A Personal Note on Abortion

My previous columns have all given theoretical arguments rebutting claims that women should not have final control over deciding whether or not to carry a fetus to term. I argued that respect for life could not justify such claims, that the pre-existence of entities seeking birth or rebirth could not do so, and that there are no very firm grounds in the Bible to consider a fetus a human being. These columns also demonstrated the leadership of the pro-life movement is not pro-life in any coherent sense.

But let us be clear about something. Abortion is anything but abstract and theoretical. A potential human being is expelled from the world. A woman’s life is profoundly affected as she makes one of the weightiest decisions she can make. How we approach instances where abortion is a possibility is not just a matter for theoretical arguments. Each case is profoundly personal and profoundly concrete. And so I think I should end my discussion with a very personal instance from my own life. For me, although I am a man, this issue is not just theoretical.

About 13 years ago, a dear friend of mine got pregnant. She was unmarried and felt her biological clock ticking. She had long wanted a child, but her partner of many years did not. She and her partner had broken up, and she was now supporting herself in a large city. After she became pregnant, the father told her he would provide no aid in rearing a child and would have nothing to do with it.

She asked me, among others, what she should do.

I counseled her to get an abortion.

After a while, she told me she had decided to keep the fetus and eventually begin her life as a single mom. I and other friends of hers supported her in her decision and hoped everything would turn out okay for them both. We helped as we could.

She moved to the East Coast to be close to her parents and have nearby family support. In time, she gave birth to a healthy son.

Shortly thereafter, she asked me to be his Godfather.

I happily accepted. I was and remain utterly delighted to have him as my Godson, and I do all I can to support him. In a way, he is the son I will never have as, at 65, I am childless. He is growing up to be a wonderful human being, and his mother is doing a wonderful job aiding him along that path. Her life has been hard at times, but I have never heard her question her decision. And she deeply loves her son.

Knowing what I know now, would I counsel a woman in a similar situation to have an abortion today?

Yes, I would.

Equally important, I would be supportive of her no matter what her decision.

Am I contradicting myself or am I in denial?

I do not think so.

The boy I love did not exist in any sense when she asked me that question so many years ago. He was an unknown potential. Had she had an abortion, in time she would almost certainly have gotten pregnant again and given birth to a different child—a child who, because of her decision to bring the first fetus to term, never had a chance to exist. I would also have loved that child and, if asked to be his or her Godfather, I would have happily accepted.

Every pregnancy not only creates a potential human being, it also potentially prevents other human beings from coming into existence. On balance, those beings would also have developed into (different) lovable children and hopefully (different) loving adults.

There are countless millions of potential children who never came into being because their prospective mothers were already pregnant or their prospective parents met other mates, or an egg accepted one sperm and not another, or for many other reasons. Had they come into being, they would be as worthy of love and care as any of those who did. But they did not and they never will. They will never exist, but had things been different, they would have.

Throughout life we are surrounded by roads forking in mutually exclusive directions, some probably fulfilling and wonderful, others likely leading to disaster. To have or not have a child, and when to do so, are choices available only to women. But women and men are both often confronted by choices of similarly great importance. What will I choose to do to support myself? Who, if anyone, will be my life partner? Where will I live? Where will I go to college, if I go at all? Even choices that seemed minor at the time can ultimately have major effects, such that our lives would be profoundly different had we made them differently. Many a marriage had its roots when two young people who otherwise never would have met attended a wedding. Had one or the other caught a cold and stayed home, there would have been different weddings—and different children.

All of these unexplored options would have shaped human lives. But we owe nothing to choices not made, roads not taken, potentials we chose not to pursue. Responsibility exists and potential obligations arise only when we are called upon to make a choice, and then only for the consequences of that choice.

Were a similar woman to ask me a similar question today, I would give her a similar answer, because I am aware the path a single mom walks is almost always a tough and demanding one. If she is to do a good job as a mother, another person’s needs will often take precedence over her personal hopes and dreams. Her health might suffer as well, and she could even die during childbirth, as nearly happened to a woman I know.

By contrast, the child who will exist should she keep the fetus and all turn out okay is an unknown, a hypothetical, one possible fork in the road of her life. She is confronted with making a radical choice, a choice that if she keeps the fetus will almost certainly make her life more difficult. She will make sacrifices for a still-hypothetical human being.

It is appropriate for us to answer her question in terms of what we believe is best for her, a person we know and for whom we care. For the same reason, it is important for us to respect and support her decision, whatever it is. I am not her, and I do not walk in her shoes. If we care for her, we respect her decision, totally.

To my mind it is vitally important that a woman make this choice from her heart as well as her mind, so that if she chooses motherhood, she does so motivated only by a desire to have a child and raise him or her to adulthood. This heart dimension of her choice is hers and hers alone. Love cannot be commanded, but a child must be loved if it is to be raised well.

Of course, her choice affects many other lives. Because my friend did not do as I suggested, her decision ultimately changed mine very much for the better. I will be grateful all my life. But better, worse, or no impact at all, how her choice potentially affected me lent no more ethical weight to her decision. The choice was entirely hers.

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