Conservative Credo IV: The Abortion Debate

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The Abortion Debate

In the 20th century the most powerful and difficult transitions in human life have been turned into political war zones in which the different sides routinely invoke the power of government to establish and enforce their points of view.  Few debates have been so heated as those involving the decision to terminate life.  On the question of abortion, while both sides seem to speak the same language of individual rights, personal autonomy, and political responsibility, the terms are used in such diverse senses as to make translation from one dialect to another almost impossible.  “Right conflicts with right, and might with might.” On both sides of the debate, there are continuums from moderate to radical, but it is still possible to sketch out general pro and anti abortion positions that represent something like the consensus of each side.

Those in favor of abortion usually speak of a woman’s unrestricted life to control her own body.  Choice in this matter is, they argue, the fundamental point of women’s rights.  No matter when life may be said to “begin,” prenatal life (up to the point of viability or even until birth) is only potential, not actual, and it is wrong to compel an actual person to sacrifice herself for the sake of a potential human existence.  It is the quality, not the fact of life that counts, and the pro-abortion party wonders why anti-abortion groups care so little for what happens to children once they are born.  This argument often takes the form of a joke aimed at the right to life movement: “Life begins at conception and ends at birth.”  Unwanted children, children born into the pathology of poverty, will not grow up to be fully human beings, and their very existence takes resources away from children whose lives might be improved.  Adoption may be a remedy for some, but it is not a sufficient answer to the “quality of life” question, since it is impossible to know what sort of family a child will be adopted into.  Besides, they say, abortion before “quickening” or ensoulment was generally licit in ancient and medieval Europe; and some have said that in the United States it is only in the 19th century that abortion is made a criminal act.  But neither law nor tradition nor family bonds can legitimately restrain a woman in the exercise of her right to choose.

The pro-life position is similarly couched in the language of rights, not of women but of unborn children.  Life begins with conception, and all human creatures, once the fertilized egg starts dividing, have a moral right–which ought to be made a legal right–to be born and to be protected and cared for.  This was understood by virtually everyone until the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, which reclassified unborn children as unworthy of protection.  Insensitivity to the fetus’s right to life leads inevitably to a blunted moral sense that will withdraw protection from the deformed, the elderly, and other classes of human beings judged to be inferior.  This is not the first time the Court has tyrannically excluded a helpless minority from legal protection.  In the Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Roger Taney declared negroes to be non-citizens, outside the purview of the Bill of Rights.  The right-to-life movement is, therefore, a civil rights crusade for minority rights and should emulate the actions of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders who struggled to secure equality for blacks.[iii] A significant minority of pro-life activists do not shrink from the conclusion that civil disobedience is a right and proper tactic for their movement.

Neither position is logically consistent or historically accurate.  Abortion was not, in fact, universally treated as murder either in pagan antiquity or in Christendom.  Nor, on the other hand, were early abortions regarded as moral and licit.  In the first place, most theologians before recent times condemned all forms of contraception as attempts to frustrate the natural purpose of copulation.  Whether abortion constituted homicide or not was the subject of debate, but the practice was unequivocally condemned as immoral.

As for pagan antiquity, of course the ancients were somewhat less tolerant of abortion than they were of postpartum exposure of infants.  Ancient physicians, however, did have their reservations, and the Hippocratic Oath contains language that condemns the use of pessaries to induce abortion, but.

Some supporters of abortion have adopted the pagan view that one way or the other, seriously deformed or brain-damaged children ought not to be reared.  Most shun this eminently logical conclusion and prefer to specify a date some time before birth as a point of no return beyond which a baby must be allowed to live.  Various criteria are put forward, e.g. the viability of the infant, its capacity for independent existence, etc., but none of them is really adequate.  Medical technology is every day pushing back the date of fetal viability, and quite apart from this technology, it is impossible to draw lines, clearly demarcating the various phases of human development.

It no longer makes any sense to distinguish between the fetus before or after the first forty days or the first trimester or even between the status of a human life before or after birth.  In this latter case, we run into a problem of infinite regression as in the famous paradoxes of Zeno.   (Before a runner can complete the course he must run half the distance, but before he can complete half the distance, he must run half the half and so on ad infinitum) If it is not licit to kill the infant the day before it is born, what about the week before, the month before, three months before?  If we draw the line at the first trimester or 90 days, what about 89 days or 88 or 87…..  Similarly, if abortion is licit six months before birth, why not five or one or one minute before?  And what differentia distinguish a minute before from a minute after.  “A day, a week, a month, a year,” sings Yum Yum of her bridegroom under sentence of death.  “Life’s eventide comes much too soon,” comes Poobah’s answer.  The progress of growth from conception to adulthood is continuous, and the human species does not go through the metamorphoses of butterflies.

