Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Abortion Dilemma

Are you 'pro-choice' or 'pro-life'? Do you know what these terms mean? Have you really thought about why you believe as you do? Or are you, like many, really not sure what to think about it all?
Many people, if asked, would say they were 'pro-choice'. This has a good ring to it in our modern world. Why should the government tell women what to do with their bodies? We, especially in the West, like to feel that we are free to do what we want, especially with our own bodies.
When thinking about abortion the questions we must ask are:
Are people always free to do whatever they want with their own bodies?
Should governments legislate what we can and cannot do to our own bodies?
Is a foetus a 'part of the woman's body' or is the foetus an 'individual being'?
What defines a person? Is a foetus a person?
When is it right to end the life of another person? When are we allowed to kill?

In this first 'edition' I will discuss the first four questions:

Are people always free to do whatever they want with their own bodies?
There are two clear cases that I can think of when a person cannot do what they want with their own bodies. The first is illegal substance use. The law in Canada (and in many other countries) says you cannot have an illegal substance in your possession – either to sell, give to others or presumably, to use yourself. You cannot use a drug yourself without having it in your possession and that is illegal. The second case is that we must use a seat belt when driving or riding in a vehicle. Not using a seat belt, when it saves a life, saves only the life of the person using the seat belt. Not wearing a seat belt will not endanger anyone else. You may be able to think of other things that we do with our own bodies that are illegal. Self-imposed suicide is not illegal as the person cannot be charged with a crime if the suicide is successful. Attempted suicide used to be illegal but now a person who has attempted suicide is more likely to have access to counselling and is not charged with any offense. Assisting in someone else's suicide is illegal in Canada and most states of the US but this does not fit into our search for 'what we are not free to do with their own bodies.'
Should governments legislate what we can and cannot do to our own bodies?
There are areas in which the government passes laws which help us to make the right choices for our bodies. Legislation against smoking in public places may be more to do with bothering others than in preventing cancer for the smoker. As it stands people are free to smoke as long as it is not in a public place or a place which causes danger to others (e.g. where oxygen tanks are in use in a hospital). Some provinces are trying to encourage people to eat healthier by making the use of saturated fats for frying fast foods illegal. This has not been widely done yet. Also some countries have tried to make wearing clothing that completely covers the face and the body illegal. One cannot understand why a simple head-covering should be a problem (as it does no harm to anyone) but a garment that completely covers the face and body could be used to hide dangerous weapons or explosives, or be used to smuggle goods into a country or make illegal entry possible as it masks the identity of the person. We can see that legislation for what we can do with our own bodies is a tricky business.

Governments Legislation and Our Bodies?

In 1859 John Stuart Mill, a British political writer, wrote On Liberty. In this work he discussed what role collective society should have over the individual. In other words: Can society (and the government) tell individuals what to do? His conclusions were:
•An individual is not accountable to society for his actions in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself.
•For those actions which harm or hurt the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subject to social or legal punishment if society agrees on this action.
Many of our governments in the Western world operate under these guidelines.

Is a Foetus 'part of the mother's body' or is the Foetus 'an individual being'?

This is now a crucial question if we accept Mill's propositions. For if the foetus is only a part of the woman's body if she has an abortion she does harm to no one but herself. She is, therefore, not accountable to society for her actions. If, however, the foetus is an individual being, then an abortion does harm to another being and the mother (and those who have performed the abortion) are accountable to society.

Is a Foetus A Person?

Many have concentrated on whether or not a foetus is a 'person' under the law. Personhood has been defined in various ways: a person can make decisions, a person can own property, a person can feel pain. Some of these definitions raise problems as an infant cannot own property and would therefore not be a person according to that definition. No one thinks it is right to kill an infant. An interesting point is that women, before the 19th century in many countries, were not considered 'persons' under the law and yet to kill them would still have carried a penalty.
Margaret Sommerville, is an ethicist and founder of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law in Montreal, Quebec, Canada . She defines a person as anyone belonging to the species Homo sapiens or, in other words, any human. Sommerville elaborates by saying that no member of any other species is a person. So when we kill an animal we are not breaking any law but if we kill a human being then we are breaking a law. (Of course, there are those who would disagree and say that killing animals should be illegal. But that does not concern us here. ) The question, 'Is a foetus a person?' would have to be answered in the affirmative if we accept Margaret Sommerville's definition, for a foetus belongs to the species Homo sapiens. Not everyone agrees with her definition, however.
The foetus has a different genetic make-up than his/her mother having inherited genes from both his/her mother and his/her father. In other words, a foetus can have a different blood type or eye colour than the mother. Can we say, then, that a foetus is just a 'growth' or part of the woman's body? Is a foetus not a separate entity? A separate person?

These are the questions we must consider if we want to claim we are either 'pro-choice' or 'pro-life'. We cannot just glibly say we are 'pro-choice' because we want to be in control. This is not the issue. The issue is, 'Are we killing a human being when we have an abortion?'

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

May be the Finest subject that i read all month?!