I was previously asked by a friend to explain how I perceived abortion. This is the same friend who asked me to explain how I perceive homosexuality.
This explanation is a bit more difficult for me than the previous one. My position on homosexuality has remained essentially the same for the past ten years. My position on abortion, however, has changed significantly. At 20 years of age, I took a fairly typical Pro-choice position with regard to the legality of abortion in the United States. In my mid-to-late twenties, I had arrived at a fairly typical Pro-life position with regard to the legality of abortion.
When I say that I had a fairly typical position, what I mean is that I utilized common philosophical arguments for those positions, not that I was spouting the shrill nonsense so common to both camps. I have consistently avoided using the labels of Pro-choice and Pro-life for myself because they are labels of political convenience and don't accurately convey the nature of the dilemma posed by the legality of abortion. I also have no desire to associate myself with the terrible arguments made by many of the members of both camps or the slurs they sling at each other.
In light of this background, I will answer the question of how I perceive abortion in several ways.
1. As a human being, I have always perceived abortion as a tragedy regardless of my position on its legality. Like a miscarriage, it is saddening and I feel a sense of loss, though with an added kick to that sense of loss because it wasn't really a loss of life so much as a taking of life.
And it's not just tragic for the child; abortion is often a heart-wrenching tragedy for the mother (or at least it seems so to me from my conversations about it with women who have had an abortion). It is also often caused by something tragic for the mother; a lack of support from the father of the child or from the family of the mother can leave her in a place with no good options. Either her quality of life drops dramatically and her child will have a difficult life full of suffering, or she can seek to kill the child and end its suffering while restoring her quality of life. I don't think that those are truly the only two options or that it's the only way to understand the two options, but it does seem to be the dilemma as a mother in that situation often faces it. It's an extremely difficult situation to deal with even under the best of circumstances, and the circumstances are typically far from the best.
While it is not always the case that poverty is present where abortion is, there is a very high correlation between poverty and abortion rates. And while there are men who step up and support the mother of their child (which is a very good thing), there are also plenty of men who are happy to leave women to their choice. As I've heard a number of men tell it, "What's the big deal? She can just get an abortion." I'll admit that I was tempted to exercise my freedom of choice by smashing their faces in with my elbow after they said it. Of course, some women also seem to think that it's not a big deal to get an abortion and the father of the child is the one who wants to keep the child and care for it. This too is a tragic situation.
Regardless of the situation, we should start from a place of compassion for the child and the parents; the child is powerless and the parents are often profoundly broken from addiction, unhealthy family dynamics, a culture of narcissism, and/or poverty. We should reach out to them and offer a helping hand, both because it is the best chance to save the child and because it is the most virtuous way to treat the parents.
2. As a moral philosopher, I have long perceived abortion as a genuine moral dilemma, a conflict between two moral imperatives I value very highly: personal liberty and the protection of human life. I am very suspicious of people who claim that the morality of procuring an abortion is an easy thing to decide, whether they are claiming that is obviously a morally good or morally evil act.
For more detail on my moral position on abortion, you can read this article I previously wrote on the subject related to a philosopher's critique of Pope Francis' position on abortion.
3. As a political philosopher, my position has changed on the issue of the legality of abortion for two basic reasons.
The first is that in talking to women who have either had an abortion or seriously considered it, I found that an assumption I was making was simply incorrect. I had believed that the broad legalization of abortion was something that was helping women, that it was the best way of supporting them. But what I learned from women in the situation was that it really wasn't helping them to accomplish what they wanted. Most of them wanted very much to keep their child.
Thus, it would seem that the more important thing we can do for women is what Feminists for Life and Project Gabriel try to do, which is provide the financial and emotional support lacking in the lives of the women who are in these difficult situations so that they can do what they want to do: choose life. Also, we need to advocate for social structures that make it more likely that women can have the family life that is fulfilling while keeping their children.
The second is that in learning more about law, I have become convinced that our legal standard needs to be more rational, not less rational. And when our legal system insists that we can press charges against someone for killing a child in a mother's womb and that it can be prosecuted as murder, but that it is totally not murder to kill a child when it's the mother who signs the form for their death sentence because of a right to privacy that was magically concocted by Supreme Court justices to get the result that they wanted, what we have is not a rational legal standard.
There are various kinds of rational legal standards under which we could make abortion legal in every case in which a woman wanted to procure one. They're just all horrifying in their implications for human rights. Whether we make the argument based on the ability to feel pain, the viability of survival outside the womb, the ownership of the body, or cognitive ability, the consequences we invoke in using those standards irreparably creates different kinds of injustice. Rather than solving a problem, we would merely be trading one tragedy for another.