The abortion debate has been raging lately in Ireland, and presumably in other countries as well. As a staunch advocate of human rights, one would assume I would be a defiant supporter of full reproductive rights for all women, and most of my friends in the gay rights movement would have similarly strong beliefs about abortion. Unfortunately, I am suffering from a huge crisis of conscience around the issue of abortion. I see a huge difference between abortion rights and LGBT rights. People lump all these rights together under one huge banner, and the general perception is that if you support one you unconditionally must support the other.
For some reason (and I imagine it could easily be suggested that this is purely due to my own self-involvement), I have never managed to work myself into the same sort of frenzy of indignation about the abortion debate as I have about LGBT rights. I would like to believe this is not purely because of my own vested interests in the outcome of the LGBT rights movement, but rather because I have tried and failed to treat it logically. For me, there is no debate around LGBT rights. Gay people being allowed to marry and raise children harms nobody, affects nobody adversely outside the family, yet it allows the couple to feel more validated in their relationship and their society, while providing many unwanted children with stable and loving homes. No case study has ever shown that children suffer as a result of being raised by LGBT parents, and any child who ever was raised by LGBT parents vehemently refute any suggestion that their development may have been compromised as a result of their having LGBT parents (I have yet to see any interview with a child of LGBT parents in which they lament their upbringing). The religious people who oppose LGBT rights know full well that this is the case, but they cite studies which have never been validated and which they have probably never even read to attempt to lend some credence to their prejudices. I have spent time in my life as a devout Catholic, and as a Born-Again Christian, and I had to struggle for years to convince myself that the excuses put forth by the Bible and the Christian community were logical defenses of their prejudice, and the day I eventually recognised that they weren’t logical was the day I finally felt moral. Outside of the debate around LGBT families, the point is that gay people wish only to go about their daily lives as anybody else would wish to: it just so happens that they would like to do so with a loving partner of the same sex. There is no logical argument without a basis in prejudice/religious doctrine that could possibly convince me gay people don’t have a right to live peaceful lives with the ones they love. The only reason this is ever legitimately debated is that society as a whole cannot collectively agree on a basis for morality.
When it comes to LGBT rights, the only reason debate exists is because some people believe religious morality should guide our society, whereas others follow a more liberal, independent, relativistic morality which dictates that every citizen is free to live their lives as they wish as long as they do not harm others (of course that is a gross oversimplification but it is at least the general principle). If one follows religious morality, then one must deviate from humanity’s instinctive, logical interpretation of morality (that one must endeavour not to harm others) and switch to a warped, insensible type of morality which centres around following rituals and fulfilling the simultaneously vague and overly-specific desires of a deity. It is clear that practically, there are very few societies left today which could be described as theocracies: in the west, we are democratic and as such, we have government for the people, not for God. For all practical purposes then, the laws of our land should be based on the morality of the people, not the morality of God.
This is why I see the LGBT rights “debate” as clear cut and simplistic. Because LGBT citizens do no harm to anybody by having their rights, the only possible roots of anti-LGBT sentiment are religion, ignorance, prejudice or a combination. Any individual who follows the pragmatic, logical sort of independent morality that is common these days could not possibly argue for the denial of LGBT rights. Since religion is a path to heaven and not to morality, I see no reason why religious opinion should have any weight in a debate about societal morality. Are we more concerned about pleasing a deity and reaching “heaven”, or doing what is right for people? I know which one our justice system, our government and our society should be more concerned with. The pursuit of heaven is a private, optional and independent matter, and thus should not be factored in when we are deciding what freedoms we have as citizens: that is a collective decision.
So where does the abortion debate stand then? Can we divide both sides of the argument into those who follow religious morality and those who follow societal morality? For some, maybe, but for me, no. In my eyes (and I say this after intense reflection on and consideration of the matter), the possession of full abortion rights is in some ways contentious to both types of morality. I would like to reiterate that I am simplifying for the purposes of argument, and though of course there is a spectrum of morality, I feel the need to categorize here for the purposes of being able to follow logical argument rather than going into laboriously detailed analysis of how abortion may affect every single type of morality imaginable. For all intents and purposes, the abortion debate is contentious no matter what sort of morality you follow.