Judith Jarvis Thomson, giving “A Defense of Abortion,” rejects this conclusion by the familiar analogy of acorns turning into oak trees: “It does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that we had better say they are.”  From at least one perspective, however, the acorn “really is” an oak tree, since the mature stage of development is the fulfillment of the seed’s potentiality.  In discussing contraception, Elizabeth Anscombe used the oak/acorn analogy to illustrate the difference between “an act’s intrinsic character and… the character it has by incidental circumstances.”   Just as most acorns fail to grow into oaks, most couplings result in no children, but since “acorns come from oaks and oaks come from acorns; an acorn is thus as such generative (of an oak), whether or not it does generate an oak.”

Apart from such obvious objections, the oak analogy is seriously flawed.  To be precise, an acorn is not at all the equivalent of a fetus; at best, it is in the condition of a fertilized ovum before cell division begins to take place.  Most acorns do not actually grow into oaks–they are eaten by squirrels, fed to pigs, or rot on the ground–and even if they do successfully mature into great trees, the value of each oak individual is very low, except to the timber industry.

For such an analogy to work, we should have to imagine the rare–or, better still, the only–seed of a uniquely precious tree, something of great and irreplaceable worth.  If a vandal deliberately destroyed such an acorn, we would not assess the damages at the worth of an ordinary nut; we would punish him for the destruction of the valuable tree which can never exist.  If an adult human life is both unique (genetically, at least) and precious (if only to itself), then destruction of the fetus is tantamount to killing the human being.

What the oak/acorn analogy obscures is the obvious fact that in everyday life, we routinely value things for their potential, rather than their present worth.  If a windstorm destroys a half-grown garden, we do not sigh and say, at least we did not lose any mature plants or ripened melons.  Suppose you have taken a photograph for which a gossip magazine will pay $1000.  If a friend of the subject destroys the film, he has caused a loss of more than the few dollars the film has cost.  The true worth of the film can only be measured by the picture that will be developed.  Similarly, a young athlete suffering injuries as the result of negligence will sue not just for medical costs and personal sufferings but for the loss of his potential future earnings.

No argument can be put forward for abortion that cannot be applied to infanticide.  When does a woman’s right to control her body stop?  If she gives birth in the wild, does a mother have a moral obligation to nurse a newborn and warm it with her body?  If circumstances, e.g. rape, incest, deformity, are sufficient causes for terminating a pregnancy, why don’t the same arguments apply to newborns?  And if viability or independence are the criteria, most parents can testify that their twelve year olds would probably not last very long, if they were forced to provide for their own necessities.

Hardin is aware of the arbitrariness but prefers not to face the rational consequences.  Calling fetuses mere “blueprints for human beings,” he argues on merely practical grounds that women will not want to have earlier abortions.  After this sophistry, he declares that “To a scientist, Catholic theology seems very much caught in a web of words that have only a tangential contact with the substantial world,”a description that applies to his own bad-faith logic that derives from a political objective. (i.e., population limitation.

If infanticide is the logical skeleton in the pro-choice closet, most non-Catholic pro-lifers try to shun the most obvious conclusion of their own line of reasoning: if all life is equally worthy and deserving of protection, therapeutic abortions, even when undertaken to save the mother’s life, are unequivocally murder.  Practical considerations, such as the value of a mother to her living children, cannot be considered, unless we are willing to justify the sacrifice of a born child’s life to save the mother.  Besides, physicians rarely know for sure that the completion of a pregnancy will result in the mother’s death.  Many abortions of this type are performed only to eliminate a high or even moderate risk to the mother’s life.  If human life is human life, then there are no merely pragmatic circumstances that justify the sacrifice of an innocent person.


In attemtping to stake out the various moral positions that are taken in cases of life and death, we must first be sure of the ground we are standing on.  Partisans on both sides of the debate use a variety of arguments that derive from quite different ethical foundations.  Some systems of moral philosophy are rooted in nature; others reach out to a transcendant god; while still others rely on principles of reason.  Although it is true that most moralists will readily employ any argument that might help their cause, their arguments usually rely more heavily on one or another of these foundations.  Modern proponents of Catholic natural law, for example, may begin with arguments based on right reason and proceed to a description of human nature, but ultimately it is often the revealed will of God that really counts.  On the other hand, liberal ethicists, while confining themselves to entirely rational arguments, seem to treat rationality itself as if it were a self-evident absolute and their own traditions of discourse as if they were religious doctrines handed down from time immemorial.  A brief and common-sense look at the kinds of arguments that might be made, pro and con abortion, might at least shed some light on the ground the various parties are standing on.

NATURE Can a moral principle be derived from nature?  Some philosophers have thought so, and they have ransacked “nature red in tooth and claw” for evidence of the deeper laws of human conduct.  Although such terms as “natural law” and “natural justice” often turn out to mean nothing more than the principles that a writer wants to regard as self-evident, a system of natural justice–in order to be authentic–must proceed from the observed facts of the human species (and its closest relatives).

