On dialogue, genocide, and plague

I would like to apologize for the long gap in posts. I am currently near the end of writing up my PhD dissertation, and almost all of my time and energy is going into that. Below is a post I composed almost a month ago, but didn’t get around to tidying up until today. When the PhD is finished, I hope to get back to semi-regular, semi-frequent posting. See you then.

Early last month, the University of Calgary tried (not for the first time) to prevent a student group from holding a display about abortion. Fortunately, they failed – the group held their display, unmolested by campus security. The attempt to thwart them got the group more attention and more sympathy than they would otherwise have received.

Why all the fuss? Why not just let them do their thing? Well, it wasn’t simply an anti-abortion display. The group, Campus Pro-Life, was presenting the Genocide Awareness Project, a sensationalist affair, based on the claim that abortion rates in the developed world (25% in Canada) amount to a genocide. Vivid photographs of both aborted fetuses and genocide victims feature prominently. Despite its unsavory tone, and despite the way this analogy ignores the many glaring and important differences between abortion and the intentional extermination of an entire culture (reductio ad hitlerum, anyone?), it is clear to me that trying to ban them from campus is contrary to the spirit of open discussion of ideas that universities are founded on.

I felt drawn to this incident as one where I could support a group’s right to put out there message, while disagreeing with the content of that message on almost every level. (I’ve done so before.) So I contacted them and spent a pleasant hour over lunch chatting with member Matthew Wilson, a very thoughtful and friendly guy. I am grateful to him for helping me refine (and, in some spots, correct) the following contemplations.

At the root of the abortion debate seems to be a fundamental disagreement over the basis of human rights.

To me, human rights derive from those properties of human existence that we most value: consciousness, sentience, free will. It is because we share these properties to some extent with other animals that I recently became and remain a vegetarian. It is because the early stages of a human embryo do not share these properties that I do not see abortion as a kind of murder.

To anti-abortionists, the start of the new human organism at conception is the point where human rights are imbued, by definition. Although many people hold this position for religious reasons, it is neither the case that all religious people are anti-abortion nor that all anti-abortionists rely on religious arguments. (Whatever his feelings, Matthew did not give me one religious argument in the hour we dug through this issue.)

After an hour’s careful and enthusiastic discussion with Matthew, I have to conclude that these two positions are simply irreconcilable – each is based on axioms that are fairly impervious to persuasion.

But just because I disagree doesn’t mean I can’t try to put myself in their shoes, see what it’s like. If I accept their axioms rather than mine, then abortion would indeed amount to murder. Let’s even accept, for argument’s sake, that this justifies calling an abortion rate of 25% “genocide”.

What else follows from the belief that every fertilized human egg is ethically equivalent to a human baby? Well, just as not all deaths outside the womb are due to murder – the vast majority are natural, accidental, or from disease – so not all prenatal deaths are due to abortion. In fact, the vast majority of these are also from “natural” causes – called either miscarriage and stillbirth, depending on whether the fetus dies before or after 20 weeks gestation.

The stillbirth rate is very low (around 0.6% in Canada), but miscarriage is another matter. About 10-20% of pregnancies that the mother knows about miscarry. In studies that use detailed detection techniques, about 30% of clinically-recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. (In this case, “clinically-recognized” means “exhibiting the hormone produced on uterine implantation of the embryo”.) Extrapolating to those fertilized eggs that never get implanted and so are currently impossible to medically detect, 75% of conceptions may fail to carry to term.

So three quarters of conceived (and thus fully-human, by the anti-abortionists’ lights) embryos miscarry – die without anyone setting out to kill them. And of those that survive this natural winnowing, 25% are then aborted intentionally (about 6% of total conceptions).

The vast majority of pre-birth deaths are miscarriages – twelve times as many as are aborted. If abortion is genocide, miscarriage is a plague unparalleled in human history, claiming 75% of all human lives.

So if Matthew and his colleagues are indeed pro-life, and not simply anti-abortion, what obligation does this knowledge place on them? Isn’t miscarriage a more immediate and profound problem than the relatively minuscule one of abortion?

Thanks to Matthew, I have firsthand examples of the responses that anti-abortionists might make to this challenge.

Acknowledgment. To his credit, Matthew acknowledged that the miscarriage statistics, which were new to him, did represent a grave human tragedy from his perspective. (To my discredit, I had originally expected any anti-abortionist to try to wiggle out of such an acknowledgment. Thankyou, Matthew, for proving me wrong.)

Ignorance. I can’t deny that the statistics on miscarriage are colossally under-reported. Perhaps people fail to protest this epidemic of miscarriage simply because they’re not aware of it. But ignorance is always a shaky excuse. It is particularly so in this case, where a significant minority of women in the anti-abortion movement are bound to have had miscarriages themselves, and so come face-to-face with this reality. I understand that one way in which doctors seek to console parents who suffer a miscarriage is to let them know how common it is – there is nothing wrong with them in particular. Do those who become aware of the problem have no obligation to share it with others whose worldview would motivate them to help fix it?

Intentionality. The strongest reason why anti-abortionists might not choose to act on the miscarriage crisis, despite its scope and import, is the fundamental ethical difference between abortion and miscarriage. One is a conscious act on the part of humans; the other is not. Abortion would be ended if doctors and women simply chose en masse not to do it; miscarriage will not be solved so easily (if a solution is even possible). And given the limited resources of the anti-abortion movement, it is clear where they should focus their efforts first.

(It is interesting to consider, however, that no conception occurs entirely without the participation of human choice. If you know that the consequences of unprotected sex are 3 times as likely to lead to a death as to a life, what responsibility do you bear for the deaths of any embryos your actions generate?)

On balance, I don’t feel that these responses are quite adequate to justify the deafening silence from anti-abortionists (particularly those who use terms like “genocide”) on the problem of miscarriage. It is simply too big a problem, when I try to look from their perspective, to simply ignore. Action may be expensive, but words are not. It would cost little to mention this problem, and it may serve to spur more people to act for the millions of unborn humans who (from the perspective of the anti-abortionists) die unnecessarily every year.

It is for this reason that I avoid calling their movement “pro-life”. Such a positive label would require at least consistency of approach. Until that is exhibited, I can only recognise that they are anti-abortion.

But, like I mentioned above, our positions seem to boil down to a simply irreconcilable conflict of basic assumptions. So I hope Matthew and other anti-abortionists will correct any mistakes in my assumptions and reasoning. But this gulf makes me pose an even deeper and (for me) more troubling question – one that Matthew and I tried but failed to answer in a satisfactory manner. When people in a liberal democracy disagree so much that any state of affairs will be intolerably unethical to someone, how can we come to a decision about a direction to take as a society?


2 Responses to “On dialogue, genocide, and plague”

  1. Ken Brown Says:

    This is an interesting post; I’ve replied here.

  2. Followup on abortion « Friendly Humanist Says:

    […] Humanist Trying to live by compassion and reason – thoughts on the journey « On dialogue, genocide, and plague A beautiful picture from Mars […]

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