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Safe, rare and legal?

| Monday, February 13, 2017

In Mr. John Gadient’s letter to the editor published Feb. 11, he expressed the opinion that “a woman has a right to make decisions about her own body. … At the same time, I believe that as a society, we should strive to reduce the number of abortions.” This is a familiar formulation: both Presidents Clinton and Obama claimed that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” However, this is a paradox. If abortion is a human right there is no reason that it ought to be rare; if abortion is not a human right, it ought not be legal.

Consider a scenario where abortion is both safe and legal. That is, the procedure produces no harmful physical or mental side effects to the mother and is universally regarded as a constitutional right. Why, then, should abortion be rare? If abortion is as safe as any other medical procedure then there is no medical reason to reduce the number of abortions: No one is calling for there to be less hip replacements. Nor can it be any legal issue with abortion: Calls to reduce constitutional rights on purely legal grounds are self-defeating. No, if abortion is to be a constitutional right — or a human right as called for in the 2016 Democratic Presidential Platform — then there is no reason for it to be rare. Rather, it ought to be celebrated just as much as freedom of religion.

Calls to make abortion rare can be justified only on moral grounds. To claim that abortion should be rare one must necessarily levy a negative normative judgment independent of its medical or legal status, and to admit that we ought to “strive to reduce the number of abortions” as Mr. Gadient does is to acknowledge a certain moral queasiness about abortion.

This moral queasiness cannot coexist with the assertion that abortion is a human right. I cannot speak for Mr. Gadient’s views on the issue, but the moral objection to abortion generally arises from the belief — though perhaps fear is a better word — that a fetus is a person and so abortion is tantamount to murder. To call for abortions to be rare is to acknowledge the moral imperative ‘thou shalt not kill.’ However, this imperative cannot coexist with the idea that abortion is a human right. If one is concerned enough by the moral objections to abortion to the extent that one believes the number of abortions should be suppressed, one ought not assert that “a woman has a right to make decisions about her own body.” If one thinks that the fetus might be a human and that abortion might therefore be morally objectionable, one should not support abortion at all except perhaps in extenuating circumstances such as danger to the mother.

More broadly, we can state that if abortion is a human right then there can be no moral objections to it. After all, what sort of moral objections can one mount against a human right? However, to call for abortion to be rare is to levy a charge against it which must be primarily moral in nature. Then abortion cannot be a right and the moral case against it is serious enough to warrant banning it in typical cases. Thus, the formulation of “safe, rare and legal” is incoherent. If abortion ought to be legal, then there is no reason for it to be rare. If abortion ought to be rare, then the moral case against it is strong enough that it ought not be legal.


Patrick LeBlanc


Feb. 12

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Hootie Swan

    What you fail to recognize here is that you are blanketing Abortion as having literally no repercussions on the mother or living parties after the process takes place. That is incredibly naive. You can’t paint the picture of abortion as perfect, it isn’t. Its hard on the mother, the father, the doctors, etc. and no one can deny that. Comparing the choice to have an abortion to having a hip replacement is outrageous, not because you are removing cells from a woman’s uterus, but because of the impact it has on the surviving parties. I find this view point extremely closed. No one says that civil/human rights have to be morally unopposed. I’m sure you would argue killing someone with a legally owned gun is, similarly, a civil right but in no way is there absolutely no moral opposition to this. It is, quite clearly, an immoral and difficult thing to do. Nonetheless, I do not debate your right to choose how to handle yourself in that type of situation. Presumably, we would hope that is “rare” as well. It is quite clear that, any argument made against abortion, is a right wing attempt at not paying taxes for something they do not support. Let’s not sugar coat things here.

  • Tom Z.

    I don’t understand the premise that if something is a basic human right, there should be no opposition morally to make it rare. It is a basic human right to kill someone in self defense, but as a society, that does not mean we shouldn’t work toward reducing that number.

    Also, this is what I find troubling when it comes to making a law that stems across the nation to an issue that is pertaining specifically to individual persons and their bodies and creates far more questions.
    “…one should not support abortion at all except perhaps in extenuating circumstances such as danger to the mother.”
    What happens if two doctors disagree on whether or not there is danger to the mother? What happens if there is a 1% chance the mother dies in childbirth, is there a specific percentage cutoff? What happens if a 13 year old girl is raped by her uncle and the pregnancy is healthy? What happens if everyone is healthy, but the girl is being raised in such an abusive home, she and the child will be subject to that for years on end? What happens if the child has a 99% or even a 100% chance of living an extremely short life suffering pain until death due to an untreatable disease?

    The point is that there are so many different things to think about and variables playing a role, that it is downright irresponsible to put in place a law to affect a choice that is so personal. Because there is so much at stake, we should be pushing to change individuals’ mothers opinions on abortion and making sure that information is prevalent and accessible for all potential mothers and their families. This way, we can guide them to making the best decision for them and their future. It is their child living in their body, we have an obligation to make sure that they know that only they are the ones responsible and trust those women enough to make a decision to do what is best for them and their potential family.

