In a recent discussion on this blog (see “Is your ‘pro-life’ ethic internally consistent?”) some people were a bit upset that I would compare abortion to killing during war or the capital punishment of a criminal. I found this a bit odd since part of the “pro-life” argument is the full personhood of the unborn. In other words, I asked how these three were different or similar based on the notion that it is possible to discuss the unborn as having rights similar to those who have been born.
Someone asked whether or not abortion in the United States is the same thing as the Holocaust of World War II. In hasty response I proposed that it isn’t, though I confess I didn’t spend much time reasoning as to why. This post will be an effort to examine my own thinking on the matter and I welcome dialogue. I know this is a touchy subject, but I think we can navigate it.
First, I don’t know if it is intuition or cultural conditioning, but when I imagine myself observing a Nazi soldier grabbing a Jewish man in order to drag him toward assassination it seems quite different that watching a teenage girl step into an abortion clinic. Obviously, this hasn’t been the case for everyone as we’ve seen exemplified by those who commit terrorist style acts toward such clinics. Nevertheless, most anti-abortion advocates are not willing to violently protest either the woman having the abortion (more understandable since to harm her would be to harm the unborn child) or the people performing the abortion.
Why is this? Is it as evil to abort a child as it is for a Nazi soldier to kill a Jew or a gypsie? If so, why is our instinct to think we’d do something about saving the Jew, but not the child?
Second, I wonder aloud if we talk of doing what we find morally responsible in situations where we are not confronted with the actual event. In other words, we may say we’d fight the Nazi to save the Jew, but many people did live as by-standers out of their own self-preservation. So it may be that the difference is merely that one is hypothetical (I’d save the Jewish man) while the other is actual (I could save an unborn child).
Third, I wrestle with how I’d handle being told by my teenage daughter (let’s say sixteen so she is a bit older, but under my authority) that she was pregnant and that she intended to have an abortion in comparison with if the same daughter had the child and then called me on the phone when the child was six months old to tell me she planned on killing it. My instinct tells me there is a difference, but it could be that I am culturally conditioned. It could be that my sense of morality is shaped by crime-and-punishment. I know that she is protected under the law in case of abortion, but six months outside the womb changes everything legally. Is there an actual difference or merely a difference of consequence that informs my emotions?
Fourth, there is a very interesting “Philosophy Experiment” called “Whose Body Is It Anyway?” that proposes you wake up one day attached to another person’s body. Their life depends on using you as a source for nine months. If you refuse, they die. It is your body, do you have the right to deny sustaining life even if this person was attached to you without permission? Of course, there are obvious “how did we get here” differences between this scenario and pregnancy, but it is something we must consider. One of the “pro-choice” arguments says that it is a woman’s body and her right to choose whether she uses it to sustain another life. What are we to make of the “sustainer” argument (i.e. the other person doesn’t have life on their own without being granted support from another). For those who advocate abortion rights is the key factor the use of the body? Could a mother of a six month old child stop feeding it because she doesn’t feel the obligation to “sustain” the child (I speak of morality, not law)?
Fifth, personhood is a difficult thing to understand. Many “conservatives” say at conception while many “liberals” say at birth. Those who defend the life of the unborn note that in the womb you see hands, feet, eyes, a heartbeat, and all the signs of humanity though not fully developed (which raises the question of how developed must a human be to be a human?) and this is reason enough to enact laws that precaution to protect as early as possible. Those who defend abortion rights note that arguments for “potentiality” can go quite a ways back if one isn’t careful. Is using contraceptives “murder” since it hinders potential life (as Roman Catholics teach)? What about the first clump of cells?
Others say that life begins at that first breath outside the womb (some Christians quote God breathing into Adam to give him personhood). This seems to be what out laws support now, but it appears quite contradictory when we charge someone with murder who harms a mother causing the death of the unborn or when we will do all that we can to save a child born of premature birth suggesting that we realize some real personhood even if the baby hasn’t had the opportunity to fully develop.
Finally, let’s imagine that Roe v. Wade was reversed and abortion was criminalized. What happens? Do women cease to abort their babies? If our real concern is life then we must not be satisfied with enacting legislation that criminalizes an act. We must ask how we could preserve life. Do we know what to do if some reject the law and continue with illegal abortions? What is our aim?
These are the questions running through my mind on this matter. What are your thoughts?