A Humanist Take on Abortion

Author’s Note: Our stance as humanists is that there is no “one” answer to a question. Today, I was asked how being for legal abortion fits within humanism. What follows is my response and how I make sense of the topic.

In the abortion discussion, we almost immediately retreat to our “safe space” of either pro-choice or pro-life without ever exploring the messy middle ground between the two.

What we fail to recognize in our instinctual retreat from the opposing side is that almost everyone agrees that more abortions aren’t good. Regardless the reason, abortion is usually a heart-rending experience for a woman, possibly her partner, and sometimes her community. No one argues for more abortions.

Naomi Wolf put it this way in a powerful essay about abortion: “…we need to be strong enough to acknowledge that America’s high rate of abortion—which ends more than a quarter of all pregnancies—can only be rightly understood as a failure.”

Therefore, some might argue that the reverse should be true: fewer abortions would be a better outcome. However, that gets us into a tricky situation. We could legislate abortions are illegal. That outcome could reduce the number of abortions if that is all we cared about. But, it could also kill women who may still want or need to seek an abortion.

So, how should we move forward as humanists?

It’s about balance and intellectual honesty.

First, how do we derive our morals, ethics, and law as humanists? By starting with ourselves and growing our understanding to encompass as much of the world as possible.

Therefore, a human considering the implications of abortion should consider the morality of bringing a child into the world, the human’s ability to parent and invest in the child’s success, and the potential contribution of the human and child to humanity’s progress.

While humanism is described in many different ways, we describe it as advancing the human narrative or increasing human meaning. We do not describe it simply as “more humans equal more good.”

So then, when we consider the impact of abortion on individuals, society, and humanity, we cannot follow a simple yes or no checklist. We have to spend time with the reality and take full responsibility for the decision.

Professor Camille Paglia takes a controversial, raw, and insightful stance on abortion,

“My code of modern Amazonism says that nature’s fascist scheme of menstruation and procreation should be defied, as a gross infringement of woman’s free will….As a libertarian, I support unrestricted access to abortion because I have reasoned that my absolute right to my body takes precedence over the brute claims of mother nature, who wants to reduce women to their animal function as breeders.” However, she says in a different article, “I have always frankly admitted that abortion is murder, the extermination of the powerless by the powerful.”

How can she hold both ideas to be true?

In her view, she appears to see nature as providing choices to us as individuals. In the case of carrying an unborn child, the mother may find it advantageous or necessary to kill the potential human she carries for a variety of reasons. The mother may be threatened by a brutal culture, unready for the challenges of motherhood, or simply not desire a child.

The words, “kill,” “murder,” and, “the powerless” make us uncomfortable when thinking about an unborn baby, child, or fetus.

As a humanist, I see both Wolf and Paglia’s views as fully compatible with humanism harsh though they may be.

We aim to advance the human narrative and create more complex human meaning. This means we should make choices that accomplish our aim to the best of our knowledge. When making the choice to keep or abort a child, we should do so with the full, difficult understanding of the consequences as far beyond ourselves as we can comprehend.

  • We must accept that, if we chose to abort, we may remove a person from contributing to humanity’s future who could make the crucial difference that saves our species. Lesser consequences could include regretting our decision, alienating our family or partner, or medical complications from the procedure.
  • Conversely, our choice to abort may also allow us to gain the resources, experience, and support to then be prepared to fully invest in bringing a child into this world when we are ready. Choosing to be a parent and fully investing in our children is one of the key actions we take to advance the human narrative. Parenting may be the most difficult duty we fulfill as humans and should not be taken lightly, accidentally, or due to pressure. We must be as ready as a human can to give of themselves for years for the sake of their children. Abortion may also allow us to progress in our individual lives to contribute in our own right as a mentor, scientist, or leader.
  • If we choose to try and bring the child to term, we may be unready to raise a child and introduce it into a life of suffering or circumstances that cause it to detract from advancing the human narrative. This may lead to a cycle of poverty for our descendants or even contribute to overpopulation and environmental destruction. Or, the experience of raising a child, even through struggles, may create the conditions for both the mother and the child to thrive and contribute to humanity.

What policy, then, do these outcomes prescribe for abortion?

The book Freakonomics once proposed that the legalization of abortion potentially prevented a predicted crime wave in the 1990s. Therefore, it may seem abortion is an overall good. However, we cannot know what impact those aborted children may have had on the world.

Should a woman face the physical pain and danger of childbirth or end the possibility of life for a potentially amazing human?

First, there are some issues to address.

  • Pregnancy: Many of today’s abortion discussions fail to examine the physical reality of a pregnant woman. Bearing a child for nine months is no simple feat one just endures. A developing child literally absorbs nutrients from a woman’s body causing muscle depletion, brittle bones, tooth decay, ligament loosening, possible reflux, sleep deprivation, dramatic hormone changes, and more. Even today, delivery is dangerous with the U.S. leading industrialized countries for maternal deaths. This suffering is something both mothers and those thinking about abortion policy must consider.
  • Personhood: Much of the debate around abortion has focused on when does personhood begin. Some religious theorists say personhood begins at conception while the opposition says it start either at birth or when the fetus is “viable” or can survive outside of the mother. As a matter of policy, our government had identified delivery as the beginning of a person’s life by allocation of a Social Security Number at that time.

    An interesting paradox related to personhood is the comparison of abortion versus death penalty using the arguments of the two opposing sides. On one hand, if all life has sacred as is traditionally claimed by conservatives, then abortion and the death penalty should be illegal. On the other hand, if we have the right to choose to better our lives and society, then abortion should be legal along with the death penalty.
  • Forcing women to bear unwanted pregnancies seems to qualify for the definition of torture. From Merriam-Webster: “1: to cause intense suffering to; 2: to punish or coerce by inflicting excruciating pain.” Title 18 of the U.S. Code, 2340A defines torture as “specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering.”

    Some U.S. states have actually legislated to legally punish women for seeking abortion depending on the circumstances. However, by disallowing or reducing access to women to choose abortion, they are sentencing them to torture by punishing them with the “excruciating pain” of pregnancy and childbirth.

Can or should our government be able to force women to endure pregnancy?

As it is impossible for us or our government to fully know the outcome of any particular birth or abortion, it comes down to us as individual humans to make the difficult choice. It may be that abortion is morally wrong but is outweighed by the moral good of that choice in that person’s situation. That is their burden to bear.

Therefore, my position is that abortion should be cheap, completely legal, widely accessible, and an absolute last resort. Legal abortion should be supported by policies providing adequate sexual education, pregnancy prevention, and easier adoption. Furthermore, interests on all sides of the debate should examine where we can work to reduce the need for abortion in the first place.

Abortion will likely not go away anytime in the near future even if made completely illegal. We can instead be compassionate of those who must make the difficult choices and help them move forward. We can also appreciate the value and necessity of children and the investment required in them to advance our human story.

Back to Wolf again for a vision of a possible future, “Now imagine such a democracy, in which women would be valued so very highly, as a world that is accepting and responsible about human sexuality; in which there is no coerced sex without serious jailtime; in which there are affordable, safe contraceptives available for the taking in every public health building; in which there is economic parity for women—and basic economic subsistence for every baby born: and in which every young American woman knows about and understands her natural desire as a treasure to cherish, and responsibly, when the time is right, on her own terms, to share.”

Endnote: There are other issues to examine related to this topic such as eugenics, aborting to select sex, sexually transmitted infections, sex drive, and more. But, those will have to wait for a future discussion.