Access to Abortion via Conscription

772 - Ultrasound at 26 Weeks
Ultrasound at 26 weeks.

Last week Secular Pro-Life reported on an interesting case from Australia. A woman who (at the time) was 26 weeks pregnant with a healthy fetus believed that an abortion would ease her suicidal feelings. The problem is that there are no doctors in Australia (population 24 million) who are willing to perform an abortion on a healthy 26-week fetus. In the United States, by contrast, there are 4 such doctors. (There were 5 until Kermit Gosnell was locked away.)

I am not actually suggesting that any doctor will be forced to perform the abortion, but it does underscore the reality that “reproductive rights” are positive rather than negative rights. A negative right is a right to not have someone do something to you. A negative right to life, for example, means that nobody can kill you. But a positive right is a right to be given something. So a positive right to life might, for example, require someone else give you food or medicine. And thus, the Secular Pro-Life piece concludes:

  • Royal Women’s Hospital properly offered mental health care to the woman, and several individuals have come forward to adopt the child. But she remains fixated on abortion, and her case has become a rallying point for Australian abortion extremists. A local health minister “said she was concerned about limited access to abortion, particularly in regional areas of Victoria and was working on a new strategy for sexual and reproductive healthcare.”

    What, short of conscripting doctors, would lead to a different result in this case?

9 thoughts on “Access to Abortion via Conscription”

  1. The thing I don’t get about abortion extremist: Why must they advocate for an abortion for a viable fetus? If this woman had a life-threatening medical condition that required an emergency c-section, doctors could reasonably care for the baby in the NICU. Yes, there are potential medical complications that come with that, but that’s what doctors do when you have a complex medical situation. Any drastic medical intervention with a 26-week pregnancy has serious pros and cons.

    If this woman is under immediate threat of suicide and delivery was deemed the best medical option for both their lives, then I could understand that decision under extreme extenuating circumstances. But why do abortion extremists insist that the baby must be killed? Because a mentally disturbed woman wants that? She is mentally sick when she wants to kill herself, but she is deemed completely reasonable when she wants to kill her baby. And, of course, her will would also dictate the actions of the doctors despite conscience objections, as stated in the post.

    I know I shouldn’t be surprised or confused, but it still gets me. I know this is another desperate grab for control when we often feel out of control in our lives. With assisted suicide and euthanasia on the rise, it may not be too long before this woman is considered reasonable for also wanting to end her own life. And late-term abortion advocates often do have a more logically coherent argument than other moderate pro-choicers.

  2. “The thing I don’t get about abortion extremist: Why must they advocate for an abortion for a viable fetus?”

    If they didn’t, we wouldn’t describe them as extremists. Indeed, the vast majority of advocates of the right to an abortion don’t conceive of it as a positive right to compel an unwilling doctor.

    Even those who think health care ought to be a positive right, and that abortion ought to be regarded as a medical procedure, generally assume (almost always correctly) that it will not be difficult to find a qualified doctor willing to perform the procedure. What they oppose is government intervention to prevent the consensual provision of medical care by a willing doctor. The negative right of freedom from government intervention to prevent abortions and the positive right to have consensual medical services paid for by the government do not entail the positive right to force someone to perform an abortion.

    This post just seems like an attempt to attribute the views of abortion extremists to pro-choice moderates in order to make any advocacy for abortion rights seem unreasonable.

  3. Is anyone actually arguing for conscripting doctors into performing abortions? As someone who had an abortion (albeit not of a healthy baby) at 29 weeks, clearly I support the right to such care, but even I would not support laws that forced doctors to perform abortions against their will. Same goes for assisted suicide. I support people’s right to refuse life-saving medical care and take doses of painkillers they know may hasten death, but I also support doctors’ right not to treat patients with advance directives they disagree with and not to prescribe/administer lethal doses of painkillers if doing so contradicts their own morals. But if you’re so concerned about doctors being able to follow their own moral code, why support restrictions that prevent doctors from performing medically-indicated late-term abortions they agree with?

  4. Kelsey and Margot-

    I think it’s interesting that the logic of abortion-as-right would–if taken to the extreme–lead to conscription. I’m not actually trying to say that most pro-choice advocates would take it that far.

    Here’s why it’s interesting nonetheless, however.

    What does it mean for us to call something a “right” if (1) it requires conscripting others to fully implement and (2) we’re not really willing to do so?

    The point I was making wasn’t to try and strawman pro-choice activists as extremists. It was to point out that access to abortion is a positive right and some of what that entails. That’s it.

  5. That sounds a little better, but the suggestive “isn’t it interesting” angle doesn’t seem to hold up very well if we think about any other right. The right to free speech doesn’t mean you get to conscript airtime on a network. If there weren’t a market for guns, the right to bear arms wouldn’t mean you could conscript someone to manufacture them. The right to free exercise of religion doesn’t give you the right to conscript clergy if none are forthcoming.

