Should there be a waiting period for abortion?
The Florida state legislature is considering bills that will require a woman seeking an abortion to wait 24 hours and make two face-to-face visits to her doctor before she can have the abortion. Opponents of this bill claim that is yet another attack on the rights of women. Proponents of the bill claim that the state mandated waiting period is reasonable and will permit women to be informed about the risks of abortion and the condition of the fetus. Twenty-six other states have waiting periods, some as long as 72 hours. While the legal aspects of these bills are of considerable interest, I will focus primarily on the moral aspects of the waiting period and the two-visit requirement.
One proponent of the bill, Julie Costas, said that she had an abortion thirty years ago and that she now regrets the decision. Her main argument for the bill is that, counterfactually, she might have changed her mind if she had received more information (thus supporting the two-visit requirement) and if she had to wait 24 hours (thus supporting the 24 hour requirement). This sort of argument can be made into a moral argument in favor of the bill. By the state imposing the two-visit requirement and the 24 hour waiting, there is a chance that some women might change their minds about having an abortion which they might later regret having. In terms of the moral aspect, the appeal is that the requirements might prevent a later harm (that inflicted by the regret) to a woman. Naturally, it can also be contended that increasing the chance that a woman might not get an abortion would be morally good since it would avoid the death of the fetus (which, for the sake of this argument, be considered wrong).
I certainly agree that a woman (or girl) should take time to consider whether or not to have an abortion. After all, an abortion is a morally significant action and is one that is clearly important enough to warrant due consideration. I suspect, but do not know, that most woman do put considerable thought into this decision. Obviously, there can be exceptions—there are, after all, people who consistently act without thinking through their actions. While I do think there is a moral obligation to think through morally significant actions, I am not sure that 24 hours is the right waiting time. After all, there would need to be evidence that an extra 24 hours of consideration is likely to result in a better decision.
In terms of the number of visits, that should depend on what the woman actually needs. After all, it is not clear that a second visit would consistently result in more information for the woman that one visit could not provide. There are also the rather practical concerns of cost and time. Would, for example, the state pick up the tab on the second visit that would be mandated? I suspect not.
I have, of course, not said anything yet about the most important consideration. While I think people should take time to properly consider significant decisions and perhaps two visits could be a good idea, there is the critical issue of whether or not this is a matter suitable for the coercive power of the state. After all, there is a multitude of things people should do that should not be compelled by the state. For example, I think that people should exercise, should be polite, should be kind and should eat healthy. However, I do not think that the state should compel these things. But, of course, there are many things that people should do and the state justly compels people to do them. These include such things as paying a fair share of the taxes and serving on juries.
While some people take the view that the state should compel based on what they like and dislike, I prefer to operate based on a consistent principle when it comes to the compulsive power of the state. The principle, which I obviously stole from Mill, is that the use of the compulsive force of the state is justified when it is employed to prevent one person from wrongly harming another. A case can also be made for compelling people in order to serve the general civil good—such as compelling people to serve on juries and pay a fair share of the taxes. However, compelling people to serve the good is generally rather more problematic than compelling people to not inflict wrongful harm.
The principle of harm could, obviously enough, be used to argue against allowing abortion on the grounds that it harms (kills) the fetus. Of course, this is not decisive, since the harms of not having an abortion must also be given due consideration. This principle would not, however, seem to justify the two-visit and 24-hour waiting period requirements. Then again, perhaps it could be argued that they would provide some slight possible protection for the fetus: the woman might change her mind. This sort of really weak protection does not seem to be a very convincing moral reason to have a law.
It could be argued that a different version of the principle of harm should be used. To be specific, that a law can be morally justified on the grounds that it would compel a person not to harm herself. This principle can, obviously enough, be justified on utilitarian grounds. Various laws, such as the infamous NYC ban on big sodas, have been passed that aim at protecting a person from self-inflicted harms.
In the case of this bill, the moral reasoning would be that because there is a chance that a woman might change her mind about an abortion she might later regret, it follows that the state has the right to compel her to have two visits and to wait twenty-four hours. A rather obvious problem with this justification is that it would set a very low bar for the state using its compulsive power: there must only be a chance that a person might change her mind about engaging in a legal procedure that she might later regret. This principle would obviously warrant the state engaging into a massive intrusion into the lives of citizens. Sticking with a medical example, people do sometimes regret having elective surgery. So, this principle would warrant the state imposing a waiting period and a two visit rule. But there would seem to be no reason to stick within the field of medicine. People can come to regret many significant decisions, such as buying a car, choosing a college major, accepting a job offer, or moving. Yet it would seem unreasonable to impose a waiting period for such decisions. Looked at in utilitarian terms, the harms inflicted by such laws (such as the cost of enforcement, the annoyance, and so on) would seem to outweigh their alleged benefits. Especially since a waiting period would not seem to increase the chances of a better decision being made.
What makes considerably more sense is having laws that protect people from decisions made while they are incapable of properly making decisions, such as when intoxicated. So, for example, it would be reasonable to have a law that prevents a person from getting married when she is intoxicated. It is also reasonable to have waiting periods that are based on actual need. For example, a waiting period that is needed to complete paperwork or verify a person’s legal identity would be justifiable on practical grounds (assuming the time requirements are legitimate).
In light of the above arguments, the proposed bill is not morally justified and would, if made into law, be an unwarranted intrusion of the state into the lives of citizens. Those who oppose big government and government intrusion should oppose this bill. Those who favor the “nanny state” should, obviously enough, support it.