Monday, December 08, 2008

Abortion Philosophy

I was over at the Political Junkies discussion of (free registration required), where someone asked, "What is it about the right to an abortion that is such a dividing issue?"

In considering such moral issues, the only principle I look to is the Golden Rule. Since we cherish our own existence, we therefore respect the lives of others. But when we speak of doing unto others... the underlying issue is how we define these "others." Even though we consider an insect to be "life," very few of us hesitate to swat them.

The implicit meaning is that we follow the Golden Rule when relating to others whom we perceive as "like me." We don't know what this "me" is, so we (usually unconsciously) define it with our thinking. Depending on how we define our "self," that determines which "others" fall within our sphere of compassion. If I think of myself as American, my full compassion doesn't extend outside my country. If I think of myself as a human, my full compassion doesn't extend beyond my species. In Buddhism, we cultivate the widest possible compassion, extended to "all beings" (i.e., whomever is subject to suffering).

Though the Buddhist goal provides a direction, in practice, few of us hesitate to squash the mosquito that's landed on our arm. We each draw the line somewhere; at some point, we consider the other being to be enough like us to merit protection of life.

At the extreme, some would say that the moment that a human egg and sperm unite, it's a life sufficiently like us to be protected by law. Polling and voting patterns show that this is a minority view, so for the US to extend the right to life to a fertilized egg isn't within the realm of political possibility. On the other extreme, we could say that a human receives the right to life some hours or months after birth. This end of the spectrum has even less support.

So we're left to the debate of where to draw the line. Sometime between conception and a newborn, we need to decide as a society the point to view the developing human as like us, as worthy of a right to life. It's like the necessity of determining the age to allow drinking alcohol or driving a car. Philosophically, we know that not everyone is qualified to handle an automobile (or to consume beer, or vote), magically upon the day of their 16th, 18th, or 21st birthday. But as a practical matter, we need to set a date to grant the right.

From this perspective, abortion isn't a moral issue, any more than driving age is. This isn't an issue of whether or not we honor life, but in how we define a life worthy of protection. The consensus majority becomes less and less comfortable with aborting the fetus/baby as it develops more and more into something/someone that we recognize as "like us."

Like driving age etc, the point at which we grant a right to life will necessarily be somewhat arbitrary. As a practical matter, it helps to choose a clearly recognizable event at which to draw the line. The moment of birth is a convenient marker at which to give the developing human this much membership in society. Even then, we must be meticulous, since birth itself doesn't take place in a "moment." This explains why in recent years, the hot-button issue in the debate is "partial-birth abortion." If we draw the line at birth, clearly agreeing that a newborn baby is a life like us, while the fetus in the womb is somewhat less so... then what to do when new being has only somewhat emerged?

The most interesting point to me is how intimately philosophy and politics are intertwined. How we relate to others is linked to our thoughts about self; considering the abortion debate leads directly back to the great question "What am I?"


Chunky Munky said...

Hey this is a really good thoughtful analysis of what the issues with abortion are. I was raised to believe that life begins with conception (and to quote my mother, "well if it's not a baby I don't know what the hell it IS, because so far no human has ever given birth to a CAT") but I was also raised to believe that women should have the right to govern their own bodies and destinies, and besides that, you can't legislate morality, you can only educate. I'm old enough to remember neighbors dying from backstreet coathanger abortions in the Catholic Northeast US, back when conceiving out of wedlock would doom you to a life of working stripclubs for being a wanton harlot, and the kid would most likely be snatched from you and given to strangers. You can't have it all ways: you can't deny access to both birth control AND abortion - that makes women into little more than breed animals and that very thought makes me vomit. If both men and women had babies I doubt abortion would be illegal.

As far as the Buddhist definitions of compassion, I try my best. I personally cringe at squashing bugs, always have, since I was tiny, and yet I still eat meat although it gets harder every day. Biology and spirituality are often at odds and I also believe it's supreme hubris to think that because we are rational we can somehow deny our biological selves. I'm zealous about not wasting animal products - if that animal had to die for my needs I won't dishonor it by wasting it's sacrifice. I wish I could commit to vegetarianism but so far it hasn't worked.

At any rate, I think you hit this issue right on the head.

Stuart said...

Many thanks for commenting, Chunky Munky. You hit a number of key points.

Difficult political/moral issues arise when the life or welfare of different beings come into conflict. To whatever extent we recognize the fetus/baby as a life worth defending, we're left with balancing that with the more clearly recognized interests of the mother.

Compassion for all beings is a goal, designed to promote a life-direction. It doesn't matter whether we're capable of achieving the goal all the time. The focus of Buddhist practice is to try our best in each moment... and then let it go, to be present for the next moment.

On a different point entirely, here's a strange coincidence. I just now completed a comment on the "Church of the Churchless" site. I was writing about how zillions of things happen to us every day. By sheer volume, many of those things (when examined) are revealed as highly unlikely, as amazing coincidences.

