Friday, May 05, 2006


I had an idea yesterday, while I was trying to get to sleep but was too busy coughing (curse this confounded cold), about a possible solution to the abortion issue. Here is my chain of thought:

Premise: There are infinite variations, with the most subtle of distinctions, between individual persons.

Premise: We do not know what it means to be a person.

Premise: Ending the life of a person is wrong.

Conclusion: Since we cannot describe personhood precisely enough to distinguish between persons and non-persons, any action taken that ends the life of a human who might be a person is a reckless disregard for possible personhood, and is therefore unethical.

Premise: Abortion is a necessary medical practice. Failure to save the life of the mother--a person--is wrong.

Premise: Life is not cut and dried. An exception made for the life of the mother is slippery. What if there was a 99% chance that the mother would die, would it be right to perform an abortion for a 99% chance? What about 98%? What about 97%? What if there was a 1% chance that the mother would die? Or even half a percent? What if it was 0.017%--the rate of maternal death in the United States?

Corollary from previous premise: Fetal life is also probable. What if fetal survival were 100% and maternal survival only 1%? What if those numbers were reversed?

Conclusion: The decision to abort requires a precise weighing of probabilities and circumstances.

Premise: All laws draw the line between two competing ideals: precision and flexibility. A law written to cover all possible circumstances (the perfectly flexible law), is so vague as to be meaningless. A law written so that there is no question concerning its application (the perfectly precise law) is useful in only one circumstance.

Therefore, to surmount this challenge, the law is drafted to be somewhat precise and somewhat flexible. The actual application to a particular situation is the rationale for judges, juries, and lawyers, because they can weigh the extenuating circumstances in a particular instance.

Therefore, abortion law should follow the example set by other branches of law in which extenuating circumstances are taken into account. In other words, there should be a malpractice trial whenever an abortion takes place, because the doctor's actions caused the death of a patient. The jury would then decide to what extent the doctor had shown good judgment--for example, a fetus with a 50% chance of survival being aborted to save a mother with a 50% chance of survival would be morally neutral. If the fetus was much less likely, and the mother much more likely to survive, it would be malpractice to risk the mother's life. If the numbers were reversed, it would be malpractice to end a vibrant fetal life which was at little risk to the mother. The difficulty with the abortion debate is that one side is demanding a perfectly flexible law, while the other is demanding a perfectly precise one. Having every circumstance weighed individually would avoid both problems.

To respond to an argument which I am certain will come up, I don't believe this will have an undue hushing effect on abortion providers. Society is sufficiently split on this issue that finding a jury which is entirely pro-choice or entirely pro-life would be as rare as an all-male or all-female jury is today.


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