The religious opposition to abortion is largely based on the same sort of principles on which the anti-LGBT argument is based. The Christian view is that the family, sex, children are all sacred gifts from God and to demean any of these by deviating from “God’s plan” is to sin grievously. Thus, you cannot marry without intent to have children, you cannot indulge in fornication, you cannot treat a conceived child as anything less than a vessel for a unique human soul which was gifted by God. These notions cannot possibly be the basis for societal laws. They are impractical, because to decree that relationships and the products of relationships are sacred, and that they must be protected by law, would be to decree that nobody is permitted to pursue love outside of religion and thus people’s freedom to accept or reject religion would be compromised. Even religious people must accept that religion cannot be forced upon people, for this would demean its value even further. People must have the freedom to accept religious love and child-oriented marriages if they wish, but they must also have the freedom to have sex with everyone they meet, marry into childless marriages, or not marry at all. I am sure that even a devoutly religious person could see the logic in this argument: yes, they may have a desire to see the whole of society abiding by God’s law, but they must also recognise that God’s law must not be imposed on society by the law of the land. One of God’s most important tenets is free will, and people must have the opportunity to choose God, not be bullied into his arms by the state. Furthermore, there are many other logical barriers to this sort of viewpoint. One prime example is that of infertile lovers. They may love one another and wish to follow God’s plan, but they could not be married or have sex under God’s law, because this would be fornication. Despite having done nothing wrong, they would be denied happiness: this is not the type of morality that we could condone for our society. Of course the religious argument is also concerned with the rights of the child, but fundamentalists generally put God’s law before human rights, and so I lump the “rights of the child” argument with pragmatic morality, and not with religious morality (again for practical purposes).
It’s pretty clear then that if the abortion debate went only as deep as the religious opposition to it, the argument would be beautifully clear cut and simple. In truth, the issue penetrates far deeper than that, but people are sometimes so blinkered by their opposition to religious morality that they all too quickly accept the pro-choice argument without reflection. For example, whenever I see pro-life marches led by the notorious Iona Institute or other religious groups, I immediately am reminded of their multitude of crimes against various minority groups, especially the LGBT community, and I cannot help instantly siding with the cause of whoever they are marching against. This is the sort of knee-jerk reaction to the abortion debate that I would prefer to discourage, and though this would certainly be a useful factor in bringing people over to the pro-choice side, I’m sure even the most rigid pro-choicers would not be comfortable with people blindly following their cause out of hatred for their opponents. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” is the sort of principle we would want to avoid in this debate.
So how does abortion impinge on the sort of liberal morality that favours LGBT rights and most other aspects of modern society? Well, as I said initially, the core principle of pragmatic morality is to avoid harming others, or to avoid pursuing your desires at the expense of others. To this end, we must consider the fact that the rights of a baby are coming second to the rights of a mother in the pro-choice argument. I kind of hate myself a little for even saying this, because I have become so opposed to any non-liberal or religious ideas that to hear them coming out of my own mouth is kind of shocking. It’s like a reverse taboo, and this is exactly the sort of hesitancy I want to dispel: the whole notion of moral relativism and liberalism is based around questioning and thinking, and is opposed to following doctrine. I refuse then, on principle, to follow a liberal doctrine just as I would refuse to follow religious doctrine. We need to question if this is morally sound, and I personally struggle to decide if it is. Of course there is no question that we should legislate to protect mothers whose lives would be in danger by carrying a baby to term or by giving birth. However, in other situations, the decision becomes terrifyingly complex!
