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19 September 2008

The Fundamental Right to Abortion

By Diana Hsieh

Nick Provenzo of Rule of Reason has been viciously attacked by on online mob of anti-abortionists for defending the morality of a woman's choice to abort a fetus afflicted with Down's Syndrome. His follow-up post explaining the basis of abortion rights is worth repeating here. I do so with his permission. He writes:

In affirming a woman's absolute right to abort an unwanted fetus, it seems I have triggered the wrath of the anti-abortion lynch mob if the recent death threats in my inbox are any indication. Such is life when confronting the morally ignorant with their irrationality, yet all their "pro-life" death threats aside, the fact remains: a woman has the unqualified moral right to abort a fetus she carries inside her in accordance with her own judgment.

What is the basis for this claim? What facts of reality demand that a woman enjoy the freedom to exercise her discretion in such a manner? At root, it is the simple fact that until the fetus is born and exists as a separate, physically independent human entity, the fetus is potential life and the actual life of the woman grants her interests and wishes primacy. As an acorn is not the same thing as an oak tree, a fetus is not the same thing as an independent human being. In the case of the fetus, its location matters: inside the woman and attached to her via the umbilical cord, its position in relation to the woman subordinates its status to her wishes; outside the woman, welcome to life in the human race.

But why is biological independence the defining factor of personhood in both morality and under the law? Why isn't it the moment of conception, or the first instance of fetal heartbeat, or the first instance of fetal brain wave activity (just to name a few of the benchmarks often put forward by anti-abortion activists)? Again, it is the nature of the direct physical connection between the fetus and the mother. Physically attached to a woman in the manner a fetus is, the woman's right to regulate the processes of her own body is controlling. Unattached and physically independent, the fetus is thus transformed; it is a person no different from anyone else and enjoys all the individual rights of personhood.

Needless, to say, this truth offends the sensibilities of some. They cannot fathom that something like the physical presence of the fetus inside a woman grants a woman power to control it as she controls the affairs of her own body. In a more just world, such people would simply choose not to have abortions, which is their every right. And leave it at that. Yet justice is not the aim of the anti-abortion mob. They simply seek to sacrifice unwilling women upon their altar of the unborn, reducing a woman to a mere birthing vessel the second a fetus exists in her body.

Let us not forget that raising a child is a tremendous commitment. As a life created by its parents, parents owe the children they bring into the world what they need in order to be independent and self-sufficient human beings, to include food, shelter, clothing, and an education. Not every person can measure up to this commitment and not every person wants to. While her fetus in her womb, a woman has every right to reject this obligation. Contrary to the claims of the anti-abortionists, a child should be a choice.

And since the morality of aborting fetuses with severe disability was the original topic at bar, let us remember that over 90% of the women faced with such a situation choose to have an abortion. This is not just my decision; it is the independent, un-coerced decision of women acting within their complete and lawful discretion. And while I would not wish to be them, their decision to terminate their unwanted pregnancy is a decision I am more than willing to publicly defend.

And as I read the sundry comments and messages of those who choose to oppose me on this issue, I cannot help but notice the utter insincerity in their near-hysterical defense of Sarah Palin's decision to knowingly give birth to a child with Down's syndrome. While I have received many odes to the glory of living life while afflicted with Down's syndrome, I have seen little acknowledgement that the decision to give birth to a severely retarded child is a difficult choice and to choose so entails heroic commitment (or a willingness to dump this obligation upon others and against their will). I have seen little acknowledgement that not everyone decides to have a child such as Palin did.

I also see that the many of the objections to my position center upon my framing the issue in the terms of a cost-benefit analysis, as if some choices are somehow exempt from this kind of review. The absurdity of such a claim should be manifest; a nervous groom on his weeding day is performing a cost-benefit analysis, a person standing before the fridge contemplating a midnight snack as they look at their waistline is performing a cost-benefit analysis, and like it or not, a woman confronted with the terrible choice between giving birth to a child with Down's syndrome and having an abortion is performing a cost-benefit analysis. As an advocate for individual liberty, I defend the freedom of each to perform their own analysis and act upon their own good judgment.

So yes, a woman has the absolute right to choose to have an abortion, including the right to abort a fetus diagnosed with physical handicap. It is not "eugenics" for a woman to choose as much; the choice to abort is the woman's alone and there is no element of coercion or a racial master plan. Nor is it some form of "euthanasia" to have an abortion, the fetus not being the same as a physically independent human being. The claims that I or any other Objectivists support eugenics or involuntary euthanasia are utterly dishonest; they are lies told to advance the vicious agenda of those who seek to deny half of our species their legitimate and fundamental freedom.

Freedom is a peculiar thing. It is the recognition that each person is sovereign over their own lives. It is the recognition that a person has the liberty to make choices that you might not make because their choices concern their own life and not yours. It is the recognition that you do not have the right to coerce another against their will. That a person does not have the right coerce the process of a woman's womb against her will ought to be academic. That it is not is testament to the irrationality and ignorance of our times.
For a similar but more detailed analysis of the right to abortion, I recommend Ari Armstrong's and my issue paper: Amendment 48 Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters That a Fertilized Egg Is Not a Person, particularly the section on "Personhood and the Right to Abortion, pages 10 to 13.

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