The intellectually honest pro-choice position

Yesterday Jennifer Derwey from ProWomanProLife wrote about a recent debate at Dalhousie University on abortion featuring Stephanie Gray (who will debate at the University of Toronto campus on Monday) and Dr. Mark Mercer.  Other than some juvenile pranks and a fit of rage, the night went without much ado.

Dr. Mercer “argued that ‘personhood’ did not actually occur until around 18 months to 2 years of age, that until a human being was able to rationalize, make plans, be a ‘locus’ of experience, and feel pain and joy, it was not in fact a person. As such, we should not be “morally troubled” by it.”  In doing so, he followed along the lines of Dr. Peter Singer.  Furthermore,  “[h]e conceded that though abortion was killing a human being it was not killing a ‘person’ and that there was no moral difference between killing a baby in the womb and killing a baby prior to its ‘personhood’.”

Derwey notes that the pro-choice audience members felt they were not represented well by Dr. Mercer, presumably because he did not use the usual choice, freedom, and rights rhetoric.  He failed to make the usual ‘pro-woman’ or feminist arguments for abortion.  Mercer was confused by this poor reception.  After the debate Derwey spoke with him privately about the usual ‘pro-woman’ arguments, and Mercer responded that he had “written numerous times and shown how those ‘pro-woman’ arguments don’t work, [and that] they have no basis.”

This is what happens when someone approaches the question of the morality of  abortion with a dispassionate mind.  This is what happens when someone approaches the question of the morality of abortion with intellectual honesty. You quickly realize that the usual ‘pro-woman’ arguments don’t work.

Why don’t ‘pro-woman’ arguments work?

A ‘pro-woman’ argument may say something like “She can’t afford the child, so she needs to have an abortion” or “It’s her body, so she must have control over what happens to it.”  The pro-lifer response is that while these are legitimate concerns, killing an innocent human being cannot be justified thus.

In my experience, most pro-choice activists will swear at you, perhaps call you a nasty name, and stomp away at this point.  Dr. Mercer, being a more reasonable person, decided to engage the pro-life response intelligently.  Instead he asked himself “Is this really a human being we’re dealing with here?”

In the course of his investigation, he discovered what pro-lifers have been arguing for decades.  He discovered that abortion does really kill a human being.  He studied the embryology and the philosophical arguments and realized that he could not conclude otherwise.

In order to remain pro-choice, he had to go a different route.  Simply screaming “Her body, her choice” or “Women’s rights under attack.  What do we do? Stand up fight back!” was not good enough any more.  He realized that these slogans did no good if they are used to justify killing a person.  So what does he do?  He stripped the personhood away from unborn children.  He admits that they are human beings, but can’t be considered persons.

Already, unborn children are not considered as persons according to the Supreme Court of Canada, but are after they are born.  Is this good enough?   It is not.  Dr. Mercer realized the absurdity of saying that 10 minutes before birth there is no person, but 10 minutes after birth there is a person.  Absolutely nothing to that child has changed in the few minutes before birth and after.  The only difference is that it is now breathing and perhaps has opened its eyes and looked at the world around.  The environment around the child has changed, but the child has not.  According to law, this constitutes a change in legal status, but Dr. Mercer realized that there is absolutely no different in the reality of the child.

So far the ‘pro-woman’ arguments have failed, and the case that birth marks a beginning of actual personhood (as opposed to legally recognized personhood) is a dead one.  What is there to do to remain pro-choice?

Dr. Mercer looked to Dr. Peter Singer and his line of argumentation.  I will not examine his arguments, but just state his conclusion.  Following Singer, Mercer argued that “‘personhood’ did not actually occur until around 18 months to 2 years of age, that until a human being was able to rationalize, make plans, be a ‘locus’ of experience, and feel pain and joy, it was not in fact a person.”  From this line of reasoning, human life certainly begins at conception, but that human being is not a person and therefore morally irrelevant until it is able to rationalize, make plans, etc….

If one is intellectually honest and inquisitive like Dr. Mercer and Dr. Singer and wants to remain pro-choice, I believe there is no other conclusion to make.  You must say that personhood begins some time after the human being comes into existence.  All of the other arguments simply fail because they are based either on bad science or bad logic.

This conclusion makes abortion perfectly acceptable, but the pro-choicers at the debate didn’t like it.  The pro-choicers at the debate had most likely relied on the ‘pro-woman’ and ignored the science that says human life begins at conception.  They didn’t like Dr. Mercer’s conclusions because they justify infanticide.  Does your six-month old cry too much?  No problem.  Off with its head!  It’s not a person and so it’s not morally problematic to kill it.

I have tried really hard to understand pro-choice arguments and make them work, but if you are intellectually honest about it I believe  you have no choice but to come to the same or at least a similar conclusion as Dr. Mercer.

If you are prepared to bite the bullet, then go ahead and be pro-choice.  Dr. Mercer and Dr. Singer are your models.  But if this disturbs you, as it did to the pro-choicers in attendance that evening, then perhaps it is time to give the pro-life position a thought.

The intellectual journey I described above is not meant to be comprehensive in addressing the arguments.  To do so would require a lengthy book.  Instead it is meant to be an outline of how one is to remain intellectually honest and still think that abortion is okay.  It is an outline of the intellectually honest pro-choice position.

4 Comments on “The intellectually honest pro-choice position

  1. The only feminist argument for abortion is that it does not matter that another human being has to die.They readily admit: even if the fetus were a human being, the mother would have no responsibility toward him as it is not chosen. Like the responsibility of caring for others is “chosen” in our society.

  2. I applaud Dr. Mercer for his very rational approach to this debate. It is often difficult to engage in intellectually honest discussions about such an emotionally charged topic. It does not surprise me, however, that a rationalized argument would not resonate with the pro choice attendants at the debate, or many pro choicers at all, for that matter. That sounds harsher than I mean it. People who see pregnancies as a burden, a danger, to women and themselves will of course try to rationalize abortion as being all right. Even a pro choice debater admitted that these pro women approaches do not hold water. They are not arguments. They are excuses, often made out of fear and desperation. A rational person may easily be able to see that there can be no justification for abortion. But the issue is not detached from strong social implications, emotions, and ultimately, women who at least feel that they are in crises. Of course these women want to be heard. Their voices add another dimension to the abortion debate. And it is a dimension that must be addressed, but, especially in the face of reason, should not be allowed to overpower.

  3. There is another argument Dr. Mercer could have made that I was disappointed not to see. Consequentialist morality also necessitates being pro-choice. If you think ethics should be defined via harm minimization, rather than some grand moral code or holy book, there is a strong empirical case to be made for justifying abortion.

    The number of abortions is more or less constant, independent of the legality of abortion (there is evidence that suggests this is so). Safe access can reduce harm to desperate people who will get abortions anyway (e.g. coat hanger).

    Of course, this has all the problems that go along with consequentialist morality, but it is internally consistent, and so a fine argument if you accept consequentialist morality.

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