The answer to my question is: I’m not sure, but we should try. I shall be putting up a series of posts about abortion because it is something we all have to contend with. My own position, in case you want to skip the series and head straight to the hate mail, is that abortion should be highly restricted and only legal in a very few circumstances. (And just to make sure I get some hate mail from the right as well as the left: I support the wide availability of contraception, including methods that some consider to be abortifacient.)
In order to discuss a topic, we have to distinguish between argument and the premises of argument. Since premises tend to be unstated and only come out in the course of an argument, it can be confusing to figure out exactly what someone is trying to prove. As a teenager, for instance, I did not voice the premises that a living human should not be killed by another human, unless there are good and compelling reasons for killing, and there are scarcely ever compelling reasons for killing an innocent child. It seemed to me that people in favor of abortion were simply mistaken in believing that the baby is merely a clump of cells until it’s born, and I was surprised to learn that my prochoice relative agreed that human life begins at conception. I thought, somehow, that getting someone to admit that life begins at conception meant that they would abandon their support for abortion, and of course I was wrong.
We also have to realize that terminology becomes a rhetorical weapon, with different terms loaded with implication and meaning, but if we’re going to have any sort of useful conversation we must know what we’re saying and make sure that it describes reality as far as possible. I shall use “prochoice” and “prolife” to distinguish between those who believe that abortion should be legal in most or all circumstances, and those who believe that abortion should be illegal in most or all circumstances. In reality, opinions on the legality and rightness of abortion are on a spectrum; many commenters on an article about abortion identified themselves as “prochoice,” but were closer to my own position than I would have thought possible.
When I say “abortion,” I mean the induced abortion of a living human that has not been born. Miscarriages used to be called “spontaneous abortions,” though this terminology is rarer now that abortion is such an inflammatory word. A “therapeutic abortion” is done for the sake of the mother’s health. A “viable pregnancy” is one in which the embryo or fetus is alive and expected to remain so without intervention. “Viability,” on the other hand, refers to the age at which a fetus can be removed from the mother and remain alive.
Although “baby” or “child” can broadly be used to describe any young human being, or to denote the relationship between a parent and its offspring, I shall use the medical terminology for unborn babies—i.e., “embryo” for a child that has not reached 8 weeks of gestation, and “fetus” for a child between 8 weeks of gestation and birth. A child that has just been born is a “neonate” or “newborn,” and a “baby” is a child up to one year of age. I do not believe that using precise terminology for a human in a given state of development dehumanizes that child. In a similar vein, when I say “it” referring to a child, I’m using a very old convention; back in the day, babies and toddlers were dressed similarly, and were often referred to as “it” simply as the available neuter pronoun.
A woman who becomes pregnant is a mother.
Finally, an issue that I don’t think we appreciate enough when speaking about abortion is the ambiguity of discussing process and outcome. This will become clearer when I post about some of the “hard cases,” but a great many arguments boil down to which means may be taken to achieve a goal, and when inaction should be judged as action. Shooting a person to death is murder. Luring someone over a cliff (“Back up, this picture will be great!”) is murder. Failing to warn someone about a hard-to-see cliff—is that murder? I’m no lawyer, but I rather think any charge would be a lesser one, such as manslaughter; but if a man took the opportunity to fail to warn his enemy about that cliff in hopes that his enemy would fall off, I would consider that man a murderer, morally.
I would love for someone to read my posts and think, “You know, she’s got something here; I’ll have to support more restrictions on abortion.” I doubt this will be the case. But for all of you who belong to NARAL, please try to read the posts in good faith. I don’t really want to control women’s bodies more than is necessary to prevent someone else’s rights from being impinged upon. I don’t want to punish women for having sex. I do believe that sex should take place within the context of marriage, and that every time a couple have sex they should realize that a baby may follow, but I don’t want to criminalize adultery or fornication. Really, I do not care what you do in the bedroom.
It isn’t just embryos and fetuses who need to be humanized. Even people who may think very differently than you do on this topic—which is one of life and death, and liberty—are people. You may find their views morally repugnant, and indeed you can hardly fail to do so if you have any strong opinion at all. But they are still people. I hope you will consider this series with that truism in mind.