    What you seem to find worth investigating in the case of abortion looks like a feature of every positive right. So, while I’m glad your intent wasn’t to straw-man abortion rights advocates, it does seem like you’re applying reasoning you only would apply in this context. That’s never a good sign.

  6. Kelsey-

    What you seem to find worth investigating in the case of abortion looks like a feature of every positive right.

    Yes and no.

    Yes, in the sense that I’m suspicious of all positive rights, generally speaking.

    No, in the sense that I don’t think the examples you provided are of positive rights. Take the right to bear arms, for example. What this generally means is that the government can’t stop you from buying a gun, keeping it in your home, etc. Without getting into exactly where we draw the line, the point is that–in theory and practice–this is a law about what the government can’t do to you. It’s not about what the government must do for you. And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between a negative and a positive right.

    I mean think about it, has anyone ever honestly suggested that the government has to provide a handgun to poor families who want to exercise their 2A rights, but can’t afford to? No. The idea just sounds preposterous.

    But then consider abortion, has anyone ever honestly suggested that the government has to provide abortions to poor women who want to exercise their rights, but can’t afford to? Uh, yes. All the time. It’s why we give $500m to Planned Parenthood every year, why we mandate that health insurances have to provide abortions to quality for ObamaCare, etc.

    Actually coercing a doctor to perform an abortion is pretty radical, and no one would say that that is mainstream for the pro-choice movement. But gov’t funding of abortion (direct or indirect) is a bedrock of the pro-choice movement. Which really does put is in the realm of positive rights in a way that, with 1st and 2nd amendment rights, we’re not.

  7. Actually, Planned Parenthood is barred from using any federal funds for abortion. Virtually no one thinks there’s a greater right to an abortion than to most other medical procedures. It’s true that many people think society would be better off if medical care were government funded, and that government ought to leave the moral question of abortion between doctors and patients. Together, these entail that there is as much of a right to an abortion as there is to, say, a procedure to have a potentially dangerous growth removed.

    But the question of paying for health care is distinct from the question about whether government ought to be involved in medical decision-making about abortion. It’s perfectly sensible, and presumably the actual position of many abortion rights supporters, that single-payer health care and the ACA are unwise, but that government ought not have a role in preventing willing doctors from performing abortions on patients who seek them.

    The problem isn’t that I think you’re wrong that all of the other rights worded in positive ways can be understood as negative rights against government interference. It’s that the only thing which makes abortion rights distinct from other medical rights can be understood in exactly the same way.

    Honestly, I’m not at all confident that the negative/positive rights distinction holds up at all, at least not the way you described it. If a negative right isn’t about what the government must protect you from, it’s hard to see it as a right at all. Suppose a police officer confiscates your gun. If the government doesn’t have to return it (a clearly positive act), then the negative right has no teeth.

  8. Kelsey-

    Actually, Planned Parenthood is barred from using any federal funds for abortion.

    That’s a joke. Money is fungible. If I give you $20 and tell you not to use to buy a movie ticket, you can just use it to pay for gas. Then use the $20 you already had to buy the movie tickets.

    You can’t give money to Planned Parenthood and not give money to support abortion. Period.

    Honestly, I’m not at all confident that the negative/positive rights distinction holds up at all, at least not the way you described it

    The definitions I’m using are pretty standard. The idea that the Constitution was about negative rights is also standard. This isn’t really up-for-debate stuff. This is just basic information stuff. Simple example, here’s an old quote from President Obama (way back before he was president) which shows that this view–that 1A, 2A rights, etc. are conceived of as fundamentally negative–is just the default reality:

    The Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society. And to that extent, as radical as I think people tried to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn’t that radical. It didn’t break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, as least as it’s been interpreted, and [sic] Warren Court interpreted in the same way that, generally, the Constitution is a charter of negative liberties, says what the states can’t do to you, says what the federal government can’t do to you, but it doesn’t say what the federal government or the state government must do on your behalf.

  9. “However, when it comes to the enforcement of rights, this difference disappears. Funding a legal system that enforces citizens’ negative rights against assault may require more resources than funding a welfare system that realizes citizens’ positive rights to assistance. As Holmes and Sunstein (1999, 43) put it, in the context of citizens’ rights to state enforcement, all rights are positive.” – from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on rights.

    I think you’re vastly overstating the extent to which there is consensus on positive and negative rights. It’s a very common way of talking, I grant you. But the view that the Constitution is only about negative rights is patently false–the right to a trial by jury is a truly uncontroversial example, I should think. I assume you also grant my point that people sometimes talk about negative rights using positive language, since that’s what you’re saying happens with the first and second amendments. All I’m saying is that I think you should take that hypothesis seriously when people talk about a right to abortion.

    As for Planned Parenthood, even if it’s true that the legal prohibition against using federal funds for abortion placed no meaningful limits on the use of the money, it still wouldn’t follow that the reason we have federal funding for Planned Parenthood is to support a positive right to government-provided abortions. I doubt a single legislator who supports this funding would agree that they do so in order to secure a positive right to abortion. Do you honestly think that’s what all those aye votes mean?

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