Abortion is one of the most hotly contested political issues in modern politics, as evidenced by the time that this here post sparked an over 100 comment and sub-comment debate on my Facebook:
Samantha Bee actually does a good job here of describing how it came to be so. The TL:DR version of it is that the religious right specifically chose the issue of abortion and amplified it on the national stage in order to exert political power. Small misconceptions were turned into large ones and over time that gap widened until you could see the Republican nominee for president saying women should receive some sort of punishment for abortions, and this:
I think it’s it’s terrible. If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month [on the final day], you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby. – Donald Trump
Clinton: Well, that is not what happens in these cases.
Yeah, of course it’s not. People who have actually performed the procedure that Donald Trump is describing with woeful imprecision have said that’s not what happens.
However, I don’t think that’s what this conversation is really about.
The Trolley Problem
Much of the debate surrounding abortion centers on whether or not the fetus is a person or not. Allow me to introduce The Trolley Problem, which you’ve definitely heard before. It goes something like this:
There is a train on a collision course with five people on the tracks. There is another route the train can take, one toward a track with one person. You are standing at a switchboard that allows you to change the train’s destination. You cannot save all six people. Which track do you choose?
The reason this thought experience causes so much turmoil is that it causes us to confront something that we take extreme precautions to avoid confronting: That we all make determinations on the value of human life.
The Trolley Problem gets even more complicated if you ask any questions whatsoever about the identity of the people on the tracks. Is the one person the president? Are the five geriatric patients with unfortunate prognoses? Is the one a child? Did the five just get accepted to Harvard? Are there fathers? Mothers? Did one of the five just get married?
Those…are not easy questions. And after you ask all of them, you probably still won’t know what to do.
The Real Abortion Conversation: Whose Life Matters More?
It’s no secret that people who are pro-life tend to lean conservative, and people who are pro-choice the opposite direction. However, keeping this debate at the level of whether or not the fetus is a human being helps both sides ignore the subtext of the issue, and I think that’s why they keep it that way.
For the pro-life crowd, it allows them to pretend that we don’t make these decisions about human life all the time. Because it seems unconscionable to make a determination on whose life weighs more, there’s something of a prohibition against admitting that we do that.
“Support the troops” is met with rallying cries of support from the same people, while not acknowledging that the reason we “support the troops” is that we have collectively deemed their sacrifice as worth the price of freedom. Many more than five people have died for our national security, but we made the decision that their deaths were worth the security we have.
That’s not comfortable, and it’s not as easy as you might think to make a definitive ethical case for why this person’s life matters more than the mother it could be endangering.
For the pro-choice crowd, it seems much too callous and shallow to acknowledge that you value one human’s life as being less than the other, but that’s exactly what we do all the time. It could be tricky and difficult to make a definitive ethical case for why you believe that a human being’s life is worth less than another’s, so it’s probably much more simple to say it’s not a human to begin with.
However, what’s more brutal, doing it or talking about it?
The much more digestible claim for both of these groups to make is:
Pro-life: It’s a person, and that’s all we need to know.
Pro-choice: It’s not a person, and that’s all we need to know.
The only problem is that neither of those are “all we need to know”, because both ignore the hard subtext of the conversation, which is that we choose all the time whose life matters more.
And while we languish in this contentious midway point, the real problems of abortion are happening. Women need them and can’t get them; abortions are legal as per Roe V. Wade, but women may have to go hundreds of miles to get one, and lawmakers want to defund Planned Parenthood, based on doctored videos designed to scare the public.
If both of these groups don’t step up to the plate and start the difficult, brutal work of defining what standards we use to determine who lives and who dies, the conversation will remain in a quagmire, with the real victims unclear and far away.
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