I wrote this a few months ago, let me know of your thoughts!
Why Abortion is not Black and White
I begin this post with reference to a sociological trend recently uncovered by India’s current census. According to the BBC, the census (which can be read here) shows an alarming decline in the number of girls under the age of seven since 2001. The census indicates a general decline in the population of children; however most of this decline is of the female population. Researchers are suggesting that this decline is a result of the foeticide and infanticide of females. In India, tradition mandates that dowries must be given by the family of the bride upon her marriage. Though the exchange of dowries is currently illegal in India, the custom is nonetheless practiced by the rich and poor alike. Boys are thus preferred to girls and it is widely acknowledged that women undergo abortions when pre-natal scans indicate the fetus is female. It is clear this trend is rooted in culture, not necessarily in poverty. Families are making a deliberate exchange of a child’s life to uphold a custom, despite its illegality, and despite their poverty. Their choice is an engagement with a cultural custom rather than a reaction to socio-economic status. Many observers of the abortion debate may now ask themselves how women’s rights movements (which are typically pro-choice) respond to this recent trend, as it shows an instance where the pro-choice position undermines feminist aims to secure respect women. In other words, how can one support the right of a women to have an abortion if the capacity for abortion is used to deliberately eliminate female foetuses? The Indian episode serves as a exemplar illustration of the ambiguity at the centre of the abortion debate and thereby debunks the black and white hegemony of the pro-life/pro-choice agenda in America.
In America and Europe, the abortion debate is clear-cut, with those of the ‘right’ holding the pro-life position and those of the ‘left’ advocating for the pro-choice position. Little do many realize that both positions are incredibly diverse. Some on the pro-life divide contend that abortions are always impermissible. Others, drawing on Natural Law Theory (a rationalized morality which most Christian denominations profess) and the ‘principal of double-effect’ contend that an abortion is permissible if it is a procedure necessary to preserve the mother’s life. Here, the intent is not to conduct an abortion, but to preserve the mother life or well-being, rendering the abortion an ‘effect’ of preventing death or harm to the mother. Another variation on the ’principle of double effect’ is the conducting of abortions by rape and incest victims. Here, the intent is not to have an abortion, but to halt continuation of the rape or incest. Traditional Natural Law does not account for other ‘harms’ an abortion may address. Hence, one cannot get an abortion because she cannot ‘afford’ to raise a child, nor could one permit an abortion as a method of population control. There are dozens of other reasons for conducting abortions that would be ‘impermissible’ according to standard Natural Law Theory. This is because Natural Law ethics generally prioritizes procreation on the grounds that if one is to ‘do good and avoid evil’, one cannot end life without preventing a greater evil or pursuing.If this was the only imperative of Natural Law, then one could easily rationalize any good to be commensurable to life. However, according to Aquinas, the good of life is considered to be an absolute good, in that it cannot be transgressed for the sake of many other ‘goods’.
Many societies and cultures, however, do not subscribe to the same ‘ranking’ of goods. Here enters the pro-choice position. Since the Enlightenment, a turn of the philosophical gaze from ‘heaven’ to ‘humanity’ incited a new focus on freedom and individual dignity. Ethical discourse shifted from from an emphasis on preserving divine absolute goods to preserving equality, fraternity, dignity, and freedom of choice for the individual. The ethical pursuit of these goods has been assumed and adjusted by various social movements since, such as the French and American Revolutions, abolition, workers’ movements, civil rights, multiculturalism and feminism. It is now called the ‘Politics of Recognition’. Instead of looking to ‘do good and avoid evil’, the moral imperative is to ‘secure equal recognition’ of each individual in a society. This imperative is a foundational principle at work in the pro-choice position. Advocates contend that women, as a collective demographic, have endured an extensive history of pernicious and systemic oppression of which they consider sexual reproduction to be a major dimension. Pro-choice advocates recognized the extent to which women’s life decisions are bound to the demands of their body, particularly their body as a vessel for the birth and their energy as a source for the raising of children. They thus claim, if women are to be recognized as equal to men, she must have the ability to make choices apart from the demands of her body.
It is important to note that just as the pro-life position is developed in the context of Natural Law Theory, the pro-choice position is developed in the context of the Enlightenment equality principles and the politics of recognition. You see? They are both products of their own philosophical ‘culture’ – i.e. of norms. As Americans – who are ‘top of the world’- we often forget that we propagate and opine within a particular culture with particular ethical conceptions of ‘the good’. Through such an American-Western culture we develop ethical positions that when placed in other cultures seem just as odd as to them as their ethics seem to us. The pro-life and pro-choice positions are operating on two distinct ethical presumptions, and it is clear that the abortion trend in India is conducted on an entirely different ethical premise! Who is right? It is important to answer this question, not because it is important for scholars to ‘one-up’ each other, but because it is important that in an increasingly globalised world people can make decisions which are consistent across ethico-cultural borders.