The obligation to care for one’s offspring is a human universal, like the incest taboo or the prohibition of murder.  Human and primate mothers, as a rule, devote themselves to their children, and mother-love is regarded conventionally as the most selfless and irrational forms of human attachment.  By the light of nature, the question of abortion and infanticide, insofar as it concerns mothers, cannot be regarded as a violation of a general or universal prohibition against homicide or as “a straightforward incident of an ordinary duty everyone owes to his neighbor.”  [Cf. Finnis 123].  Parents have particular and positive obligations to their children, whom they are duty-bound to shelter, nurture and protect.

General tendencies and universal laws admit of exceptions and violations, and, as regards children, nature in the raw does not present an entirely encouraging spectacle.  Chimpanzees from one band will kidnap and eat the offspring of another, and among human beings the exposure or killing of sickly, deformed, or surplus infants is far from unknown.  The tales of exposure found in Greek literature have been, to some extent, confirmed by historical research, although it is difficult to draw general conclusions.  But surveying from a distant perspective the vast experiences of primates, including man, two broad generalizations can be made.  First, most primate and human parents attempt to raise all their children, sacrificing even their own self-interest to that of their offspring; second, under some circumstances, some parents will neglect, abuse, abandon, or kill their children.  In many cases, either the parents or the social group is morally sick.  Colin Turnbull’s portrayal of the IK, an African people so impoverished that they routinely refuse to take care of their children, is the classic case in the anthropological literature, and one can parallel his account with examples drawn from wealthy as well as slum neighborhoods, private schools and Indian reservations.  But setting aside pathological cases, there have been otherwise wholesome societies in which infanticide is regarded as a morally and socially acceptable practice.  Scarcity of resources is the principal pressure against rearing large numbers of children, especially in the case of a child who, because of deformity or sickliness, is unlikely to lead a productive life.

As the human species is made, men and, to a greater degree, women take satisfaction in the rearing of children.  For people who make their living by hunting or farming, additional children are not regarded so much as mouths to feed as hands to work.  Under normal conditions, then, it is not natural to dispose of a child, born or unborn.  In some economic circumstances, however, children can become burdens rather than assets.  In times of crop failure or in a modern city, parents cannot hope to realize a return on their investment.     In the absence of other pressures, the mere inefficiency of child-rearing would not constitute a sufficient incentive to infanticide, if only because parents very quickly become attached even to a deformed child.  If, however, there are means of depersonalizing the infant–if deformity, for example, renders him taboo–the parents will find it easier to harden their hearts.

Depersonalization is easier in cases of abortion than in postpartum infanticide, because the parents never hold the unborn baby in their arms or call it by name, never in fact even refer to it as a baby.  The need to depersonalize victims explains the strange language used by abortion rights advocates.  Philip Abbott observes that in philosophical discussions of abortion, the world “is filled with people seeds, child missile launchers, Martians, talking robots, dogs, kittens, chimps, jigsaw cells that form human beings, transparent wombs and cool hands–everything in fact but fetuses growing in wombs and infants cradled in parents’ arms.”

Would a purely natural system of morality condemn abortion and infanticide unequivocally?  No, not if the mother’s life or the family’s basic welfare were threatened by the arrival of a deformed child or if the family’s carrying capacity were already stretched to the limit.  This is hardly ever the situation in advanced societies, where adoption and welfare programs make it possible, if not convenient, to rear any child.  Some advocates of abortion, most prominently Garrett Hardin, argue that while a society can easily undertake the burden of supporting any one child, the carrying-capacity of the nation and of the planet are being strained by the birth of superfluous children.

The ecological argument is, however, purely political and not moral.  What governments may decide to do is quite different from what individuals are obliged to do, with or without the support of the state.  In some parts of the globe, Hardin’s argument has some validity, and the time may well be coming when the United States will feel the same pressures as India or Nigeria.  But before we estabish policies to encourage or subsidize infanticide, we might first attempt to eliminate the incentives by which the poor are everywhere bribed into having children they cannot support.  Such incentives are provided both by domestic welfare programs that pay a bounty for illegitimate children and by international relief programs that have the effect of raising the birth rate in undeveloped nations.

The Christian view of abortion and infanticide is only a refinement upon the teaching of nature and the pagan philosophers, and if a purely natural position on abortion were to be made the law of the land, abortion would be permissible under certain strict conditions: where the mother’s life were in actual danger, where the family could neither support nor adopt out an additional child, where the child had been imposed upon the family through rape, or where the child was known to be afflicted with such defects that made him incapable of normal life.  All these exceptions would also apply to infanticide.  If such a rule were adopted and strictly enforced, it might eliminate more than 90% of the abortions being performed.  In other words,  a decent “City of Man” governed according to natural principles would be a society far easier to Christianize than the City of Satan in which we find ourselves.

This is part of a chapter-in-progress. More to come…

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