On Abortion: A Pagan Ethical Response

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.

The e-mail

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.

Human Life

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.

Pagan Abortion Ethics: Pre-existing Spirits Seeking Birth
Environmentalism and Pagan religion
A response to Niki Whiting’s review of my book, Faultlines
The “Pro-Life” Movement’s Hidden Subtext
About Gus diZerega
  • Xiaorong

    I really appreciate this article. I don’t see that many pagan bloggers talking about the anti-choicers attack on women’s bodily autonomy, but as a community that values women, the sacredness of life (especially of lives currently happening, not just hypothetical lives), and compassion, I hope we can bring perspectives like yours to the forefront of the abortion debate.

  • DreamingOfPan

    Interesting points to ponder – thank you (I am pro-choice btw). However, I must point out 2 issues. You said that mice/other animals don’t dream, but there is very strong evidence to the contrary (see: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sleepless-in-america/201004/do-cats-dream-catching-mice for just one example). The discoveries/acknowledgments of the mental & emotional capacities of non-humans has grown quite a bit over the past 10 years or so. Please review these 2 short posts for more: http://www.peta.org/b/thepetafiles/archive/tags/animal+sentience/default.aspx
    and http://prime.peta.org/2011/10/animal-minds. That being said – and I may be misinterpreting your intention, but with your statement “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.” it sounds like you’re saying non-humans are mere objects for our exclusive means (which I firmly do not believe)? Relegating non-humans to this type of Cartesian-era status opens the door unfortunately for all kinds of unnecessary cruelties & abuse, such as factory farms, experiments, etc. That aside, even with the best moral arguments, most heavy anti-choice people will NEVER change their minds simply because they seem to have a fundamentalist, fear-based mindset. Tough nut to crack.

    • Gus diZerega

      No, DreamingOfPan, you misunderstood me. I said mice, so far as we know, do not heave dreams about their futures. In the context I thought it was clear I was saying nothing about dreaming while asleep and plenty about future hopes.

      Similarly, while this is not a post on how we should relate to the animal world, I said other beings are deserving of respect, but not equal consideration to what we give humans for the reasons I gave. I am hardly endorsing the view they are mere means to our ends. I’ve written about this issue elsewhere as well.

      As for your last point about the anti-choice crowd. Depends on the person. When a person gives a reason for their beliefs, it is always a good idea to treat it as sincerely meant, as with the woman I discuss in my post.

      But yes, many anti-choice people are as you describe, and one of my intentions is to provide ammunition to help take away their claims to any kind of moral high ground. As I will argue in later posts, they are anything but ‘pro-life.’ Their views are morally inferior to those of many of us, and we should never shrink from remindi9ng them of that.

      • DreamingOfPan

        Ok, I think I see what you were trying to say. Although we do not know “for sure” what goes in most other species’ minds (sometimes I think we can, like chimps & gorillas who can use sign language & have expressed desires), we can infer from behaviors, so I would hesitate to say they “do not” have hopes, etc. As for equal consideration, I stand by the argument that it is not the ability to reason or ‘speak English ;)’ that should determine consideration, it is the ability to suffer – this could apply equally to animals, newborn babies, or even the mentally retarded. And as you said, zygotes cannot suffer and are not “special”. I think part of the problem comes in with mixed messages and our tendency to label things as black & white (viewing the world as purely dualistic for example, as many monotheists tend to do). The “all or nothing” thinking – which I guess they could translate into all life being sacred. So I vote to call them on that part. Keeping humans as some kind of pinnacle over all other beings (and I’m not saying you’re doing that) is an irrational argument for them if you say, hey, all life is sacred, but you’re not treating animals as such, etc. I guess I just think a deeper-level discussion with them might be in order. Or perhaps get old-school and ask them how many unwanted children they’ve adopted this year… But maybe I’m pipe-dreaming for now, who knows. Anyways, thanks again for the thought-provoking :)

  • TheodoreSeeber

    There are only two arguments that count.

    1. The fetus is biologically human.
    2. A pregnant woman, and usually a mother, is not available for further sexual exploitation by males who wish to have sex without being fathers.

    All the rest? Arguing about personhood? Utterly meaningless in comparison to these two facts.

