Questions about Both Sides of the Abortion Debate

Questions about Both Sides of the Abortion Debate July 31, 2013

Questions about Both Sides of the Abortion Debate

Many states, including Texas, are in the throes of debates over access to abortions. Many fear or hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will one day overturn Row vs. Wade and decide that all or most abortions are illegal. If that day comes, many people will say it iswas much the fault of the “pro-choice” movement as of anyone.

Why? Because both sides in the debates over abortion have been too absolutistic, too totalizing—either shouting that all abortions amount to murder or that women should have absolute freedom of control over their own bodies including having virtually free access to abortions at any time during pregnancy for any reason.

The vast majority of Americans hold opinions about abortion somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, but the loudest voices are found at the extreme ends of the spectrum of opinions. One rarely reads or hears a “pro-life” activists qualifying his or her stance to accommodate pregnant women in distress; they tend to treat all abortions as only for convenience—a means of birth control after the fact. One rarely reads or hears a “pro-choice” activist qualifying his or her stance to take into account the fact that what’s inside the pregnant woman is a human life with worth and value, not just a piece of tissue like a mole on skin.

Most legislators and judges have recognized the complicated nature of the abortion issue and have attempted, however unsuccessfully, to forge laws that take something of both sides into account. Most states allow non-therapeutic abortions only up to the point of “viability,” where the fetus is capable of living outside the womb. Some, however, including the District of Columbia, allow a pregnant woman to have an abortion at any time during the pregnancy including minutes before delivery.

Anyone who dares to wade into this controversy with any nuances knows what awaits him or her—vitriolic condemnations from extremists. A person who seeks any sort of middle ground between the extremes is bound to be attacked by one side as a collaborator with murder and by the other side as anti-freedom and anti-women. The loudest and most persistent voices in the debate resist any hint of compromise and will only be satisfied if their extreme positions are codified into law.

I’ll lay some of my cards on the table here and now. I consider myself “consistently pro-life,” but I recognize tragic exceptions. I’m against war but I’m not a pacifist. Some wars are tragically necessary. I supported the U.N.’s and United States’ invasion of parts of the Balkans to stop the genocide happening there. I did not support the United States’ invasion of Panama, for example, as I judged it completely unnecessary and an example of American imperialism (ruling an empire without clear borders).

Many years ago I participated in and helped lead one of the first pro-life rallies/demonstrations after Roe vs. Wade. I was in seminary and on the pastoral staff of a church. A large group of ministers from the region marched through downtown and ended at the Catholic cathedral where we held an ecumenical prayer service to end abortion-on-demand. Even then, however, I felt some qualms about some of the chants and signs of some of the demonstrators and about some of the prayers and speeches in the cathedral. They were too absolutistic—equating all abortions with murder without exception.

Over the years I’ve had many conversations with “pro-life” activists. When they equate all abortions with murder and advocate banning all abortions I routinely ask them “What about an ectopic pregnancy?” I have never encountered a “pro-life” activist who even knew what I was talking about or acknowledged it as a legitimate question.

Over the years I’ve had many conversations with “pro-choice” activists. When I ask them if they consider the fetus a human life and believe it is of greater value and worth than a skin mole, for example, I just get hostile stares and possibly lectures about “reproductive freedom” and a women’s right to control her own body.

So here are some questions I would like to pose to what I consider extremists on both sides of the abortion debate:

1) If you believe a person has absolute right to control his or her own body, do you believe a person, a woman, for example, has a right to sell a vital organ such as a kidney or ingest a drug such as cocaine?

Only a few radical libertarians believe a person has absolute right to do whatever he or she wants with his or her body—without qualifications such as those. But what principle gives a woman the right to abort a viable fetus for convenience’s sake (for example) but not the right to sell her kidney or ingest cocaine, say, during pregnancy?

2) If you believe a fetus is a human person with the “right to life” in the sense you mean it, why don’t you hold a funeral after a miscarriage?

Sure, some do, but that’s a recent response to this question on the part of some “pro-life” activists. But I have never heard of anyone holding a funeral for a miscarried embryo.

3) If you believe that all abortions are murders, what do you say to a woman with an ectopic pregnancy that is absolutely not viable under any circumstances and that, if attempted to be carried on without intervention, will end the mother’s life (and the fetus’s) in unimaginable agony? And what do you say to a thirteen year old girl who has been raped and become pregnant as a result?

4) If you believe absolutely in “reproductive rights,” do you believe a person should be allowed by law to clone himself? If not, why not? If so, have you taken into account the fact that the clone will be the same cellular age as the man immediately upon being created?

5) If you believe that a human embryo/fetus is a full human life for religious reasons (which most “pro-life” activists do), worthy of the full protection of law from conception on (which most “pro-life” activists do), how do you deal with the fact that the Bible says little to nothing about abortion?

Under Hebrew law as revealed in the Pentateuch, for example, a man who attacks a pregnant woman and causes her to abort is not guilty of murder. There were methods of abortion in “biblical times,” so how do you deal with the fact that nowhere in the Bible is abortion specifically condemned as murder?

6) If you believe that a human infant, newly born, is worthy of the full protection of law against murder and abuse but that a full term fetus is not, how exactly do you draw the line at which that right to protection begins? What exactly is the difference between a fully developed and ready-to-be-born fetus and a just-born infant—in terms of ontology (being) and ethics (rights)?

7) If you believe, as many “pro-choice” activists do, that a viable human fetus does not deserve legal protection from being killed by its mother, what do you think should be done to a person who causes a woman to have an abortion against her will? What crime was committed? What ought the penalty to be? Should it be harsher than if the perpetrator cut off her hair against her will? Why?

It seems to me that many, perhaps most, of the most vocal “pro-choice” activists fail to realize, fail to take into account, that their counterparts in the debate, “pro-life” activists, really believe that fetuses are human lives worthy of protection against especially unnecessary killing. Their absolutist “pro-choice” position has forced them into a form of denial which is that nobody in their right mind could think that. Of course they cannot allow themselves to consider the possibility that a fetus is a human life with rights. And yet most would condemn a pregnant woman who drinks to excess or smokes!

It seems to me that many, perhaps most, of the most vocal “pro-life” activists fail to realize, fail to take into account, that many pregnant women seek abortions to save their own lives or health. (I have known women who underwent abortions extremely reluctantly only when advised by a doctor that if they attempted to carry the pregnancy to full term their health could forever be destroyed. There are some complications of pregnancy that make the woman so ill that getting through the nine months would very possibly be so deleterious to her physical well being as to shorten her own life or cause her to be disabled in some way.)

It seems to me that this debate is fraught with inconsistencies on the extremes of both sides.

