Early in the morning after the latest Republican debate, the U.S. Congress published an omnibus spending bill for 2016. The budget was passed with little fanfare, but disgruntled citizens have already started to pick apart the 2,000-page budget that authorizes the US Government to shell out just over a trillion dollars this year. The bill is rife with compromises. Subsidies for renewable energy stay in, but restrictions on selling oil to the international market are gone. The Affordable Care Act keeps its funding, but significant changes are sure to ameliorate special interests. Corporate welfare continues in earnest, but low-income parents also get some tax relief. For more details, Barney Jopson at the Financial Times did a great piece laying out the details (Jopson).
The most interesting part to me is that one of the most contentious issues hitting the Republican debate stage – Planned Parenthood – gets no significant attention; their funding goes substantially unchanged. The organization has been all over the sensationalist news recently, particularly after Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina mentioned a grisly video in a recent debate. Her comments greatly exaggerated the content, but the video exists, and it exposes some of the ugliest parts of the abortion system.
Before I go any further, let me first clarify that abortions are a small part of what Planned Parenthood does. Planned Parenthood provides education, contraception, and sexual health examinations that are invaluable in a country that has such a phobia of discussing sex. Although Planned Parenthood would not collapse entirely without federal funding, cutting funding would greatly limit their ability to provide essential, non-controversial services for millions.
Under current federal law, as determined in Roe v. Wade (1973), a woman has total autonomy of her pregnancy during the first trimester. In the majority opinion, Justice Blackmun considered the historical definition for the beginning of personhood at the point of “quickening,” or the first noticeable movement of the fetus. However, he recognizes that this definition was associated with the infusion of the “soul” or other life-giving force. Modern biological understanding proves these concepts unnecessary in the understanding of the animation of living beings. The opinion also considers the position of the American Medical Association, which at the time was in opposition to any form of abortion except in cases that threatened the life of the mother. Currently, the AMA opposes any abortion in the third trimester except in cases of significant possibility that the child will face “anomalies incompatible with life.” (“Health and Ethics”). Under the current ruling, a state has the right to prohibit abortion after viability, the point at which a fetus has equal chance of living or dying outside the mother’s womb. Thus, the federal government currently does not expressly prohibit any form of abortion, but it recognizes the states’ rights to do so in certain cases.
We should recognize that the central question of this debate is Does the government have the right to demand that a woman carry her pregnancy to term?
I think you will be hard pressed to find anything in the U.S. Constitution that makes this issue clear. The Constitution provides guidelines for the rights the federal government ought to grant its citizens. By definition, an unborn child is not a citizen. Therefore, we must examine the moral grounding for a government’s intervention in a woman’s pregnancy.
A couple years ago, I laid out an argument for the essential role of government. In it, I concluded that the most fundamental role of the government is the protection of its people. (You can read the argument here.) I determined that a government should protect its people from external threats, internal threats, and natural threats. Pertinent here are the internal threats. Governments must maintain the authority to dictate behavior to the extent that the actions of one are not harmful to others.
This authority reasonably applies to all persons living within the government’s jurisdiction. To discriminate on the basis of citizenship flies in the face of commonly accepted understanding of fairness. Imagine a world in which tourists, foreign family members of citizens, foreign diplomats, and other non-citizen residents were not subject to the protection of the government. Imagine your friend from Canada is visiting, and they are assaulted. They call the police, the police arrive quickly, and when they learn that he is Canadian, they turn away because they don’t have the authority to protect him. It’s a ridiculous proposition. The government has not only the right but the responsibility to take necessary action to ensure the safety of those within its borders.
Now comes the key question: is an unborn child a person warranting the protection of the government?
Here we must determine a definition of “person.” If we accept that a “person” is any member of the species Homo sapiens, then we must accept that personhood begins at fertilization. At the point that sperm and egg combine and their chromosomes fuse, creating a single-celled organism bearing the genetic material of an individual and unique member of the species H. sapiens. The processes within the cell are by definition alive, so based on this line of reasoning, a zygote is indeed a living person, deserving of the protection of the government, even from its mother. Though this is not a legal definition, current federal legislation recognizes a “child in utero” as a “member of the species Homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb.” [18 U.S.C. § 1841(d)]. The law, however, sidesteps the issue of personhood by using the term “child in utero,” and the law also exempts mothers and medical personnel assisting in the termination of a pregnancy. At this point, no legislation defines a person in this way.
This, of course, is not the only definition of a “person.” Alternative views of personhood can be gleaned from philosophers like Locke, who believed that a person was more than just a human being because a human is “a thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection and can consider itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places” (Locke). Modern bioethics agrees that a person must have such qualities as self-awareness and a capacity for communication (Singer). These, however, are not particularly useful because we cannot exactly measure the self-awareness of a child in utero. The only thing we can say for certain is that a brain is required for such abilities. Given that a fetal brain begins to develop after about five weeks of gestation, those subscribing to these definitions would only oppose abortion after a minimum of five weeks. At which point the brain attains the functions necessary for self-awareness is far more uncertain.
