The fundamental issue in the abotion debate is (or should be) “Does a fetus have rights?”. Answering this question requires an understanding of the question of rights.
What are rights? Why are they necessary? Where do they come from? Is it possible to protect everyones rights? If not whose rights get precedence? Who decides? By what standard?
The concept “right” – as in right vs wrong (not the political concept of rights) – arises because man has the capacity of choice and alternatives to choose from. To judge whether a particular choice is right or wrong, he needs to evaluate the consequences of the choice with respect to a purpose. To evaluate consequences, he needs knowledge and reason. To compare the consequences of different choices, he needs a standard. A normal human has all of these attributes. He is born with the capacity to choose, to think, to gain knowledge. As a living being, he has an ultimate purpose of sustaining his life (man’s life is his ultimate purpose because without it he can have no other values or purposes). The laws of reality provide him with a standard, a way to determine whether the consequences of his choices help to serve his purpose. The concept “right” thus applies to living beings with a capacity of choice and thought.
This means it is right for man to think, to understand the world around him and gain knowledge, to systematize this knowledge to form principles, to apply these principles to his life to pursue his ultimate purpose. It is wrong for man to evade thought, to evade the evidence of his senses, to form ideas that contradict his knowledge, to act against his principles, to refuse in any way to see reality for what it is. To translate his thoughts into actions, man needs freedom to act on his judgements. The only thing that can curtail this freedom is the use of force by other men. Since man lives in a society of men, each of whom needs this same freedom, it is right for man to organize a system that protects him from force. This organization is government. The means it uses to achieve this purpose are laws and rights. Rights – the political concept of rights – are a sanction of the human need for freedom to translate thoughts into action. The rights of individuals cannot conflict with each other. Maintaining the rights of one individual requires no positive action from anyone else. Everyones rights can be maintained in peace as long as no man initiates the use of force. A man (and any group of men) who initiates force is a criminal. A government that initiates force is just a group of criminals who have happened to seize power. The sole purpose of government is to protect all its members from force. Any other actions that it undertakes are a violation of someones freedom to act. Just as it is right for man to form an organisation to protect his rights, it is wrong for man to institute or sanction a government that violates someones rights.
Rights are the conditions that are required for every man’s survival – a legal recognition that man must be free to act on his thoughts. They arise from the nature of man. They are not granted by society. Their recognition is the result of voluntary action on the part of individuals. Rights of individuals do not conflict. Conflicts arise only when men do not respect the rights of others or demand rights that cannot exist without violating others rights. The protection of rights and the resolution of conflict between men (not between rights) is achieved by implementing appropriate objective laws.
Once the nature of rights is understood, it is easy to resolve the issue of abortion. A fetus is a living human entity. But it lacks the capacity of choice and thought. Without this capacity the question of political rights is moot. Even the moral concept of right (on which the political concept of rights depends) does not apply to a fetus. Granting the “right to life” to a fetus is synonymous with violating the freedom of the mother. This position – called pro life – by its supporters, is deeply anti life. By violating the freedom of the mother, it destroys the conditions required for her survival.
It has been argued that a principled protection of a woman’s right to an abortion is impractical in a country where female foeticide is a serious problem. More widely, it is argued that the principled protection of everyones rights is utopic, idealistic, impractical and perhaps even undesirable. (For example, many would argue that a person “right” to food or a child’s “right” to education take precedence over a millionaire’s right to invest his money as he sees fit.)
Consider the causes of female foeticide. The fundamental cause is a belief that the male gender is superior to the female gender (Factors like the practice of dowry are not fundamental. They are also a result of this belief.)
This belief is totally irrational (and in more ways than one), especially in a modern industrial society where a drive to succeed and intellectual capacity are the only relevant factors in shaping any individual’s life. Biologically most males are physically stronger than most females and this meant that the genders had different roles in pre-industrial societies. Today even that is irrelevant. Man does not and cannot depend on physical strength in an industrial society. More importantly, individual differences are far more relevant than biological factors in today’s world. Judging a person on the basis of gender is just plain wrong.
Given the prevalence of this belief and its many victims – unlucky children of both genders in the miserable societies where it is prevalent – the question arises “What is to be done?”.
The parents who hold the irrational beliefs are no ones concerns. Their actions too are no ones concern as long as they do not violate anyones rights. Their irrational actions will bring them well-deserved problems. In fact the only subjects of concern can be the children born in these societies. Any rational parent who does not hold these beliefs should make every possible attempt to get out such societies. As for the children, it is an unalterable fact that a childs life will be influenced by its parents and the culture in general. No one can change that fact. Trying to correct the situation by laws that violate people’s rights can only result in the birth of unwanted girls – unwanted by their parents who will not treat them fairly and forced by the state which cannot take responsibility for their upbringing. Trying to provide economic incentives (taken from taxation) is even worse. Since wealth is produced by rational effort, taxing that wealth to change the behavior of irrational men is to penalize the rational to sustain the irrational.
The answer to the question “What is to be done about female foeticide (substitute any other irrational evil here)?” is:
Educate anyone willing to listen to reason. Help any deserving victim within your means. More importantly, do not advocate laws or political action that violates anyones rights (including the rights of the irrational – freedom is meaningless if rationality is enforced). Social problems cannot be solved by political shortcuts. Work for a culture of rights and reason. Do not hesitate to condemn irrationality. Do not feel any sympathy for the well-deserved problems that people face through their irrational behavior. Most importantly, do not lose sight of your own goals and purposes. A rational society and culture are important to personal goals. But they are not the ends.
To anyone who made it this far, I strongly recommend investigating the philosophy of Ayn Rand.