That statement was written by one of my faithful readers named Beetle and it is worth some reflection. It is worthy of that reflection because it provides a handy rehash of that most venerable and visceral of pro-choice arguments: the coat hanger argument. That argument seems to work like this:
(1) Before legalized abortion people engaged in illegal abortions.
(2) The results of illegal abortions were often horrific.
(3) If abortion were to cease to be legal horrific illegal abortions would return.
(4) We should avoid horrific practices where possible.
(5) Therefore we should retain current abortion policy.
Is this a good argument? Not really. You see it avoids two crucial issues. I’m going to frame these two issues with respect to a utilitarian ethic and a deontological ethic respectively. Then for my final act I’ll present a reductio ad absurdum by drawing a comparison with euthanasia for mental health issues.
Utilitarian Question: Within utilitarianism the ethically correct action is the one that produces the greatest number of overall good for society. So whether a prochoice abortion policy is ethically advisable depends on whether it produces the overall most good for society. Since 1973 the United States has seen approximately fifty million abortions. Is it possible to do a calculation which will tell us that it is likely this policy has resulted in an overall increase in the good of society? Let’s think about this for a minute:
Prochoice advocate: “It is better this way because x number of women didn’t die due to back alley abortions.”
Prolife advocate: “Yes, but x number did die in legal abortions. And don’t forget the fifty million children that died.”
Prochoice: “They weren’t children. They were embryos and fetuses. Anyway, they weren’t wanted.”
Prolife: “Maybe not by the mother. But there are long lines of people longing to adopt.”
Prochoice: “But some of them would have been raised in abusive homes and become abusers themselves.”
Prolife: “…?! Some of them could also have won the Nobel Peace Prize. Now we’ll never know.”
Prochoice: “With fifty million more people in the United States immigration rates would have decreased and many people wouldn’t benefit from immigration to our fair nation. Their misery would be increased.”
Prolife: “I don’t get it. So should we increase abortion rates so we can increase immigration?”
Prochoice: “I’m not saying that. But I am saying it is an unintended net benefit.”
Prolife: “Why don’t you count the net benefit to those in the industry who have become wealthy providing abortion?”
Prochoice: “Why don’t you count their misery in cowering from anti-choice wingnuts?”
Prolife: “What about botched saline abortions that have resulted in children growing up disfigured?”
Prochoice: “What about the kids who would have grown up disfigured had they not been aborted?”
Prolife: “Yes, what about them? We’ve become a more brutish society because we’ve forgotten what it is to care and nurture those less than perfect.”
Prochoice: “Are you kiddin’ me? So we let them be born so they can be object lessons for the rest of us?”
Prolife: “That’s a perverse characterization if ever there was one.”
Prochoice: “You don’t even caculate the added joy of people who don’t have to worry about parenting children they don’t want.”
Prolife: “What about women haunted by Post Abortion Syndrome? I know a woman who had an abortion more than three decades ago and is still torn by guilt.”
Prochoice: “No such condition exists.”
Prolife: “Tell her that. Maybe you should be her therapist. And what about the spike in STDs? That’s related in part to the sundering of coition and reproduction through contraception and back-up abortion.”
Prochoice: “So now you want to get rid of contraception too? What are you the pope?”
I think you can see the problem. There is no non-controversial way to do a utilitarian calculation to show that abortion policy is ethically preferable for the greater good of society. Or, conversely, you can do any calculation you want to support what ever conclusion you want. Consequently, you cannot really argue that the state of affairs in which legal abortions occur with relative frequency is preferable to the state of affairs in which illegal abortions occur with comparatively rare frequency.
Deontological Question: The word “deon” in Greek refers to obligation. It is what you ought to do in terms of recognizing and following universal norms or moral laws. Thus, deontological ethics is an approach to ethics which is sharply opposed to the utilitarian approach considered above. Rather than determine what the right thing to do is based on the consequence of your action, you make that determination based on a careful discernment of whether the actions you would be engaging in are permissible (or even obligatory) relative to your perception of what the moral law requires.
In other words, if you decide that it is wrong to act with intention to kill an unborn human being (which is trivially what a fetus and even embryo is; note I used the neutral “being” rather than philosophically noted “person”) then you will conclude abortion is always wrong irrespective of however many back alley abortions may result from a restrictive abortion policy.
The Coat Hanger Argument applied to euthanasia for mental health (A reductio)
To this point I’ve simply been aiming at letting the air out of the coat hanger advocate’s balloon. Now it is time for a more direct assault on the argument.
The year after I graduated high school, a young man that I knew (a good friend of one of my good friends) committed suicide. He took a shotgun in his bedroom and blew his head off. His mom came home and found blood had soaked the carpet under his door. She opened the door to find … well you can imagine the unbelievable horror.
“Tim” had suffered for years from clinical depression. Deep, dark, horrible depression. I have never had this kind of experience but I know others who have and they will report that mental anguish is at least as horrible as any physical suffering. I have every reason to believe them.
Occasionally peoplel like Tim take the ultimate unthinkable step and commit suicide. But sometimes they don’t succeed and it results in a botched suicide with unthinkably horrifying results. To begin to grapple with the scale of the problem consider that in one year, 2001, there were over 30,000 suicides in the United States. Think about the agony of planning your own suicide in a darkened bedroom, or stairwell, or garage, or field. Think about the horror experienced by those who find you in those horrendous circumstances. And then consider the additional 400,000 people in 2001 who went to hospital because of self-inflicted injuries, many of those botched suicide attempts.
Now with those unthinkable statistics in your mind, fastforward into a possible future for the United States in which compassionate, clinically controlled euthanasia is provided for the severely mentally distressed (just like it presently is in The Netherlands). People could argue like this:
(1′) Before legalized euthanasia people engaged in illegal suicide**.
(2′) The results of illegal suicide were often horrific.
(3′) If euthanasia were to cease to be legal horrific illegal suicides would return.
(4′) We should avoid horrific practices where possible.
(5′) Therefore we should retain current euthanasia policy.
If you don’t think this is a legitimate way to defend the euthanasia of the severely mentally distressed and depressed, why would you think it is a legitimate way to defend abortion?
**Many jurisdictions are divided over whether to legislate against suicide (i.e. treat it as a criminal matter) or whether to treat it solely as a public health issue. One’s position on this matter doesn’t affect the reductio ad absurdum I’m presenting here, but it is simpler for me to run the argument by treating suicide as a legal matter.