When I first came to the realisation that all is grey, I thought myself most mature. I was slow getting there and it still doesn’t come naturally to me, but it certainly makes engaging with issues more satisfying. I now find stridency off-putting and arrogant (unless, of course, I’m the one being strident, a fault I hope to one day overcome) and I am no longer comfortable interacting with those who confuse opinion with fact (again, one day I hope to stop doing this too). Outside of science, all is relative and that uncertainty is bracing.
When I realised I was an atheist, I did feel it necessary to have one all-encompassing value, by which to lead my life and on which to base all other philosophies. I didn’t go for The Golden Rule. Instead, I chose the primacy of human life. With death being final, what could possibly be more important than our individual existences? As possibly the only self-aware species in the Universe or Multiverse, to extinguish any of our lives, seems appalling to me.
So that is my jumping-off point, as it were; the primacy of life. Well not exactly. Within that ‘primacy‘ are lesser and greater primacies. The first and foremost life, is my own. Followed by the lives of my close friends and family. Beyond them are the other seven billion or so of you. As my life is of such vital importance, I’m forced to choose how best to preserve that wonderful life. I either buy seven billion bullets and a weapon’s platform that can efficiently deploy said munitions, or I succumb to and encourage the social nature of our species. I chose the latter due to a surfeit of emotion and a deficit of resources.
An attachment to life is found in all species. Living and breeding and all that contribute to those goals, is existence in its entirety. Our species just happens to have evolved such huge brains, that we have gotten into the habit of rationalising everything. We have been forced to invent a myriad of distractions, to alleviate what we all know to be inevitable i.e. death. We invent wildly to protect ourselves from the inevitable and worse, how entirely meaningless life is. As steadfast in my atheism as I may be, I am still not immune to this. I am 37 and I have planned my funeral. There is nothing so devoid of relevance as one’s own funeral, but it does help with the fear, by providing one with a false sense of control and post-mortem relevance.
So I am a mere vector for mindless genes. So what? In the last week, I laughed, I cried, I had sex, I wrote, I ate well and I scored a goal at football that was borderline cheating as I did nudge the defender in the back, but the goal stood and it felt great. I am profoundly grateful for my existence and the opportunity it affords me to experience, but we have become far too intelligent to live and experience naturally.
We no longer live in little family groups, with a dominant male. We no longer hunt for food, nor do we really need to fear the unknown. We live in the millions and tens of millions. And in place of a dominant male, we have dominant males and we invent unknowns. And we require rules. We require rules and we require principals on which to base those rules. As I’ve already said, my most cherished and fundamental value, is life. Not because my life has any intrinsic value, but because it is all that I have.
There are two ways I can interpret that principal. The first is that the preservation of my body’s ability to oxygenate my organs is all that matters. The second way is that the preservation of my ability to experience life is paramount. I choose the second, as life is only life, if it can be experienced.
So, life above all else, but my life first and life means that which is experienced, not merely inhaled. That’s the easy part. Now my philosophy has to contend with and accommodate the seven billion other lives who are also entitled to their primacy. Seven billion individual lives, but not really individual, as we are social animals and we are all packed onto this one little planet. This is where I struggle to make sense of the apparent contradiction between autonomy and interdependence. It descends into political philosophy at this point; the individual versus society.
Unfortunately, political philosophy is not a satisfactory method of dealing with this problem. The Right versus Left dichotomy doesn’t work as there are contradictions on each side of the political spectrum. The Left speaks of freedom but makes us subservient to the State and the Right speaks of freedom but makes us subservient to tradition. I would be a Libertarian, if only there were no children. In the place of political philosophy then, I will revert to personal prejudice. I’m allowed do this as I am discussing my own beliefs, but I must attempt to show some logical underpinning to those prejudices and then perhaps, I might get to the point of this article i.e. abortion.
If life is to be experienced, then one must be free to experience it. This freedom includes innate, learned and external conditions, that contribute to and facilitate an individual in fully engaging with their reality. Of course this freedom cannot be total, as there are billions of competitor/cooperator experiencers. Political philosophers have grappled with that balance for centuries and yet they still can’t agree on an answer, but they can pick up followers fairly fast. If it wasn’t for their inability to definitively address this conundrum, we wouldn’t have the ‘political spectrum‘ and all its attendant nonsense and division.