    • Gus diZerega

      Your first point is true and irrelevant and the second is false no matter how you define exploitation. Try to engage in actual discussion sometime.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        If the first point is true, then you are a bigot.

        The second point is true every time a man forces a woman in the sex trafficking trade to abort.

        • Gus diZerega

          Your second point is irrelevant to the broader abortion issue although it does pertain to the sex trade and your first point makes no sense to me at all other than demonstrating that you apparently believe bad manners and nastiness count as arguments.

          I suggest learning what words mean and then learning how to explain opinions that otherwise appear a combination of arrogance, ignorance, and arbitrary assertion, which makes you a perfect example of the anti-choice crowd.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            Why do you think businesses like Planned Parenthood are so profitable? It’s all because of the sex trade.

          • Gus diZerega

            Whatever drugs you are using, I recommend stopping.

    • Xiaorong

      1. Yeah, fetuses are biologically human in the sense that they contain human DNA (so do skin cells and tumors, by the way). But I will never ever justify taking away the rights and choices of their mothers (who are actually fully alive and conscious) over hypothetical lives that are not alive or conscious.

      2. LOL you know that pregnant women can and do have sex, right? And coerced pregnancy is actually a way in which some men exert control over women.

      • TheodoreSeeber

        1. A skin cell has the same DNA as the person it was taken from (in many cases, so does a tumor, but of course a tumor can be from a mutation). A fetus, on the other hand was not created by mutation and has different DNA than the mother.

        2. Consciousness as a line is bigotry.

        • Xiaorong

          Pretending that women don’t exist is bigotry.

          • TheodoreSeeber

            I haven’t even got to that point, because of course, if you pretend the fetus isn’t human- then so isn’t anything the fetus grows into- including the woman!

            Any good anti-abortion law needs to allow for conscience protections for health care workers and a reasonable emergency room triage. Triage is not incompatible with personhood.

  • jimftz

    Here are a few comments on your thoughtful post:
    1. From the interconnectedness of life and death your draw the conclusion that if life is sacred, then it also follows that ‘death is sacred’. It seems to me, though,
    that this needs some qualifications. The way you state it in your article
    would, I think, lead to the idea that, for example, war is sacred (which not a
    few have argued for), or even that murder is sacred. A blanket statement like
    ‘death is sacred’ could, left on its own, justify human sacrrifice as much as
    abortion. These consideration lead me to think that this rich idea needs some
    further fleshing out.

    2. The idea that the moral status of a fetus depends on certain
    capacities which determine humanity strikes me as equally problematic. It leads to
    questioning the humanity of those who are in some way mentally deficient either
    by birth (e.g. oxygen starvation of the brain), or by accident (a brain
    crippling car crash), or through natural processes such as degenerative old
    age. Again, it feels to me like this is a rich idea, but one which needs more
    examples and is, I believe, more complex.

    My own take on abortion is that it involves an actual conflict of interest. Randians like to say that there is no actual conflict of interest in society, but I think the tension between the life of a fetus and the life of a mother undermines that view. My view is that both lives have legitimate claims and that these claims can be in conflict. I believe the conflict is in many respects unresolvable and that this unresolvability is built into the situation. It is because I believe that the conflict is innate and unresolvable that I feel the ultimate decision should be the mother’s and whoever she agrees to include in a decsion-making role.


    • Gus diZerega

      I wrote that death is sacred as a part of life, its inevitable conclusion, and necessary for a life such as ours to exist. Taken in isolation there is nothing sacred about death since it is the entire process of living that enables the kinds of relationships out of which value emerges, such as love. Death is of value only to the degree it contributes to making the value of life greater than it would otherwise be.

      My brief answer to your second point is that human fallibility leads the wise to error on the side of caution. People who are mentally deficient are still capable of entering into relationships with us in ways no animal can. I have a niece with Downs, and she is far beyond an animal in her relating with us. But if someone has suffered such damage as to be incapable of entering into relationships with us now or in the future, as in the Terry Schiavo example, then yes, I would be in favor of “pulling the plug.” Certainly I would want it pulled were that the case for me and made that point clear a few years back during a stroke.

      Yet even here, a mentally deficient person, even a seriously mentally deficient one requiring institutionalization, is not impinging on another the way an unwelcome fetus impinges on a woman. The cases are not really analogous.

