CFN – When I chose euthanasia as last week’s topic, I knew that I couldn’t address the concept of choice at the end of the life spectrum without also addressing choice at the front end. While abortion is one of those topics that makes for awkward dinner conversations, there’s obviously still an appetite for it, as evidenced by Conservative MP Stephen Woodsworth’s somewhat disingenuous Private Member’s Bill addressing the issue.
Abortion is an emotional, polarizing issue; if you’re pro-life, it’s a matter of life and death. If you’re pro-choice, you focus on a woman’s right to reproductive choice; it’s an individual freedom thing. Within each of these positions, however, there are contradictions. If a woman has a right to choose what happens to her body, should not a fetus have the right to choose what happens to its body? If you feel, as Wordsworth does, that a fetus doesn’t deserve to be punished (aborted) for a crime it did not commit (conception), what of children who are born into lives of poverty? At what stage do you declare that the by-product of a fusion of gamete cells becomes a living organism? What were those cells the day before that declaration?
There’s a good reason why all but the most ideological politicians are loath to touch abortion as an issue. If a woman has an obligation to carry any pregnancy through, what are society’s obligations to that woman, or to that child? How do you tackle the use of abortion as a form of selective birth control? Is there an obligation to teach our youth about the birds and the bees so that they can make informed choices – and does that obligation rest with parents or with society? What about cases of rape, of mental illness, etc? Is it hypocritical to be pro-life but pro-capital punishment, or pro-choice and anti-capital punishment? While abortion might be a black-and-white issue for the pro-choice and pro-life partisans, for policy makers it’s a Pandora’s Box of complex legal ramifications that touch on fields ranging from justice to education to healthcare.
Faced with polarizing topics like abortion, it pays to step back and look at the content, context and consequences of the issue. In this case, we could say the content would be life and the context would be choice. But what informs the choice and how does that influence how we define life? If you agree that abortion is an emotional issue that people tend to have default positions about, then emotionality itself is a good place to start. That’s all well and good, but how do you deconstruct emotion? If you believe in evolution and accept the principle of natural selection, then you probably accept the premise that all human traits, including emotions, have genetic value; that’s why they’ve been selected in the first place. While we tend to think of broad genetic traits in terms of brain size and bipedalism or more nuanced traits such as hair or eye colour, how we react to (or rather, feel about) things can equally have genetic value.
Not convinced? Consider this – why are kids afraid of monsters in the dark? If you’re born in an urban setting and have never been exposed to nocturnal predators (human or otherwise), you really have no accumulated experience that tells you the dark is threatening. Yet urban kids are still afraid of the dark. There’s a clear genetic advantage to this emotional response that predates urban living; when you’re afraid, you’re body goes into fight-or-flight mode. If something untoward came out of the dark at our pre-urban ancestors, this level of anxiety might have given the split-second advantage needed to escape and survive. Acrophobia gives another example of a reactive response that triggers useful behaviour. If you’ve ever experienced fear of heights, you might have felt an uncontrollable impulse to lie down or hang on to a supporting pole or railing; having an instinct to reduce your chance of falling by clinging to a stable surface makes obvious sense. Both of these phobias have been selected over time for their genetic value.
Like it or not, this emotion-as-genetic-motivator model can be applied to any of our feelings; fear, hatred, even love correspond to neurochemical changes in our bodies that trigger reactive behaviours. We eat because we feel hungry; if we didn’t feel hungry, we might waste away. We have sex because we have sexual yearnings; without those feelings, we might not have sex and therefore, not reproduce. Conditions like depression and anxiety throw this neurochemical balance out of whack, impacting our normal physical responses around things like sex and food. The pharmaceutical industry has capitalized on this; everything from diet pills to anti-depressants are designed to alter our neurochemistry, repressing or enhancing an emotional state.
By now you’re probably asking – what does the genetics of emotion have to do with abortion? Well, if you believe that our emotions exist because they serve a genetic purpose and you agree that abortion is an emotional issue, what are the odds that pro-choice and pro-life positions offer genetic advantage? They’re actually pretty high. If you look at traditional social-conservative positions (anti-birth control, pro-life, pro-traditional family, minimal social rearing, tough-on-crime), they present a selection-of-the-fittest model; have more kids, put them through continual trials to determine endurance and remove criminal behaviour from the gene pool through imprisonment or capital punishment. Conversely, more liberal perspectives (pro birth control, pro-choice, in favour of strong social safety nets, restorative justice) present a model of reduced offspring generation but greater social investment in the rearing process through public education, healthcare, etc. Call it a matter of quantity reduction leading to individual quality vs. fostering individual quality from the onset, but in a social context.
Still with me? Let’s say my theory is right, that hard-wired emotional responses subconsciously determine individual positions around abortion. From this perspective, content is quality-of-life; context is all the internal and external factors that determine quality of life. The third element, consequence, isn’t just about individual choice; it’s about the genetic legacy our emotion-fueled choices are guiding us towards. We want future generations to have the best genetic mix, which means providing quantity. However, in a social context, fitness is about more than good genes; it’s also about resource access (shelter, diet, education, accommodation).
This last point is worth dwelling on. If you look at global statistics, there is a strong correlation between incidences of poverty, a lack of education and quality of life. There’s also a link between poverty and violence. Key to this equation seems to be the empowerment and education of girls. The more opportunity girls have and the greater control they have over their own lives, the better the quality-of-life outcomes are for everyone. The conclusion is pretty clear – providing women with choice leads to better resource-access for all, resulting in greater general health and wealth. Wealthy nations have lower birth rates than do poorer ones, but they also have lower crime rates, greater life expectancies and lower incidences of infant deaths.
Of course, pro-choice doesn’t necessarily mean pro-abortion. Based purely on conversational evidence, women who aren’t ready to be mothers would rather not get pregnant in the first place – the ability to manage procreation is part of the choice they’re looking for. You might suggest complete abstinence from sex is the best birth control; that’s true, but advocating abstinence in the absence of broader reproductive education is mitigating choice. You can deny your children sex education in the hopes that sex will elude them until marriage but again, that ignores their genetic programing to keep the species going. Given the challenges at the front-end of procreation, perhaps the debate shouldn’t be between being pro- or anti-abortion, but between pro-abortion or pro-sex education and the provision of birth control.
If the goal is to have healthy children that grow into healthy, contributing adults who in turn beget their own healthy children, it’s not a numbers game; it’s about quality. We want to have an equitable playing field that empowers all children to reach their full potential, adding value to society while also maximizing their own individual opportunity. Of course, this means broad public education, ensuring proper nutrition and access to healthcare (including birth control) when it’s needed. This also means ensuring our children develop a certain level of social responsibility, learning to control their emotions rather than be controlled by them.
Until such time as we have perfected medicine, universalized and personalized education, ended poverty and eliminated crimes of passion, the reality is there will be children conceived who can’t and won’t ever have equitable opportunity. As the weight of responsibility for these offspring falls most heavily on the mothers – not just during the pregnancy, but the life that follows – it is the mothers who must have ultimate responsibility on what happens to them. Ultimate responsibility includes the option to choose abortion. The best thing that society can do is empower potential mothers (and, for that matter, potential fathers) to make the best, most fully-informed choices possible. It’s through education that we learn the value of consciously planning ahead.
Craig Carter Edwards
Born and raised in Cornwall, Craig has lived in or travelled to nearly 30 countries and currently resides in North York with his wife and son. A political veteran, Craig brings a wealth of government, private and not-for-profit sectors experience to his current role as strategy consultant for the social entrepreneurship sector.