If a mother is perfectly healthy and has conceived a baby with a lover by accident, and does not wish to keep the baby purely because she does not wish to raise it, should she be allowed to simply terminate the pregnancy? Part of me screams “Yes, of course, that’s why they’re called reproductive rights: it is her right to do with her body what she wishes”. But another part of me says disapprovingly that “Every person has some degree of responsibility for the lives of those around them, and if you have created that life, you most certainly have a responsibility to care for it”. The problem is that there is no constant in the abortion debate. When does a baby become fully human, thus giving abortion the status of murder? Well, the baby does not develop in huge leaps at fixed times, of course the development of a child is slow and analogous. The fetus is only slightly more human when it is 7 months old than when it is 6 and a half months old. Just as a newborn baby is only slightly more human when it is a year out of the womb than when it is 6 months out of the womb. What does it mean to be human? To be moral, to be intelligent, to be creative? A baby is none of these things, so is it not human until it is educated? By that standard, there are some 80 year olds who are not yet “human”. And whose rights are more important? The mother is a fully-grown human, capable of decision making, and thus her personal decision must be valued hugely. But do the rights of the baby deserve more or less weight because it doesn’t have a voice? That is something we cannot even agree on. If the mother’s life is not at risk, then we are compromising the baby’s right to life in order to satisfy the mother’s right to her own body. Aren’t we taking away the baby’s right to its own body? Is there a hierarchy of rights? Which rights come first then, the right to life or the reproductive rights? This debate could trickle back to the most fundamental principles on which we base our lives: is death the end, or is there an afterlife, for example? If death is the end, it seems unbelievably cruel to end a life before it’s started but at the same time it seems insignificant, because the life is accidental and means nothing in the absence of God, since it has not yet lived or made an impact on the world. If there is an afterlife, it seems more acceptable for the baby to die and yet the existence of an afterlife implies the existence of God, thus we would have to accept that God might consider abortion a heinous crime. Before deciding whether abortion is a legitimate and fair choice for a mother to make in every situation, we would have to answer all of these questions: after all, we cannot put together an argument if we have no axioms on which to build it. Right now, it seems to me we have no foundations.
On the other hand, even questioning this seems partly abhorrent to me. I am not a female, and so I could never understand how terrifying the prospect of childbirth might seem to some. I do not understand the responsibility of raising a child or the sacrifices one might have to make. I cannot imagine the idea of another human growing inside me, especially one that may not be particularly wanted or welcomed. In this respect, I can completely understand why many might scorn me for even attempting to simplify this issue and be logical about it: I’m sure in the face of childbirth, logic and morality may be the furthest things from a panicked mother’s mind. I abhor the idea of creating a society where women feel forced to give birth. That is a sort of torturous oppression that might outstrip many other human rights offences. Part of me wants to recant everything I’ve said about the issue, but part of me believes it needs to be said. There is no point pretending this is as simplistic an issue as other human rights offences. It is not just a case of human rights vs. religion, but rather human rights vs. other human rights vs. religion vs. a multitude of other things.
I am well aware that many religious people believe that their human rights are being infringed by gay people being granted their rights. In my eyes, this does not even need to be invalidated because any sane person should be able to see that it is completely illogical for fundamentalists to say that the LGBT community is oppressing them, but other sinners are not: apparently, divorce is sinful too but I have never heard a fundamentalist claim that people who apply for divorce are oppressing their religious freedom. The fundamentalist community seem to shamelessly impose double standards on everything, as long as they can convince people they are the victims and not the oppressors. This is an argument which may well leave some people feeling uncomfortable, and yet I find it unbelievably simple: it all depends on a person’s upbringing, background, experiences. What worries me is that maybe the abortion debate is simple and clear-cut for others? Maybe this time, I am the one who can’t see clearly. Am I missing some key point that other human rights advocates have picked up on? If I had, it would be a comfort to know that this issue could really be resolved with logic. As it stands, I don’t believe that simple logical argument is enough to find a resolution to the reproductive rights debate: not for me, anyway. If anyone could help me I sure would welcome it, but I have thought long and hard about it and I’m still stumped.
As a final note, if there were a referendum on abortion tomorrow, I would vote in favour of full reproductive rights. This is purely for practical reasons, because Irish women are still able to access abortion abroad, and thus denying them the right to do at home what they will do elsewhere seems short-sighted and foolish. Also, I am strongly, strongly in favour of saving the lives of women who are in danger from pregnancy, and I believe it is a sickening crime that women are allowed to die for the sake of their unborn babies. If we had to bestow full reproductive rights in order to save the lives of women who are in danger, I would vote in favour. Practically, I would choose the most sensible option rather than choosing to sit on the fence, but morally, I would still remain ambiguous. I would love to hear what other people feel about this issue, and please understand that I am not arguing for or against anything, I am merely sharing my confusion and asking for some clarity.