Our times are characterized by two powerful and divisive ethical issues: abortion and our relations with the other-than-human world. It is significant that those opposing abortion are usually unconcerned with the well-being of the other-than-human world, but those respecting a woman’s right to choose are often concerned with the other-than-human world as well. There are exceptions in both directions, but the broad pattern is plain to see. I believe there are profound reasons for this difference.
That said, in my opinion the strongest argument against abortion shares an insight with those of us who love the other-than-human. Recently a woman sent me an e-mail to that effect. I want to use the points she raised to begin exploring the case against abortion, now that Republicans are forcing their views on so many women in states they rule.
This will be the first of several posts on the subject. This first concerns what I consider the strongest argument against abortion. Subsequent discussions will deal with various religious arguments against it, predominately conservative Christian, and finally, the deeper tensions that I point to in my opening sentence above.
Over the past weeks I have been on the road attending weddings and a memorial service for an old friend who recently died, as well as seeing various friends along the way. During this time I received an e-mail from a woman who took exception to some remarks she had heard me make regarding abortion. She wrote me, “Life is sacred, but I have rarely had the courage to say that I think abortion is wrong. Life is so beautiful and mysterious and at the core full of love.”
Regarding the basics, we agree. Life is sacred, beautiful, and mysterious. I agree it is at its core full of love. But I do not believe these truths lead to opposing abortion as wrong.
Life and Death
Let’s begin with the broader question of life and death, for most of the argument against abortion involves its killing a fetus or a fertilized egg. If life is sacred, what are we to make of causing death?
Life’s abundance is intimately connected to the presence of physical death. Without carnivores who kill to survive, we would have not evolved beyond the level of blue-green algae. From the coming into being of the first multi-celled beings, death has been an inevitable outcome, even if we escape predation. Life is a process of going through cycles of birth, growth, maturity, decline, and ultimately death. Everyone dies, and that is a part of their having lived.
Imagine a world where beings could reproduce but never died. Most beings reproduce far more individuals than are needed or desirable to carry on the species. In time, and not much time, such a world would become a hell of suffering. Most young plants and animals are eaten, but their being eaten enables other beings to flourish. Immortality makes no sense and would be no blessing to beings that reproduced.
In this respect I have always liked Gary Snyder’s observation:
“What a big potlatch we are all members of!” To acknowledge that each of us at the table will eventually be part of the meal is not just being “realistic.” It is allowing the sacred to enter and accepting the sacramental aspect of our shaky temporal personal being. (19)
Physical death is inescapably a part of life, not an assault on it. Its presence has enriched the forms and beauty that life takes. As such, in its own way death is sacred. What lies beyond is mystery, but those who love life have no reason to regard death as something amiss with the world, something that needs ‘fixing.’
This point sets the broader context for discussing abortion, which inescapably involves death.
Does abortion end human life?
To answer this question we need to be clear about what we mean by “human.” The anti-choice crowd combines two different aspects of being human in an arbitrary and confused way.
Biologically, most fertilized embryos do not attach to the vaginal wall: they are natural miscarriages. But if the embryo survives to birth and after, it will become a caring human being. The embryo is indisputably biologically human. We agree that killing human beings of no threat to other human beings is wrong. So the critical issue here is, Does biological humanness provide the qualities that give people the moral standing appropriate to human beings?
I argue no.
To see why, let’s start with mice.
Why does a mouse lack human moral standing? Killing a mouse is not murder. When we prepare land for building a home, we strive to make sure no human is injured in the process. We feel no equivalent duty to mice. Why? Is this difference in attitude simply an unexamined habit? I think not.
We cannot enter into human-style relationships with mice. So far as we know, mice do not know what it means to promise. They do not dream of their futures and the futures of their young, nor do they love others of no utility to them, nor take responsibility for their actions. Occasionally, under stress, mice eat their young. I know of no human equivalent to this behavior, although a great many human mothers certainly live under stress.
I am not saying mice have no moral standing. But they do not have the same kind of standing as human beings. A good person will not go out of his or her way to injure a mouse, and indeed will go out of their way not to do so… up to a point. In my view, we have a responsibility to treat other beings with respect. But this is not the same as treating them as equals. If we were to learn mice had the above-mentioned moral qualities, our relationships with them would become far more complex. We would have to recognize that they were more like us than we have any current reason for thinking.
Now consider a hypothetical intelligent alien. Let us grant that such an alien can make promises, dream of its future and the futures of its offspring, love others for themselves, and take responsibility for its actions. Science fiction is filled with examples of such beings, and perhaps the universe is as well. Such an alien will not have our biology. We are more related biologically to mice, or even to an earthworm or algae, than to the alien.
If such an alien was able to enter into friendly relations with us, it would demonstrate the capacity to put a being’s mental qualities above their purely biological ones when determining its actions. To my mind, such an alien would have ethical standing equal to a human being. Killing a peaceful alien of this sort would be committing murder.
If you can follow me this far, then I think it is clear that the relative capacity to enter into ethical relationships determines moral standing. The issue concerns relationships and not biology.
The moral standing of a fetus
A fetus gains in moral standing the more it possesses human capacities, not human biology. It seems obvious that particularly early term fetuses have these qualities only as distant potentials. A fertilized egg cannot promise, cannot make plans, and has no self-awareness. If a fertilized egg fails to implant itself in the uterine lining, as is often the case, we do not bewail the death of a human being. Future mothers care for their fetuses because of what they might become, not for what they are.
Most of us who love babies—and I am one—love them because of what they are as well as for what they might become. Babies can enter into relationships with us, relationships that deepen daily before our eyes, until they become relationships between equals. But from the very beginning, babies relate.
From the fertilized egg to a baby, we observe a developing capacity to move from potential human moral characteristics to actual ones. Newborn babies still cannot enter into as many complex mutual relationships as can adults, but they interact in ways a fertilized egg never can. We are observing a continuum. There are legitimate grounds for arguing over how the moral standing of a fetus changes as it develops. But there is no reasonable argument that (at least at most stages) it enjoys anything approaching equality with a human being.
Given this simple fact, it seems to me that over most of the process leading towards birth, it should be entirely the woman’s choice whether or not to carry a fetus to term. A woman who gives birth should be honored for doing so, and not considered simply a container whose life must be subordinated to another’s. To treat her as a mere container is to treat her as a slave. Rather, a mother should receive credit for freely choosing one of the most powerful actions of which a human being is capable: bringing another into the world and taking responsibility for seeing that it is raised to adulthood, either by herself and her family, or through adoption. A mother who abandons her baby to die is not analogous to a pregnant woman who has an abortion.
If we elevate biology above the moral qualities that give ethical standing on this issue, we turn the mother into a means to others’ ends. In so doing, we would destroy the only powerful case for ethics: that at a minimum, beings such as humans are never simply means to others’ ends. They possess intrinsic qualities that forever separate them from objects.
We become fully human only through our relation with the world and with other human beings. Even the most advanced fetuses have taken only the first steps along this path. They are not fully human in any way that counts morally.
I hope this argument shows there is no tension between honoring life and regarding it as sacred, and fervently supporting a woman’s decision as to whether to bring another life into the world.