In his 1999 essay “Authority in American Usage,” David Foster Wallace argues that the only coherent position on the abortion issue is one that is both anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights.
Wallace’s peculiar argument reveals a significant blunder in the ongoing dialogue regarding abortion, namely that there are factors in the abortion issue, the relevance of which is either underappreciated or neglected altogether.
Wallace’s argument is this: “The question of defining human life in utero is hopelessly vexed. Given our best present medical and philosophical understandings of what makes something not just a living organism but a person, there is no way to establish at just what point during gestation a fertilized ovum becomes a human being. This conundrum, together with the basically inarguable principle, ‘When in irresolvable doubt about whether something is a human being or not, it is better not to kill it,’ appears to require any reasonable American to be [pro-life].”
“At the same time, however, the principle, ‘When in irresolvable doubt about something, I have neither the legal nor the moral right to tell another person what to do about it, especially if that person feels that s/he is not in doubt’ is an unassailable part of the Democratic pact we Americans all make with one another, a pact in which each adult citizen gets to be an autonomous moral agent; and this principle appears to require any reasonable American to be [pro-choice]. This reviewer is thus…both [pro-life and pro-choice].”
The argument is stunningly perspicuous, but it is by no means satisfactory. I mean, it can’t be, right? What sort of pragmatic measures could we possibly take in terms of policy if we abided by this anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights stance?
The fact that this putative “most coherent” position on abortion is also innately incoherent – in the sense that it possesses a contradiction that is not just present, but essential to its declarative stance – should raise a skeptical flag.
Wallace’s argument, and the reaction it inevitably evokes, embodies a dialectical “aporia,” an internal contradiction in the argument renders progression toward the truth of the matter impossible.
Yet it is a perfect example of how being wrong can be valuable, of how good mistakes can point one in the right direction.
I believe his argument – and most major abortion arguments from the anti-abortion side – is an “ignoratio elenchi”: It is fallacious insofar as it is arguing for a conclusion other than what is called for.
So what point are we missing? If the abortion issue cannot be settled by focusing only on whether the fertilized ovum is a human being at or before the termination of pregnancy, there must be other factors to be considered.
These factors aren’t hard to find; just consider the myriad of reasons that a woman might choose to terminate her pregnancy. For example, she might not consider herself to be in a position financially, emotionally, psychologically or physically to have a child whose potential upbringing would be of a quality she deems acceptable.
Thinking exclusively about the baby disregards the mother, the rest of the family, and the world the baby would be born into, and that seems perilous to me.
Our current ignorance regarding a biological and philosophical understanding of what it is to be human and when that status is achieved “in utero” forces us to look beyond the fetus alone and to consider the multitude of other perfectly germane variables that affect a decision to rightly terminate a pregnancy. I see no other coherent position.