      Finally, yes, abortion involves a conflict of interests, but it does not involve a conflict of equal interests. To look ahead to a future post, IF the spirit of the fetus is completely human, it has imposed itself on the mother and would not die if the pregnancy were terminated. It could go elsewhere where it was more welcome, or it could wait. If on the other hand there is no spirit in the fetus then, until there is, there are no interests of note to conflict.

      • jimftz

        I look forward to your further refelctions. I just want to make a brief point here: the conflict of interest I am referring to here is, I believe, impervious to analysis. I believe this because how one weighs the conflicting interests depends on subjectivities rather than on objective, measurable factors. It is also accutely context-dependent. For example, if a pregnant woman is seriously injured in a car accident and is determined to be brain dead, is it right or wrong to keep the body functioning until delivery? I don’t know; honestly I would have to leave it to those directly involved. I can see good arguments from both sides. And this is just one scenario.

        • Gus diZerega

          But Jim- Your example is not really a conflict of interest. The brain dead woman has, given your description, no interests. A secularist would say she is gone. I would say her spirit has gone, or might be hanging around because her body has not died, but either way she is no longer acting or planning to act physically in the world. She has no worldly interests that would be injured if her body is kept alive long enough to deliver a fetus- and that question it would seem to me hinges on two issues: how far along in development is the fetus and what is the position of those who will be responsible for it after birth. Even here another factor that seems important but we do not know how important is its dependency on a conscious mother with good emotional health for coming into the world in good shape.

          So yes, it is a subjective judgment, but I think only in the sense that every judgement about values has a subjective dimension.

  • Sylvi Hunt

    I only approve of abortion when the life of the mother is posed in great danger, for example the mother is having an ectopic pregnancy when there is no other option but to abort the baby before it disrupts the mother’s ovary. On the other hand, I am against abortion just because the mother believes that it is her right whether she wants to continue her pregnancy or terminate it.

    Hard Money Lenders

    • Gus diZerega

      Sylvi-It would be enlightening for you to try and engage in an actual discussion. As a personal ethic you acn believe what you wish on these issues, but insofar as you want to put your beliefs into law, honesty and decency requires you to try and engage with people with different views. That is one difference between freedom and dictatorship.

    • Gus diZerega

      Notice- I invited Sylvi to give us some reasons for her views some days ago, especially since a great deal lies between the extremes she presented. Silence ensued. In my experience a great many so-called ‘pro-life’ people are arrogant enough to believe that simply because they think something, they have the right to coerce everyone else to follow their beliefs. At this point I would use Sylvi as an example of such arrogance.

  • http://ourgirlsclub.blogspot.com/ Ginny Bain Allen

    What are your thoughts and feelings on these clumps/lumps?


    • Gus diZerega

      I believe this column just explained what they are.

  • GimliGirl

    As a Pagan who’s been there, who’s struggled with my own personal ethics and morals and the decision of whether or not to have an abortion I deeply appreciate your thoughts on this matter. Ultimately a woman’s body is her own, and the decision of whether or not to have children and when is up to her and her alone. The decision is made within her own mind and soul and noone, not her partner or pastor or priest/ess or even the Gods themselves have any say in the matter. Each of us has to do what we feel is right for ourselves and our family. I made my choice and don’t regret it, and I’m at peace with it. I’ve had some Pagans say “But ‘an it harm none!’ How does that fit in?” and my line is “What is more harmful? Having a baby you don’t want, or can’t keep or take care of? That maybe has horrible birth defects and will only live minutes or hours in horrible suffering and then die? Or having a simple, safe medical procedure?”

    Keep in mind; one in three women will have an abortion. That’s a LOT of women. Likely most Pagans know someone who’s had one but they’re just not talking about it because it’s SO taboo. It shouldn’t be. These stories need to be told so the stigma that surrounds the issue, and the lies the ‘prolife’ side try to tell, can be abolished. Women don’t just saunter into a clinic and get an abortion done the same as having a pedicure. Most women lack access and have to wait for days or weeks, and pay for it out of pocket, and travel long distances. It’s a big decision that’s also a logistical nightmare. Add in a lump of faith-based guilt? And you’ve just made a tough situation worse.

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