Abortion is moral (but so is wife-beating, slavery, and pedophilia)

Sometimes I feel like people are arguing pointlessly because they haven’t really settled their terms.  Most of the time, this is because people don’t know what words mean.

I think one of the best examples of misunderstood words is “moral” and it’s counterpart “immoral” (the second of which I tend to view as pretty useless from an argument perspective).

Here’s the deal:  the word moral comes from the Latin word that means “customs” or “habits” in the sense of “Americans really like the idea of freedom” or “Canadians are very polite.” [* “ethics” means the same thing, but is Greek.  Etymologically, there is no substantive difference between “ethical” and “moral”]

By definition, therefore, “morality” is a relative/subjective term.  Infanticide was “moral” in ancient Rome; cannibalism is “moral” in some places.  German sexual morals tend to be more permissive than American, etc.

So sometimes I get frustrated when people talk about abortion being “moral” or “immoral.”  Obviously abortion is moral in America today, because overwhelmingly Americans are okay with some level of legalized abortion (partial-birth abortion, is vastly immoral, however, as is sex-selective abortion), in the same way that Americans used to be okay with some level of segregation, wife-beating, or slavery.

At the same time, America, morally, is “pro-life” / “pro-choice” in the “I hope people don’t have abortions but I’m not going to stop them legally from doing so.”  That’s where the middle is.  America has two extremes (“abortion is murder and murder should be illegal” and “unborn babies don’t have a right to life”) and the big, squishy middle that generally is willing to let women do what they will (even if they personally think abortion is killing a baby, they don’t think the law should punish people who do it).

It wasn’t always this way.  Abortion was immoral in the US as recently as the 1960’s.  I always think of the Doctor in Catch-22, who complains that getting drafted into the war cut into his lucrative illegal-abortion business (reminder: the Doctor is a bad guy).

But morals change over time, which is why marriage rates fluctuate over time, as do church attendance rates, college graduation rates, and the appropriateness of telling racist jokes at work.  Morals are constantly in flux.

Therefore, having an argument over whether abortion, progressive tax-policy, or high levels of incarceration are moral or not isn’t useful.  Sure you can make arguments that the defining traditional moral of the American zeitgeist is liberty, effecting social change requires that new laws and movements have to connect to this idea in order to gain traction.

Consider this: abortion is framed as a “freedom” issue.  Women should be “free” to have abortions.  Women are “free” to do what they want with their own bodies.  But this freedom doesn’t apply to anything else.  Pro-choicers say 13-year-old girls are “free” to control their bodies, but we don’t give them “freedom” to use heroin, become a prostitute, or drink, which is why the “freedom” argument falls apart.  Accordingly, arguing that women should be “free” to control their bodies falls apart, since we appropriately restrict the “freedom” of women on many lesser issues that don’t involve homicide.

Properly, abortion is really about parental rights.  Pregnant women who have an abortion don’t keep themselves from becoming mothers, they are mothers who kill their children.  Men who pressure a girlfriend/wife/girls-that-they-raped to have an abortion aren’t keeping themselves from become fathers, they are just fathers who are participating in the killing of their children.  There are cultures/moralities where this is okay (Ancient Rome stands out to me, and I think there was an episode of M.A.S.H. where a lady killed her crying baby so that her fellow refugees wouldn’t get caught), but that’s the real legal issue surrounding abortion, not “freedom.”

[Remember that the origins of the pro-abortion movement was the pro-birth control movement, whose roots are in eugenics.  Once eugenics fell out of favor in the 1940’s, the entrenched pro-abortion side needed to reframe their argument around “freedom,” which is a more palatable argument in America than “Let’s kill poor people”]

It’s similar to how slavery was framed as a “property rights” issue.  Since humans are not objects, they can’t really be classified as property, though.  Slavery ultimately was a form of kidnapping, and since kidnapping is a pretty big no-no, slavery (as an extension of it), could not logically stand on it’s own feet.

Which brings us back to morality, since morality ultimately is not logical.  Morals can be contradictory.  We can have both a “women and children first” attitude and a “wife-beating should be tolerated” attitude in society.  We can have a “women can have abortions” idea and a “don’t have sex with thirteen-year-olds” idea in our collective conscious.

But we can’t be logical and consistent if we do.

The history of the quote “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is a little muddled, but I think the sentiment, on average, is true.  Over and over western civilization has done a remarkable job in the last 2000 years of establishing that we should accept the broadest definition of “person” as possible and not allow the law to exclude other humans from our circle.  Just as most of us look back with horror at the morality of slavery in the American South (and the morality of pro-choice attitudes about slavery in the North: “I would never own a slave, but who am I to tell someone else not to”), we, too, will be judged by our posterity as a time of monstrous morals.

The wrongness of abortion is not based on it’s moral-ness, or it’s legal status, abortion is wrong because it is evil to kill (in the same way that slavery is wrong because it is evil to kidnap/steal people).

But America, and the west, has lost it’s belief in good and evil.  Coming to terms with this isn’t a new problem.  Starting with Nietzsche (remember “Beyond Good an Evil”?) there has philosophically been nothing but an existentialist world–one without a God who dictates good/evil.  We are left, as humans, to our own [remarkably] poor devices.

Humans, by themselves, can identify moral and immoral, or legal and illegal, but cannot figure out good an evil.  This is because good and evil are absolutes, irrespective of time and culture.  Isis beheading a bunch of captives and raping little girls is evil, but not immoral (there is loooooong history of these things happening) in absolute sense.

Even though there are laws against these things in Syria and Iraq, ISIS-culture does not recognize those laws (immoral laws tend to be disobeyed, from colonial smugglers to majiuana users).  Similarly, a culture where abortion is moral and illegal will still have lots of abortions (I’m looking at you, South America…). This is why the Catholic church focuses so heavily on the “culture of life” message.  The only way to convince people not to have abortions is to change the morals, the culture, where those people live.  This can start with the law, for sure, but has to eventually end up in the hearts and psyche of a populace.

Morality is tautological: “We don’t eat horseflesh in the US because we don’t eat horseflesh in the US.”  It’s ingrained and taught (at liberal arts college, we called it a “social construct”). Similarly, the pro-life side needs to repeat “It’s wrong to kill babies because it’s wrong to kill babies.”  There’s no need to develop arguments in favor of it, the idea should seem self-evident.  You can present evidence, you can make arguments, but you’re not going to logically convince everyone that killing babies is wrong.  Logic is a smallish part of creating a morality.

Wife-beating, slavery, and pedophilia are all evil, which is why we should stop people from doing them.  Eventually we will come around on abortion.


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