewhere in the middle. I just can’t find it in myself to get terribly upset over a pregnancy being terminated in the first month or so, when it really is just a clump of cells. On the other hand, dismantling a five-month old fetus by pulling its limbs off with forceps is ghoulish.

Much of this seems to come down to a legal system that requires a sharp distinction between permissible and impermissible. Before a certain stage in development, the fetus is not considered human or alive, and can therefore be terminated without opprobrium. After a certain stage it’s murder, and therefore forbidden. The fight then degenerates into a rugby scrum over just where that line is to be drawn, and as is the nature with any such contest, the two sides invariably polarize around the two extreme goals of absolute prohibition vs. absolute license.

The problem is that this isn’t at all how life works. The boundary between animate and inanimate is famously hard to define: are viruses alive or dead? Is the freshly-picked lettuce in your fridge alive or dead? Similarly, growth of any organism is not a discrete process, but a continuous one. At what point does a baby become a toddler, a toddler a child, a child a teenager, a teenager an adult? It’s a similar problem to defining where the mountain ends, and the valley begins.

And yet, there are mountains and valleys, children and teenagers, living creatures and dead objects.

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