Abortion, Unwanted Pregnancy, and the Really Big Questions

As the Supreme Court revisits the abortion debate with the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, let’s consider a broader and more systematic point of view.  Abortion is not a first choice or a best choice.  No woman gets pregnant intending to have an abortion.  Rather, abortion comes up as a choice only after something else has gone wrong. 

Outlawing abortion is a simplistic solution to a complex problem.  The problem is unwanted pregnancy—and any solution to that problem must involve many significant changes in our social lives that would need to occur to make unwanted pregnancies less likely.  This is related to the idea that abortion should be “legal but rare,” an idea I have discussed in more detail elsewhere.

The legal debate involves complex Constitutional questions.  Was the right to privacy articulated in Roe v. Wade wrongly “invented” by the Court in its 1973 decision, as conservatives argue?  What is the status of Roe as a precedent?   How does the idea of a right to privacy connect with other issues involving sex, marriage, and family law?

Those legal questions are different from the really big moral questions.  A fundamental moral question is “who counts as a moral patient?” This begs us to consider what kind of being a fetus is (and at what stage in its development it attains moral status).  The moral status of a fetus relates to the rights of its mother.  This includes the fact that the fetus is entirely dependent upon her.  I discuss these issues in much more detail in my ethics textbook and in a recent column

Abortion is considered as an exception to the general idea that pregnancy usually is a positive thing.  It is usually good to give birth.  But some pregnancies are unwanted.  One significant issue is pregnancy that results from rape and incest.  Another issue involves pregnancies that can harm a mother.  Another issue involves disabled fetuses.  And then there are cases in which a woman is just not ready—economically or psychologically—to become a mother.  Pregnancy can occur at the wrong time or for the wrong reasons.  And pregnant women can encounter physiological, psychological, economic, and social hardships.

What kind of a social world would we have to create so that unwanted pregnancy could be avoided and those hardships could be ameliorated?

Such a world would involve free and easy access to birth control and sex education—beginning at the age at which conception can occur.  This would empower women to avoid pregnancy in the first place.  A changed world would involve the end of sexual manipulation and deception.  This is not only about rape but also about less violent forms of sexual exploitation and coercion that occur in a world where women are objectified and manipulated by men into having sex.  A world with fewer abortions would be a world in which women had power over their lives, the bodies, and their sexuality.

Other issues arise in relation to fetal abnormality and women’s health.  A world with fewer abortions would include much better healthcare.  This better world would remedy environmental factors that contribute to fetal abnormality and unhealthy pregnancies.  Such a world would also provide substantial supports for disabled children and their families.  And in such a world, women’s health would be prioritized throughout a woman’s life.

Of course, this is not our world.  We live in a world in which women are objectified and manipulated into sex.  We live in a world in which sexual education often fails to enlighten and in which no one really discusses sexual ethics.  In our world, birth control is often not easily available.  We live in a world in which poverty, pollution, and lack of healthcare afflict far too many women and families.   

As the Court revisits Roe v. Wade, let’s also reconsider our social world.  The Court will decide a narrow question of whether states can limit or ban abortion.  This will not make unwanted pregnancies go away.  Even if Roe is overturned, illegal abortions will occur in states that ban it and women who want abortions (and can afford it) will travel to states that are more permissive. 

Meanwhile, in the background are significant social problems that come to a head in the issue of unwanted pregnancy.  Let’s work to solve those problems by empowering women, providing better sexual education (including education about sexual ethics and birth control), and by imagining substantial changes in our economic and healthcare systems. 

Climate, Consumption, and Self-Control

Global-Climate-Change3Looking down the rabbit hole

Fresno Bee, January 23, 2015

The earth’s climate is changing. Last year was among the hottest on record. And human population continues to grow. Current projections estimate that the human population will grow to around 11 billion by the end of the 21st century, reaching 9 billion well before then. That’s an increase of between 25% and 50% from the current population of 7 billion.

Imagine 100 people crowded into a warm room. Now put 25 or 50 more people in that space. Now imagine them all wanting to live and consume resources at the level that Americans enjoy. If the scientists are right, we are heading toward a hot and crowded future.

The good news is that by now nearly everyone admits that the climate is changing. President Barack Obama mentioned climate change in his State of the Union speech. Pope Francis will address the issue in an encyclical to be released this year. And the U.S. Senate voted 98-1 this week to affirm that climate change is real.

Unfortunately, 49 senators voted against the claim that human activity causes climate change. This includes Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, chair of the Senate Environment Committee. According to Sen. Inhofe, the Bible shows that humans can’t cause climate change — only God can.

A similar sort of denial occurs with regard to population growth. Pope Francis said this week that people should not “breed like rabbits.” But Francis backtracked a bit, later in the week, explaining that every child is a gift from God.

One obvious solution to both issues is birth control. Unfortunately, this solution is often taken off the table on moral grounds. The Pope, for example, opposes artificial birth control, advocating only natural methods for controlling sexual urges and channeling them properly within marriage.

Birth control is not the only solution. Another solution would be to reduce consumption. We could fit more people onto our crowded planet if each person consumed less. This is especially true if those of us in the developed world consumed a whole lot less. The earth could support a large human population if we all became vegetarians and lived much more simply.

But the difficulty of this solution is clear. The vegetarian option runs counter to our culture’s love of meat. And the idea of simplifying our needs runs counter to capitalism, which is based upon a model of continuous growth.

Carnivores, Catholics and capitalists do not appear to be inclined to change their thinking. We are creatures of habit, who remain committed to old ideas, even when they no longer make sense in present contexts.

We are also not very good at controlling our desires. Our inability to restrain ourselves helps explain a lot: from credit card debt to obesity and addiction. We readily sacrifice long-term goods for short-term pleasures. This explains why birth control — whether artificial or natural — fails. In the heat of the moment, passion undermines good judgment.

Good judgment also encounters resistance from strong cultural forces that are slow to change. When ideology is connected to self-interest, profit, and political gamesmanship, it is even more difficult to respond rationally.

The big question here is whether human beings are rational enough and virtuous enough to regulate our own behavior. Perhaps we are not much better than the rabbits of the Pope’s memorable analogy. Rabbits will continue to breed until they outstrip their food source, at which point the population declines. If human beings are like rabbits — unable to limit our reproductive or consumptive behavior — we may be doomed to a similar fate.

We often continue blithely along, ignoring reason and morality. We don’t change until we run out of money, until we are rushed to the emergency room, or until our addictions destroy our lives. We may be more like rabbits than we like to believe.

The ultimate solution is to stop hopping along the bunny trail. We should restrain our sexual activity, curtail consumption, avoid greed and profligacy, and live in balance with the world. Those are old moral ideas that make even more sense in light of the contemporary science of ecology. But these ideas will only prevail when we stop living like rabbits and start behaving like rational human beings.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/01/23/4344634_ethics-looking-down-the-rabbit.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy