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I am not quite sure why I felt that I should write another feminist polemic after having just published an inquiry into the philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir. Perhaps it was just that, a random event of having been steeped in feminist writing for the past couple of weeks. Whatever the actual impetus was, today’s topic definitely felt long over due for this intentionally dialectical blog. And it is not just about voicing my own particular views on abortion but is instead another foray into ethical philosophy, a dialectical arena I have often found myself engaged in while posting essays on this site. I intend to sidestep some of the typical (therefore banal) tendentious points which are often espoused in our culture’s political debates which concern this topic. So the initial step in achieving this goal has to be to make sure that I am perfectly clear as to what I am going to discuss and to not stray far from this established path of argument. To this end, I will only be arguing and discussing abortion and its moral and legal tenability from two vantage points. One being the feminist perspective—seeing how abortion decisions are intrinsically and only feminine exemplars—and the other being the theistic point of view–religion being the chief and perennial antagonist to the social advancement of women.
The first point I must make plain is in regards to my own sex. Being a man I feel that no matter what my notions are on the act of abortion, it is an act and decision which is solely the concern of women as only women can have abortions. To complete this simple syllogism, as a man in this debate, I have no right at all to tell a women what to do with her corporeality even to the extent that I may even be the one who impregnated her. This is an important distinction as it is the invidious idea and assumption that a man can freely legislate on a woman’s body from a position of patriarchal privilege which is the fundamental rubric from which the feminist argument for a woman’s right to an abortion is constructed. This stance is also why I do not see the title of this essay as merely a glib political slogan or attention getter either. Whether this patriarchal stance emanates from a secular or religious source, it does not matter as it has the same inimical impact on women.
I have long felt that the underlying (if not subconscious) reason for the anti-abortion stance is the yearning for women to simply put, remain subjugated to the penis—to keep women forever chained to an animal cycle of reproduction (or if you will allow the vulgarity, to view women as breeding automatons). The initial step towards female emancipation has always been for women to be able to escape this phallic tyranny and it continues to be the main quest for women seeking liberation through out the world, especially where poverty is most regnant. This reality is also why I continue to be so incredulous towards any woman who is against another woman’s right to choose. Holding this view is perhaps one of if not the greatest female non sequiturs possible for a woman to contend.
It is this kind of sexual misogyny which is so befitting with the religious mentality, particularly monotheism which is inherently and foundationally anti-woman. For that reason, I wish to focus the rest of this critique on rebuffing the religious arguments against abortion since these disputations all reside one way or another within the ambit of ethical philosophy.
I have no qualms with admitting that I stride across the shoulders of philosopher kings (no Bloomian Anxiety of Influence for me to speak of), and in this debate I often recourse my rhetoric to the insights of one key moral maven. This individual being the ethical philosopher Peter Singer who will now help fortify my argument. When talking of the legal status of abortion, we of course have to rectify and come to terms with some form of ethical thinking for a foundation which will in turn prove abortions legal tenability. I personally see this philosophic recourse involving two distinct concepts: one being the notion of potential and the other being the sanctity of life. In examining these ideas it should then become clear that any religious or ethical argument against abortion can be reduced to one of these two notions and therefore easily negated.
So what is the philosophic concept of potential and its relation to religious notions on abortion? The argument from potential simply states that it is the biological inevitability of human gametes to eventuate into adults which imbues all gametes (let alone all embryos) with special moral status and with what the religious tout as the right to life. Some of you I am sure can already see the absurdity lurking in this kind of ethical stance. There is no living person today except for the most benighted religious fool who would be so fatuous as to assert the solemnity of every sperm or ova due to its potential of becoming a human being. In our species more archaic past when the religious had more sway over our daily lives, this very notion is what rendered masturbation a sin as proscribed in the biblical parable of Onan.
But if you wish to claim the sanctity of every human morula, blastocyst, embryo, or even fetus you must concomitantly be aware that it is then not too reductionist to say that every sperm is sacred and to carelessly extirpate a single one is murder. Just imagine, every male masturbatory act would then be coterminous with genocide. Do I really need to spell it out even more clearly? Is this not the fundamentalist’s view on abortion and masturbation? As promised the sagacity of Peter Singer will help put these contentions into more relief. In his essay The Moral Status of the Embryo (written with Helga Kuhse) he states that:
“When opponents of abortion say that the embryo is a living human being from conception onwards, all they can possibly mean is that the embryo is a living member of the species Homo sapiens. This is all that can be established as a scientific fact. But is this also the sense in which every “human being” has a right to life? We think not. To claim that every human being has a right to life solely because it is biologically a member of the species Homo sapiens is to make species membership the basis of rights. This is as indefensible as making race membership the basis of rights.(…) Hence, although it may be possible to claim with strict literal accuracy that a human life exists from conception, it is not possible to claim that a human life exists from conception in the same sense of a being which possesses, even at the most minimal level, the capacities distinctive of most human beings. Yet it is on the possession of these capacities that the attribution of a right to life, or of any other special moral status, must be based.”