I look at the problem on three levels; the economic, the social and individual ability. Economic; I have yet to come across a better method of economic interaction than capitalism, but the only way to eliminate the problems associated with losing badly, is to eliminate the possibility of unlimited winning. Social; in every conceivable circumstance leave adults the hell alone. Individual ability; screw all political philosophies when it involves the health and welfare of children, or adults with impaired mental, intellectual or physical abilities.
Yes, there is a contradiction between freedom and providing care for those who require it. This contradiction can only be resolved by invoking a purist ideology or by choosing a muddle. First World nations generally choose to muddle through this problem. Our wealthy nations choose to look after those who require it, but each nation has a different idea of who deserves what and within each nation, the political parties also disagree on this issue. Thus the line shifts at every election, in every nation.
Do we expend resources on others due to altruism (learned or innate) or are we engaging in enlightened self-interest? No one knows for sure, but the philosophers, theologians, psychologists, anthropologists and the evolutionists will all offer their views. Ultimately it doesn’t matter as the number of people who would admit to having no qualms about stepping over a sick or starving child is very small. The more important issue is; maximising personal freedom within a system that is empowered and even enjoined to intervene.
I equate personal freedom, not to mere taxation, but to physical autonomy. The problem is that I get to vote on my taxation at regular intervals. In issues of physical autonomy however, I usually have to wait for a referendum or a European Court decision or the uncertainty of social progress. My physical autonomy is as dear to me as my own life and it ranks second only to my life in importance. Further, I don’t believe one can really have a life without freedom and without freedom, there is no life. There is nothing truly controversial about that. People have been killing each other, in the cause of freedom for centuries. Freedom from oppression, freedom for a country, freedom for or from an idea.
We have also fought for personal freedom. We make it difficult to send people to prison and we are making it more difficult to force adults into care. This is progress. It is progress, but slow, so very slow progress. Adults are sill largely denied physical autonomy. The inviolability of our bodies, the freedom and protection from intervention, by the State, regarding our bodies, remains far from being the reality.
Suicide is a good example of this. In the past, suicide was both a moral and civil crime. Church and State combined to keep the prevalence (reported anyway) of suicide to a minimum. It was taught to all, to be a taboo. A shameful thing, the price of which would follow the wretch into the after-life. It was an effective method in its own way. It may have increased the collateral damage caused by a suicide, but it was at least a clearly understood and cohesive reaction to a phenomenon that was thought of as wrong and unnatural. Indeed, there are those who would prefer this condemnatory method reapplied to the tragedy of suicide.
Now both fashion and science demand a more empathetic response to suicide, both in its prevention and in its aftermath. It is no longer a criminal act and in the place of eternal damnation, there is counseling. It is a more humane response. Will it prove more effective? While there is pain, there will be those among us who would escape that pain. For some, that escape will necessitate suicide. At what point does one surrender physical autonomy to the State? If the answer to that comes easily to you, then you and I have little in common.
Escaping emotional pain is an area of purest grey as it generally involves otherwise healthy people. Assisted Suicide and the related area of euthanasia are somewhat easier issues to discuss as, despite the unpleasantness of the contrast, it generally involves older people, suffering obvious ill health. Medical science, over the last century, has been a veritable boon to our species. What we now can avoid, overcome or endure would amaze our nineteen century ancestors. Any death suffered before one has reached their 70s or even 80s, is now considered tragic. It is a wonderful time to be sick.
There is however a downside to this medical revolution; we are now expected to endure, what were once conditions never borne. The vile irony is that the healthy young can find the means to end their pain, but the sick and infirm must endure agony beyond reason. Society and the State deny physical autonomy and instead inflict their values as a form of torture.
One can argue that despair is a mental malady, an infirmity that warrants intervention to protect the life of the sufferer. I can argue both sides of that. An adult in full command of their faculties, demanding ultimate relief from an inescapable disease? Well that is different. When strangers condemn you to a slow death, are they entitled to your loyalty? Are they entitled to one’s respect? Can they ever be seen as a legitimate authority, even if they have the weight of numbers behind them? I say no. My body, my rules, my choice, always and in every circumstance.
