When debating the permissibility of abortion, conservatives tend to argue that killing innocent humans is wrong, fetuses are innocent human beings, and therefore killing fetuses is wrong.  In response, liberals tend to attack the premise that fetuses are human beings.  The focus of the abortion debate thus tends to be on the location of the line between a fetus as a bundle of cells and a fetus as an unborn human child.

I’ve been reading through Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics, and he offers an interesting take on the abortion debate that sidesteps the usual abortion debate sticking point.  Singer’s position on abortion follows fairly straightforwardly from his well known argument about the ethical treatment of animals.  There is no intelligible distinction, Singer claims, that justifies allowing a being’s species to determine the being’s moral standing.  Most attempts to draw this distinction run into trouble when it comes to children and the mentally disabled.  For example, Aristotle argued that what distinguishes humans from animals is the unique human capacity to reason.  However, children and some mentally disabled people have reasoning abilities that are similar to those of some animals.  Therefore, this distinction, and others like it, fail, because they judge that (counter to our intuitions) some children and mentally disabled people do not qualify as fully human.

So if there is no intelligible morally significant distinction between human and non-human, then the dividing line between a fetus as a bundle of cells versus a fetus as a full human in the abortion debate loses its importance.  Instead, Singer proposes giving fetuses, depending on how developed they are, the same moral standing that we would give to animals with similar capacities to experience pain.

This seems closer to being right to me than any other stance on abortion that I’m aware of.

From Feministing, a video slamming the Hyde amendment (and by extension the Stupak-Pitts amendment to the current health care bill), which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortions:

An excerpt the transcript:

Jay Smooth: There are some members of Congress who are committed to stripping abortion from our health care, and the Hyde Amendment is how they do it.  Everyone in America disagrees with where some of their tax money goes, but nobody else ever gets to pick and choose where their tax money goes.  So we need to speak out on this right now.

[graphic] And you did.


IAmDrTiller: Some members of Congress don’t want tax dollars spent on abortion.

Jen: Well, I don’t want my tax dollars to fund the death penalty.

Omer: I don’t want more than a billion of my tax dollars going to fund the F-22 bomber, a plane the military doesn’t even want.

Am I missing something, or is this a pathetic, bizarre argument?  “Anti-abortion activists have successfully passed legislation that blocks their tax dollars from going towards a practice that they disapprove of.  However, all of us pro-choice taxpayers have done a horrible job of stopping our tax dollars from funding bunch of stupid, wasteful, immoral crap that we object to.  Therefore, it’s wrong that funding for abortions is excluded from federally funded health care programs.”

But that’s just how democracy works! Groups of citizens lobby for the support of policies they prefer, and organize opposition for policies they oppose.  The Hyde amendment is just an instance of successful democratic participation.  So if you don’t want your tax dollars paying for death penalties or useless military equipment, then you should be organizing political campaigns and lobbying efforts aimed at ending those practices.  Pro-life activists are very good at this.  Maybe those of us who want to end the death penalty and reduce national defense spending could learn something from them.

I’m pro-choice, and I think that some tax payer money should go towards funding abortions for disadvantaged women.  I also happen to agree with every “Well, I don’t want my tax dollars to fund x” statement from the video.  But the point is that the Hyde and Stupak amendments aren’t wrong because they are an example of a certain group of citizens doing a better job than other groups of citizens at successfully pushing through policy that advances their values.  The Stupak and Hyde amendments are wrong because they restrict federal funding for abortion, which is something that federal money should be spent on.  For Christ’s sake, just argue for the policy on its merits.

No wonder public support for abortion has been slipping in recent years.