Why Focus on Abortion?

 

This essay was first published, with illustrations, in Life Matters Journal Volume 5 Issue 5 — April 2017.

 

I think I’m not alone among pro-life advocates, in that people sometimes ask me, “Why only abortion? Why do you advocate on this issue only?” When pro-choicers ask me that question, it often takes the form of “Why don’t you talk about the problems of women?”

My first reply might be that I do not in fact ignore other issues. I have done a lot of pondering about the miserable treatment of women throughout most of history, in most of the world, and I have even ventured to write about a pro-life feminist approach toward rectifying all of that. I volunteer for an organization that works to lift people out of poverty.

Most of the pro-lifers I know actually do approach abortion with a holistic view of the world. But it is true that some of us, including me, do also spend a disproportionate amount of our advocacy time focused on the abortion issue specifically.

For me, this is because I feel that the pro-life cause, much more than any other cause, can be a vehicle for a higher human consciousness that will uplift us morally in how we respond to all issues, not only the abortion issue.

As Javier Cuadros wrote:

Science is a process of knowledge in which we penetrate ever deeper. . . . As the observations multiply . . . it is typical that the original appearances . . . are shown to be incorrect. The reality is different. . . . This is why I have always been puzzled about the reluctance of scientists to apply the same program of investigation to the nature of the human embryo. Are human embryos men and women and thus entitled to the inalienable right to life and respect for their dignity and physical integrity, or are they not? Here, many scientists . . . are for applying the simple criterion of appearances. No, [embryos] are not men and women, they say, because they do not look like a person. Agreed, they do not look like a developed human being. But the earth looks like it is stationary. . . . shape does not make a human being. It has been shown that the most fundamental element of the presence and identity of a human being is the existence of a specific DNA molecule . . .

 
Most people in the world, if we may indulge in broad strokes, have one of these two perceptions of the early unborn: 1) either they feel that the early unborn is not possessed of the moral value of other human beings because it doesn’t look like most of the human beings we know (or doesn’t seem quite as bright as most of the human beings we know, or some such criterion); or 2) they feel that the early unborn does have the same moral value as the other human beings we know because the genetic information it possesses has set it on an inexorable path – a path such that it will soon enough be a human being similar to others we know (if only somebody doesn’t kill it first).

And I think that among those who hold the second category of perception, there are also some who got there without an understanding of DNA and chromosomes. They got there simply by pondering deeply over some such thought as this: “A human life is one seamless process that has to start somewhere, and how can it be expected that it won’t start extremely small?”

Now, can we call either of the two perceptions better than the other? Well, the first perception is like a still picture. It is a perception of the organism as if it were frozen in time. The second perception is of a process. If you kill a small clump of cells lacking, perhaps, even a beating heart, it is correct to say that you are killing an organism whose life presently has little value; and that therefore the organism itself would – if no future lay ahead of it – have little value. But it is also correct to say that you are depriving that organism of the complete human life which has started in it as a process. We cannot deem that either perception is more scientific than the other. But obviously the perception of the process is a more complete perception.

The perception of the process is not necessarily more scientific, but it is more complete. It is richer. I think that perception helps explain the joy that we see on the faces of “the pro-life generation” at the March for Life and on almost every campus in the country. So for me, it reflects the higher consciousness that I spoke of above, a more evolved consciousness. It reflects a forward evolution in a person’s inner world. It reflects an expansion.

When Barack Obama announced his support for gay marriage in 2012, after sixteen years in politics, he famously described that pivot of his as “an evolution.” Well, Mr. Obama, that’s great! Evolution is a liberating experience. Any one person’s moral evolution surely has wonderful consequences for us all. And now, Mr. Obama – and Hillary Clinton, and Cecile Richards, and Gloria Steinem – you have a chance to go on evolving, to evolve still more. Wouldn’t it be great to do so? The path is before you. We’ll all be cheering you on.

Though not wishing to minimize how big an evolutionary step it was for straight people to come to perceive gays as fully human, I think that coming to perceive embryos as fully human will be an even bigger step. It will also be a bigger step than coming to perceive other races as fully human, or other genders as fully human, or the differently abled as fully human. Why? Because – to get back to Cuadros above – gay people, and people of other races and genders, and the differently abled, look like persons. We can “apply the simple criterion of appearances.” Urgent though it is to advocate the causes of refugees and earthquake victims, at least society may be able to see them as human beings without our help – not so, it seems, for the unborn.