In the same comment, I used a metaphor to discuss the desire-mind. As an example, I used my sometimes desire for "Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey ice cream." And what do you know... immediately after posting that comment, I check my own blog, only to see it's been visited by "Chunky Munky"!

Is this a random occurance, or evidence for intelligent design of the universe? I'm just sayin'.

Jayme said...

Hi Stewart,

I read one of your posts on the "Church of the Churchless" and followed your link here.

For such a controversial topic, you have been very gental.

"Abortion Philosophy" is an oxymoron. "Abortion Philosophy" is appropriately quoted because philosophy is a Love of Wisdom which is Compassion.

There may be cases where Wisdom (or compassion) is genuinely present if an abortion is necessary but this is usually not the case in our culture which places such delicate matters in the spiritually sterile clinical and legal departments of a political system. In the best of all worlds, the new life, mother, family, and society are all deserving of our highest compassion as a culture. No doubt whatsoever that this is mankind's future.

Compassion can sometimes take on what may appear a brutal form. Conflict and death are everywhere in this world and it is only through those with Right Wisdom that appropriate action best helps the rest of us not so wise understand.

Women become objects as soon as their wombs become objects - whether it is through the pleasure of sex or the pain of abortion. Perhaps this is what Chunky Munky implies with her women as breeders comment?

Best regards, Jayme.

Doug said...

Hi Stu,

My own teacher gave a talk on this issue just before the election.

Doug said...

(cont.) A sensitive topic, to be sure. I simply don't know where I believe the line should be drawn. Looking at abortion from the perspective of first precept, I can't honestly deny that aborting a fetus does not cause harm to another living being. But the first precept is not a black and white, absolute, line in the sand. There are gradations of harm, and harm to one being might be committed to prevent harm to other beings, and on the balance be an act of good.

Phillip Kapleau gave an example somewhere in his works of a rabid dog loose in the streets. The options are to kill the dog, or inevitably it will attack and infect humans and other animals, causing much suffering. Similarly, if a madman were about to attack a crowd with a gun, and you could stop him by harming or killing him, on the balance it is more in accord with the first precept to stop the madman.

The moral imperative of the first precept relies much on the relative capacity for suffering. A mosquito does not have nearly the developed bodily infrastructure to experience pain and suffering that a human does, therefore to eradicate mosquitoes in order to save humans from terrible diseases can be justified. A fertilized embryo, within the first few days after conception, has definitely not developed a capacity for suffering, but a fetus who's brain, spine, limbs, beating heart, etc., can clearly be seen through ultrasonic imaging most definitely has.

So somewhere in between these extremes is a compromise I think I could live with. Within a few weeks of a rape or a misfired birth control, well... yeah, the harm is probably minimal, though not non-existent. But every day of development adds significantly more to the potential for pain and suffering caused by such a death, and that should weigh heavily on the minds of all involved.

Anonymous said...

Doug, I enjoyed the lecture by your instructor.

Stuart said...

Doug wrote...
The moral imperative of the first precept relies much on the relative capacity for suffering.

I found it interesting to learn that, at least according some, the very definition of "sentient being" is a being with the capacity for suffering.

Elias said...

One thing left out of your overview (unless I missed it) is the question of when a reincarnating jiva (or soul) attaches itself to a body.

This isn't a simple matter, in that it is likely the soul goes through a profound process in choosing (or being directed) to be reborn. Then there is the descent into the mother-womb, first of the Universe and then of the specific mother.

So one can imagine that abortion could be very traumatic to the reincarnating one...

Unless ofcourse the jiva only enters the process at the very moment of birth -- and I don't know of anyone making that claim. It would be equivalent to saying the child in the womb is nothing but an automaton.


Stuart said...

Elias wrote...
One thing left out of your overview (unless I missed it) is the question of when a reincarnating jiva (or soul) attaches itself to a body.

Thanks for stopping by Elias. As you know, I've long been a fan of your Lightmind Forums.

It's no accident that I left out any reference to when the reincarnating jiva or soul attaches itself to a body. I try to write about things I know from my own experience. And the fact is that I've got no memory of ever attaching myself to an unborn body. (And that's what we're talking about, right? "Jiva" and "soul" are just fancy words for me.)

I'm also interested in what we can know through critical thinking and the scientific method. But that too doesn't offer anything re souls attaching to bodies. Science is a great help when discussing things we can view as objects. By definition, this excludes the soul/me. If I can perceive or analyze something as an object, it surely isn't "me."

Bottom line is that I don't even know what this soul/me is; it's inaccessible to both experience and rationality. So how could I know anything about what it's inside of or attached to?

Here in Berkeley, there must be expectant partents who teach their kids Sanskrit while they're still in the womb. It's not impossible that there's a fetus or two with an idea of "jiva." But for the most part, I'd expect that such thoughts are restricted to the minds of the post-born.