Tuesday, February 28, 2006

On moral "absolutism": legality vs. morality

Okay, so recently, we've been looking at morality, and on Friday, we even went so far to look at the arbitrary morality of the anti-choice crowd, and then what to my wondering eyes should appear but a post at Pandagon" (huge shock) about abortion and morality. This one, though, was aimed at that reproductive rights middle ground, the I-don't-like-it-but-I'll-defend-your-right-to-do-it crowd.

Y'know, people like me.

The discussion got started under a post on third-trimester abortion and apparently got heated enough to warrant front-paging. And it was in that front-page post that jedmunds posed the following question:
If you are indeed sincere in your proclamations that you are pro-choice: what exactly is the problem other than that, rhetorically and philosophically, abortion rights extremists are not all like “god the voices in my head tell me that killing fetuses is bad, but I still think it should be legal”?

Now, I'm not the only person who found that question completely incomprehensible from a grammatical standpoint, but he was kind enough to clarify, and I'll do my best to do the same:
If you are indeed sincere in your proclamations that you are pro-choice, then why do you think that abortion rights extremists should be more apologetic in their stance, to the extent of saying, "God/voices in my head say that abortion is wrong, but I still think it should be legal?"

Better? Great.

Personally, I don't have a lot of problems with anyone's stance on abortion, as long as the endpoint is that a woman should have the right to make decisions concerning her own body, life and quality of life. But jedmunds seems to have a problem with mine, saying that non-extremists hurt the cause with their ambiguity on the subject. The opinion from his side seems to (and I'm just giving my impression, so anyone feel free to correct me if I'm getting it wrong) that seeing abortion as anything besides a medical procedure to remove an unpleasant growth weakens any advocacy for a woman's unfettered access to abortion.

I don't buy it. I don't buy it for a lot of reasons. One is the simple fact (as expressed by several people in the comments thread) that there are plenty of things that I don't agree with that I don't think should be illegal. Adultery, for instance; I think it's a bad idea, but I think that it's not my business to send someone to jail for it. I'm not a big fan of pot, myself, and I can't see myself using it even if it were legal, but I know several people who think it's the cat's pajamas and continue to live as fully functioning and contributing members of society.

Another objection I have to the "all or nothing at all" take is the argument for safe, legal, and rare abortions. Most pro-choicers, extreme or not, take that approach, but equating abortion with your average outpatient cystectomy trivializes something that is, in fact, not trivial. With the regulation that legality allows, abortions (when performed by physicians in sterilized procedure rooms rather than back-alley butchers with coat hangers) are medically safe, but they're also frequently hard on the mother physically and emotionally. Simply having an unwanted pregnancy (or a wanted one, for that matter) is hard on a woman, physically and emotionally. This isn't a reason to ban abortion, but it is a reason to have a little bit of respect for the gravity of the procedure. When I think "safe, legal, and rare," I think about a friend of my mother's whose husband had a life-saving liver transplant; both husband and wife are currently in therapy dealing with the aftermath. In general, you'd rather not go through an ordeal like that if you can possibly avoid it, but if you need it, then nothing should stand between you and access to safe medical care.

That sort of leads in to my third objection: seeing abortion as a basic outpatient procedure is a cop-out. Not a moral cop-out, because I like to leave morals up to the individual, but a cop-out in terms of societal responsibility. If getting an abortion is no more significant than getting a cyst removed, then we, as a society, have no responsibility to provide any kind of related services. No one ever worries about counseling for a woman who's just had a cyst removed, alternatives for a woman who doesn't want her cyst removed but can't see any other way, support for a woman before, during, and after the cystectomy, and education to help women avoid getting cysts in the first place.

I think that all of those things are our societal responsibility where pregnancy is concerned. I think that any woman who wants an abortion should be able to get one, and if it's hard on her, she should be able to find helpful and nonjudgmental counselors to help. I think that any woman who is ambiguous about getting an abortion should have easy knowledge of and access to all of her options, and I think that every effort possible should be made to reduce the incidence of unwanted pregnancy in the first place. And I think that all of this should happen within the framework of a woman's right to determine the fate of her own body.

I call myself pro-choice, not pro-abortion, because I, personally, don't like abortion, but I'm all about choice. I think that nothing should be able to stop a woman from making her own choices about her body. I also think that nothing should stop a woman from getting any information and/or help she might want in making that choice. It should be her choice to seek or not seek more information, her choice to know or not know her options, and her choice, in the end, to end or not end the pregnancy - not her parents, not her partner, certainly not a bunch of guys in suits in Washington. As pro-choicers, it's our responsibility to protect all of her available options, and I don't think we do that when, in our efforts to cleanly separate ourselves from the rabid anti-choicers, we trivialize the procedure itself.

In the end, it comes down to an important distinction: moral versus legal. They're two different things, although they're frequently confused these days, most often by the people who want to enshrine their personal religious beliefs as law. What's legal isn't always moral, what's illegal isn't always immoral, and what's legal and moral isn't always right. Pro-choice moderates and extremists may not agree on the moral ambiguity of abortion, but we do agree that what's right is to recognize a woman as an independent entity capable of making her own decisions, and to defend that right as law.

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