Moreover, let us remember Martin Luther King’s observation that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” Unlike other groups that have won society’s respect, the preborn do not themselves strike the least fear in the hearts of those who would mistreat them. If rights are to be secured for them, it will be the first time in history that rights have been secured for a human group who could not fight back somewhat, or at least clamor shrilly. So coming to truly perceive the unborn as fully human, though completely in accord with science, will be a grander mental achievement than in the case of other groups. This last frontier of civil rights will be the most difficult. But by the same token it will represent a more significant expansion of consciousness.

A pro-life position taken on this basis will mean a greater connectedness with our origins and hence a greater connectedness with the universe. This connectedness will certainly spill over into all our activities and all our decisions. It will be a big evolutionary step, a step to what I called above “a higher human consciousness that will uplift us morally in how we respond to all issues, not only the abortion issue.”

I also said, however, that “the pro-life cause, much more than any other cause, can be a vehicle for a higher human consciousness.” The cause may seem clearly to be a way in which that higher consciousness gets expressed when one already has that consciousness, but is the cause also a vehicle for creating such a consciousness in those who don’t yet have it?

It is natural for the mind to try to confine one’s human family to a small circle. We fear having to care for people, or kinds of people, outside that circle. Our mental walls constructed around that circle, however, get smashed when confronted by facts that are incompatible with such encirclement, or confronted by incompatible, yet persuasive, viewpoints coming from people who command our respect. The smashing of our mental walls is an uncomfortable experience, a disturbing experience, but once one manages to grasp the idea that a human life is one seamless process, and hence equally valuable at all points in time, it is an idea that becomes very persuasive. It is a more complete view than to perceive the organism as if it were frozen in time. Moreover, once we include within the circle of our family people we had formerly excluded, we emerge with fewer fears than we had before. In this way also our minds expand. Thus the pro-life cause can be a vehicle for a higher human consciousness, and thus this, to me, is the issue to focus on.

People whom we do not respect, however, are unlikely to persuade us. Among other things, pro-life advocates who are to be persuasive must be people who truly have that expanded vision – which cannot be said of all pro-life advocates. I think that many religious people who are originally pro-life by virtue of rote religious doctrine later become prompted by their doctrines, or by other forces, to do some deep thinking of their own, and develop that expanded vision. But those who came to a pro-life position out of rote religious doctrine alone (without further reflection), not to mention those who came to it out of political opportunism, will not have that vision. Only those who genuinely have it will be able to articulate it in a way that touches non-believers; others may even create a big backlash among skeptics.

A few years back John Koenig coined the word “sonder,” a noun whose definition begins, “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own . . .” It is the ultimate sense of human connectedness, and as the founder of Life Matters Journal has pointed out, it is a state of mind out of which consistent pro-life behavior in all one’s actions must inevitably flow. I think that activism on behalf of the unborn can do more than anything else to further this outlook in the human race.

Now I have said a lot about establishing in people’s minds the perception that the unborn is a full-fledged member of our human family. But by now some will be asking, in order for the pro-life cause to prevail, will such convincing alone be sufficient? What about the bodily-rights position, which concedes for the sake of argument that the unborn is indeed fully human, yet claims a right to kill it nonetheless? But I think that the understanding that the preborn is a full-fledged member of our human family is, in fact, virtually sufficient. It seems to me almost always that those who concede for the sake of argument that the unborn is truly a human being, yet claim a right to kill, make that concession only for the sake of argument. Very few of them – perhaps only Naomi Wolf and Camille Paglia – have made that concession in their hearts. I think that almost anyone who really sees the unborn as our little sisters and brothers, will quickly dig a little deeper and discover the weaknesses in the bodily-rights argument.

© 2017

 

You may leave a reply, if you wish, without giving your name or email address. If you do give your email address, it will not be published. Back up your work as you type, in case of accidents.

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

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.

 

You may leave a reply, if you wish, without giving your name or email address. If you do give your email address, it will not be published. Back up your work as you type, in case of accidents.

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