The semiotics of abortion

Abortion has been a bitterly contentious subject for decades if not millennia. The recently concocted controversy re Planned Parenthood’s practice of selling harvested fetal tissue to medical researchers has brought the subject front and center once more. And, while I’m not particularly interested in the current hokum, I would like to share my thoughts on why this debate has never gone anywhere.

Understanding the two sides

With the abortion debate, the two sides (assuming that you are willing to throw Derrida to the wind and buy into binary oppositions) seem oblivious to the fact that they are talking about completely different things.  Pro-abortion folks think the debate is over a woman’s right to choose; that is, a woman’s right to make decisions that affect her life and her body. That’s why they call themselves pro-choicers. Anti-abortion folks, on the other hand, think the debate is over whether it’s okay to kill a child if the mother finds its life an inconvenience. To them, the matter is simple: Is it okay to kill a person because their existence makes yours harder? Of course not. Then abortion is wrong. That’s why they call themselves pro-lifers.

So pro-lifers think the opposition is pro-murder while pro-choicers think the opposition is anti-choice/anti-female-agency/autonomy. Neither side seems aware of the fact that, before they can discuss the morality of abortion, they need to deconstruct and acknowledge all of the presuppositions that come first like the personhood of fetuses and at what point a biological substance goes from being a potential life to a sentient being (e.g., Are you committing murder when you masturbate?!).

Find the mass murderer
Find the mass murderer

Justice Blackmun was well aware of this hierarchy of ideas when he wrote his famous opinion in Roe v. Wade. His erudite opinion (regardless of your view of its ultimate conclusions) mulled over such difficult concepts as the value of the potentiality of life, ensoulment, fetal personhood, and weighing the life and health of a mother against that of a fetus’s when the two conflict.

These are the things that two people need to discuss before they can say anything productive one to the other regarding the actual act of abortion. If this discussion doesn’t happen first, then what follows is pointless and counterproductive. Would having this discussion actually change the ultimate outcome of the debate? Yeah, probably not. But maybe the next time two protesters were breaking signs over each other’s heads they would at least feel some modicum of empathy for the red-faced idealist before them.

Beyond two sides

It is important to note that there really aren’t just two sides to the abortion debate. The above dialogue does need to take place; but, if the ‘two sides’ were to truly engage openly and honestly, they would see (as Ricœur put it)  the questions behind the answers and realize that there are more than two sides to the argument. For instance, as Fretté wrote in a 2010 HuffPost article, many self-proclaimed pro-lifers believe in circumstances that justify abortion just as most pro-choices believe that not all instances of abortion are morally justifiable.