A middle ground on the abortion debate: pro-choice but not absolutely

I am pro-choice. But that doesn’t mean that I believe that the right to choose should extend to an absolute right to third-trimester abortions.

This issue came up in a discussion on our mailing list. Someone said that we should not try to argue with anti-choice people about when personhood begins. Instead we should say that women have the right to control their own bodies.

Does that mean that women have an absolute right to control their bodies even during the third trimester?  That they should be able to abort late term fetuses for reasons other than the health of the mother?  I don’t think abortion rights activists need to try to defend that extreme position.

My position is that a fetus becomes a person gradually, in between conception and birth. Early in pregnancy the fetus has no consciousness and so is not a person. By the ninth month the fetus does have consciousness and so is a person. (See Why Abortion isn’t Murder for details about this argument.)

“Right-to-life” activists say that personhood starts at conception. Some pro-choice activists want to say that personhood starts at birth, or they want to use the argument that women have an absolute right to control their bodies. Both positions are extreme.

Pro-choice activists fear the personhood argument because they may lose it, or fail to convince others about it — because personhood seems to be a fuzzy, metaphysical concept.  Anti-choice activists just insist, without justification, that personhood begins at conception.   But just because the concept of personhood is fuzzy doesn’t mean that we need to fall back on extreme, indefensible positions.  Embrace the fuzziness and realize that personhood is a matter of degree. It’s not all or nothing, and there is no precise time when a fetus becomes a person.

The question we’re asking is: do women have an absolute right to decide what to do with their bodies, even in the third trimester of pregnancy?   Based on my reasoning they don’t, because by that time the fetus has become a person, with feelings and (some sort of) consciousness.

Someone said that  women are allowed to abort dead and dying babies and this shows that they have the right to control their own bodies.  But that right isn’t absolute because: (1) if the fetus/baby were healthy, doctors wouldn’t abort it; they’d deliver it; and (2) if it were dead, terminating the pregnancy wouldn’t be called an abortion; and  (3) if it were dying and endangering the health of the mother then it would be reasonable to either try to save the life of the baby or to abort; but this is a special case which doesn’t affect the principle that you don’t willy-nilly kill a person unless it’s to save the life of someone else.

This is a minefield, and some people might say that as a man I have no right to state my opinion.   But, of course, I do.

By the way, even Mississippi voters have rejected their state’s ballot Initiative 26, which would declare that human life (read: personhood) starts at fertilization. So, the personhood argument is not a hopeless one for pro-choicers.

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