Everyone wants especially a Christian ethicist to have an absolute answer to the complex issue of abortion—to be either absolutely “pro-life” (anti-all-abortions) or absolutely “pro-choice” (for every woman’s right always and under any circumstances to obtain an abortion for any reason). In my opinion, good ethicists, including Christian ethicists, are loath to offer simplistic solutions to complex issues. There is no simplistic solution to this complex issue. There is, however, room for compromise between the sides; that middle ground is, unfortunately, too little explored and discussed. What I think that middle ground might include is for another post—when I’ve worked it out in my own mind more consistently and thoroughly.

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  • Regarding question 2, I haven’t heard of full-scale funerals with others invited, but I have heard of a few where the parents held their own private ceremony of sorts.

    • Roger Olson

      I acknowledged that, but my point is I never heard of it (and I grew up in a pastor’s home) until recently. I think it’s a result of the pro-life movement. So my question is and remains why people never did this before–if Christians believe embryos are human beings in the full sense.

      • Sqrat

        Perhaps the relevant question to ask in the abortion debate is not whether embryos or fetuses are “human beings in the full sense,” but rather what gives an entity a moral right to its own continued existence, regardless of the extent to which the label “human” applies to it.
        For example, one can perform a thought experiment and ask whether an intelligent alien from another planet would have a moral right to life even though it is clearly not a human being. If so, why? One could perform another thought experiment and ask whether a sentient robot of our own creation, which is also clearly not a human being, would have a moral right not to be unplugged or disassembled by us. If so, why? In this case, would it make any difference if the robot were programmed to care about its own continued existence, or not programmed to care about its own continued existence?
        How we answer those questions might shed some light on how we ought to approach the abortion question.

        • Roger Olson

          True. Also, what about the status of a clone? If I traveled to a country where cloning humans is legal (I don’t know if there are any) and had myself cloned, what would be the legal and moral status of the clone? This is one reason, I believe, we should strictly avoid human cloning; the danger is very great that clones would be considered other than completely human in the full sense of human rights.

          • Sqrat

            Perhaps the danger arises because of a mistaken conception that what we call “human rights” are “human” rights, so that if you’re human, you have them, but if you’re not human, or “less than human”, you don’t have them. In the abortion debate, this plays out as an endless squabble over whether a fetus is, or is not, a “human being.”

          • Roger Olson

            Yes, this is much of what it comes down to. Many pro-choice people have dug in their heels and refused even to consider the possibility that the fetus is a human being. But that seems irrational to me.

          • Sqrat

            I think this rather misses the point of my comment, Roger. What I was trying to suggest is that the moral rights that it has may not be dependent on whether we affix the label “human being” to the fetus.

            True, under U.S. constitutional law, it makes all the difference in the world whether that label properly applies. Under the 14th Amendment, “no State shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Thus, it is crucial in a legal sense whether the fetus is a “person” (like, you know, the way a corporation is a “person”), because whether it is or not determines whether a state is constitutionally obliged to grant it the equal protection of its laws. However, it’s not necessarily crucial in a moral/philosophical sense. “Human being” does not, BY DEFINITION, mean “an entity possessing a certain suite of moral rights.”

          • Donalbain

            Try that again, but with the question “what is the status of a twin?”

          • Roger Olson

            I don’t think the two (twin and clone) are exactly alike in terms of legal questions that will inevitably arise (should a person choose to clone himself). One does not choose to have a twin and a twin is gestated and born in the normal way where legal issues are settled. Cloning opens a new can of worms. Also, a clone is already, at creation, cellularly, the same age as the person he or she was cloned from. That’s a huge issue and a major reason we, as a society, so far, anyway, forbid human cloning.

  • Anonymous Pastor

    Great post.

    My wife and I faced one of those “midde-ground” scenarios a few years ago when we discovered that the child she was carrying had a condition called “acrania.” This basically means that the skull never develops and these pregnancies are 100% fatal and delivery can be very unpleasant.

    A minister and his wife seeking out an abortion felt like a huge contradiction to our faith. We recognized the life, yet chose what we thought was the lesser of two tragedies. The procedure was carried out in a hospital where the doctor and staff recognized our pain, grief, and loss. It ended up being much more dignified than I thought.

    Most of our friends and church have been understanding and supportive. Yet, a few have been very “absolutist” in their plight – to the extent of messaging us on the day of the procedure and begging us to reconsider.

    From this experience, I’ve realized that we were not educated about all the possible scenarios in which abortion might be considered, and have tried to give voice to the “middle ground” when given the opportunity.

    It’s not easy to do, but the questions you pose here are an excellent start.

  • R Vogel

    It is so refreshing reading a sober voice of reason in such a divisive debate. I applaud you perspective, but have little faith that it will gain much truck from either side – the extremists of both sides just continue to push people, at least in public discourse, to the extremes.

  • Susan_G1

    I am pro-choice, but would like to see the numbers of abortions reduced to an absolute minimum. I would have no difficulty answering any of your questions. What I fail to comprehend, however, is the lack of discussion of contraception and sex ed in the Christian abortion conversation. If (as has been shown) the best way to decrease abortion is by the easy availability of contraception and how to use it, why is this never part of the conversation?

    • Roger Olson

      It has been part of the conversation where I’ve been involved. But perhaps you mean why don’t pro-life people talk about it more? Most pro-life people are conservative Christians and are reluctant to give young people permission to have sex before marriage. Educating them about birth control methods (especially at young ages) implies that they are expected to be having sex. It’s a conundrum, yes it is.

      • gimpi1

        Perhaps, Roger, they might have to decide which matter they feel is more important. Sometimes, the perfect truly is the enemy of the good.

        Also, I know some Christians mistakenly believe than birth-control is an abortion. A fellow-correspondent on Patheos expressed her problems with this stance far better than I can:

        I admit, I personally see a desire to judge people, especially women, and a need to see those women “suffer for their sins” behind much of the controversy over birth-control. I could be wrong, but that is how it looks from the outside, especially when folks presented with evidence that their fears are ungrounded resist the evidence rather than let go of the fears.

        • Roger Olson

          I edited out the URL as usual. As I’ve said several times here recently, I don’t have time to inspect every link, so I prefer people not include them in their comments.

          • gimpi1

            Noted, Roger. I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks.

  • Nathaniel

    There’s a court case I feel explains my position quite clearly. It involves a man who needed a bone marrow transplant, of the sort that was both extraordinarily hard to find compatible donors for and was necessary to save his life. They only found one such donor, a cousin. The cousin refused to give the marrow, and the dying person took his cousin to court to attempt to force the issue. The court decided against the dying man.