Do I support abortion? No! But do I feel entitled to tell a woman what she may or may not do to her own body? Never! Does life begin at conception? Yes! But that life is in somebody else’s house.
If you have, thus far, merely skimmed this article, you may feel entitled to accuse me of rank inconsistency. Life above all else, except when it’s not? I am not inconsistent, nor am I justifying abortion. I am attempting to explain my definition of life, a definition which has freedom, physical autonomy and the ability and willingness to experience life, as integral aspects of life.
The real weakness of my stance on abortion rights, is that it is ultimately meaningless. I may embrace the grey in all, but I have to recognise that in this instance, it is a black and white issue. If one believes a life begins at conception and that this life is entitled to all the rights we give the already born and further, it has the right to be endured in all circumstances by the carrier, then abortion is always wrong.
If one thinks the carrier has superior rights (as I do), then abortion is justified. There are those who attempt to argue that foetus and carrier have equal rights, but this is an unsustainable nonsense. The contrast in power and dependency is too vast to make equality a viable argument or position.
The problem with being on the side of Choice is that many of us do not have the luxury of seeing this as a black and white issue. Those against choice, are against choice in all situations. That is consistent and easily argued and explained. It took me 2000 words to explain why I support choice over life, or more specifically, why I choose freedom over life and I’m not going to win any arguments with my unwieldy logic and prose. Arguing against choice, well that’s easy, pithy and logically coherent.
My logic allows for abortion up to the second before birth. My logic allows for abortion for any reason. My logic allows for any and all manipulation of the foetus. I’m back in the grey here. Prochoice? Antichoice? Easy choice for me. Now why do I recoil at the idea of aborting a foetus just because it is female? The only reason I could offer for limiting choice, would be for tactical reasons i.e. strict limits would make it easier to get prochoice laws enshrined in our Constitution and realised in legislation. Take that self-serving logic away and I am left with only one argument against 100% choice and that is; it doesn’t feel right to me. Ickiness however, is no basis for a law that seeks to put fetters on a woman’s right to exercise her physical autonomy.
I would struggle to argue the merits of abortion as distinct from the issue of freedom. I am a supporter of euthanasia, so I could, in certain very limited circumstances, justify an abortion to spare the foetus becoming a short lived and pain filled infant. It doesn’t really matter though as too few people are open to being swayed on the life versus freedom debate for argument to really matter anymore. Philosophy and principal and politics have failed. Now we are left to tot up the numbers,
We are left with the crude mechanisms of democracy. In Ireland our politicians run scared from the issue. Complexity for them is deciding who best to promote to maximise votes in subsequent elections. And referendums are seen as too decisive and too unwieldy and too definitive for this issue. I now think that because this issue is so decisive, it is only referendums that will suffice. Not because they are definitive, but because they inform legislation. Choice versus Life will remain an issue of bitter contention until our contraceptive technology progresses to the point that even a raped child has ultimate control over conception.
Referendums will not decide forever what we think the correct balance between freedom and life is. No, what a referendum will tell us (and our politicians) is what the majority of people think about the issue at that time. This will constantly change, so I think a referendum should be held about this balance, every ten to fifteen years, until such time abortions are no longer necessary.
This referendum should have several questions. Abortion in the Republic of Ireland; yes or no? If no, then should those who travel abroad for abortions have their procedure and travel expenses covered by the Irish State; yes or no?
If yes to abortion; restricted or unrestricted? If restricted, should grounds include: Contraceptive purposes; yes or no? Health of pregnant women; yes or no? Damaged foetus; yes or no? Disability; yes or no? Gender’ yes or no? Should genetic manipulation be allowed; yes or no? And finally indicate to what week terminations should be allowed?
Every referendum would be bitter. Every referendum would be hard fought. But every referendum would be necessary as this is a black and white issue. There can be little or no compromise. So we are stuck with petty democracy. We have to hope that one day we can prevent all unwanted conceptions, because we are just never going to agree on how to deal with unwanted pregnancies.