William Saletan and the problem with absolutism in the abortion, IVF and stem cell debates

25 04 2011

By: Karen Frantz

A 2009 Gallup poll on opinions about the legality of abortion.

A 2009 Gallup poll on opinions about the legality of abortion.

In the debates about abortion, IVF and stem cell research, sometimes it can seem as though pro-choice and pro-life camps inhabit entirely different worlds. Although both sides frequently allude to ethics and morality to frame their arguments, they do so in very different ways and with very different conclusions. For example, the pro-life camp is often singularly focused on the moral weight of an embryo/fetus, whereas the pro-choice camp is often more focused on the moral weight of pregnant women and the individuals who could be helped by the potential medical advances brought about by stem cell research.

Despite these often absolutist positions, most people lie somewhere between the pro-life/pro-choice continuum. Yet, middle ground can often be hard to find in the debates, which is evinced by the way we discuss people’s positions on the spectrum: you’re either pro-life or you’re pro-choice, but we don’t have a word to describe people who don’t properly fit into either camp. And this is too bad – partially because advances in technology are making the traditional framing of the debate increasingly troublesome.

For example, earlier I blogged about the issue of sex-selective abortions and how the ability to determine the sex of a fetus early on in a pregnancy may make such abortions take place more often. Although the traditional pro-choice position would hold that a woman should morally be able to make an unimpeded choice about whether or not to continue a pregnancy, it doesn’t say much about the choice – whether impeded or not – to terminate a pregnancy when the fetus is not the right gender. Therefore, it is possible for a person to be adamantly in favor of giving women the legal right to terminate a pregnancy, but still be morally conflicted about sex-selective abortion.

This is why I think William Saletan brings much-needed nuance to the debates.  Saletan writes about science and technology for Slate magazine, and his column Human Nature often explores how the absolutist frames used by the pro-choice and pro-life camps can occlude the murky moral realities surrounding abortion, IVF and stem cell research.

For example, in a 2009 column, he writes about how technology is changing the terms of the debate:

The reason I keep you posted on developments in IVF, surrogates, and embryo screening is that they’re transforming the debate. They’re changing the conditions on which our moral positions rely. Were you pro-choice because the embryo was in a woman? Now we have embryos in dishes. Did you support embryo screening for fatal diseases? Now we’re talking about screening embryos for eye color. Does the value of an embryo depend on what its mother thinks? Now we have embryos with two mothers: a genetic one and a gestational one. Should they at least consult each other?

You know how science fiction often forces society to reevaluate previously held beliefs? Well, this is pretty similar, except without the fiction part.

I suspect that as such technology advances, it will force the pro-choice and pro-life camps to reevaluate their traditional framing devises surrounding the debate and arrive closer to the middle ground that most people occupy. And that middle ground is that embryos are not quite people — yet not quite not people, either — and thus we need a different way of assessing their moral weight. We need new frames.

This new middle way may mean that the pro-choice movement yields ground on which types of abortions are legally acceptable and the pro-life movement yields ground on sex education and contraception. But ultimately if absolutism yields to nuance on this very contentious and important issue, that can only seem a step in the right direction.

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