    In their own words,

    “Although a diligent search has produced no authority, the Plaintiff cites
    the ancient statute of King Edward I, St. Westminster 2, 13 Ed., I, c 24,
    point out, as is the case, that this Court is a successor to the English
    courts of Chancery and derives power from this statute, almost 700 years old.
    The question posed by the Plaintiff is that, in order to save the life of one
    of its members by the only means available, may society infringe upon one’s
    absolute right to his “bodily security”?

    The common law has consistently held to a rule which provides that one human
    being is under no legal compulsion to give aid or to take action to save that
    human being or to rescue. A great deal has been written regarding this rule
    which, on the surface, appears to be revolting in a moral sense. Introspection,
    however, will demonstrate that the rule if founded upon the very essence of
    our free society. It is noteworthy that counsel for the Plaintiff has cited
    authority which has developed in other societies in support of the Plaintiff’s
    request in this instance. Our society, contrary to many others, has as its
    first principle, the respect for the individual, and that society and government
    exist to protect the individual from being invaded and hurt by another. Many
    societies adopt a contrary view which has the individual existing to serve
    the society as a whole. In preserving such a society as we have it is bound
    to happen that great moral conflicts will arise and will appear harsh in a given
    instance. In this case, the chancellor is being asked to force one member of
    society to undergo a medical procedure which would provide that part of that
    individual’s body would be removed from him and given to another so that the
    other could live. Morally, this decision rests with the Defendant, and, in
    the view of the Court, the refusal of the Defendant is morally indefensible.
    For our law to compel the defendant to submit to an intrusion of his body
    would change the very concept and principle upon which our society is founded.
    To do so would defeat the sanctity of the individual, and would impose a rule
    which would know no limits, and one could not imagine where the line would be
    drawn. This request is not to be compared with an action at law for damages,
    but rather is an action in equity before a Chancellor, which, in the ultimate,
    if granted, would require the submission to the medical procedure. For a
    society, which respects the rights of one individual, to sink its teeth into
    the jugular vein or neck of one of its members and suck from it sustenance
    for another member, is revolting to our hard-wrought concept of jurisprudence.
    [Forcible] extraction of living body tissue causes revulsion to the judicial
    mind. Such would raise the specter of the swastika and the inquisition,
    reminiscent of the horrors this portends.”

    Do you agree with their reasoning and the outcome? If its unconscionable to for the state to compel someone to allow use of their bone marrow for the sake of another, how is it conscionable for the state to compel a woman to allow use of her uterus for the sake of another?

    • Roger Olson

      What a strange way of framing the question. Where was the woman when her uterus became home to her fetus? It seems like an apples and oranges argument to me.

      • Nathaniel

        Where the woman was is immaterial. She could have been raped. It could have been consensual sex. It is irrelevant.

        Even if a fetus is a person, this court case directly states that one’s bodily security cannot be violated, even for the safety of another. Once again, why is it unacceptable to force someone to give up use of a kidney or bone marrow but is supposedly alright for someone to be compelled to give up use of their uterus?

        • Roger Olson

          I don’t see it as irrelevant and you are comparing apples and oranges–especially IF a human life is at stake which you seem to assume one is not. What if one is?

        • Rob

          “Give up use of their uterus”? What else would she use it for? What else is a uterus for?

          Why wouldn’t the principle you cite “one’s bodily security cannot be violated, even for the safety of another” not count in favor of the fetus?

          In the example of the sick man needing the transplant, the sick person is only demanding aid. It does not “violate his bodily security” to fail to receive aid.

          But the bodily security of the fetus just requires living in his/her placenta. So abortion violates the bodily security of the fetus. And that is never allowed according to your principle.

          • Roger Olson

            Rob, keep on wasting your breath if you wish. You’re obviously arguing with someone who does not consider a fetus a human life, just a lump of tissue.

      • Ian

        “Where was the woman when her uterus became home to her fetus?” There is a horrible (and rather well evidenced) suspicion that many Christian anti-abortion activists see unwanted pregnancy as a deserved punishment for a woman having unnecessary sex. If you’re going to spread your legs, you’d better be willing to take the consequences. That comment didn’t help.

        But, lets say, we do treat it differently. Would you extend that. If a man had a child who needed an organ, would you allow the law to compel the man to have surgery against their will to provide it (providing that the risk of death was no more than, say the fatality rate from pregnancy?)

        Let’s hypothesize a situation (which isn’t far from being medically feasible) that we can implant a fetus and gestate it inside a male body. Would you support laws in that case that can compel the father of a child to undergo that operation, gestate the baby, and undergo another operation to have it removed at term?

        Or is this an line of argument that is only specious when it concerns women and sex?

        • Roger Olson

          I believe that men who father a child should be required by law to support him or her. So, no sexism here.

          • gimpi1

            I would point out that the man is only being required to risk his money, not his life or health. There are very real risks associated with pregnancy and childbirth. My health and an inherited genetic problem are two reasons my husband and I decided not to have kids. I had a tubal, something some of the more extreme folks in the pro-life movement believe I shouldn’t have been able to choose.

            Also, many men required to pay child-support refuse, even going so far to quit or refuse employment or go “off the grid” to avoid making payments.

          • Roger Olson

            I don’t know any pro-life people who are advocating that tubal ligations be banned.

          • gimpi1

            There’s a reply to me that’s not showing up for some reason, from Mr. Olson saying that he knows of no pro-life people suggesting that tubals be banned. I was also unaware of this position until recently, when I corresponded with two. One believed the process should be banned in law, that, in his words, “No one has to have sex.” He believed the only way to space pregnancies was by celibacy, enforced by co-sleeping with your child until the child was three or so. He told me, again in his words, “If you shouldn’t have kids, don’t have sex.” He also predicted my husband would leave me if I was ever very sick, since a man who wouldn’t accept a celibate marriage couldn’t really love me. I have to regard him as a bubble off plumb.

            The other fellow wouldn’t ban the procedure in law, but would disallow any insurance payment for it, making it out of reach for all but rich women (I’m not rich), and go back to requiring permission from a board of doctors. He believed, “Medicine should serve life, not prevent life.” He would prefer most birth-control not exist, and would ban, in law, unmarried people accessing it. (Not condoms, for some reason.) He seemed much more reasonable than the first fellow, and came to his position as a devout Catholic.

            I know those are only two people. and that’s why I put in the disclaimer that this was an extreme position.

    • Rob

      Classical liberalism will see the case you cite as identical to the situation of a pregnant woman but a natural law theorist (in the Thomist sense not the Hobbesian) will deny that the two cases are alike.

