Two weeks ago, I posted two essays about abortion. In the first one, Karen Swallow Prior articulated “Why I Am Pro-Life.” In the second, Ellen Painter Dollar wrote “Why I Am Pro-Choice.” Both of these women are friends and colleagues, and I am very grateful to them and to those of you who read this blog and commented on both posts for maintaining a respectful and thoughtful dialogue surrounding these issues. As promised, here is the beginning of a few posts that follow up on those initial essays, in which I posed questions for Karen and Ellen as I try to clarify my own views surrounding the ethics and legality of abortion. Please check back in tomorrow for Ellen’s response. For now, here’s Karen:
You believe that human life begins at conception. Does that make abortion the moral equivalent of murder?
Abortion is the taking of a human life. Legally and ethically, different terms are used to describe different forms of such acts: murder, suicide, manslaughter, etc. These all differ in some degree in legal and moral respects. Since abortion is an act of violence not only against the unborn child, but also against the mother, I would favor the law treating it as something more akin to (attempted) suicide rather than murder: the legal response to the illegal attempt to kill oneself is the provision of a safety net that addresses the issues that led to such an attempt. With abortion, as Frederica Mathewes-Green has so astutely observed, “No woman wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg.” The weight of the law should be directed at resolving the underlying issues that compel a woman to seek an abortion.
In saying that you are “pro-life,” I assume you mean (and correct me if I’m wrong) that abortion should be illegal, or at least not protected by the constitution. How do you respond to Ellen Painter Dollar’s contention that making abortion illegal will ultimately perpetuate the destruction of human life, only now in a way that poses grave physical risks to the mother as well as the unborn child?
Yes, I believe that the first function of the law is to protect human life; the more helpless that life is, the more legal protections are warranted. It goes without saying that any act made illegal makes that act more difficult and dangerous to carry out and, certainly, that would be true of abortion. The fact that some people will break a law has never been nor should be the sole basis for determining whether or not a law should exist; there will always be those who violate any given law. To me, the crucial question is first whether or not a law is just, and where what constitutes justice is disputed, whether more or less harm will be done by a law. I believe far less harm will be done to children and women if the law protects the lives of unborn children. With that said, our society is a long way, I think, from this, and I don’t expect abortion to be made illegal until we as a society are more willing to do what is necessary to make abortion less sought after. You write that you would allow abortion in the case of saving the life of the mother. In these cases, would the mother be the person who gets to choose? How, if at all, would the government be involved?
If the law were to require doctors to “do no harm,” inasmuch as doctors fulfill this mandate there is no “choosing” involved. In the case where something is seriously wrong, doctors are not creating the circumstances of harm, but doing all they can to alleviate whatever existing harm or danger they can. Such rare scenarios in which doctors do all they can to save both lives but fail in the efforts are categorically different from elective abortion on demand.
I have two friends who chose to abort babies when they found out, at 20 weeks, that their children had heart defects that were probably fatal. One of these women said she wanted to carry her baby to term, but she was afraid that her child would be forced to undergo multiple surgeries and endure much suffering rather than being allowed to die without intervention. What role, if any, should the government play in both the decision to abort a child with major physical abnormalities and/or the decision to intervene in the life of a baby who will probably die?
First, the prediction of “probable” death is problematic for obvious reasons: doctors aren’t God, and making the parents play that role in light of that fact strikes me as sinister. George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 portrays the ultimate triumph of a totalitarian government as the moment when external restraints of its tyranny are no longer necessary because they have been completely internalized by the subject. Similarly, I think that what Pope John Paul II called the “culture of death” has clearly triumphed when those who love and cherish a child most willingly choose to become the agents of that child’s death. The government should promote a culture of life, not a culture of death. The details of how that might play out can’t be exactly delineated for all cases, but the underlying principle can still be advanced – or not.