The answer to this simple question is not a question of who ‘comes out on top’, but how ethico-cultural horizons fuse. At first glance, it may seem that both positions can be straightforwardly applied to the Indian episode yet this is not case. The pro-life movement cannot easily grip the proverbial political ground of the Indian debate on abortion because it prioritises ‘life’ over honor, custom, and fiscal well being. In fact, one may even argue that from the perspective of a major Indian religion, Hindu, life is not an absolute but ephemeral good, subject to the laws and cycles of reincarnation. This is a problem the pro-life movement in virtually every culture, and is why advocates often appeal to sensibility with horrific images of aborted foetuses (which are often time pictures of miscarried infants) and unsettling anecdotes about the physical and psychological health risks to the mother. Our concern, however, is not whether or not an ethical perspective will be politically popular, but whether or not that ethical perspective can be analytically sound. As discussed above, earthly life is not as strongly prioritised within Eastern-Hindu culture as it is in Western-Christian culture. Whilst abortion may not be explicitly condoned or suggested by Eastern-Hindu culture , the procedure is evidently not discouraged. The question becomes, what ought to be ranked higher, life or Hindu custom?
Life is a consistent reality across cultures. It transcends culture. Norms cannot exist without life. Yet, no life exists apart from norms. It is the way a person or a group of persons conceptualizes her world. It is the basis of her convictions and actions. Norms and life are interdependent concepts. When pro-lifers speak of life, they do not mean a dead, vacant, isolated life, but one which is engaged with a social matrix of meaning. A ‘flourishing human life’ and a ‘culture’ do not exist without the other, so how can two integral concepts be weighed against one another? Surely we can make arguments against culture without arguing against life, and vice versa? Unlike life, a constant reality, culture is a malleable reality. Cultures are never static, but are subject to shifts in thought, practice, and new meaning (i.e. think of how the world has changed since the advent of science). A cultural acceptance of abortion can be best articulated not on the grounds of preserving life, but on other grounds that resonate within that culture. Other values can be accessed and articulated as reasons to preserve life over the pursuit of a specific custom. If no such reasons can be articulated, the pro-life movement can only work to change the landscape of that culture to better prioritise and value life. In this way, one achieves a fusion of cultural horizons rather than a failed battering of ethical perspectives.
How does the pro-choice argument fair in the Indian episode? This position faces even more difficulty because the very ‘right’ to abortion is being used to exterminate deliberately the bearers of that right. The pro-choice position seems to underestimate itself. Surely Indian women are exercising their right to ‘choose’, and pro-choice advocates should support them? Well, are they? Firstly, many women are being forced to undergo abortions by their husbands and family, but- on another level- one could claim that women are being forced to undergo abortions by culture itself. Yet, they are complicit in many regards with that culture, in fact, many women may choose to undergo abortions themselves. Is it fair to criticize their choices because of our ethico-cultural prioritization of women? Or can we make a fair critique of the practice because such abortions are committed for the purpose of avoiding female children? That the ‘child’ is being devalued for something that is not its fault? That she shouldn’t have to answer for the cultural practice of the dowry without first engaging with that culture? These are difficult questions to think about and I have no clear answers.
Culture is not a singular oppressive ‘force’ acting on the isolated individual, but is a result of the normative negotiations agents make. As stated above, we are always acting within a cultural matrix, and in some ways that matrix shapes us without our realization, and in other ways we act with complicity. We could turn turn our challenge to the agent or to the culture, but perhaps we should consider doing both. In regards to the agent, since the dowry practice is banned by law, and this law is thoroughly promulgated, many (thought certainly not all) are aware that one can live in India, as culturally Indian, without this practice. They know there are other options, is my point, yet the practice persists. On the other hand, in regards to culture, it seems that Indians are not being forced by their culture to devalue women in the ethical sphere; rather, the collective decision to practice the dowry custom creates a culture that devalues women. In other words, we could interrogate the culture itself, subvert it, change the practice of dowry exchange so that it doesn’t hinge so sturdily on women.
Can we bring these same thought about ‘cultural interrogation’ to the Western debate? Perhaps. Just as the pro-life position struggles because of its ethico-cultural priotisation of life, the pro-choice position struggles because of its ethico-cultural prioritisation of the right of the individual to choose. If the pro-choice position remains as that which so stubbornly holds ‘individual choice’ above all else, then it cannot make the case that women have the right to make reproductive decisions without then accepting that the decisions of women in India is to abort female fetuses. Just as one can make a case for challenging the notion of female feoticide, one can also make a challenge to the notion of choice as the end-all-be-all good. In other words, sometimes we must say that in some instances one may not have the right to make that choice, that the whim of the individual should not be the only consideration, that we have to think carefully about what we’re doing and what it says about how we value the human.
In conclusion, I have tried to show that the pro-life and pro-choice positions are based on culturally specific ranking of normative values. When these position confront another ethico-cultural perspective there is a friction that can only be resolved in two ways: 1) by subsuming of one perspective by the other, or 2) by achieving a fusion of cultural horizons. Instead of creating a space for antagonistic relations, we should aim to achieve a space for agonistic relations. What such a fusion of of horizons looks like in India is beyond the scope of this essay. What I aim to show is that in this increasingly globalized world, cultural boundaries are confronting one another with often devastating conflict. This conflict is avoidable when we integrate the issues at hand and illuminate the ethico-cultural values underpinning our perspectives and work to shape a new cultural resolution that blends both ethico-cultural perspectives and maintains space for interrogation and subversion.