© 2016 by Allan Dyen-Shapiro

  • Allan Dyen-Shapiro

And Now for Something Controversial


For a long time, I felt that the role for men in the country’s debate over abortion was to shut up and not get involved. It was an issue for women and possibly their doctors.

I’ve changed my mind. There are now a lot of Americans whose votes hinge on that one issue.

The vast majority of the country has accepted the scientific consensus on the coming climate catastrophe and wants aggressive action to mitigate it and adapt to it. However, the two major political parties are split on this issue, with only one of them in line with what the country wants. The other party is betting big that abortion, rather than climate change, will determine how most of their members vote.

Because of climate politics, speaking out on abortion has become a priority on which our children’s future depends. With one side of the spectrum calling abortion murder or genocide and the other calling restriction of women’s body autonomy slavery, there isn’t much room for compromise. Murder/genocide versus slavery. Neither sounds very good.

Merely stating my opinions in “bumper sticker talk” will add absolutely nothing to the discussion. Rather, I will invoke Aristotle. To him, the measure of intelligence was whether one could examine a proposal without necessarily accepting it. Along those lines, I’m going to ask the readers of this blog to run with certain assumptions, temporarily, for the purpose of getting somewhere in a discussion. As anyone who does not consider themselves intelligent wouldn’t bother to read anything I say anyway, I’m hoping I can get buy-in here.

For the first part of what I’ll say, please, for the moment, accept the proposition that abortion is murder. A fetus is 100% a human being, deserving of all of the rights of personhood.

I think we can all agree that as bad as murder is, fewer murders are better than more murders. Consequently, from this philosophical perspective, any policy that reduces the number of abortions is one worthy of consideration, and if one is a single-issue voter, one should choose the political party most likely to enact policies that will reduce the number of abortions.

Most abortions in America happen with married women in their twenties and thirties. One of the biggest reasons these women choose abortion is that raising a child is very expensive.

My wife and I have two children. Both of us have always loved children, both of us wanted children with all our hearts, and both of us were willing to sacrifice to share responsibility for raising our children. They continue to bring us great happiness.

But we never lived in poverty. We have never gone without a roof over our heads or a meal because we lacked money. We chose not to have more than two children because we wanted our children to grow up with the expectation that they would enjoy a middle-class existence including the certainty that they would be able to go to college.

It seems obvious to me that if women considering abortion for economic reasons had more money, fewer abortions would take place. In other words, the political party with a realistic plan for alleviating poverty as well as making middle-class existence easier—affordable childcare, affordable housing, affordable college without crushing debt—would be the party most likely to reduce the number of abortions.

When you vote, then, those of you who find abortion to be murder, and who view abortion to be the most important issue in the election, consider voting for the party you feel most likely to reduce poverty and economic insecurity of the poor, working class, and middle class.

Keeping with the assumption that abortion is killing a human being, one should also ask under what circumstances it is justifiable to kill a person. Here, I will delve into religion, specifically Judaism and Islam. I’m going to focus on Judaism because Islamic law is identical to Jewish law on this point. The relevant Islamic jurisprudence even cites the posek from Jewish law (and I’ve read both, so I’m not just going from summaries). These religions consider the case of a “pursuer.” In both, if someone is going to kill you or cause you bodily harm, it is moral to defend yourself, even if it means killing the “pursuer.” US law recognizes the same principle and would judge a defendant innocent of murder if self-defense can be proven.

For these religions, a fetus is a pursuer in the case that a woman’s life or health would be in danger without an abortion. Importantly, health includes mental health. If a woman would commit suicide if she didn’t get an abortion, both religions permit abortion. If a woman would suffer long-term adverse consequences for her mental health, although there’s a lot of splitting hairs and disagreement among clergy, at least some approve of abortion.

Any of you who have known preteen and teenage girls, think about what their mental state would be in cases of incest or rape. Are there not at least some of these young women who might never be mentally well again if forced to carry a pregnancy to term? (Especially in Alabama, where the rapist retains parental custody rights?) Notice that I am not saying every young woman. There are certainly some for whom aborting a fetus would cause more trauma than carrying a pregnancy to term would.

A dual conclusion results: forced abortion, even for child mothers, is unacceptable; and denial of abortion in the cases of rape, incest, or threat to the health (including mental health) or life of pregnant women is also unacceptable. Up to recently, these principles have been US law, and the logic that I am borrowing from religion may be a better way to understand these issues (if we accept that principle of fetal personhood) than any argument based on natural rights, civil liberties, or the Constitution.

Please ask yourself at this point if you think it is morally justifiable to defend yourself if someone pointed a gun at you and threatened to shoot. Not would you defend yourself—some of you could not kill even under these circumstances—but if it is morally okay for anyone ever to do so. If you answer that, yes, self-defense is permissible, you have just staked out a position as upholding the right to an abortion under many circumstances.

So, there you have it: even if abortion is murder, it is justified if the woman’s life or health (including mental health) is threatened, including cases of rape or incest. And although you may not find it justifiable to abort based on grounds of economic well-being, the best way to reduce the number of what you consider to be murders is to vote for the political party likely to address poverty (and education) issues in the poor, working class, and middle class.