With the last passage, it should be easy to see where the religious umbrage with abortion issues from (non withstanding my previous feminist notions as well). Using the argument for potential when discussing human life has a direct corollary to the secular and religious idea of the sanctity of life. Dr Singer correctly identifies and stipulates that even though we can find assertions of human elitism and singularity throughout the monotheistic texts, it is really only from the canonical foundations of Christianity where we get our modern ideas of the sanctity of all human life. For the religious it is quite simple, humans are superior to all other forms of life simply because we were supposedly divinely actualized for a special purpose. This belief is the easily recognized modus operandi of the religious and showcases their solipsism and ignorance quite acutely. The idea that every human life is sacred, no matter how wretched and painful the existence, I feel can be most easily explained with all of my previous thoughts found on this blog reagrding this religious mentality; at least when in consideration of our recent past, give or take a century or two.
But if we go back far enough to the pre-monotheistic enlightenments, we see that it was quite acceptable to kill deformed children instead of prolonging their suffering. So what is it with the christian view towards the sacred nature of human life and its influence in the evolving of our modern secular notions of the sanctity of life within the world of medicine? Again, human elitism towards other species finds its source in the religious mentality. Our species does not just tout it superiority over all other animals but thanks to the malign influence of Christianity within the Occidental tradition, many human primates continue to feel that every human life is intrinsically special and sacred no matter the condition of life even though all empirical evidence is to the contrary. The most egregious evidence being our ostensibley violent natures which stem from our being still evolving primates; a nature which is extremely effective at extirpating life with out want of ethics or logic.
In trying to analyze this mentality and its moral ramification on how people view abortion, Dr Singer in his phenomenal essay Unsanctifying Human Life, comes up with an erudite and astute conclusion. He states:
“The doctrine of the sanctity of human life, as it is normally understood, has at its core a discrimination on the basis of species and nothing else. Those who espouse the doctrine make no distinction, in their opposition to killing, between normal humans who have developed to a point at which they surpass anything that other animals can achieve, or humans in a condition of hopeless senility, or human fetuses, or infant humans, or severely brain-damaged humans. Yet those who use the sanctity of life doctrine as a ground for opposition to killing any human beings show little or no concern over the vast amount of quite unnecessary killing of nonhuman animals that goes on in our society, despite the fact that many of these other animals equal or surpass humans (except for normal humans beyond the age of infancy) on any test that I can imagine to be relevant(…)More over, anyone who thinks that there is a risk of bad consequences if we abandon the doctrine of the sanctity of life must still balance this possibility against the tangible harm to which the doctrine now gives rise: harm both to infants whose misery is needlessly prolonged, and to nonhumans whose interests are ignored.”
I am sure I do not have to explain to anyone who has made it this far in reading this essay that the issue of abortion and its ethical considerations are very complicated and have no appeal to any moral convenience. The religious can have and maintain their deplorable unethical views on abortion but they must always be reminded of our godless constitution which quite clearly states that as citizens we not only have freedom of religion but more importantly freedom FROM religion. Their views can not and will not ever have sway over our legislation in this republic. Nonetheless, as much as I enjoy pointing out inane religious beliefs, the more exigent point of this essay was to show that there are no moral absolutes in this debate as there are no moral absolutes, period. And perhaps even more pressing than this contention was to point out to my fellow citizens that the abortion debate is intrinsically a feminist one.
The ethical dimension of that choice resides solely with the individual woman involved and not with society. After all, she is the one who has live with her choice. Of course our society will continue to debate the legality of third term abortions and of the euthanizing of the severely somatically maligned as we will with all bio-ethical decisions. But a woman must always have a choice in any matter where her somatic existence is concerned. Just ask yourself, if you do not have control over your own corporeality in your relation to the State as an individual, what do you have control over? Rhetoric aside, is it not obvious that you will be in possession of nothing at all?