A Rational Discussion of Abortion

     Let us have a rational discussion about abortion.  By “rational”, I mean a discussion in which the various possible positions are presented and the basic principles upon which those positions are taken are set forth and made available for examination.  This would contrast with, for instance, shooting a doctor who performs abortions, or calling people who oppose abortions utter morons. 

     Let us start by putting forth the most basic principle of ethical discussion, one that has been recognized by all the great thinkers from Plato to, well, whoever was the last great thinker (I am suppressing the observation that he or she died some time ago).  That principle is:  Ethical considerations can only be made between two goods.  There is no ethical conflict in a choice between a good and an evil.  So if a choice needs any discussion or debate, it can only be because there are valid interests in conflict.  The characterization of one side or another in a true ethical debate as, for instance, evil or demented is therefore not rational discussion but political propoganda.  Nothing illustrates such propoganda better than the person who announces that his or her position is “a matter of simple justice.”  Justice is, by its very nature, complex.  So to say that the death penalty is “a matter of simple justice” is only to say that you are right and everyone who does not agree with you is choosing an evil.  That is political propoganda.  Such talk is not allowed here at wethecenter, so what we will do instead is try to give a reasoned analysis of the opposing positions on abortion.

     I start with the following first principle:  fertilized ova are human.  Granted, they do not talk or vote or borrow your car just yet, but we all know that when the ovum of a human woman is fertilized by the sperm of a human man, the result is an inchoate human being.  It is not something that will, at some point, become human.  That position is impossible to hold.  If, for instance, we hold that a being is human when it talks, or when it reasons, then we open possibilities that we don’t even want to think about, such as allowing the killing of infants or the severely mentally disabled.  This position actually existed at common law in previous centuries.  It is abhorrent, precisely because we recognize that most fundamental of ethical principles:  Thou shalt not kill.  And that principle is most fundamental only if we recognize that each human life, by its very nature, imposes upon us an obligation.  I will get back to this, but, assuming that it is that fundamental, all human life is ethically protected, including inchoate human life.  Therefore, first principles:  a fertilized ovum is human.

     Second principle:  there are circumstances in which a human life may ethically be taken.  I am not sure that there is anyone outside of the Dalai Lama who lives with the principle that no human life may ever be taken, however even the Dalai Lama is put in positions where his actions result in putting other lives at risk.  Unless you are a total pacifist, you likely have supported wars, which are an abandonment of that fundamental tent against killing.  More than that, however, we endorse policies that no doubt lead to human deaths.  So, for instance, we not only allow smoking but actually provide federal subsidies for the growing of tobacco.  Yet we know that smoking kills 100,000 people per year in the United States alone, and one of our major exports is cigarettes, so we are subsidizing an activity that leads to death all over the world.  We have passed federal regulations that clearly accept a certain amount of risk of fatalities, such as permissible exposure to chemicals.  We allow cars to be manufactured with certain equipment, knowing that, as presently equipped, a large number of people will be killed.  Aside from these situations, we are also subject to being put in personal situations where we must choose an action which results in the death of another human being.  So, for instance, we are faced with either hitting another car or swerving and hitting a pedestrian, knowing that either action will likely result in a human death.  (I should note here that I think the so-called principle of double effect is complete hooey.) 

     With these two principles in place, we can then go to the question:  are there circumstances in which it is ethical to choose the death of the unborn child — not foetus, not fertilized ovum, but  unborn child (see first principle)?  If you say no, and if you base that on the fundamental principle that it is always wrong to take another life, then you had best be prepared for the consequences.  You must be against all war, against the death penalty, and you must be for the most stringent federal safety regulations on products.  And, by the way, while I disagree with you, I admire your unflinching commitment to human life.

     If, however, you say no, but also endorse war and capital punishment and the elimination of federal safety regulations, then you are just dishonest.  Even if your basic principle is that it is always wrong to take an innocent human life, then you have to condemn war anyway, because it always involves the taking of innocent human lives, and you have to condemn capital punishment because it has clearly resulted in the execution of people who were subsequently discovered to have been innocent. 

     So, as a matter of practical fact, we are faced with true ethical conflicts in which we must decide whether to take a human life.  Abortion is one of those conflicts.  There are, for instance, situations in which an abortion would save the life of the mother.  There are also situations in which abortion prevents some other moral wrong from occurring.  It might save existing children from starving.   It might save the mother from having her psyche completely destroyed.  There are a host of situations in which we could legitimately ask whether abortion is ethically permissible.

     There are, however, actually two questions here.  The first is in what circumstances an abortion is ethically permissible.  The second question is really the question that is being debated in the poltical arena today, and it is this:  Who should be permitted to make such ethical decisions?  More particularly, and here is the very heart of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, should the government make that decision, or should it be made by the pregnant woman? 

     One of the ways we could decide that is by looking to see if there are parallel situations where such decisions have previously been made.  Let me throw a few out there.  Men and women choose to be sterilized.  Men and women also choose to use devices that prevent pregnancy — condoms, etc.  It has been suggested, most recently by some people running for the presidency of the United States, that contraceptives should be outlawed or put under government control.  Granted that contraception is the prevention rather than the taking of a human life, but clearly some feel tha the practice is morally reprehensible.  So who should decide that?  At least so far in the United States, we have decided that the individual should decide that.  How about smoking?  That is in fact not only the taking of one’s own life, but also placing the lives of others at risk.  Who should decide that?  Again, we have decided that the individual should decide.  On the other hand, we allow government to control the use of drugs and the use of dangerous chemicals.  We clearly allow the government to decide who should be executed for a given crime. 

     No matter which way you decide the question, you will be faced with a conflict of principles, and that is precisely true of all ethical debates.  If you want the government to decide when an abortion should be permitted, it might very well conflict with your basic belief that government should not be allowed to interfere with out personal lives.  If you want the individual to decide, it might very well conflict with your basic belief that government should play a larger role in our economy and the regulation of certain activities.  Ethical decisions are always like that.  They involve the choosing of one good over another. 

     I am frankly not sure what the best principles are in deciding whether or not to have an abortion.  I would certainly find it abhorrent to have an abortion merely for the sake of convenience.  At base, though, I cannot believe that the government should be making those kinds of decisions. 

     There you have it — a rational discussion of abortion.  All rational discourse in response is invited, and will be analyzed rationally.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we did this kind of thing with all our political issues?




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