      In classical liberalism, the good for any rational agent originates in a commitment or project adopted by the agent’s rational will. Rights enjoin the rest of us to respect and not interfere with these projects. A classical liberal will see no difference between the two cases because both boil down to the projects and commitments of the agent and those projects and commitments do not include aiding someone else.

      A natural law theorist denies that the good for a human originates in a rationally autonomous will. Humans come into being fully-stocked with certain ends and capacities that constitute the good for them. Choice can no more override these than it can the law of gravity. The goods and ends prescribed by our human nature ground any rights we may have.

      So the natural law theorist will certainly not think that sick person has a right to aid that overrides a right to bodily integrity. But this very same reasoning will conclude that the woman does not have a right to subordinate her biological ends to her arbitrary choice. Her body is functioning toward an end which constitutes the good for her and another life.

      So really, it will come down to where we think rights come from and what we think determines our good–nature or our own choice?

      • Roger Olson

        Again, very well thought out and articulated, Rob. Thank you. Then, of course, there are those Christian ethicists who rely on divine command for grounding rights (rather than either socially-granted rights or natural rights).

    • Quid

      The two are not related. The cousin refused to act to save the dying man. Certainly a sin, but I agree that the state has no right to force him to donate bone marrow. With abortion the mother is not just sitting around when her child dies, she is directly killing it, whether with a pill or a scalpel. You concede that the women and child are two, separate human persons, then the state has the right to protect the child from the mother, just like it has the right to protect you from being killed by me.

  • BigBlueWave

    I get the feeling you’ve never talked to pro-life activists. They didn’t know what an ectopic pregnancy was or how to deal with it? The standard answer is to cut the fallopian tube. And yes, there are pro-lifers who hold services for their miscarried babies. I had a miscarriage at 23 days’ gestation. I did not have a body so I could not hold a funeral, but I had a memorial Mass said in my child’s honour. The answers are all on the web if you Google them.

    • Roger Olson

      Huh? Cutting the fallopian tube causes an abortion–whether called that or not. I grew up in churches and around churches and never heard of a memorial Mass or service of any kind for a miscarried embryo until after the pro-life movement really got going.

      • BigBlueWave

        Pro-lifers and pro-choicers work with different definitions of abortion.

        Pro-choicers work with the definition that any act to to prematurely end pregnancy is an abortion.

        Pro-lifers work with the definition that abortion is the intentional direct attack on the fetus. Historically this was known as a “direct abortion”. In today’s language, when pro-lifers talk about abortion, they’re talking about “direct abortion”.

        Where there is no other choice to save the life of the mother, and the death of the fetus is unintended, an *indirect abortion* is permitted. So as long as you don’t chop up the fetus or inject some poison in him or directly try to kill him, you may remove him from the mother’s body intact.

        Re: funerals. You said ” If you believe a fetus is a human person with the “right to life” in the sense you mean it, why don’t you hold a funeral after a miscarriage?”

        I was under the impression you were speaking of now. I can’t speak to the past. But any baby would have been eligible to be honored with some kind of Memorial Mass.

        • Roger Olson

          I still think you are missing my point. First, I’ve never heard the language of “direct” versus “indirect” abortion before now. Second, holding funerals for miscarried embryos, if it ever happens, is a result of some in the pro-life movement thinking through the logical implications of an absolutist position on abortion. I still have never heard of one for a miscarried embryo.

      • Johnny

        The pro-life movement is not the sole motivator for services for lost pregnancies. Clinical psychologists believe it can be of great therapeutic value. The Mayo Clinic Handbook on Pregnancy commends it. The only reason it does not happen routinely and has only recently begun occurring is social acceptability. Couples are afraid to ask for a service or to include others because they are afraid it will be seen as an overreaction since it was “just” a miscarriage. I know this from personal experience. However, my lost children were every bit as much my children at three months gestation as they would have been at three months after delivery.

        • Roger Olson

          I never heard anyone say anything like that until the pro-life movement really got going. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s (pre-Roe vs. Wade) and knew many, many women (in the church my father pastored) who had miscarriages. I never heard that any of them expressed the sentiment that the lost pregnancy (usually just an embryo) was as tragic as losing an already born child. My wife suffered a miscarriage and, while we were very sad about it, it never even entered either of our minds to consider it in the same category of loss as if our already born daughter had died.

      • Darrin Snyder Belousek

        A fine distinction would be helpful here. I expect that most Catholic “pro-lifers” (and perhaps some Evangelicals) would appeal to the natural law doctrine of “double effect” on the matter of an ectopic pregnancy. Removing the fallopian tube does not directly destroy the embryo, which dies as the indirect effect and unintended consequence of removing the affected fallopian tube for the legitimate medical purpose of relieving the mother’s potentially fatal affliction. In these terms, removing the fallopian tube ends the pregnancy but does not cause an abortion–that is, it is not a directly intended killing (which is always forbidden, under Catholic teaching).

        It is a fine distinction, but many “pro-lifers,” especially Catholics, would hold that view with utmost sincerity. My guess is that the previous respondent’s appeal to this as the “standard answer” is based on this doctrine/distinction.

        • Roger Olson

          For what it’s worth, that defense strikes me as a case of bad casuistry. If they hold to that defense (viz., of ending a human life because it’s only a side effect of a needed surgery), then I don’t see why ending a pregnancy to save the life of the mother is indefensible (to them).

          • Darrin Snyder Belousek

            Let me try to parse the distinction. The natural law tradition (at least as it is understood within neo-Thomist Catholic thinking) maintains that it is always illicit to kill an innocent person either as an end in itself or as a means to an end. In the former case, the killing act aims at the death of the person; in the latter case, the killing act aims through the death of the person to some other end. Either way, one directly intends the destruction of a concrete instance of a basic good (human life), which defines the evil deed. Now, in the case of the ectopic pregnancy (or, similarly, in the case of uterine/ovarian/breast cancer during pregnancy), the removal of the fallopian tube (or, similarly, the radiation/chemo therapy of the cancer) aims at the health/life of the mother, neither at nor through the death of the fetus (which, agreed, is sure to result). The question of the exceptional circumstances under which an (indirect) abortion might be permitted is thus one that cannot be answered in general under natural law–it depends on both the means by which it is done and the end for which it is done. The end of saving the mother’s life would always serve as an end proportionate to the secondary (evil) effect of the death of the fetus (and, many would argue, is the only such end that could justify permitting the secondary effect here). But not all means to a good end are morally equal–this is a key distinction between natural law and utilitarian ethics. A licit means to saving the mother’s life, while it would not aim at the death of the fetus (it aims at the mother’s life), cannot aim through the fetus’ death, either. According to natural law, that is, one cannot directly, intentionally kill the fetus to save the mother. So, the question arises–and this is an empirical, not a moral, question–of whether there are medically legitimate means of saving the mother that do not involve directly killing (e.g. dismembering or poisoning) the fetus to achieve that end. If no such medical means are available, then there are no moral means to saving the mother’s life. It is this line of reasoning that leads some to the (rather uncompassionate) dictum: “Better two deaths than one murder” (i.e., better that both mother and fetus die than the directly intended killing of the fetus).

