What the Abortion Debate Isn’t

To hear the anti-abortion advocates tell it, abortion kills living, breathing human beings. To the other side, abortion is about legislating what a woman does with her uterus. Seldom do two sides of an issue talk quite this far each other without either of them coming within spitting distance of the real issue.

On her blog, Valerie Tarico has an interesting discussion of the imagery by the two sides in the abortion debate.

Abortion opponents may be driven by Iron Age sexual scripts, but they are advancing their cause primarily by appealing to universal, secular and –ironically, progressive– ethical principles. If history has a moral arc, the curve has to do with one simple question: Who counts as a person? Who deserves autonomy and opportunity and freedom from unnecessary suffering? Who merits our compassion or respect? In other words, who is morally relevant?

For much of the article, Tarico seems to get what the abortion debate is really about, but just as she’s about to get there, she throws it all away1:

The irony, of course, is that a fertilized egg is not a person in any traditional or meaningful sense.

Tarico makes the same error that so many others, on both sides, make when talking about abortion: she assumes that there’s one correct and objective definition of “person”, that she knows what it is, and that her politics are informed by it (and not vice versa). That is, of course, begging the question to a great degree.

The abortion debate isn’t about what a woman can or cannot do with her body. It’s not about whether or not a cluster of cells has a right to life. The one thing — the only thing — that the abortion debate is about is at what point we as a society wish to extend rights to a cluster of cells. That’s it. Once we pick that point, every other question very nearly answers itself.

It’s wholly irrelevant that those cells exist inside of another person. It’s similarly irrelevant that a certain confluence of circumstances could bring that cluster of cells to birth and then possibly citizenship. Those are red herrings. They’re emotive arguments. They’re not logically forceful but they have one advantage over the real issue: they’re far easier.

In the end, the actual question that we have to answer is not one that can be answered by reason or math. It’s a normative question.

So why are we still yammering on about all of these other issues? Because people believe what they believe with a tremendous amount of force, they believe it largely as a matter of religion, and people seem to get a tremendous amount of mileage out of feeling righteously indignant2.

If we, as a society, came to an understanding that this is an exercise in line-drawing and social norms, we’d have to address each other more civilly. We’d have to grant that our opinion might not be any more obviously right than anyone else’s. We’d probably have to admit that our prior religious stance was a bit silly and over-the-top.

Still, if this is the serious moral issue that so many believe it to be, shouldn’t we be eager to have that messy, difficult discussion? I mean, at least those of us who don’t stand to gain so much from using this as a political wedge-issue.


  1. To be fair, large portions of the article are really interesting and worth reading. 

  2. Also, it’s a good trick to get people who agree with you about other things out to vote. 

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