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Thursday, 7 September 2017

How Democratic is Abortion?

Once upon a time I was really anti-criticisms of policies/position as inconsistent. These days I don't like arbitrary policies and differences. This is quite possibly the biggest shift in how I think about the world over the last six years. However, abortion illustrates the problem with the extreme version of consistency: politics from first principles.

The idea of politics from first principles, at least the way I mean to use the term, is that you have some basic principles from which a cohesive and comprehensive platform is built. A common principle is liberty, which we might define as the notion that one should have freedoms but only to the extent they don't reduce the freedoms of others. Sounds reasonable, no? You do whatever the hell you like, unless it restricts my ability to do whatever the hell I like. Fair. So, how does this principle engage with abortion?

First up, I am completely fine with abortions that are fairly early on. If you wait long enough, the foetus becomes viable, which means that if you gave the mother a C-section, the baby would survive 50% of the time. Unless, you know, I have completely misunderstood that on account of not being a doctor.

Secondly, we'll work from the quote that inspired this post:
15. They [abortions] are undemocratic. In a democracy there should be tolerance for different beliefs and anti-abortionists should not be allowed to impose their views on others, however sincerely these views are held.
I think this reason is a terrible argument. For one thing, tolerating different beliefs means allowing people to criticise abortions and to argue that they should be banned. For another, I think that has very little to do with what the author (Sparrow) is saying: her emphasis seems to be on the liberty angle. Which is the bigger issue... think for a moment why it is "pro-choice" and "pro-life"? Why those terms?
  • The way that pro-lifers see it, abortion is murder because a foetus is a human life. Or, in other words, arguments from liberty say that abortion should be treated in the same way that other crimes against the person are treated, i.e. banned.
  • The way that pro-choicers see it, abortion is not murder because a foetus isn't really human (in the same way a tulip bulb isn't actually a tulip). Or, in other words, arguments from liberty say that abortion should be treated in the same way that we treat other medical conditions, i.e. patient consent based on medical advice.
Obviously, Sparrow's argument is neither here nor there... it completely misrepresents/side-steps what the "two sides" are clashing over. In some particular circumstances it's a valid notion because these two positions are just generic statements of the camps. Everyone knows, for instance, that a lot of pro-lifers say things like "every life is sacred" and are as much making religious arguments as anything else and I have seen people equate foetuses to parasites (they're not, despite being comparable in some respects... like Donald Trump, John Key and Jacinda Ardern)... possibly because we might run into an animal rights argument against abortion with the articulation above. Regardless, the point is that liberty doesn't really say anything about what to do with abortion.

Now, you might say, and you'd probably be right, that in real life people would work from multiple principles, not just any particular one, but this becomes a difficult exercise. I think the example of abortion shows that we have to combine principles with other interpretations (intersect visions with realities*) in order to actually have a coherent way of thinking about the world. I think that is true regardless of how many principles you regard as first principles. Perhaps, more saliently given the title, you also might say, but what does liberty have to do with democracy anyway?

Look, there are a lot of ways of arguing about this point, and I've really just followed what Sparrow appears to be saying, so I'll choose one. In a very basic sense, democracy is about the competition of ideas because every single person who constitutes the rule of people thinks differently. Liberty manifests here because it is possible to talk in such a way that restricts the ability of others to participate in the competition of ideas. If you compromise the competition, you compromise the democracy, right? So, the question is, does being anti-abortion limit the participation of others? 

My sense is: not inherently, but it certainly can. Yet you see how this is a difficult question to answer... if you disregard that pro-lifers think abortion is murder then being anti-abortion is authoritarian. Hence, to some people, being anti-abortion is inherently threatening of the place of some people in the competition. How to accommodate this I leave up to you: this is a "food for thought" post not a substantive argument any which way.


*Whatever your view on the murderness of abortion, that particular view is your reality and someone who disagrees? Well their particular view is their reality. Big ideas like Truth need not apply: they don't matter.

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