Monday, April 26, 2010

Vegetarianism and Abortion

Abortion and Vegetarianism.

Nebraska just passed a law making abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy illegal. The reasons given for that limit is that at 20 weeks the fetus feels pain. That's an interesting argument because it is often used as an argument for vegetarianism: we should not slaughter cows or pigs or chicken because animals feel pain.

I am not trying to suggest that the legislature of the Sovereign State of Nebraska are about to make eating meat illegal. But the parallel between the anti-abortion argument and the vegetarian one is interesting for this reason: What would people think if a state legislature were to pass laws making vegetarianism compulsory? People would no doubt protest that their choice of food is a private matter not in the purview of the government. It is not up to the government to tell me to be a vegetarian.

But it is abortion a suitable topic for legislation?

The common answer is: “of course it is because abortion involves killing.”But that answer vastly oversimplifies how we think about killing. In wartime, large numbers of innocent civilians lose their lives and, more often than not we treat the killers as heroes. In our society various substances are manufactured and sold which take a lot of lives. In some cases trading in those substances, for instance cocaine or heroin, is illegal and the traders will, if caught, be punished. In case of other substances such as tobacco and alcohol, which are equally lethal to those who abuse them, no punishments are imposed. On the contrary, the growers of tobacco get agricultural subsidies. (Tobacco subsidies in United States totaled $530 million from 1995-2006.) In some cases, producing and selling dangerous substances is illegal; in others it is not and the producers are subsidized.

In a previous blog I referred to the number of persons who die prematurely because they don't have health insurance. I wrote there “Estimates of people dying prematurely because they have no health insurance range from 22,000 to 45,000 persons a year.” They don't have health insurance because Congress is not willing to raise taxes to pay for the health insurance and citizens are not willing to support such an increase in taxes. Our unwillingness to pay taxes is a cause of many fellow citizens dying prematurely. Stinginess in the tax department kills. But we do not impose any penalties on ourselves for depriving fellow citizens of health care and thus of life.

We are willing to deal very differently with different kinds of killing – of civilians in battle, of drug addicts, alcoholics, of smokers, of people without health insurance. We do not have a rule which says that all killing must be outlawed without exception.

It is not at all clear that abortion is a proper subject for legislation. Yes, abortion is a serious choice. We should admonish anyone not to make that choice lightly. But regulating it by law is coercive and imposes the religious and moral beliefs of some on others who may have different religious or moral beliefs.