            I’m not here defending this line of thinking, only trying to explain it as best as I understand it. Personally, I would want to seek an approach that is both ethically consistent and pastorally compassionate. In this regard, I would recommend Kathy Rudy’s book, Beyond Pro-Life and Pro-Choice, as a good start in that direction. She seeks to retrieve the medieval practice of casuistry as a third-way between the absolutism of both “pro-life” and “pro-choice” positions that you describe here (and which she critiques). I would look back even farther, to ancient church practice (e.g., the canons of Basil the Great), as a guide for how the church might address such situations. This practice would allow us to take into account intentions, actions, and circumstances, as well as principles, when judging the seriousness of sins–and, accordingly, distinguish between first-degree murder (“with malice aforethought”) and an abortion procured by a woman in dire straits trying to save her life. Indeed, amazingly, Basil the Great judged the case of a woman who abandons her newborn baby in order to cover up her sin (adultery or fornication) to be equivalent to murder–but judged the case of a woman who, having given birth in an isolated place, abandons her newborn baby because she lacks all means to care for it to be a case of victimhood of circumstance: she owed no penance and was to be immediately absolved. In both cases, the principle is the same: abandoning a helpless newborn to die is wrong. But the judgments in the two cases differ as widely as possible–precisely on account of the differing intentions and circumstances. Why can we not, pastorally, view the abortion of convenience (birth control) as akin to the former case, but view the abortion of necessity (saving the mother’s life) as akin to the latter case? I suggest that we can be compassionate in our practice without sacrificing the consistency of our principles.

          • Roger Olson

            This is helpful and, in general, I agree. I’m just not sure every case can be settled casuistically this way (in advance). One of the differences between Catholic canon law and American law is that the latter admits no exceptions while the former, based as it is on ancient Roman law, allows “special dispensations” (exceptions).

          • Darrin Snyder Belousek

            I agree that not every case can be settled beforehand–in fact, that’s just the point of adopting a casuistic method, the need to decide each case based upon both moral principles and the particularities of the case. I’m talking here only of church practice, not about civil law (which, as you say, must mete out a single standard for all cases, no exceptions).

          • Rob

            I am sympathetic to dde, but it is hard to apply to ectopic pregnancies. You’re aim is to remove the embryo because it is causing the problem. So how is the death of the fetus a foreseen but unintended consequence?

            That would justify pushing the fat man in front of the trolley. I aimed to stop the trolley with a massive weight and it was just a foreseen but unintended effect that the fat guy gets crushed by the trolley.

          • Josh T.

            It sounds to me like a distinction without a difference and sounds like a legalistic way around “technically” being sinful. Basically a woman would have to undergo a procedure which unnecessarily does harm to her reproductive organs and may make having children in the future more difficult, whereas some other abortive method (chemical?) may leave her whole.

            I personally think there may be some legitimacy to the concept of intention and direct/indirect action in the sinfulness of different acts, however, it seems like it doesn’t really change anything of substance when the difference is so subtle, since the motive (saving the mom’s life) and result (death of the fetus) have not changed, only the means. If anything, it just takes the one moral delimma (the destruction of the child) and adds a new one to it (unwanted permanent damage to the woman’s reproductive system and risk of post-surgery complications).

            With such subtle distinctions, perhaps one could justify (this is an obviously silly example) extramarital affairs when condoms are used; it’s okay because there’s no direct genital contact.

  • kenny Johnson

    Good post. Over the last several years I’ve moved to a more “legal” pro-choice position. While I believe that personhood occurs before delivery, I have my doubts that it occurs at conception — especially when consider things like embryos splitting (identical twins)… Was it 1 person that became 2? I agree that it’s something more than a skin mole and should be treated with more respect, but I’m not convinced that a first trimester abortion is murder.

    So, from a legal stand point, I support a woman’s right to choose in the 1st trimester (and maybe even the 2nd). I believe by the 3rd trimester, the fetus is developed enough (active brain, etc.) to be considered a person and it’s life should be protected. I would want the state to still allow for abortions if the mother’s life was in danger or if it was determined the fetus could not live outside the womb.

    As for my personal life. My wife and I (especially my wife) had always said that we wouldn’t use abortion as birth control, etc. Until having children, my wife was even willing to bring a baby to term if her life was in danger (I disagreed), but she has changed her mind now that she’s the mother of two. So we’ve both (sorta) agreed that if she got pregnant again, we would seriously consider abortion. She had pre-eclampsia with both children and I fear we could have lost both her and the baby with her last pregnancy (our son was in the NICU for 5 weeks — born early and underdeveloped even for his gestation age).

    But that’s why I think within the first trimester (and maybe even the first 2 trimesters), those choices should be left up to the parents, doctors, etc. Not the state.

    • mikehorn

      Just a point of the current science, trimesters reflect old thought about pregnancies. The medical community describes things in terms of weeks since the last cycle, which doesn’t necessarily reflect the precise length of the pregnancy but is fairly close.

    • mikehorn

      I do appreciate your point about a pregnant woman who has other children already: she has her other children to consider as well as her current pregnancy. The need to live for the existing children is a strong factor and a large number of abortions are for women who have children already. The mother needs to be alive and able to provide for her children, and in that case more than one child enters into the equation.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Quick question, Roger. What are you hoping for as a result? Are you looking for public policy that gives parameters and limits on what people can do within the law? or are you looking for an “approach” or “stance” by which individuals might assist others on what they ought to do?

    • Roger Olson

      Both. But I’m currently better settled in my own mind with regard to the latter.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        I can’t imagine that Jesus would encourage people to get abortions except (possibly, maybe, maybe) if the baby’s and mother’s life is in grave danger. After all, this was one who raised people from the dead and healed with a touch. With Jesus, all things are possible, yes?
        On the other hand, I can’t imagine that Jesus would speak to the pagan Roman Empire and others disconnected from God and tell them how to govern themselves – which laws they should most strictly obey or pass. Jesus started very small in tiny part of a vast landscape (seemingly unconcerned with what was happening in Ireland or Mongolia or the Incan lands).
        Can “Love your neighbor” be put into a law? Could such a law be enforced? Would enforcement do more harm than good to the cause of advancing the Kingdom of God?

