Why It’s Not Murder

At Wayne State University last November 16, Scott Klusendorf, perhaps the dean of pro-life apologists, ably debated abortion with Nadine Strossen, a former president of the ACLU. Klusendorf based his pro-life argument on the humanity of the unborn and the wrongness of intentionally killing an innocent human being.

At 1:08:57 Klusendorf indicates a possible openness to health exceptions. Strossen insists on more specifics – what kind of health condition would be serious enough to reach the threshold at which Klusendorf would agree to make an exception? Klusendorf replies:

Sure, I’ll answer that. Let me make an observation, though. Even if my answer were inconsistent, it wouldn’t eradicate the syllogism I put forward. . . . So even if I answered this question in a way that seemed inconsistent with my view, it would only show I’m inconsistent. It wouldn’t rule out the evidence I presented.

Then he brings up Doe v. Bolton’s overly-broad standard of “health,” and the empirical rarity of cases that would raise a real ethical question; but Strossen insists on a specific example even if “hypothetically,” and offers “Let’s say she will not lose her life, but she will be rendered infertile . . . ?” Klusendorf replies, “In that case the mother stands to lose one good, the child stands to lose an ultimate good” – meaning that impending infertility would not be a sufficient reason to abort. Strossen then moves on to other topics.

So Klusendorf laid the groundwork for a defense in case he might say something “inconsistent.” In the event, he was not forced to say anything inconsistent, but to my mind Strossen let him off the hook. Suppose instead of the infertility example, she had framed the hypothetical as “Let’s say she will not lose her life, but most likely her brain will be damaged, seriously affecting her motor skills and memory for the rest of her life.”

I don’t know what Klusendorf would have replied to that example, but I, and I think many pro-lifers, would say, “In that case, no, she should be allowed to abort if she so decides. I will admire her if she doesn’t, but in terms of legal obligation, society should not compel her to carry the pregnancy.”

Yet it remains generally true for my brand of pro-lifers that “It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being,” and it remains true for us that the unborn is an innocent human being – so that it would seem impermissible to kill it. Moreover, if in an analogous situation a mother could avoid serious brain damage only by killing her innocent born child, it would almost certainly be illegal for her to do so. Suppose that in an earthquake a mother and her toddler become trapped in a small space beneath the rubble. They can hear the voices of rescuers a few yards above them, but the air is running out and the mother’s brain will become damaged by oxygen deprivation if the toddler keeps breathing also. If she were to put her hand over the toddler’s mouth and nose, thus killing it, that would almost certainly be illegal. Thus since the unborn is a human being like the toddler, allowing the woman to abort, as I and many pro-lifers would do, would seem inconsistent both with existing legal protections for born human beings, and with a syllogism that we basically support.

How to explain this? Do many pro-lifers not really believe that the unborn is an innocent human being? Well, clearly it is innocent, so the question becomes, do we not really believe that it is a human being? (Many pro-choicers, of course, like to push the idea that we do not really believe that.)

The answer is: we do believe that the unborn is an innocent human being, but we feel that society has no right to compel anyone to take huge risks with their body, even to save the life of an innocent human being.

Virtually all pro-lifers, like anyone else, respect the mental sense of body ownership that underlies the concept of bodily rights. The importance accorded to that sense rests on a kind of intuition, and hence the importance varies somewhat from person to person, but I don’t think there is a night-and-day difference in that regard between pro-lifers as a group and pro-choicers as a group. To put it more simply, pro-lifers as well as pro-choicers believe in “bodily rights.” So pro-lifers feel that as a moral starting point, or as a default moral principle, everyone should have a legal right to refuse to let their body be used unless they give permission. Certainly one’s body cannot be used for just any purpose under the sun. Where pro-lifers differ from pro-choicers is that pro-lifers are likely to feel that a woman should not have that legal right when her body is the only hope for survival of a new human being – a situation that they feel confers some degree of responsibility on her. (I have discussed elsewhere how I, as one pro-lifer, come to that conclusion.)

Yet the tipping of the scales on the side of the child’s life is not an extremely pronounced one. The belief in a default principle of bodily rights, on one side of the balance, never disappears, with the consequence that for some pro-lifers (including me), if the woman’s pregnancy is expected to be exceptionally rough or dangerous, then, in this conflict of rights, her bodily rights will again prevail. It is not that the unborn is not what Klusendorf calls a “distinct, living and whole human being;” it is indeed that human being; but society has no right to compel anyone to take huge risks with their body, even to save the life of an innocent human being.

This explains and resolves the seeming inconsistency. If in a situation analogous to pregnancy a mother could avoid lifetime brain damage only by killing her innocent born child, it would almost certainly be illegal for her to do so, whereas if a pregnant woman could avoid lifetime brain damage only by killing her innocent unborn child, many of us would allow that. The difference is bodily rights that operate when a person’s body stands to be used in a particular way, but otherwise do not operate.

