I thought of a hypothetical that either supports or complicates my earlier contention, that a woman decides if her pregnancy constitutes new human life, with its attendant rights, or something lesser.
A couple of weeks ago I was on a tram when I saw a man pushing a double pram, with twin toddlers inside. My immediate response was "oh god, imagine having twins". Then I wondered why the idea of aborting one of two twin foetuses (foeti?) seemed unnerving to me, even abhorrent. Upon quizzing several (pro-choice) friends I found most people had a similar response. Even though we could think of a number of reasons why a woman might not want twins, consistent with reasons why someone would not want a child at all (such as feeling mentally, physically or financially incapable), there was just something squicky about it, even when I specified that it wasn’t about choosing one foetus over another, that the hypothetical abortion would be random and was to be performed on identical twins with no differences as yet discernable. So while connotations with genetic engineering might contribute to the discomfort people felt, it couldn’t be the sole reason.
One friend suggested that perhaps abortion was justified as a choice between either having children, or not, while in this hypothetical case it was turned into a choice between two equally viable pregnancies, even if that wasn’t the woman’s motivation. Yet, in many cases the decision to continue a pregnancy is one between two children, albeit deferred and distanced in time — the decision to have an abortion is not about not having children but not having children here and now. Many women who have abortions go on to have children, or have had children previously, and if a woman plans to have a family of a certain size, in some way that makes the decision to continue a pregnancy a choice between one foetus and another, even if the other exists only as a concept, a possibility. If you only want one child, and feel overwhelmed and terrified at the thought of two, then why does aborting both foetuses and having (presumably) a single child later seem more acceptable than aborting one?
I think at least partly it’s to do with the idea that a woman either decides that her pregnancy constitutes life, or not. It’s silly to assume that a pregnant woman who intends to take the pregnancy to term sees the foetus as a human child, not simply the possibility of one, the promise of one, but it seems like a common view. And if the foetus is a person, it’s absolutely a person, because in most systems of morality, personhood is sacred, absolute, and powerful. Utilitarianism is frightening to theists and humanists alike because it challenges that belief, substitutes sacred life and absolute rights with negotiable and calculable preferences and needs. It can’t be one of two. It’s all or nothing.