Though convenient, these definitions are based on rather arbitrary and certainly contentious grounds. If we accept definitions of personhood based on rationality and reflection, we must call into question the personhood of those with mental illness, brain damage, and of course, supporters of Donald Trump.
In a democracy, we may turn to the people for a definition of their choice of ethics as we do with capital punishment, legal age of adulthood, and legal status of drugs. However, it is quite clear at this point that there will certainly be nothing resembling any form of consensus on this issue. Since philosophy, science, law, and public opinion offer no clear definition, I believe that we must operate on the most liberal view, that which protects the broadest spectrum of potential persons.
Thus, we should accept the premise being a human being is the only prerequisite to personhood. Therefore, the government has the right and responsibility to protect all human beings within its jurisdiction, including those in utero. Therefore, I assert that abortion should only be performed in such instances that a qualified medical professional determines that the child faces developmental complications incompatible with life.
I do not support a complete rejections of all abortions. There are certainly reasonable exceptions – physical and psychological health of the mother, health of the child, or other complications – but efforts spent on performing abortions should be spent on educating potential parents and caring for children, and access to these necessary terminations must be universal. Unlike the positions of both major political parties, this position is logically consistent and compassionate.
In order for this position to be logically consistent, we must consider the protection of the formerly unwanted children once they are born. This means providing maternity/paternity leave in order to ensure the proper care of the newborn. This means providing childcare in cases that parents must return to work. This means providing quality education for all children. This means providing extracurricular programs that keep kids productively occupied. This means providing comprehensive sex education and access to contraception. Most importantly, though, this means making an ideological change in the way we view sex and childbearing.
To expand, I offer a few general policy proposals.
- Maternity/paternity leave. Research has shown that ensuring paid maternity/paternity leave has a significant effect on the health and development of children and the health of the family (“Health and Ethics”). The early stages of child development are incredibly important, and allowing children the best possible opportunities from the outset will have cascading effects in future generations. Preservation of strong family bonds is essential for autonomous and productive societies.
- Childcare. With many households today having two working parents or a single parent and income-earner, families must have access to quality childcare in order to allow for the continued successful development of children. Doing so will not only have positive effects on the development of the child, but will have positive effects on an economy in which working class women can confidently return to the workplace after having children while employing an entire sector of childcare workers.
- Education. The United States currently faces a crisis of education in which children in low-income areas lack access to quality public education, pulling them behind their high-income peers throughout their formative years (Arends-Kuening & Vieira). This destroys social mobility and reinforces conditions for perpetual cycles of poverty.
- Extracurricular programs. Keeping kids out of trouble requires far more than telling them what to do. We must provide opportunities for them to stay engaged in activities that are both enjoyable and developmental. Athletics, music, and volunteering teach children and young adults important life skills while keeping them away from crime and unhealthy practices (DeAngelis).
- Sex education and access. Of course, if we want to avoid this problem entirely, we simply need to avoid unwanted pregnancies. In it’s entirety, that’s impossible, but we can drastically reduce the prevalence. Comprehensive education on safe sex and an open conversation about sexual activity can have a significant effect on teenage pregnancies and transmission of STDs (Stanger-Hall & Hall). This means maintaining funding for organizations like Planned Parenthood.
These changes all require a fundamental shift in the way Americans view sex and sexuality. The taboo nature of sex pushes educators toward abstinence-based education, reduces parent-child communication pertaining to sex, and leaves those unprepared to raise a child ill-equipped to make good decisions when it comes to sex. It leads to a stigma against women who have children out of wedlock, encourages secrecy when it comes to unwanted pregnancies, and retards progress toward a society in which all children have a fair shot at the American Dream.
Arends-Kuenning, Mary, and Renato Vieira. “Income Inequality and Educational Inequality: Comparing the U.S. and Brazil.” PolicyMatters. March 4, 2015. Accessed December 23, 2015. http://policymatters.illinois.edu/income-inequality-and-educational-inequality-comparing-the-u-s-and-brazil/.
Deangelis, Tori. “What Makes a Good Afterschool Program?” Monitor on Psychology 32, no. 3 (2001): 60. Accessed December 23, 2015. http://www.apa.org/monitor/mar01/afterschool.aspx.
“Health and Ethics Policies of the AMA House of Delegates” Accessed December 23, 2015. http://www.ama-assn.org/ad-com/polfind/Hlth-Ethics.pdf.
Jopson, Barney. “US Budget Deal Is Rare Compromise – FT.com.” Financial Times. December 16, 2015. Accessed January 4, 2016. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/ccd0009c-a41c-11e5-8218-6b8ff73aae15.html#axzz3wJ3Bi1Tw.
Locke J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Book 2, Book 27. London, UK: Oxford University Press; 1964.
Singer P. Practical Ethics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: 1993:83. This description was part of a list proposed by John Fletcher as “indicators of humanhood.” For the complete list see Fletcher J. Indicators of humanhood: a tentative profile of man. Hastings Cent Rep. 1972;2(5):1-4.
Stanger-Hall, Kathrin, and David Hall. “Abstinence-Only Education and Teen Pregnancy Rates: Why We Need Comprehensive Sex Education in the U.S.” PLoS ONE. October 4, 2011. Accessed December 23, 2015. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3194801/.