One of the more glaring things covid has reavealed is just how unwilling people are to change their minds. No amount of evidence that face masks do not work to stop the spread of SARS-2 will convince the pro-maskers that they were wrong. This intransigence when it comes to changing one’s mind seems to be a common feature in our mental makeup, perhaps reinforced by social media.
But I must admit, I found that in my mid-40s, I have very much changed my mind on a political issue on which I have thought often and long, over the course of my adult life – that being a woman’s right to procure an abortion.
As a humanist and a classical liberal, I have always held that one should have the choice to do whatever one wants, up to when that action impacts on the rights of others. It follows, therefore, that a woman’s right to choose an abortion can only be denied if the fetus is defined as a human life. Was it clear that the fetus was not a human life? No pro-choicer could convince me of the fact. Indeed, I had met many who never even tried. I concluded, therefore, that I was pro-life, not because I was certain that life began at the moment of creation, but because there was sufficient doubt to suggest this was the most moral course for society to take.
In the long months of lockdown, I came to reconsider this opinion. I came up with a reason why, after all, a fetus was not a human life; one that I found perfectly consistent with Christian theology and humanism. Indeed, one might sneeringly point out that it was the very fact of finding my freedoms curtailed, my body subject to vaccine mandates, that forced me to see another point of view. Perhaps so.
But there is a more philosophical path of reasoning, and it goes like this: What, after all, defines human life and makes it different to, say, the life of a bovine, whose muscle tissue finds its way into my cheeseburger? To answer this, I would say, and indeed have always said, that as a humanist and a Christian, the thing that makes us essentially different to animals is our free will. That is, we are human because we have the ability to choose good or evil. This fact is of course at the very genesis of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Do fetuses possess the ability to choose between good and evil? It should be clear that they do not. Indeed, it is very arguable that small children up to the age of three are not, in that philosophical sense at least, human. To be perfectly clear, I am not suggesting that because small children lack free will, and are therefore not spiritually human, then they are fair game for extermination under the law.
But it does take away the absolutist premise from the pro-life argument, and opens the door for a more nuanced perspective on what is the appropriate balance between society’s obligations to ‘potential humans’ absent that absolutist protection, and our obligation to respect the rights of a woman. These rights, after all, derive from her inalienable freedoms, because unlike the fetus growing inside her, she is a fully formed human; one who by definition fulfills the philosophical criterion of humankind – in that she possesses the ability to choose between two distinct moral outcomes.
This certainly doesn’t settle the abortion debate. Important questions remain about what the cut-off point should be – medically and ethically. For even if a fetus is not a fully formed human, that does not preclude some measure of protection. After all, the law forbids cruel treatment of animals. And it also does not settle the very important question of ‘male abortion’, of which I remain a staunch proponent.