The Ethics of Disagreement: The Abortion Issue

Introduction

You already have an opinion about abortion.  Even I do.  I chose such a difficult topic to force myself into the difficult position of analyzing a subject from positions that I don’t ordinarily consider.  The journey won’t be easy and I may fail, but this will be the beginnings of a dialogue that I hope to continue.  I am not unfamiliar to debate, having formally debated in community college.  Then and now, I needed to be prepared to argue both sides of the issues.  While the debates were all about winning a round, the ethics of abortion and its great divide of disagreement are more about understanding the core issues behind those arguments.  While both positions can be considered intentional propaganda, “the systematic propagation of information or ideas by an interested party, especially in a tendentious way in order to encourage or instil a particular attitude or response” (OED, 2009), I will not be looking at the propaganda in particular.  Instead, I will be looking at abortion arguments through three ethical approaches:  Purposes, Principles, and Consequences.  Throughout, I will challenge my readers as I challenge myself to refrain from the usage of familiar propaganda terms, “pro-choice” and “pro-life” that are the crude ethical symbolic language that is usually employed as descriptors.  However, be aware that both positions do and will employ propaganda tactics as we have all experienced. 

 

Ethical Purposes

Each representative’s primary goal is a woman’s right to complete agency over her own body during pregnancy versus the complete protection, until birth, of the life growing within a pregnant woman.  For one, the internal purpose is agency, self-determination, and free choice.  For the other, their internal purpose is one of upholding a personal and collective moral principle to protect all incipient human life.  Ultimately, the proposal that will allow one to achieve their purpose is a complete ban on legal abortion.  For the other, it is a complete ban on laws prohibiting a woman’s right to agency over her body.  Obviously, a compromise is needed where as many ethical principles of each are preserved, instead of the “argument” that was dragged out each time in my high school government class where the example of the poor couple with the sickly wife giving birth to many disabled children facing the moral dilemma of their doctor who is asked to decide if the mother should end her next pregnancy or not.  If you choose incorrectly, you will have killed Beethoven (Ray, n.d.).

These are essentially the two sides to the argument. What’s difficult to determine is which of these proposals will promote good human relationships.  There are three alternatives here, the two extreme positions above, biased and weighted to each position’s benefit, and a third.  That third position is one where a compromise is made that satisfies as much of each as possible to promote what one would consider a good human relationship between most parties to this argument.  We are discussing abortion so this ultimate ideal resulting in a good human relationship may not be easy and a successful resolution may not reveal itself in this discussion at all.  Is there a middle way that will satisfy a majority within each position?  Will a limitation on one, the other or both allow for a satisfactory position that results in that ideal human relationship? Can such a compromise satisfy an ordinarily conservative close friend who once felt it necessary to resort to abortion? That decision came at a personal price and tore her apart to even find it necessary to make that decision, though she was grateful she had that option.  None of these are easy decisions and analyzing the ethics may not even be a justifiable compromise.

 

Ethical Principles

The ethical principles involved are simple and multifaceted.  In one case, there is the moral status of the fetus (Hinman, 2014).  Conditional to that principle are several key intentional propaganda points (accompanied by supporting evidence) including the following (ProCon.org, 2016, June 2):

  • Abortion is murder.
  • Life begins at conception.
  • Abortions cause psychological damage.
  • Selective abortion based on genetic abnormalities is overt discrimination.
  • Women should not be able to use abortion as a form of contraception.
  • If women become pregnant, they should accept their responsibilities.

 

In the other case, several different key points are offered that include the following:

  • Abortion is a fundamental right afforded by the U.S. Constitution.
  • Reproductive choice gives women control over their own bodies.
  • Personhood begins after birth.
  • Women who receive abortions are less likely to suffer mental health problems.
  • Abortion gives pregnant women the option to choose not to bring fetuses with profound abnormalities to full term.
  • Reproductive choice protects women from financial disadvantage.