        • Roger Olson

          And, IMHO, this is one reason why “WWJD?” is not a valid comprehensive guide to Christian ethics. Our situation is much different from Jesus’ or the apostles’. Christians now have political power–for better or worse–and have the ability to use it to protect the weak. I believe they should, while recognizing that involvement in government is always a great risk to one’s moral life.

          • Tim Reisdorf

            Not comprehensive, but instructive. Didn’t Jesus also have the ability to influence political happenings? Didn’t Jesus also have political enemies because he was growing in influence with the people? He did not seize power or use it to compel people for this or that – He was a servant (not a “public servant”). He threw down the temptation to use the power he had to achieve His ends by some means other than love.

            You are right about the risks concerning government – but the risks to one’s moral life pale in comparison to the risks elsewhere. Running for Dog Catcher or Senator under the flag of the “Christian Ethics Party” rightfully brings a chill to every spine.

          • Roger Olson

            Um, I think you jumped the shark there. I am certainly not advocating a “Christian Ethics Party” or anything like one. I’m saying that Christians who find themselves with political power should use it to help the weak. And I believe there are times when Christians ought to seek political power to help the weak.

  • Don

    I was part of a group that tried to start a Pro-Life group some 25 years ago. We were unsuccessful, although we did see some positive results over the 5 or 6 years we worked on this issue; one child was born instead of being aborted, some information was disseminated, some awareness was raised, etc. I have not been active now for almost 20 years but I am flabbergasted that you never met even one pro-life person who knew what an ectopic pregnancy was. I’m not medically trained, so you medical people please forgive the vagueness or possible inaccuracies but it is simply a fertilized ovum that implants in the fallopian tube which will cause death to both woman and child…I believe 100% of the time, with excruciating pain as well.

    Murder is perhaps too harsh but is nonetheless accurate at least some of the time; death is the result though for the unborn. As you said about war, an abortion can be a “tragic necessity”…if the fetus/unborn cannot survive anyways and the mother will die if the pregnancy is not ended, well, saving one life is better than saving none, right?

    A recent Facebook post by recently stated the following:

    The politics of false mercy

    What we say:

    “Some women just don’t have the resources to take care of a child. Wouldn’t it be better to spare them both a life of suffering?”

    What we mean is:

    “We won’t help you raise your child, but we can kill it for you.”

    And that is really what is going on. Oh, no pro-choice advocate would ever say that or even think that because they really do think of the fetus as “a bit of inconvenient tissue,” even if they would not use those words. But that is the condemnation our Westernized society faces. Why are we more willing to pay people to kill rather than to support women in difficult circumstances? Our attempted center learned that just supplying pregnant women with eggs, orange juice and milk would eliminate many (all?) of the most common birth defects. And if women are so stressed by carrying a child to term, why are we not changing our social safety network so that they do have adequate resources to see the pregnancy to term and then decide whether or not they will raise their child? Adoption is not without its own issues and is far from a perfect solution, but it is infinitely better than death.

    So, yes, Roger, there are nuances as to how to deal with the “hard cases”, but I believe that the solution must be in favor of life, not death, in favor of compassion, not strident belligerence (as you have said, both sides are guilty of this stridency) and in favor of building a better future for all, not just some.

    • Kristen Rosser

      I’m afraid that much of the current pro-life policy is “we won’t help you raise your child, but we will force you to have it anyway.” I agree that a stronger social safety network is instrumental in reducing the number of abortions (statistics bear this out), but many who are pro-life also have an anti-government bent that causes them to cut off the nose to spite the face of the pro-life position. Churches and private charities are all very well, but many women would rather have the abortion than deal with the strings attached to receiving help from those. And adoptive services tend to be less workable for those not carrying white, abled children.

    • gimpi1

      In my limited experience, Don, most of the strongly pro-life people don’t want to enhance the social safety-net. Many want to dismantle it altogether.

      Lack of resources, lack of access to medical care, crippling debt and health problems could all be addressed with single-payer universal health insurance, serious nutritional programs and some kind of support for child-care if both parents have to work. The current pro-life congressional stance is end our half-assed attempt to expand health-insurance, cut medicaid, defund food stamps and other nutritional programs, and cut or eliminate head-start and other early-childhood education programs. I see very few people in the pro-life camp who want to do what you suggest. Do you have any idea why? I sure don’t.

      As an aside, the idea that private charity or churches can handle the load is not credible. They can be a help, sure, but the need is simply too great for any private organization to really handle these issues. For instance, a single birth, complicated by diabetes, and requiring surgery, can run $40,000.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        Hi gimpi1,

        I don’t want to enhance the social safety-net more than it is already. There come a point where social safety-nets enable poor behavior rather simply catch someone’s fall. (Yes, there are exceptional cases.) Not only do they enable poor behavior, they rob (tax/borrow) from innocents to pay for it.

        I confess I have no grand solutions to the many public and private troubles that many face in the world; but I would like to live in a place that maximizes my responsibility for my own life, that maximizes my liberty, and minimizes government coercion. Maybe that’s a dream that’s more fantasy than reality, but I dream it anyway.


        • gimpi1

          I would suggest, Tim, that you have proven my point. If you really believed that children were being murdered, wouldn’t you give up a bit of your dream to prevent it?

          I have to say, perhaps because of my background, with two disabled parents, I don’t believe the “exceptional cases” argument. Most of the people I have known who needed assistance really needed it, through no fault of their own. And I have had libertarian-types tell me my parents should have been either killed outright or left to starve rather than “leeching on society.” Not your sentiment, I assume.

          One last note: Taxation, voted in by elected representatives, is in no way theft. That statement is incendiary and inaccurate. I would suggest your arguments would be better without it.

  • E.G.

    There’s also the uncomfortable (for pro-choicers) question of sex-selection abortion. If its completely a woman’s right to choose, then there’s no reason to be against these.

    • Susan_G1

      I am pro-choice, but would never support sex-selection. That is reprehensible. Being pro-choice isn’t black or white alone. There is a middle ground. As well, I would like to see as few abortions as possible, and as it has been shown that the best way to do this is by reducing the pregnancy rate through birth control and knowledge of how to use it, feel free birth control and mandatory yearly sex ed is needed. Do you have problems with this?

      • Roger Olson

        The issue isn’t whether a pro-choice person thinks abortions for sex selection are reprehensible; the issue is whether a pro-choice person thinks they should be made illegal.

        • Susan_G1

          yes, it should be illegal.

          • ariofrio

            The next question might be: why do you think abortion should be legal (let’s focus on cases when the mother’s life is not in danger, which are less than 10% of cases)?

