The right of a woman to seek an abortion for an unwanted pregnancy is pregnant with politics. In 1973 the ground breaking case of Roe vs. Wade in the USA legalized abortion in federal law. 5 States in America including California and New York legalized abortion prior to the case of Roe vs. Wade in 1970. The rest of America legalized abortion after 1973 in line with the Supreme Court decision.
For watchers of American politics, especially for Europeans living in liberal democracies, it never ceases to amaze how much of a fuss the American people seem to make over this issue. It is one of the founding principles of democracy that state and church should be separated. One of the reasons for American politicians’ abhorrence of such regimes as that set up by the Taliban (prior to the American occupation in 2001) is that they run a country along theocratic lines – namely the law is decided by the law as stated in a religious text and the arbiters of the law are those who interpret the essential religious documents. As a result the Taliban declared music to be bad and that women should not work or receive an education. This might seem barbaric to Americans but it is the same logic as that applied by Americans who are against abortion and who want to repeal the case of Roe vs. Wade.
Indeed George W. in his 2 terms in office seemed hell bent on declaring war on Muslim countries that didn’t respect human rights while at the same time doing his best to use his executive powers to change the composition of the Supreme Court in such a way as to overturn Roe vs. Wade. The irony is not missed by liberals who see religion as a personal matter and not as basis for political action.
Abortion is an issue that is impossible for groups with opposing opinions to find a compromise over. This is because the issue clearly demonstrates two ways of looking at ethics. These two ways of considering what is good and bad are diametrically opposed so people arguing from these points of view are not even on the same page and will never come to any type of agreement.
Ethical philosophy states there are 2 ways of deciding on the morality of a particular action. The first way is called the ontological response. This response states that some action is inherently wrong or right. There is no regard for consequences. So for example, killing is wrong in itself. It doesn’t make any difference if you kill Hitler in 1939 or you perform a mercy killing on a person dying of an incurable disease or you kill an unwanted fetus. Killing is killing and it is always wrong. It is a fundamental principle not contingent on any circumstance. Those in the Bible Belt of America who Bush so cleverly aligned himself with hold an ontological view of abortion – it is morally wrong because the Bible says so; it is wrong of itself and there can be no exceptions to the rule. It is nearly impossible to argue with people who hold ontological ethical beliefs. They do not require evidence and they give none. A meta-argument like the one pursued in this post will also have no impact on the average person who holds an ontological view about the wrongness of abortion.
The second type of moral belief is very different; it is the consequential approach to morals; often called the teleological approach. According to this way of looking at morality if an act produces positive and desirable results it is good and if it produces negative and unwanted results it is bad. It is a pragmatic and relative position compared to the absolutism of the ontological moral approach. Thus, although most people who follow a teleological approach to morality find killing abhorrent under normal circumstances they would usually agree that killing Hitler in 1939 would be morally justified because it would have prevented the Holocaust and the death of 6 million Jews.
This is a compelling argument for many. Sometimes the ends justify the means when it comes to ethics. It is from a consequential approach that certain people believe that abortion is necessary for a healthy society. One strong teleological argument for abortion was made in the paper “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime” printed in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2001. It was a paper written by the rogue economists John Donohue of Yale University and Steven Levitt of University of Chicago. The paper along with other studies became the subject of the best-selling book and movie called Freakonomics. The basis of the argument takes the country wide drop in crime rates in America in the 1990s. During the 1980s crime rates escalated in the USA and many commentators feared that the 1990s would see a break down in society if the crime rates continued to increase along similar lines as they had in the 1980s.
Donohue and Levitt argue that the drop in crime rates in the 1990s was 50% down to the consequences of the Roe vs. Wade ruling in 1973. They argued that ‘unwanted’ children were the most likely to feel dissociated from society and were the most likely to turn to drugs and anti-social behaviors. The fact that mothers could avoid having unwanted babies meant that 20 years down the road the pool of abused and maladjusted youth that crime feeds upon was greatly reduced. In support of this hypothesis Donohue and Levitt cite the fact that those 5 states that legalized abortion prior to Roe vs. Wade were the first places to see a drop in crime rates. They also point out that crime rates for those over 30 in the 1990s remained almost the same as in previous decades.
When the essential point that the unloved and the abused are those most vulnerable to being sucked into criminal activities is considered the Donohue and Levitt theory makes a lot of sense. It also makes a compelling teleological argument for abortion.
It is thus no surprise that the media and academia in the States have been quick to respond to “The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime” with a long series of counter arguments and queries over data and analysis. This is the teleological battlefield over abortion.
The right in America is very keen to dissociate environment from explanations of society and human behavior. It is similar to those who still seek to find a ‘violence gene’ that will explain why some people are murderers. It is much more convenient to fix the gene than it is to re-distribute wealth or radically change the dog-eat-dog ethos that governs free market economies.
As a final point on this look at the ontological and teleological arguments for and against abortion it is instructive to look at the Catholic Church. This is an ancient organization that is firmly in the ontological camp and equally as firmly opposed to abortion. Abortion is wrong because it is wrong. They also say that divorce is wrong by definition. What most Catholics fail to appreciate is that they bring the consequential approach secretly into play when the Pope gives special dispensations to break Catholic law. The new formula becomes that divorce is always wrong and wrong in itself unless the Pope decides that the marriage is untenable and that to continue it would be dangerous to one or more of the parties involved.
In a similar way those who usually use teleological arguments also slip into ontological terminology. For example abortion is necessary for many practical reasons (consequences) and it is also a human right to decide (ontology).
By clearly understanding the meta-dynamics of ethical arguments we are in a much better position to understand important issues and societal responses to those issues.