Thursday, April 17, 2014

The threat of illegal abortions doesn't justify legal abortions

[Today's guest post by Todd Pettigrew is part of our paid blogging program. This post contains profanity.]

The soon-to-close abortion center.
Image via Google Maps
Here in Eastern Canada, where I live, the abortion debate has been reignited by news that the Morgentaler Clinic, a private abortion clinic in the province of New Brunswick, will close this summer. When that happens, women in the province who want an abortion will have to go to a publicly-funded hospital which will perform the procedure only if it is deemed medically necessary by physicians.

The firestorm ignited by this announcement is blazing on a number of fronts, partly because the unusually nebulous rules around abortion in Canada mean that the reality of abortions vary widely from one area to another. The procedure has been legal in Canada since the late 1980s when the Supreme Court struck down the existing abortion law and no new law was passed to replace it (the late physician Henry Morgentaler who was at the centre of that decision also established the clinic now about to close). All regulation of abortion is done through the health care system, but since health care is run by the provinces, the relative ease of accessing abortion varies widely.

To be sure, the New Brunswick case raises difficult questions. In the absence of an abortion law, is it really right for provinces to control abortion through the indirect means of health-care funding? On the other hand, other non-medically-necessary procedures are not covered by provincial health plans (the New Brunswick government lists over thirty on its website). It is not immediately obvious that the public should pay to end a pregnancy when it won’t pay for eyeglasses or an artificial leg.

In any case, New Brunswick pro-choice advocates, it seems, see all abortions as medically necessary, and have condemned what they take to be unjustly restricting access to a perfectly legal procedure. Here is where the arguments begin to generate more emotional force than logical sense.

If abortions are not legal and easily accessed, the argument goes, women will undoubtedly seek unsafe, illegal abortions with disastrous consequences. In other words, if a woman is going to have abortions anyway, we might as well allow it and fund it. For some, this argument is so compelling that they become incensed that anyone could disagree. As one blogger recently wrote in the context of the closure of the Morgentaler clinic:
Do you honestly believe that women just won’t have abortions? Are you seriously buying into some kind of anti-choice fantasy where a woman gets to the halfway mark in her pregnancy and suddenly falls in love with the idea of being a mother and then her boyfriend shows up on their doorstep and asks her to get married and it’s all roses and white picket fences from there on? For fucking real?
This kind of rhetoric is typical of pro-choice arguments in two ways: first, it attacks the pro-life position as hopelessly na├»ve; second, it presents an easy way out for anyone who might be uncertain about the ethics of terminating a pregancy. It doesn’t matter whether abortion is right or wrong, a confused person might theorize, because making it illegal won’t stop it anyway.


But any argument that lets you out of hard ethical questions is probably a bad one. And this argument is very bad.

When a society holds that a particular course of action is wrong because it unjustifiably violates the rights of others, it must make such an action illegal. Thus, for instance, assault is illegal, as is theft, and any number of other violations of other human beings’ rights. This principle is usually so obvious that we hardly give it a moment’s thought. You can’t just hit people for no reason. Or take their stuff.

But the illegality of assault and theft doesn’t, in fact, stop those crimes from occurring. They happen anyway, although they are illegal. And we don’t argue that because people continue to commit such crimes, we should just make them legal and not worry about the morality involved. No one calls for publicly-funded assault centers where angry and violent people can beat up victims in a controlled setting. Anyone who argued for such a thing would be rightly viewed as crazy. And if they responded by saying that “assaults are going to happen anyway,” we would instantly recognize that the point has been missed.

Consider how absurd it would sound if we borrowed our feminist blogger’s rhetoric but applied it to, say, a proposed measure to reduce theft:
Do you honestly believe that people won’t ever steal things? Are you seriously buying into some kind of ownership fantasy where a desperate person is about to break into a house and suddenly realizes that he has no right to take things that don’t belong to him, and then he and his buddies go off to volunteer at a food bank? For fucking real? 
No, not for real. Nobody seriously believes that the Criminal Code of Canada will prevent people from stealing. But that doesn’t make it right. And that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be illegal. And that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t punish people who steal things.

Those who favour legal abortions must show that an abortion is not a violation of the rights of an unborn child. Or, that such a violation of rights is justified. Or that an unborn child has no rights (and is, in a sense, not a child at all). I haven’t been convinced by any such arguments, but at least they are to the point.

Abortion supporters must not, however, be allowed to bully opponents by simply denouncing them as out of touch with reality. And they must not be allowed to get away with the chopped logic that tells us laws are only worth having if no one is likely to break them.


Drew Hymer said...

"laws are only worth having if no one is likely to break them"

Ding. You got me to chuckle on that one. Great line.

