Reframing the Abortion Debate

Democratic government is supposed to reflect The Will of The People. But where do The People stand on abortion? Some declare that abortion is definitely murder – even abortion the day after a rape -- and should be treated accordingly. Others just as sincerely declare that whether abortion is murder is a matter of personal conscience, that government has no business getting involved, even up to the day before birth. Both sides claim to be in the majority, and cite polls to back their claims. Indeed, the American people can poll either pro life or pro choice depending on how you ask the question, and whether it rained the previous Tuesday, and whether Mars is currently aligned with Pluto…

The polls are noise. The American people as a whole are uncertain. Neither the pro lifers nor the pro choicers represent The Will of the People. (They may not even represent their own views! Both sides exaggerate for propaganda purposes. This could be the subject for another series.) Even if one side were to achieve a slim majority, you’d have a huge minority opposed to the resulting laws. But the reality is that neither side is anywhere close to a true majority. The swing voters form a huge segment, perhaps a silent majority of their own.

I am in the middle myself. I lean towards the pro life side, and am definitely way more pro life than the current law of the land. I believe that partial birth abortion to dispose of an inconveniently defective baby is morally equivalent to dispensing with the child immediately after birth, and the law should treat it as such. But I cannot quite bring myself to treat early term abortion the same as murder. Selling abortions to teenagers should be punished more than selling marijuana to teenagers, but should it be a capital offense? My mind balks at the logical conclusion the official pro life position.

The American people balk as well, and will continue to balk until there is a truly massive change of heart. Given current trends, pro lifers should not hold their breath. Instead, they should deal with The People as they are. The People are considerably more pro life than the laws of the land. The pro abortion forces are winning in part from a Supreme Court decision, but more so because the pro life forces have overplayed their hand. As long as the political debate is framed in terms of “Is abortion murder?” or “Should abortion be illegal?” the pro legal abortion factions will win by virtue of round-off error.

Even if you believe that taking a morning after pill the morning after is equivalent to murder, you can still save more lives by successfully enacting middle ground legislation than you can by badgering conservative politicians to take a radical stand. Either deal with democracy or start a theocratic revolution if you want to save some unborn lives. Primly pretending you can enact your ideals democratically is allowing millions of unborn children to die unnecessarily.

Finding the Middle Ground

So how do we determine the will of all The People? As a first approximation we could poll everyone as ask them when life begins, and then take an average. Abortion before the democratically dictated beginning of life would be a right, afterwards it would be murder unless in self-defense; i.e., the life of the mother is at risk without an abortion.

For example, suppose 10% of the population defines life at 0 weeks (fertilization), 20% at 1 week (implantation), 10% at 10 weeks (first trimester ends), 20% at 21 weeks (fetus can possibly survive outside the womb), and 40% at 38 weeks (birth). [I am using numbers from the Wikipedia entry on pregnancy, counting from fertilization.] Do a weighted sum and we get:

.1*0+.2*1+.1*10+.2*21+.4*38=20.6 weeks from fertilization

Using the above method with these example polling numbers, abortion would be legal upon demand up to 20.6 weeks from fertilization and be treated as homicide thereafter.

The process above has three major defects:

  1. People would game the vote. Those who believe that life begins when the heart starts beating might vote that it begins at fertilization in order to pull the average their way. Likewise, those who believe that life begins with viability outside the womb might vote that it begins after birth in order to offset the radical pro-life voters.
  2. The result would be arbitrary. Such an average would not likely land on any pregnancy milestone (beating heart, brain activity, viability, etc.)

Furthermore, any cut-off date that divides between choice and murder will satisfy few if any people. Such a step function transition from “It’s OK” to “Capital offense” fails to reflect the uncertainties that many, if not most, voters feel on the matter. Any law so out of step with voter sentiment would be impossible to enforce fairly. Punishment dependence upon jury and judge would make a mockery of justice.

A Fuzzy Logic Approach

Let us admit our uncertainties as a people and as individuals. (And yes, many of you who claim to be certain are just kidding yourselves, as I shall demonstrate with some thought experiments in a future chapter.) Instead of declaring a step function date of legal existence, we could create a fuzzy function. Declare an early stage embryo to be a fraction of a human life. We then ask the question: “What fraction of a human life is an embryo/fetus” at each stage of pregnancy?” And follow this question with: “What should be the penalty for terminating pregnancy at this point?” At what point does abortion merit a $50 fine? At what point does it merit a week in jail? At what point is it manslaughter with a 10 year sentence?

Light punishments can have big impacts. Many pregnancies are terminated out of mere embarrassment. Simply publicizing early abortion with no other penalities would cause a dramatic drop in the baby killing business. Yet the truly determined can proceed without resorting to a dangerous back-alley procedure. (If early term abortion is truly murder, then it should be a dangerous procedure, but remember we are looking for a democratically viable set of laws. The People as a whole aren’t ready to go there; the back alley argument must be addressed.)

Continuing the Debate

I am not asking anyone to settle indefinitely for what is democratically viable today. The debate over when life begins will continue. With a graduated punishment legal framework in place, we can adjust the law to reflect current opinion as the debate progresses.

The debate will continue indefinitely, I fear. The abortion issue is complex, and the consequences of enforcing either extreme dire. For this series I will leave it to you the readers to contemplate an ideal punishment function. In the future I hope to write a series of articles just on the abortion issue: pros and cons from the Bible on whether Christians should enforce anti-abortion laws on non-Christians, why atheists should seriously consider penalities for early term abortions, the inherent difficulties of enforcing anti-abortion laws, and how to reduce abortions even while the procedure is legal.