Importantly, this is not a pro-choice position. It is a position analogous not to the law in New York or California but to the law in Israel. Wealthy and middle-class married Jewish women over the age of twenty-five who are likely to have a healthy pregnancy and not the victim of rape or incest can be denied an abortion in Israel. Some of them end up flying to Cyprus to have one. Similarly, many wealthy women in Florida will fly to New York or California (where the right to abortion is guaranteed by the state constitutions’ explicit guarantees of privacy as upheld in the state courts) or several other states to get abortions if they want them when Roe v. Wade is overturned, and Florida (and many other Southern states) makes abortion illegal.

As for the non-wealthy, the highest rates of abortion are in states with the largest number of restrictions. Restrictions historically have not reduced abortion rates for women; instead, they have increased the rates of illegal abortions.

One last argument before we relax the assumption that abortion is murder: the coming climate catastrophe will lead to a near-unfathomable number of deaths—deaths from extreme heat, from flooding, from severe storms, etc. Current predictions are that these deaths, in the absence of radical action on climate issues now, will dwarf the number of abortions taking place in the US. If a fetus is a human, certainly someone in my children’s generation, walking around on the planet right now, is also human. My plea to you is that if you truly are pro-life, vote based on your position on climate issues, not based on your position on abortion. It is the only stance consistent with the morality of one who considers even a fetus to be a person, deserving of life.

Okay, followers of Aristotle, now let’s reflect upon the proposition that there is some point between conception and gestation where the zygote/embryo/fetus should be considered a person. If one accepts this principle, then restriction of abortion based on progression of the pregnancy becomes logical. Abortion prior to this point might be a “choice”; after, could not be.

What could this dividing line between potential human and full human entail? I invite you to consider four possibilities: the ability to feel pain, biological humanity, sentience, and relationships with other human beings. The first case does not distinguish between humans and other animals, as animals certainly feel pain. Even most vegans do not object to nuisance animal control, so if you are not a Jain, killing of animals is allowed under certain circumstances. Killing can be done either with or without regard to the amount of pain an animal suffers. Older, 1970s methods of abortion (prostaglandin injection) do appear to have caused fetal pain in some cases. They are not used today. The moral conclusion would be that if in a given case, abortion is justified, pain minimization could be a consideration in choice of abortion methods, just like in the case of killing of animals. However, animal death is rarely 100% pain-free. And the point at which a fetus can feel pain is an unresolved scientific issue. And as such, pain does not seem to be a reasonable candidate for laws identifying the point at which a fetus becomes human.

What of biological humanity—being uniquely Homo sapien? Egg and sperm are clearly distinguishable from animal gametes by virtue of containing human DNA. The zygote contains a complete complement of human DNA. However, so do human tissue culture cells grown in a dish. So does an organ cultured for purposes of a transplant operation. With treatments that can induce mature human cells to dedifferentiate into stem cells capable of regenerating into a live, intact person, it’s hard to use biological humanity as a definition of humanity. If those cells in a dish are human, much of modern medicine that saves human lives will be banned.

Science fiction may give us a window into this debate—human sentience and interpersonal interactions without biological humanity. We may be one hundred years from this debate pertaining to science fact, but for purposes of moral argument, these scenarios are useful. Consider the case of (future) electrical recordings from a human brain, video of human actions, and documents left expressing that humans thoughts, which together can be mined to create a sentient artificial intelligence that in all ways is indistinguishable in thought from the living human. Science fiction is replete with such examples: for a quick look, view the short film on YouTube, The Final Moments of Karl Brant, which starred Paul Reubens (or Pee-wee Herman fame) at this URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=jFotiDbj-D4

Wasn’t pulling the plug on the AI murder? If you agree that this sentient computer program, able to interact with the loved ones of the living human, was human, then you have just concluded that biological humanity is not a required part of your definition of personhood. And if so, any restrictions that prohibit abortion at a certain point in the pregnancy based on acquisition of certain human characteristics (e.g., a heartbeat) are ridiculous, because biological humanity isn’t required for personhood.

As for whether the elimination of such restrictions will lead to a rash of women choosing to abort their babies three hours before delivery, I’d say anyone making that argument has never spoken with a pregnant woman. No woman would go that far in the pregnancy without wanting the baby. Indeed, nearly all third-trimester abortions are due to threats to the woman’s life or health (e.g., preeclampsia) or the conclusion that the baby will not survive or will be severely deformed.

And what of women who feel that they have a strong relationship with their babies while the fetus is in utero? The fetus isn’t sentient, as sentience requires experience that could not be gained in the womb, but it is biologically human and in relationship with other humans. Simple answer: nobody should force these women to abort. But if the woman feels there is no relationship and wants the abortion, who are we to intervene? That’s a true pro-choice position.

Those of you still willing to restrict economically well-off women under no significant threat to their health/life from having abortions, go back to the short film. Was Karl Brandt murdered? If he was, your position is intellectually untenable, as personhood does not require biological humanity, and that’s all a fetus has, at least with some pregnancies.

And for the reasons mentioned earlier, regardless of what your answers to these questions are, please don’t vote based on them. If you do, you aren’t pro-life. You are anti-human.


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