Asparagus Pee Special Feature - Part of a Book I'm Working On

The Ethics of Long-Term Natural Consequences

Chapter 2

So let's try one, huh?

When is it OK to allow abortion?

This is one of the tougher ones, so I need to back up and explain how I think about some things.

There is a concept in relativistic physics called a world line. World lines describe the paths of events that happen in 3-dimensional space, moving through the 4th dimension of time, in something called Minkowski 4-space. If an object is sitting on a table, its world line is a straight line in 4-space. If you move it in a smooth circle in a plane, its world line is a spiral over time. If this makes no sense, please try to think about it until you get a picture of it, and perhaps I'll draw a picture later.

Another really good, commonsense way to think about this is that every event lies along a path. When you choose a behavior, you automatically choose the consequences that lie further down that path. In colloquial terms, we need to look down the road a piece.

So, with a woman considering abortion, there was a world line for the woman, and a world line for the man, and now, suddenly, there is a world line for an unwanted baby.

If the woman aborts, that world line ends in the clinic. If she doesn't, who knows?

Let's work this through the model…

There is a person who has had sex with another person, probably knowing that pregnancy was a possible outcome, at the level of roughly 1-2 out of 100 chances (98% contraception). This applies to the man or the woman. I'm not yet talking about rape or incest - that is different.

1. No higher power, no afterlife, and no karma.

OK, so God won't smite them, and we shouldn't stone either one of them, whatever they decide to do. It's not a sin to abort the pregnancy. No one has the right to say otherwise, because fundamentalism is nullified by this rule.

2. The preferred outcome is the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.

This one's tough. We have no way of knowing the possible outcome for the fetus, so we have to appeal to rule of thumb #3, which is…

3. Assume the best possible outcome.

In the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, we have to assume that a baby carried to term will be healthy. Even if it's not, we have, under this rule, to assume that if the baby is blind, deaf, and dumb, that it's another Helen Keller. (That's the reason for the rule.)

4. Every human being is free to choose.

This person and/or her partner can do whatever they want. She can marry the man, raise the child as a single mother, put it up for adoption, opt for a clinical abortion, or take a knife and stick it in her belly.

5. Every action has consequences.

So now we go back to #2 :

The preferred outcome is the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.

We've got three people, the mother, the father, and the fetus. The fetus is only a handful of undifferentiated cells, you say? See, here's where rule #3 comes into play in full force - for this decision, we have to assume the best possible outcome for the fetus in the fullness of time. As far as this argument is concerned, that person in her belly is the greatest person who's ever lived. In most cases, there is no reason to think otherwise.

I have a hard time thinking of a case where aborting the pregnancy is the best possible outcome, but I think that it's important not to legislate away the option, particularly in cases of rape, incest, risk to the life of the mother, etc.

I also want to draw a distinction in the way I think about this as the mother's rights - I don't like the phrase "a woman's right to her own body," because the fetus isn't her own body, and we're often called upon to sacrifice our right to our own bodies for the common good - if a man is drafted, for instance, if he does his duty, he temporarily gives up his right to his body when they pull him out of his plans, ship him overseas, and put his life at risk. So I prefer to think in terms of Roe v. Wade as a simple freedom of choice, just like dodging the draft or becoming a conscientious objector is exercising freedom of choice in the draft scenario.

And in the case where you know through amniocentesis that the fetus is certain to have an incurable birth defect, I believe we cross over from abortion rights issues to euthanasia, which probably is the greatest good for the greatest number. We'll examine euthanasia in depth later on in another example.

Next Installment, Ethics in Action, Example #2

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