 

In most instances, these key points can become universal rules that apply in all cases of abortion, though there are other points and there are many.  However, whether or not these proposals respect the moral agency of others is another point of discussion.  Two of the key terms that will be defined differently by each side of this issue are “moral agency” and others.  In other words, which “others” and how is “moral agency” defined? From the position of a woman’s agency, moral agency is one where she has a right to choose what is best for her and her body (Best must here defined by the woman herself.).  If the position from a woman’s right to choose fails to consider others, and it does fail in that respect, the proposal is suspect argumentatively from an ethical standpoint.  On the other hand, from the ethical position of those opposed to abortion, there are two potential others that they must consider.  One is obviously the potential life growing inside the mother and the other is the woman herself.  In one instance, this position considers the moral agency of potential life (Whether a potential life has actual moral agency is another matter for discussion.) and in the other (Exceptions have occasionally been made for the health of the woman, but rarely in cases of rape.) no consideration is made for the woman at all.

The question if either position violates any human rights or principles of justice, is also a matter of viewpoint and one that isn’t easily determined on neutral grounds unless we are utilizing the definitions determined by a so-called third party like the United Nations, but utilizing a third-party definition does nothing to reach consensus between two parties attempting to reach some form of understanding and minimize disagreement.  The human rights of each position avoid the so-called human rights that the other refuse to acknowledge.  The same applies to the principles of just of each.  To successfully conclude a determination of human rights violations and principles of justice will ultimately require a deeper discussion and a critical analysis of the underlying assumptions of both.

 

Ethical Consequences

Overall, the decisions of both will seriously affect individuals, groups, and environments.  For one, their decision will affect only one group of individuals and environment if women are allowed to have agency over their bodies regarding abortion: Religious individuals, groups, and environments will be unhappy and, in some cases, angry.  For the other, several environments and groups and millions of individuals, specifically women and girls, will be seriously affected.  The effects will be their agency to determine what is individually best for their body, mind, and spirit.  In the case of one, one group or collection of groups decides what is best for everyone and in the other individuals are left to decide for themselves.  While I have attempted to be as neutral as possible, I fear that I may not have been neutral enough. Positive and negative consequences, being necessarily biased, are determine by each individual or group and not by any so-called neutral third party. The results will be weighted by their biases.  In one case, potential life will have been terminated (in rare cases, the women will suffer psychologically or medically).  In the other case, millions may be affected economically, psychologically, and other ways. If it were possible to institute some measure of mathematical weight of positive, negative, and neutral consequences of decisions, that might satisfy some logic but not the passions of impassioned groups and individuals. To ask which proposal will cause the least harm and the most good is asking me to choose one over the other.

Conclusion

Ethics is never a simple matter of black and white.  You have read a short explanation of each position.  While a deeper discussion is probably necessary, if we are to have some sort of consensus to resolve this disagreement, consensus must be initiated between those involved. Having analyzed both from as much of a neutral position as possible, though that neutral position is tenuous at best, hopefully you understand both of these positions a little better than before as I have in these paragraphs.  Granted, additional analysis is probably necessary to realize a deeper analysis of the arguments and positions of each since this analysis concludes with no definitive position. However, it is possible that the intent and the goal was one of deeper understanding.

 

References

Brown, M. (2013). Ethics of disagreement: Finding solutions to controversial issues. Unpublished document.

Propaganda (2009). In Oxford English Dictionary 4.0 (2nd ed.). Oxford, U.K.

Hinman, L. M. (2014). Abortion: An Overview of the Ethical Issues.

ProCon.org. (2016, June 2). Should Abortion Be Legal? Retrieved from http://abortion.procon.org/view.answers.php?questionID=001447

Ray, S. (n.d.). Should this baby be aborted? You decide. [.pdf]. Retrieved from http://www.catholic-convert.com/wp-content/uploads/Documents/AbortionDecide.pdf

 

 

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