Abortion : reconsidering personal responsibility and political responsibility

The issue of abortion is a “hot button” issue. The masses see it as a war between “family values” and personal choice, between murder, female emancipation, convenience, amidst complaints that “they should just use condoms !”.

When considered through the framework of rights, the issue is less ambiguous. It is obvious that the mother has an inalienable right to her body. However, that right becomes questionable when the foetus reaches the capacity to live independently of the mother, at which point we are simply opposing the right of the mother to her body to the right of the foetus to his body. There seems to be no clear and simple way to resolve this dilemma.

I believe I have found a way to reframe the debate which resolves this ideological conflict. It hinges on the distinction between personal responsibility and political (legal) responsibility.

Let’s start with a hypothetical situation. Suppose that person X owns a bus, and takes people to their homes and workplaces all day. But one day, for some reason, X decides to kill them all by driving the bus to a cliff (presumably jumping to safety at the last moment). Does person X have the right to kill his passengers in this way ?

The obvious answer is “no”. It seems that such an answer supports the idea that abortion should be illegal. We only admit that killing someone is justifiable in a context of self-defense. If someone intruded on person X’s bus without permission, he would be justified to at least kick them out. Someone coming out with a knife would be justifiable motive to neutralize him with more drastic methods. But the people on X’s bus did not break anyone’s rights, since X accepted them on his bus. Therefore they still had full possession of their rights, and killing them is a crime.

But our analogy breaks down at one crucial point. The people on the bus were actively accepted by person X. Having a baby is a biological process, not a choice.

Ah, but having a baby is a decision, right ? You decide to have sex, don’t you ? True, but both statements are not equivalent.

Since I started with a hypothetical situation, let me illustrate my point with another. Suppose person X has a house and leaves the door unlocked. Now someone unknown comes in the house. He may have a gun, be a criminal or not, and so on – that’s besides the point. That person is an intruder. X would be justified – if he wants to – in applying action in kicking him out or, if he was dangerous, using more violent means.

Now we have to distinguish between personal and political responsibility. Was it person X’s responsibility to lock his door ? Yes, of course. But that would not be an argument to use in court (or at least, a rational court) : leaving the door open does not excuse unwanted intrusions.

* Do I blame X for leaving his door unlocked ? Yes.
* Does leaving the door unlocked heighten the chances of crime ? Yes.
* Is X partly morally responsible ? Yes.
* Does that has anything to do with whether the other person is an INTRUDER ? No. He is an intruder regardless of whether the door was unlocked or not.

From a purely ethical point of view, person X is definitively to blame for what happened. However, evil actions are not necessarily part of the political domain. The action of leaving the door unlocked, while irresponsible, does not break anyone’s rights. No crime has been committed. But the intrusion is a crime.

It turns out that this examination of abortion is rather radical ! But the only other options are to either make all evil actions illegal, which promptly plunges us in a dictatorial police state, or give up principles.

We all agree intuitively with this principle. When a woman is raped, we don’t accept statements like “she was looking for it” any more. While we may agree that dressing inappropriately is irresponsible, no one would condemn the raped woman to jail, instead of her rapist.

In the same way, sex is a choice, and leads to reproduction, but reproduction itself is not a choice. It is a biological process upon which the individual does not exert choice : no woman has a conscious influence on the contact between the egg and the sperm.

Having sex is necessary for this contact, but does not actualize it. Having sex only enables the potentiality of the contact. Just as a foetus is not the equivalent of a child, having sex is not the equivalent of having a baby.

As such, the woman has a personal responsibility for having sex, but not political responsibility for the appearance of the foetus. And I contend that this distinction implies that abortion should be completely legal.

I do admit that the application of this distinction leads to some consequences which may repulse the average reader. For instance, hiring a hitman is not an inherently political action, if we consider only the action itself. Exchanging money for a promise does not break anyone’s rights : it is the hitman’s actions which break another’s rights.

Therefore, only the murderer would be responsible for his actions. All that the person who hired him did is give him greater benefit for a crime, but he did not perform the action for him. The hitman still has his personal free will.

This may be counter-intuitive, but it does follow also, if we accept both free will and personal responsibility. And that is only one example. The whole notion of “corporate persons” would also be severely compromised, and employees of a corporation would have to account for their own personal responsibility. If we uphold personal responsibility, we could no longer condemn people from the crimes of their predecessors or ancestors, people could no longer hide under corporate or organizational umbrellas, and all victimless “crimes”, whatever their intent, would be legal.

It turns out that this examination of abortion is rather radical ! But the only other options are to either make all evil actions illegal, which promptly plunges us in a dictatorial police state, or give up principles. The truth, whatever it is, seems preferable to either of these options. If we accept personal responsibility as a concept, then we need to accept all of its consequences, whatever they are.