As J.S. Mill noted in his book On Liberty, people generally do not limit liberty in a principled and consistent way. Rather, they impose or oppose restrictions based on unreasoned likes and dislikes. The political, moral and legal issues of abortion are, obviously enough, areas where this occurs.
Conservatives purport to oppose regulations and favor liberty; yet they tend to support imposing strict and even harsh restrictions on abortion. Liberals purport to favor regulations to protect people, yet also tend to accept abortion. This apparent inconsistency raises the interesting problem of working out a consistent moral position regarding liberty and regulation. I will begin with the generic conservative and then move on to the generic liberal while noting that I understand there are nuanced positions.
While it is a stereotype, conservatives are often cast as opposing many regulations aimed at protecting people from harm. For example, environmental regulations are generally supposed to be aimed at protecting people from toxins. As another example, safety regulations for products and business operations are supposed to be aimed at protecting consumers and workers. Naturally enough, few conservatives will say that they oppose protecting people; however, they argue against such regulations by claiming that they harm business and thus “kill jobs” and limit profits. Some will contend that the claims about the dangers of things like pollution are simply fabrications by liberals who are motivated by their hatred of capitalism.
Pushing aside the rhetoric, an objective look at the general conservative stance towards regulations of this sort is that they are willing to tolerate harms, such as the deaths of children from pollution, as part of the cost of economic advantages. This is a utilitarian/consequentialist approach: a certain amount of harm (pollution, safety issues, health problems, etc.) is an acceptable price to pay for the economic advantages. This is also a cost-shifting approach: the cost is moved from the business to those impacted by the weak or lack of regulations. For example, weak regulations on pollution and environmental damage allow businesses to make more profits because they do not need to pay the full costs of these harms. They are instead shifted on to the people impacted by then. To give a specific illustration, allowing toxins to go out of a factory saves the company money, but costs those exposed to the toxin in terms of their health and economically, if only from health care costs. The idea is, in general terms, that the interests of business outweigh the interests of those harmed—even when those harmed are the unborn and young children. This is a classic consequentialist approach for resolving competing interests.
In the case of abortion, the conservatives generally profess to be against it. This is generally presented in moral and religious terms of how life is sacred, that the unborn must be protected from harm, and so on. They do not, of course, present it as imposing on liberty. The obvious problem with this position on abortion is that it directly contradicts their professed position on regulations aimed at protecting people: they oppose such regulations by arguing in favor of economic interests. Obviously enough, if it is acceptable to allow harm to the unborn when doing so is in the interest of those doing the harm, this general principle must also be applied to abortion as well—it should be acceptable when the interests of the woman outweighs that of the unborn.
This line of reasoning can be countered on utilitarian grounds: allowing businesses to harm to the unborn for economic interests outweighs the harms; allowing women to have abortions when it is in their interest does not. This could also be argued by contending that women matter less (or not at all) in the calculation, unless they are in business and harming the unborn via business activity. This approach, while honest, does seem terrible: the unborn should not be harmed, unless doing so is profitable for the right economic interests. As noted above, liberals also run into a problem here.
While it is a stereotype, liberals are supposed to favor regulation that protects people—even when doing so imposes considerable economic costs. They are also supposed to be pro-choice and support the liberty of a woman to have an abortion.
When arguing for protective regulations, one approach is to do so on utilitarian grounds: protecting people from harm creates more good than bad, even when the economic harms are factored in. There is also the fairness argument: when businesses can shift the costs to the people being harmed by their activities, this is stealing from those people. And, of course, there is the more deontological approach (that actions are good or bad in themselves) that allowing people to be harmed is just wrong.
The utilitarian justification can, obviously enough, be used to justify abortion: the benefits gained outweigh the harm done. Obviously not for the unborn, though. This suggests that the same approach can also justify opposing protective regulations—if it is acceptable to kill the unborn when doing so is in one’s interest, then this would apply both to abortion and business.
The fairness argument, also quite obviously, also seems to tell against abortion: the cost is being imposed on the unborn—they are killed for the interests of another; which seems analogous to cost shifting in business. The deontological approach would also seem to tell against abortion: if regulation is needed to protect the unborn from the harm of pollution and such, then it would also be needed to protect them from abortion.
It is important to note that I am not addressing in this essay the matter of which position is correct. Rather, my objective has been to map up the conflict between views of protective regulations and abortion. Pro-life folks should be for protective regulation across the board, or have a reasonable argument why aborting the unborn is wrong but killing them through environmental pollution is acceptable. Pro-choice folks should be tolerant of the liberty to harm others when doing so is in one’s interest, or have a reasonable argument why aborting the unborn is acceptable but harming them with pollution is not. I am confident that wise thinkers can easily address these minor challenges.