            And then, why do you think sex-selection abortions should be illegal?

          • Roger Olson

            I have to ask you about your statistic. Are you talking about in the United States today? Less than 10% of abortions are non-therapeutic? I have my doubts.

          • ariofrio

            According to, 12% of abortions were chosen by the mother partly because of concerns over her health. This includes both cases where only the woman’s health is at risk and cases where the woman’s life is at risk. It might be illustrative to know that concerns over the health of the mother was the primary reason for only 4% of abortions. Presumably, the health of the mother would be the primary concern if her life was in danger, but we don’t know if that’s how the survey was done. In any case, (assuming the study is accurate) we can say with reasonable certainty that less than 12% of abortions are done when the mother’s life is in danger.

            I’d love to hear what you think. Do you think abortion should be legal in the rest of cases? Why?

          • Roger Olson

            Your earlier comment seemed to say the opposite of what this one says. I read it several times and had the distinct impression that you were saying less than 10% of abortions are elective. Excuse me for misunderstanding you. I agree that probably a small percentage of abortions are actually therapeutic; the vast majority are probably (regardless of reasons put down on a form) for convenience. I have not stated my opinion about law here. I’ve only raised questions for both sides to think about.

          • Susan_G1

            “Convenience” is a loaded word, imho. Like “murder”. Women don’t have abortions in a convenience store. They don’t usually think, “oh, I’m pregnant. I think I’ll have an abortion!” They often agonize, sometimes for months, and feel they have no other option, i.e. that it would be an undue hardship to carry a baby to term.

            It would be nice for both sides if we used less divisive language. We can say the vast majority of abortions are not medically necessary. It’s less dismissive of the problems many women face.

          • Roger Olson

            Just the other day I talked with a social worker who told me about her conversation with a young pregnant woman who is not married and has three children and has had several abortions. The woman told the social worker (about her current pregnancy) “I didn’t get my abortion in time.” Yes, unfortunately, some women are using abortion as a means of birth control and for convenience.

          • ariofrio

            Ha, I thought you were Susan_G1. The blog post makes it pretty clear you think abortion should be illegal in most, if not all, cases where the woman’s life is not in danger. Are there any other exceptions you support?

          • Susan_G1

            I did reply but the comment was not posted. In short, I don’t want back-alley abortions. Women will abort unwanted babies. Always have tried, always will. It’s not “just” to condemn them to this.

          • Roger Olson

            IF (note the emphasis) the fetus inside the woman is a human being, then this argument alone cannot justify legal abortion-on-demand.

          • ariofrio

            I see. But why do you oppose sex-selective abortions? Why do you think they should be illegal? Presumably, women will abort babies of the gender they didn’t want. Some will. Always have tried, always will. It’s not just to condemn them to back-alley abortions.

    • Thomas witten

      I’m not against sex selection . I’m against sexism, and people acting on it, but I’m unclear on the need to make this one possibly sexist (that only women can do) act illegal.

  • I don’t know what this contributes to your argument, but the Didache, one of the earliest post-NT Christian texts, does explicitly forbid abortion for Christians. The text is, of course, known for being pretty black-and-white (light vs. darkness) on moral issues, but it at least gives evidence that Christians very early on interpreted Jesus’s teachings as in tension with abortion “on demand” so to speak.

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, I know. But I doubt very many pro-choice people, Christian or not, will care what the Didache says. Perhaps they should, but I doubt that they will.

      • True enough. I was thinking it might be more relevant as a possible response to your question to pro-lifers: “How do you deal with the fact that the Bible says little to nothing about abortion?”

  • Kristen Rosser

    Historically, the evangelical church did not believe the embryo or fetus became a full human life until about 3-4 months after conception, when its body became sufficiently developed to house a human soul. Evangelicals didn’t change their position on this until more than halfway through the 20th century, and for reasons that appear to me to have been more political than scriptural. I have become increasingly unwilling to believe, given the spontaneous miscarriage of the majority of zygotes before the mother is even aware of conception having taken place, that fully human life begins at fertilization. See Jonathan Dudley’s book Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics for more information.

    • Roger Olson

      I was a student at an evangelical Protestant seminary soon after Roe vs. Wade. While there was some concern expressed (by faculty and students) about its implications, most did not seem too worried so long as abortions after the first trimester were not legalized and used for birth control.

  • Dan

    Roger. I think you are misinformed on the pro-life side. Almost all pro-life folks and groups I know allow for a mother to save her own life if in fact the pregnancy is life threatening. Ectopic pregnancy is a no-brainer. Unfortunately “health” has been defined by the courts so vaguely that even economic hardship or emotional distress fall under the “health” exceptions in the law. Abortion as “self-defense” is almost always acknowledged as permissible. Pro-lifers get slammed for not allowing a “health” exception, but to do so gives legal cover to gutting any restrictions that may exist.

    As for the OT allowing abortion, the standard response to that is that the passage in question is mistranslated. In essence, it is argued that if a man strikes a woman and causes her to deliver prematurely, but there is no other harm, there is a lesser penalty, but if either the mother or woman die, then it is “eye for eye”. Some say the Hebrew in the passage in Exodus 21 refers to the child “coming out”, not necessarily dying and that the same word is used to refer to live births elsewhere. I’m not a Hebrew scholar but it seems a view that would be consistent with Biblical value for innocent life.

    And the early church was strongly pro-life. Tertullian for example said “To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth.”

    I’ve followed the pro-life movement for 30 years and found the positions espoused to be reasonable, logical, consistent and principled. I think you have misrepresented the majority by a few outliers.

    • Roger Olson

      I personally know of denominations and churches that have pronounced “abortion is murder” without qualification. I’ve asked them about ectopic pregnancies and been met with the attitude that “Only you [viz., an intellectual] would think of that” which doesn’t begin to deal with the issue. In my personal experience of knowing many pro-lifers I have found many of them unreflective about the issue. The same is true of many pro-choicers I know.

      • Rob

        I think the ectopic pregnancy comes up a lot because it constitutes a medically necessary abortion that seems difficult to justify by the doctrine of double effect. Catholic teaching permits certain abortions when double-effect is in play but many have denied that double-effect applies to ectopic pregnancies.

        • Roger Olson

          Of course, I didn’t grow up Catholic. Most of the Pentecostal denominations I’m familiar with, including the one I grew up in, passed resolutions declaring abortion murder without qualifications. It was in that context that I brought up (to the president of a Pentecostal denomination) ectopic pregnancies. He didn’t know what that is; I had to explain. He shrugged it off as irrelevant in light of the larger issue of pushing back against the “godless abortion industry.”

