I was recently listening to public radio one morning. I live in the U.S. and in the last few days there’s been a lot of attention being paid to a Texas state Senator named Wendy Davis. Due to procedural rules in the Texas legislature that I don’t need to go into, Davis was able to stop, for the time being, an abortion bill that in her view would have greatly decreased Texas women’s access to abortion. She did this by extending “debate” on the bill (what we call a filibuster in the U.S.) by talking for over 10 hours – she didn’t even take a break to “go potty” as my daughter used to say.
The Davis episode is the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle in the U.S. between pro-choice and anti-abortion forces (the term those who are against abortion prefer is “pro-life”). The pro-choice side argues that women with consultation from their physicians should decide whether or not to have an abortion, not politicians. The anti-choice side argues that abortion amounts to the murder of a child and, therefore, there should be laws to stop such murder from taking place. Yet based on what I’ve read in newspapers and heard on talk shows, some in the anti-choice group would allow abortions under some very exceptional circumstances.
The most common exception I’ve heard is when the health or life of the mother is at stake. In other words, according to some anti-choice folks, if forcing a mother to carry a fetus (they’d probably say “baby”) to term could result in severe negative health consequences or the death of the mother, then the law should allow an abortion. But abortion in all other circumstances would be disallowed.
Now, in full disclosure I’m pro-choice. I’m so pro-choice, in fact, that some of my pro-choice friends are uncomfortable with just how pro-choice I am. But I won’t go into those details in this post. I’m also a social worker/sociologist who specializes in quantitative methods. The quantitative methodologist in me has always wondered something about those who are anti-choice but would allow for some of the exceptions discussed earlier.
If abortion is the murder of a child, why is it okay to murder a child to protect the life or health of the mother? That is, if we’re faced with a situation where forcing a woman to carry a fetus to term would (or would likely) result in that mother’s death but an abortion would result in the “child’s” death, why is it right to kill the child to save the mother? From the point of view of someone who is anti-choice, it would seem that an arguably better way to resolve this dilemma would be to draw on the laws of probability.
When faced with the situation spelled out in the last paragraph, suppose we did the following. Assign the mother the number 1 and the fetus the number 0. Next we’d use the random digit generator in a computer to simulate a coin toss (to avoid the possibility of someone being able to manipulate a real coin by tossing it in a certain way) by randomly choosing either 1 or 0. If the number 0 is chosen, the abortion occurs, resulting in the death of the child. If the number 1 is chosen the mother is forced to carry the baby to term, resulting in her death.
I’m personally horrified by this proposal and suspect other pro-choice proponents are too. But are anti-choice folk who support exceptions, such as those discussed earlier, horrified by it? From their point of view, wouldn’t randomly deciding who dies in such situations be more just than automatically killing a child to save their mother?
My gut tells me that many anti-choice proponents of the life/health of mother exception wouldn’t like deciding who dies in these situations by effectively flipping a coin. If I’m right, then there is an obvious question – why not? Could it be that their preference for sparing the mother’s life and health over the baby’s is an implicit endorsement, at least in part, of the pro-choice position?