And a corollary is this: For pro-lifers such as us, society’s right to outlaw abortion in the case of a normal pregnancy is based, as mentioned, on a somewhat close balance. On one side of the balance is the value of a human life, on the other side, the burdens of a normal pregnancy coupled with the woman’s bodily rights. The human life wins out. But the woman’s bodily rights that are there by default never disappear; and therefore if a normally pregnant woman violates the law and claims those default bodily rights, it is not fully the same as killing a born child who is not infringing on her bodily rights. It is, though a defiance of the law, something less than murder.

Almost all pro-lifers think of the unborn at any stage as full-fledged persons, as members of our human family. And I think it is safe to say that very few pro-choicers think of them that way. Pro-choicers who use bodily-rights arguments think that they can justify abortion regardless of unborn personhood (as mentioned, I find that bodily-rights approach strong but not quite strong enough in normal pregnancies). So those who use such an approach normally concede for the sake of argument that the unborn are persons; but I think that almost always, they make that concession only for the sake of argument. As pro-choicers who genuinely think of the unborn as persons, I can only think of Naomi Wolf, who said, “Sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the foetus, in its full humanity, must die. But it is never right or necessary to minimise the value of the lives involved,” and Camille Paglia, who said, “A liberal credo that is variously anti-war, anti-fur, vegan, and committed to environmental protection of endangered species like the sage grouse or spotted owl should not be so stridently withholding its imagination and compassion from the unborn.” I don’t know how far those two base the pro-choice position they hold on bodily rights, but any pro-choicers who do rely on bodily rights, and genuinely see the unborn as persons, could make statements just like theirs.

So how should we frame a face-off over a normal pregnancy, between pro-lifers such as me, and those few bodily-rights pro-choicers who genuinely see the unborn as persons? It would be like the pro-choice side declaring, “There is a close contest between bodily rights and the right to life of a full-fledged person, in which bodily rights prevail,” and the pro-life side declaring, “There is a close contest between bodily rights and the right to life of a full-fledged person, in which bodily rights don’t quite prevail.” For me personally, though it is clear that the outcome of the contest is on the pro-life side, I wouldn’t call the margin of the outcome (in terms of what should or shouldn’t be legal) a very pronounced one.

Doesn’t it always seem strange that there should be so much polarization on the abortion issue? Understanding those few conversations (such as the imagined one above) that are free from polarization helps illuminate the sources of the polarization that more typically occurs. Polarization stems mainly from widely disparate views of the unborn, so a conversation such as the above is bound to be free from polarization. Therefore there is another corollary of the “somewhat close balance” view of the abortion issue: those few pro-choicers who really see the unborn as our little sisters and brothers will share that “somewhat close” view with the pro-lifers who hold it, and those two groups will not be each other’s hated enemies. Both groups will agree that the issue involves a balance that could understandably tip the other way in the other person’s mind. There will not be the acrimony that is usual between pro-choicers and pro-lifers. They will be able to talk. (If the pro-choicers deprecate the unborn, on the other hand, there will be a big fight.)

© 2017

Appendix

I originally wrote the following version of the first few paragraphs, but replaced it with the above version for the sake of brevity. Some readers might be interested in further details of what led up to Klusendorf’s Even if my answer were inconsistent . . .:

At Wayne State University last November 16, Scott Klusendorf, perhaps the dean of pro-life apologists, ably debated abortion with Nadine Strossen, a former president of the ACLU. Early on, Klusendorf based his pro-life position on this simple syllogism:

Premise 1: It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being.
Premise 2: Abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being.
Conclusion: Therefore abortion is wrong.

At 1:07:01 Strossen asks Klusendorf about exceptions: “when it’s necessary to save a woman’s life, when it’s necessary for her health, when she is the victim of rape or incest . . .” Klusendorf gives the example of an ectopic pregnancy threatening the life of a woman and affirms that this would be an exception and that any pro-life physician would agree. Strossen then asks about health exceptions: “if it’s not a matter of literally saving a pregnant woman’s life, but . . . serious adverse health impact . . .” Klusendorf replies in terms of the rarity of such serious cases (serious cases other than ectopic pregnancies). He also points out that Doe v. Bolton had allowed an overly broad health exception; but his answer implies that if Doe had not made things so broad, he would agree to a health exception. Strossen then asks, “What do you define as health [that is, a health condition whose seriousness would reach the threshold at which he would agree to make an exception]?”

At 1:12:01 Klusendorf says, Sure, I’ll answer that. Let me make an observation, though. Even if my answer were inconsistent, it wouldn’t eradicate the syllogism I put forward. . . . So even if I answered this question in a way that seemed inconsistent with my view, it would only show I’m inconsistent. It wouldn’t rule out the evidence I presented.

At that point he again brings up the overly-broad standards and the empirical rarity of serious cases, but Strossen insists on a specific example even if “hypothetically,” and offers “Let’s say she will not lose her life, but she will be rendered infertile. . . . Would that be a situation where you would say the pregnancy could be terminated?” He replies, “In that case the mother stands to lose one good, the child stands to lose an ultimate good” – meaning that impending infertility would not be a sufficient reason to abort. Strossen then moves on to other topics.

 

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Some future posts:

Life Panels

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World