Elizabeth Doecke said...

I've been thinking over this quite a bit, as I've been planning a blog post of my own on this in the near future. And part of my reasoning is exactly what you've articulated here; that the legality of abortion cannot be considered apart from the morality of abortion, because we don't legalise immoral things (such as theft, rape, domestic abuse etc.) just because they're going to happen anyway and fewer people might get hurt if they're legal.

JDC said...

I pretty much agree with everything you say in this post. Honestly, the it will happen anyway argument is so silly that I'm surprised that anyone uses it at all. As an aside, it's unusual to see any good news related to abortion coming out of Canada. let's hope it's the start of a trend.

Guest said...

Well said. But I'd wager that the closure is just a publicity stunt to get more funding. I hope I'm wrong.

The Nun said...


Excellent blog. I have always wondered why dental work is not covered. Less than 50% of the population will ever have an abortion but everyone has to chew.

Of the 3 countries I have lived in, Canada has the worst laws.

D said...

Oh Canada, the land where abortion makes no sense whatsoever ... I can't wait till my country catches up with reality. Might take awhile. A bill just died in parliament that affirmed the dignity of all human beings, for the simple reason that the man who put the bill forward is prolife.

Prochoicers, when you're shutting stuff like that down, you really should start thinking about what your opinions really mean.

Coyote said...

I agree with everything you wrote here, and I also want to point out that *if all else remains equal*, then abortion bans will very likely produce *better results* in regards to the abortion rate. After all, I *have* heard of cases where females who wanted abortions did not get them due to abortion bans, whereas I *have not* heard of cases where females purposely got abortions (which they would have otherwise not gotten) in order to protest abortion bans.

Alden Smith said...

This is the argument that my sociology professor uses.

JDC said...

"When that happens, women in the province who want an abortion will have to go to a publicly-funded hospital which will perform the procedure only if it is deemed medically necessary by physicians."

To be precise, I will point out that they will also still have the option to travel to clinics in other provinces or the United States. (New Brunswick borders Maine, for example). But of course they would have to pay out of their own pockets for these.

Chalkdust said...

Would you support a law against binge drinking while pregnant?

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a real thing. It causes real and measurable harm to children. I think that binge drinking while pregnant is clearly immoral. Should it be illegal?

Drew Hymer said...

Harming babies, born or unborn, with toxic substances should be illegal, of course.

Elizabeth Doecke said...

Very likely, especially when you consider that even abortion restrictions (such as longer waiting periods) can result in lower rates.

Chalkdust said...

How are you going to enforce that, though?

You can try to prevent pregnant women from drinking or smoking...but it's not always obvious when a woman is pregnant, even to her, so do you want to just say that drinking and smoking is a privilege reserved for men only?

You can allow women to buy toxic substances like the adults they are and just prosecute women whose substance abuse harms their babies...but miscarriages seldom come with little labels saying "this was caused by alcohol", "this was caused by incompetent cervix", and "this happened because the fetus had trisomy-4." The only way to catch and prosecute women who cause miscarriage with to subject every woman who has a miscarriage to a criminal investigation. About 4 million women in the United States give birth each year. The miscarriage rate is pretty high (this site has numbers for your chance of having a miscarriage based on how far you've made it) so this adds up to probably hundreds of thousands of women--most of whom are totally innocent of any wrongdoing--being subject to criminal investigation at a time when they are grieving the loss of a planned and wanted pregnancy.

This is the argument that Todd is dismissing above. Bans on alcohol, bans on abortion, bans on alcohol while pregnant--they cause harm to people who aren't doing anything wrong. And they often don't work very well at preventing the harms they oppose. If you take a utilitarian view (that laws should be evaluated based at least in part on how much good and harm they do) then such laws should not exist.

Chalkdust said...

No abortion ban vs. abortion ban, you're probably right, but I'm a little dubious about, say, a post-viability ban vs. a second-trimester ban vs. a total ban. Illegal abortion providers are subject to the laws of supply and demand, like anyone else, and the more abortions you ban, the more black-market clinics there will be and the easier they will be to find.

Coyote said...

Actually, I *don't think* that a post-viability ban makes much difference, considering that Canada has no abortion bans at all and yet, AFAIK, no or almost no doctors there are willing to perform elective late-term abortions. Also, I think that you might be ignoring the fact that spending a couple of decades or so in jail isn't exactly an appealing option to many people. Thus, some/many providers who would have otherwise been willing to perform elective early-term (before viability) abortions might hesitate to perform them if there is a risk of them ending up in jail for a couple of decades if they get caught (and this might be especially true if the government implements good ideas in regards to tracking down abortion providers).

Kristin said...

