Absolutely! It is essential to rally for accessibility to safe abortion services, comprehensive sex education and a complete array of reproductive options as these are continually assailed here locally and across the country. As a humanist, how can one not support this cause? A rhetorical question, you think? Not really. To bridge the immense rift the abortion issue has created in society, we need better ethical arguments than the simple appeal to “rights” that has largely defined the issue.
While I am a stalwart “pro-choice” humanist, my ethical position is not primarily based on the notion of “rights” -- despite the way the issue has traditionally been framed. A woman’s right-to-choose or the fetus’ right-to-life are shallow euphemisms for a very complex moral issue. The idea of “rights” as an ethical rational is problematic—especially for the abortion issue.
Yes, the affirmation of “rights” works for universally settled moral claims as a kind of short-cut to underlying well-reasoned arguments (such as the right not to be held in bondage). But for the naturalist and humanist, an appeal to “rights” is not really sufficient to explain an over-arching moral system. Nor does it do anything to move people’s views. Generally the concept of “rights” presupposes an innate (or even more problematic--supernatural) moral absolute that just does not exist. If we accept the evolution of our species and understand morality as a human construction, “rights” are conditional--not intrinsic--to our being.
Abortion remains one of the most contentious moral issues of our time. The right-to-lifers challenge the pro-choice (i.e. abortion rights) proponents at every turn—and increasingly so in the current political environment. We will face off again on Good Friday in an annual display of the intractability of this issue. Not that we shouldn’t show up to rally in support of the much maligned, but essential, Planned Parenthood organization. We must. But at some point we have to engage in more reasoned, nuanced ethical arguments. And keep them before the public, the politicians and the media.
Essentially, we need to re-frame the moral debate. We have to engage in ethical discussions of when life begins, the nature of personhood, complexities of human sexuality, definitions of rape, the wide array of reproductive options now available, the necessity of population control, the bioethics of fertility interventions and more—all in the context of the 21st century. Asserting one’s “rights” isn’t good enough; we’ve got to think about our responsibilities to each other, weigh the consequences of our personal and societal decisions, and evaluate the quality of life we aspire to for ourselves, our neighbors and the rest of the world.
In his recent book, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them, Harvard professor Joshua Greene puts forward a convincing and eloquent argument for utilitarianism as the best ethical “common currency” (as he calls it) for public discourse. He demonstrates how this more nuanced approach to moral reasoning can be used to address the abortion issue and how it trumps a mere appeal to “rights.”
As an interdisciplinary social scientist, Greene is as good a moral philosopher as you’ll find. Yes, many in the pro-choice camp already know and espouse the good arguments Greene delineates in his book. Sadly, we have yet to figure out how to use them effectively. But we all would be well-served to take his message to heart and re-double our efforts to advance a more thorough ethical defense for keeping abortion legal and available for all women. We’ve got to do more than volley slogans of “rights” back and forth across the great divide.