Firmness in decision is often merely a form of stupidity. It indicates an inability to think the same thing out twice. – H.L. Mencken
Despite my steady progress toward cronehood, I find that I still do change my mind on some things from time to time. Really, this isn’t surprising; while most people become steadily more conservative as they age, I have become steadily more radical. The reason should be obvious: as many of you have observed, I am unusually pragmatic and unafraid to follow ideas and observations to their logical conclusions. When I was younger and far less battle-scarred I allowed far more sentiment to contaminate my moral views, and was much less likely to recognize the extent to which people will abuse even the slightest power over others. But as I’ve lived in the real world, paid attention to its mechanisms and watched even the best-laid plans of mice and men gang agley, I’ve come to understand that the more control anyone (individually or collectively) is given over the lives of anyone else, the more often things go horribly wrong. And while it’s true that some small amount of authoritarian violence is, unfortunately, a necessary evil, the optimum amount is vastly lower than that which exists anywhere in the world today.
I’ve expressed many ethical opinions over the past three years, and many of you have disagreed with me; I’ve also read the words of many other writers expressing different, tangential or totally contradictory opinions. And while most of the time my own positions, developed as they have been over three decades of careful observation and consideration, remain unmoved, once in a while little things add up enough so that I recognize that my previous opinion on a subject was unformed, naïve, incomplete, erroneous or even dead wrong. Sometimes it’s just because I never really thought deeply enough about the issue; for example, because I don’t drink I never thought enough about the way “drunk driving” laws are written to recognize them as fallacious and enabling of tyranny, but then I read an essay which asked why it’s legally considered worse to drive well with a blood-alcohol level above an arbitrary limit than it is to drive poorly (or even cause an accident) cold sober. Had the authoritarians not taken these laws to their logical conclusion with police-state checkpoints (now with blood extraction and forced catheterization), I might never have been forced to consider the subject enough to recognize their wrongness. Similarly, I never devoted any serious thought to the laws governing gender-reassignment surgery until a commenter on my column “He or She” very politely pointed out that my supporting the psychiatric community’s “gatekeeping” over the process violated the principle of self-ownership:
…governments and moralists who presume to know more about our minds and ourselves than we do? Telling us what we are and are not allowed to do with our bodies, “for our own good”? People who have no experience (or even understanding) of transsexuality unilaterally deciding that the desire to be the opposite sex HAS to be the byproduct of disturbed thinking, simply because it’s not something they can conceive of wanting to do? I’m not equating transsexuality with prostitution…but I hope the rhetoric sounds familiar…Those safeguards…are not, and never have been, for the benefit of transsexuals. They’re a buffer for medical professionals against malpractice suits, and the next best thing for the moralistic assholes in power if they can’t criminalize transsexuality outright…it does much more harm than good to set up an endless row of hurdles that transsexuals must clear, usually with a hostile or uncomprehending system, before we’re “allowed” to be what the rest of the population takes for granted. Prohibitively difficult “safeguards” don’t make the process any safer, they just make it longer, more humiliating, and far more expensive…
In other cases, however, my thinking was clouded by my own emotions. As I’ve mentioned before, I have fairly pronounced maternal instincts and suffered a very late-term miscarriage (22 weeks gestation) which still tends to upset me emotionally if I dwell on it. Rationally, I understand that it’s probably best I did not have children, and that my own feelings on the matter no more constitute an argument against the legality of abortion than my aversion to depictions of male homosexual behavior constitutes one against its legality. And yet, up until last year it always seemed to me that 12 weeks was enough of a window for legal abortion; despite compelling arguments that the limit of viability (roughly 24 weeks) is a far more logical dividing line, I simply did not want to think about ending pregnancies more advanced than my own was at the time of its spontaneous abortion.
But 18 years is a long time on a human scale, and I’m nothing if not reasonable; though dogmatic “feminist” arguments which ignore or even deny the fact that Roe vs. Wade also invalidates prostitution laws are even less convincing to me than Christian superstition about ensouled zygotes, arguments based in the philosophies of liberty and harm reduction are another matter entirely. An email I received last July from Joyce Arthur of FIRST (the Canadian pro-sex worker feminist group) contained the following passage:
Delays in seeking abortion…are often the direct result of legal restrictions…making gestational limits even more unjust. Canada has no laws against abortion whatsoever, not even gestational limits, yet only about 0.4% of abortions happen after 20 weeks, and over 90% are before 12 weeks. This is what happens when you treat abortion like any other medical procedure, it does not turn into an irresponsible free-for-all when it’s not criminalized. In fact, our abortion rates are much lower than the U.S. and have been in decline since 1997. Abortion can be…handled the same way as any other medical procedure – through medical policies, codes of ethics, doctor discretion, etc. The problem with imposing legal limitations…is that women will find a way – if you make it too difficult or too expensive, many will just try to do it themselves or have an illegal unsafe abortion…
Nor are unsafe abortions the only problem; government powers inevitably expand until they are forcibly stopped, and laws defining fetuses as citizens to be protected by law inevitably result in prosecution of women whose actions inadvertently result in miscarriage or stillbirth. And it gets worse:
…Our study identified 413 criminal and civil cases involving the arrests, detentions, and equivalent deprivations of pregnant women’s physical liberty…between 1973…and 2005…[and] 250…since 2005…A [Utah] woman…was…charged with…homicide based on the claim that her decision to delay cesarean surgery was the cause of the stillbirth…a [Washington D.C.] court…[forced] a critically-ill pregnant woman…to undergo cesarean surgery over her objections. Neither she nor her baby survived. A judge in Ohio kept a woman imprisoned to prevent her from having an abortion. A woman in Oregon…was subjected to involuntary civil commitment [for disobeying a doctor’s orders]…A Louisiana woman was charged with murder and spent…a year in jail…[for] miscarriage that resulted from [prescription] medication…In Texas, a pregnant woman who sometimes smoked marijuana…was arrested for delivery of a controlled substance to a minor. A…Wisconsin…court…[arrested a] woman…and [subjected] her to involuntary…medical treatment [because she planned to use a midwife instead of an obstetrician]…if passed, so called “personhood” measures would: 1) provide the basis for arresting pregnant women who have abortions; and 2) provide state actors with the authority to subject all pregnant women to surveillance, arrest, incarceration, and other deprivations of liberty whether women seek to end a pregnancy or not…
For those still stuck in fantasyland about the innate trustworthiness of government, consider that Brazil has already tried to force all pregnant women to submit to compulsory registration and monitoring. Even people who believe abortion should be illegal don’t generally think women should be arrested for it, but that is exactly what would happen because authoritarian governments totally lack both self-control and the ability to differentiate between an illegal act and a criminal one. Having given the matter all the consideration it is due, I have come to the conclusion that I can no longer back any legal limits on abortion whatsoever; though I still feel it is unethical for a doctor to abort a viable and healthy fetus without some compelling reason, I also believe it is no concern of the state or any other uninvolved party, and that laws governing pregnancy inevitably lead to far greater evils than the rare ones they prevent.