    • Punta Venyage

      What % of abortions do you think fall into the category of scenarios you lay out (mother was raped, mother has an abnormal chance of death, child has life-threatening disease, child is crystal-ball guaranteed to be abused their entire life)?
      ^This is a truly important question and I hope that you at least have some feel or estimate on what you think this number is.

      Why do you think it would be that intellectually challenging to draft a law which delineates between abortions of convenience and abortions due to extreme circumstances?

      And I do sincerely wonder, do you think a reason like “this baby will impede my career potential” is a justifiable reason for abortion on its own, all else being equal?


      And I have a question regarding the self defense point you mention…
      Lethal self defense is justified killing. This is agreeable. By way of comparison are you saying that abortion should be logically treated in the same category as justified killing then?

      In other words, we would say that we prefer that lethal self defense occurred less frequently, but understand when it happens because it is logically justified killing. Do you then say “we prefer that abortions occurred less frequently, but understand when they happen because they are justified killings?”

      Or do you reject that abortion falls into the category of “killing” whether justified or unjustified?

      • Tom Z.

        The self defense point was just to illustrate the absurdity of calling something a human right and having a desire to make it rare. Your justified killing analogy is off-topic because it boils down to whether or not it is considered killing based on whether or not it is considered a human being while still in the womb.

        It doesn’t matter what percentage of those abortions fall under that category, what matters is that you are trying to set a law in place which affects all pregnancies and all women who desire or get pregnant.

        Yes, I do believe it would be too “intellectually challenging” (as you put it) to determine a set of laws that this would fall under. Medical science is not a black and white area. One doctor may determine that this pregnancy has a 0.5% chance of killing the mother and another may determine it has 0% chance of killing the mother. How would the law work in this case? Doctors and politicians can only do so much, it is up to those people to make sure that all of the information is available and the right person has the information she needs to make a decision that is going to affect her the rest of her life.

        By taking the decision out of the hands of the mother, we are basically saying that she is not the best person to make this call even though it affects her individual body and her individual body only at this point. It should be her decision and her decision alone. We need to trust people to make the right decisions if we want to better society, and this stems true for all areas, not just abortion.

        • Punta Venyage

          Thanks for your thoughtful response, Tom.

          1) The justified killing analogy is ON-topic precisely for the very reason you mentioned: it boils down to whether or not we should consider the unborn as a human being.

          2) Why do you think “it doesn’t matter” what % of abortions fall under that category? When you represent topic X with representation A, doesn’t it matter the degree to which “A” actually represents X? In other words, if we are going to take the attributes of the “part” and apply it to the “whole” doesn’t it matter how much of the “whole” is composed of the “part”?

          3a) While challenging, I don’t think it would be too challenging of a task (what;’s challenging for some, is easier for others). I think this issue lies within the capabilities of human reason. Let’s address your specific example. Why not say take the max of any doctor recommendation and use that, erring on the side of caution? Also you would need a certain benchmark – i.e. you could say anything over the benchmark of 0.1%. The average risk for women is 0.03%, so naturally you would want to demonstrate a risk that is demonstrably higher than average. Quite frankly, why would you even need specific % probabilities (which would quite frankly be unreliable), when you could say simply that a doctor has to sign off on the general statement that ‘it is in the opinion of this medical professional that this pregnancy poses a substantially higher risk to the mother than average based on x, y, and z’ ?

          3b) And you didn’t answer my question, which is relevant to our discussion… “do you think a reason like “this baby will impede my career potential” is a justifiable reason for abortion on its own, all else being equal?

          4) It’s not about laws “saying” who is the “best person” to make a decision. You’re placing too much emphasis on the “who” of the decision while ignoring the “what”. The first and most important questions of any decision, as it relates to legislation or just decision-making in general, is its content, the WHAT. What is the decision? Is it a decision of which movie to see? Is it a decision to choose the topic of a thesis paper? Or is it a decision to rob a bank?
          The content of the decision is key.
          Once you establish WHAT the decision is, and whether or not its contents are appropriate for consideration, then you can think about the WHO. The WHO should only be the determining factor after there is a clear understanding of WHAT we are actually talking about.
          In other words in the WHAT: a) abortion is not killing b) abortion is killing, but it can be justified c) abortion is killing, and it’s never justified

          Your talking point about the mother being the best person can only be legally relevant in option b). If we have option a), it doesn’t matter because there would be no issue. In option c) it doesn’t matter because it would never be justified. So the only argument I see for your “best person” point is that assuming option b), the mother being the decision maker is enough justification to commit the act. In other words, you would say that the fact the human is within the mother’s womb, she has justified authority in choosing to kill it or not (remember, in option b the unborn would be “human”, so stifle the reactionary defense mechanism). Only then does your mother being “best person” have any relative legal relevance.