The Physics of the Anti-Abortion Movement

Matt Yglesias, a writer whose work I greatly admire, continues to (willfully or not) misrepresent the views of pro-lifers.

He wrote a post last week on Ron Paul’s pro-life stance and its compatibility with his (professed?) libertarianism, and writes:

some people want to tell me that if you accept the erroneous metaphysics of the anti-abortion movement, that then treating women who terminate pregnancies as criminals makes perfect libertarian sense. For one thing, I don’t accept the erroneous metaphysics of the anti-abortion movement.

There’s a crucial point to be made here, which, if it were understood better by pro-choicers, would lead the abortion debate in a much saner direction. Here it is, and I can’t state it emphatically enough: the pro-life position has nothing to do with metaphysics.

In the contemporary United States a lot of people who hold pro-life views are also religious folks, and this understandably leads a lot of pro-choicers to believe that pro-life views are religious in nature, to the point where it’s become a sort of axiom.

But the biological, moral and legal status of the unborn child isn’t a question of metaphysics.

Whether life begins at conception isn’t a matter of religious faith, it’s a scientific question, and the answer isn’t very hard. Of course, you can choose to disbelieve it, just like you can choose to not to believe that CO2 molecules redirect infrared variations.

Now, science isn’t a moral guide. The fact that a fetus is a living human being doesn’t necessarily entail that it should receive legal protection. But again, resolving this issue requires no recourse to metaphysics.

It requires asking what are the criteria for qualifying as a person endowed with rights.

At first blush, it seems to me and many others that the entire project of the Enlightenment and modern Western civilization is premised on the idea that every single human being has certain inalienable rights. That these rights are not earned through accomplishment or inherited from forebears but that they are, well, universal, received simply by virtue of being human, and that it is incumbent on any just, or at least liberal, government to protect the rights of all human beings under its writ, not just the most visible.

And of course, that’s a wholly debatable argument. For most of human history the idea of universal human rights was unthinkable and then laughable and even now some people dispute its relevance. We find many examples throughout history of societies with classes of people bereft of rights, including societies ostensibly founded on liberal principles.

And we can say all sorts of things like, well, maybe a fetus has a right to life, but a woman’s right to not be pregnant is stronger.

We can talk about all sorts of things.

But the idea that the pro-life argument is based in metaphysics is false, and I wish that people would stop perpetuating it. Of course, perpetuating it is politically advantageous for pro-choicers as it frees them from talking about the relevant questions and allows them to instead brush off their opponents’ arguments as “erroneous metaphysics.”