I have also heard of women who got abortion because it was legal, because they figured "Hey, it's legal, it must be ok"
Making things illegal doesn't make them go away, but it will stop a certain amount of people who trust the fact that it is legal from doing it.

Coyote said...

"it will stop a certain amount of people who trust the fact that it is legal from doing it."

Yep, as well as some people who will be afraid of going to jail for a very long time if they do it (which will be especially true in cases where the law is enforced well).

Drew Hymer said...

Your response shows a misunderstanding of the criminal justice system.

Enforcement is always different than prevention. The law doesn't prevent anything directly. Rather, it stops people from an activity because they know they might get caught. I know I would do a lot of things, but I fear getting arrested.

A father could abuse his kids. In fact, everyday in America a father is abusing his kids. So how do you enforce child abuse laws?

Does this mean we investigate every family? No. Because you have to have reasonable suspicion. If we had good reason to believe a particular father is abusing his children, then we can investigate.

Because miscarriage is so common, it doesn't provide reasonable suspicion. You would need more than that. So, of course, women wouldn't be investigated for miscarriage.

Drew Hymer said...

What about mandating that uterus ablation come with tube tying?

purrtriarchy said...

Is it mass murder or not?

Dejected Embryo said...

I found this edifying blog post by a pro-choice woman who wants abortion to stay legal but approves of the Morgentaler clinic shutdown:
"My experience at the Morgentaler clinic was traumatic, and not just thanks to the trauma inherent in being a young pregnant woman whose life felt so desperately wrong that she felt she had no choice but to kill her unborn child (sorry, I just can’t do the euphemisms). At the Morgentaler clinic, I was treated with the utmost disrespect, I was shamed for showing emotion, and I was definitely given the impression that if I were a good feminist, I’d be more grateful. As though the the d & c was a privilege that I should be enthusiastic about receiving, rather than a service I had just purchased for a considerable sum of money, under duress."

Susie said...

Oh, I just love hypotheticals! :-)

I'm pro-choice because of bodily autonomy, so, for me, the only situation in which I would support a ban on abortion would be if there was a way to transfer an embryo/ fetus to an artificial uterus. The procedure mustn't be riskier/ more invasive for the woman than an abortion nowadays.

If both biological parents decided that they didn't want the child, they should be able to cut all ties to it: no financial responsibility and guaranteed anonymity (also towards the child).

If one parent decided to raise the child, the identity of the other would naturally be revealed to the child, too.
(But I still think that the unwilling parent shouldn't have to pay child support, as I am against the current child support system. Raising a child is a service to society, so society should at least pay for the costs a child causes its parents.)

In a nutshell: I support legal abortion because of a woman's right to bodily autonomy, but I don't think she should have a right to a dead offspring (for example, I think it's wrong to let a baby die which was born alive after an abortion). Unfortunately, at the moment, an early pregnancy termination causes the death of the embryo.

For me the moral conflict of abortion would be solved if there was a way to terminate a pregnancy early and save the embryo' s life as well.

Susie said...

Sorry, wrong blog entry. Would be great if the mods could delete this post. :-)

Drew Hymer said...

if any human beings were conceived and killed, it's some kind of homicide. Perhaps, criminally negligent homicide. Good luck proving that in court.

That's why you tie tubes.

Brittany Sevier said...

Can you provide a source for that claim?

Elizabeth Doecke said...

I initially read in a online article that abortions in Texas had been reduced 10-15% after restrictions were introduced. I can't access the full article, but the address is here:

and the figures are cited here:

There is also this article by Dr Michael J New:

hymnia said...

Oh, but I liked your comment. Where did you mean to post it?

Coyote said...

"I'm pro-choice because of bodily autonomy, so, for me, the only situation in which I would support a ban on abortion would be if there was a way to transfer an embryo/ fetus to an artificial uterus. The procedure mustn't be riskier/ more invasive for the woman than an abortion nowadays."

You might have posted this in the wrong place, but anyway, I've got a question--what if such a procedure is developed in the future but there is hypothetically a shortage of people who are willing to adopt unwanted fetuses after these fetuses are born (in other words, there are more unwanted fetuses than people who are willing to adopt such fetuses after birth). Would you support having abortion as an option in such a case/situation?

Coyote said...

"If both biological parents decided that they didn't want the child, they should be able to cut all ties to it: no financial responsibility and guaranteed anonymity (also towards the child)."

And what if hypothetically there was a shortage of people who are willing to adopt such children?

Coyote said...

Also, out of curiosity, do you oppose the draft in *all* cases (which includes historical and hypothetical cases as well)?

In addition, do you support making the circumcision of minors illegal in non-emergency cases?