Abortion: The Perfect Ethical Dilemma

Sunday, August 19, 2018
Glendale, California


Abortion: The Perfect Ethical Dilemma

The stranded lifeboat analogy, philosophers say, represents the perfect image for studying ethics. You’ve heard of it. Seven people float about on a life raft, survivors of a shipwreck. They begin running out of food and water. They start eyeing one another:

Who should we throw overboard so we can survive?

The debates are, literally, endless. Chucking out the old person might come to your mind immediately, but what about the wisdom he or she possesses? Or maybe the Donald Trump of the group, the nasty narcissist, should get the dunk? What if he also has extensive knowledge of seamanship, survival, or medicine?

You get the point.

The endless debate over abortion offers an equally impossible dilemma. Considering every possible iteration could fill an entire book, or several, so I consider a few, limited angles. I take each of these to their logical endpoint, validating how resolving the abortion debate with certitude proves impossible.

One quick deviation into philosophy before I proceed. The French enlightenment philosopher Voltaire said doubt is uncomfortable, but certitude impossible. It is possible to even doubt certitude, rendering it impossible. In other words, we live with varieties of belief. Some beliefs are truer than others, but they are, in the end, only beliefs. The ensuing discussion validates this basic premise.

I begin with the question of when life begins, because pro-lifers argue it starts the moment the sperm breaks into the egg, beginning the process of conception. Who can say life doesn’t begin before then? Sperm and eggs are living cells. Perhaps male masturbation represents wasting away potential life?

Pro-choice advocates argue life doesn’t really begin until much later, 15 weeks in, say, or even 20. But you can watch the frightening You-Tube videos showing little fetuses fighting for their lives rather early in a pregnancy. Should we consider that struggle, the same we might see in an ant we partially crush under our feet, the same thing?

The question of when life begins can and will never be resolved. It depends on varieties of belief. As usual, the extremes are easy: You wouldn’t abort a fetus near full-term; you wouldn’t consider sperms and eggs inside human beings the same as actual living human beings.

Consider now the question of women’s rights to control their own bodies. On the one hand, it’s easy. They should have total control. But we live within a complex social contract, and no one, neither women nor men, have total control over their bodies. If you live within even the most primitive governmental system, you abide by certain social-governmental restrictions. You can’t go to work naked. You can’t kill your neighbor. You can’t drive drunk. In other words, governments already exert immense control over people’s bodies. This issue is, as usual, unresolvable.

Transitioning to the third perspective, what about the idea of government itself? Libertarians from the left or the right believe government should be as unobtrusive as possible. It should stay the hell out of our lives. But even Noam Chomsky, an ardent libertarian, believes government should oversee logically-reasoned human behaviors. He probably supports drunk-driving laws, for example, because they prevent many others from being mowed down by intoxicated drivers.

Debates over the limits of government also prove limitless. All but the most extreme anarchists, for example, would support the presence of some kind of police force. Would you want to live in a society in which no police existed? How would you cope with someone stealing from you, or threatening you, without the police and its underlying justice structure? This represents the end point of the discussion about government. It, too, is ultimately unresolvable.

A fourth perspective concerns the right of the state to murder. Pro-choice people believe abortion represents state-sponsored murder of unborn fetuses. However, many of them support the death penalty. See the contradiction? Back to the idea that some beliefs are truer than others, it would at least be consistent for pro-life believers to prohibit any form of state-sponsored murder.

The fifth component of this endlessly complex debate concerns what happens to those children born into families in which they are unwanted. In their book, Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner studied why crime rates throughout the US declined during the 1990s. The primary reason, they concluded, was the passage of Roe v. Wade during the 1970s.


Easy to confirm through my nearly four decades of work as a psychoanalyst, about the worst thing a child can endure is feeling unwanted or, worse, actually being unwanted. These economists, coming not from sociology or psychology but from the science of economics, confirmed this piece of common sense. Children reared in environments in which they are not wanted have a greater tendency to feel angry, deprived, or worse. They are more likely, then, to commit crimes.

Sixth and last, although the debate (as noted) could go on forever, consider what happens when abortion is rendered illegal. As you’ve heard, it still occurs. Abortions using coat hangers, or performed by law-evading nurses or doctors, will still happen. Here, again, we reach an irresolvable impasse. You either allow legal abortions, safer for mothers and babies, or you outlaw it and invite dangerous, off-the-grid abortions to occur.

As for me, I’m a thoughtful, reluctant pro-choice person, primarily for these reasons which, again, are nothing more than belief systems. I don’t pay much attention to the first point regarding when life begins because, in essence, I think abortions should be a last resort. They are not a good thing, regardless of when you think life begins. They should certainly not be relied upon as a form of birth control.

My second and third points, related to women’s ownership of their bodies and government control, supports my pro-choice position. Yes, government must oversee many of our behaviors. There’d be chaos without it. But the abortion issue seems like an area which government should not involve itself.

Interestingly, my fifth point confronts me with my own hypocrisy. I am ardently against the death penalty, and think rational governments should not kill its citizens—no matter what. I’ll have to live with that paradox.

Finally, my pro-choice stance is influenced by my final point regarding the fact that abortions will occur no matter what. Since this has and will always be the case, it’s much better to have government allow it, regulate it, and ensure that well-qualified health professionals conduct the procedures.

Now, where do you stand?

And, do you understand that no final truth exists here?

Much like how no scientific argument exists for who should be thrown off the life raft, a perfect rational argument for the pro-choice or the pro-life decision can never be made.

We all have to make up our own minds.

(If you like this blog, please tell your friends, family, and pets to subscribe by opening up alankarbelnig.com, clicking on any blog, scrolling to the bottom right, and signing up. Like any selfless writer, I always seek more readers. Thanks so much! – Alan)




Like this post? Subscribe to Psychoanalyzing Life.

You may also like

Nationalism and the Internment of Chinese Uighurs
Tyranny, Piracy, Opportunity
Life in 2020: A Few John Updike Phrases to Wake You Up!
Critical Theory Versus Critical Thinking