    • mikehorn

      Health and economic concerns are often vital. This is why I think the Pro-Life crowd is really pro-birth, not pro-life.
      Economic first. In America the woman is often the breadwinner, either as a single mother or in a marriage where the husband’s career faltered or stopped. Pregnancy is not a protected condition in America to prevent you from being fired from your job, and the concept of paid maternity leave is a sick joke to most women. If this woman gets pregnant, she is looking at approximately one year without income, depending on her job. If she has other children, this situation gets even worse, but even if this is her first child, one year without income will be devastating for years and years, affecting nutrition, health, future ability to support her family.
      Health is similar. A pregnant woman might not have insurance, and carrying a baby to term is more dangerous and more expensive than any abortion, especially an early abortion using the modern chemical abortion, RU486. This woman has decades of life to think about, possibly other children, and being out of work for a problem pregnancy could devastate her ability to provide for herself, much less any children she might have or the one she wants to give birth to.
      Health and economic concerns can be taken care of by a more compassionate social safety net. Pro-lifers, are you willing to pay more in taxes to support pre-natal care, delivery costs, paid maternity leave, and subsidized daycare? Are pro-lifers willing to pay more to support a woman economically whose health no longer allows her to work, even if just temporarily? In America, pro-life also tends to be anti-social safety net, a stand which is an amazing example of cognitive dissonance because “pro-Life” should actually mean you support life, that the child and mother after being born need the help of the ‘pro-Life” crowd far more than they did before the birth. “Pro-life” stance here often come to mean a pregnant woman really has no choice – she cannot give birth and hope to support the child and herself, and she cannot abort because that is illegal. This is not pro-life in any sense of the term. It is merely pro-birth.
      I am pro-choice, but I’d argue that to be pro-Choice we should also support the ability of any pregnant woman to carry her child to term and raise it as her own. Pro-Choice should mean that a woman has two viable choices. Abortion should remain legal, but we should make the choice to give birth a viable one by putting our money where our conviction is.

  • Rob

    I’m not sure what we could learn about the humanity of a developing baby from observing funeral practices. Funerals are a way of saying goodbye to someone we know. We don’t typically have funerals for strangers.

    As far as OT law goes, I doubt abortion was a major thing at that time. Elective abortion is to get rid of unwanted pregnancies but this was a culture where people regularly sacrificed newborns. There was already a practice in place for getting rid of unwanted babies by ‘offering’ them to the gods. Sacrificing newborns does not end until after Babylonian Captivity. One social role played by infant sacrifice seems to be the same social role that abortion plays in our culture. The OT is pretty clear about infant sacrifice.

    Interestingly enough, the ancestral traditions that form after that time and end up in the Talmud DO prohibit abortions after 40 days. It is true that abortion is not considered 1st degree murder by the Talmud, but it is illicit bloodshed that perhaps is more comparable to manslaughter in severity.

    The Didache says quite clearly “you shall not murder a child by abortion”. Justin claims in his Apology to the emperor that Christians have developed a reputation among GrecoRoman people for not killing their offspring. So the stance against abortion has pretty good historical attestation.

    I am wary of calling a developing baby a ‘person’ for two reasons. According to classical liberalism, a person is one who exhibits rational autonomy and this serves as the basis for rights. Babies developing in the womb certainly do not exhibit rational autonomy and so one may conclude that they cannot have rights.

    I have a big problem with basing rights on rational autonomy and I ultimately think Christians cannot consistently affirm that, but notice that all we need to do to give infants or developing babies rights on that view is acknowledge that it belongs to their characteristic human form to engage in practical reasoning (which classical liberals call rational autonomy). Then they have rights too.

    To recognize developing babies as having rights is not to say that there could not be cases where killing is permitted. Adults do not enjoy absolute protection from killing under any and all circumstance, why would it be so for developing babies? Obviously, developing babies live at a more precarious stage of life and may find themselves at greater risk.

    • Roger Olson

      Very well thought out and expressed. Thank you.

  • mikehorn

    If you grant the assertion that a fertilized egg, or an implanted blastocyst (pro-lifers vary on this) is a human being with full rights, then you still run into situations where abortion should not only be allowed but should be considered the morally correct choice. Human rights end where another’s begin. Since any pregnancy with the above assertion granted involves the rights of two human beings, the ethical conflict will balance towards one or the other. The “right to life” needs to cover mother as well as child. This is the problem with the extreme pro-life stance.

    About ectopic pregnancies, and any other pregnancies that would kill either mother or child, the answer one extreme pro-lifer gave me was that the pregnancy should continue up to the point where death of the mother and child are certain, and ethically could not be terminated prior to that moment of crisis. The reasoning given was that the mother should be forced to endure pain and bodily damage because this notion of ethics would condemn an active choice to end the pregnancy prior to the moment of crisis. The crux was that we can sit around and watch pain and suffering but cannot end the pregnancy because the active choice prior to crisis was murder, where the action at the moment of crisis saved the mother. This sort of BS is bad for pro-lifers.

    I will note that Roe v Wade only protects abortion rights up to the point of viability, generally 24 weeks when the lungs and brain are sufficiently developed and the current survival rate passes the 50% threshold. Anything prior and the survivability percentage drops like a stone (23 weeks is down below 35%, 22 weeks below 10%). Any restrictions past 24 weeks would require extreme circumstances as the only exception under Roe v Wade.

    Full disclosure: I am pro-choice reluctantly. I recognize the world is what it is, not what I think it should be, and that hard choices must be made and lived with.

    • Roger Olson

      I can hear a pro-life activists asking whether your last paragraph sounds like what was said by Germans who opposed but condoned the euthanasia policies and practices in Germany under Nazi rule in the mid-1930s.

  • MereChristianRadio

    I don’t the see the relevance of funerals for miscarriages. It sounds like a red herring. How people responded to things in the past tells us nothing about the nature of human personhood. Maybe the pro-life movement did lead people to start seeing miscarriages differently. Sounds like a good thing. The fact that so many women (including my own mother who had two miscarriages) dealt with miscarriages in the dark in the old days, but are much more vocal and are allowed to grieve is positive thing.

    • Roger Olson

      My appeal was to intuition. I have known many, many women who suffered miscarriages. None thought the loss was commensurable with the death of an already born child.

      • MereChristianRadio

        I agree that not many see a miscarriage on the same level as losing a child that has already been born, but women also have a relationship with their babies that men will never experience. Allowing them to grieve the loss for what it is is a good thing. There probably is something very powerful about seeing and holding child that increases emotional attachment.

        That said, I don’t think it’s relevant to the greater issue, namely “Is a child not yet born fully human.”

        • Roger Olson

          I think it is relevant. IF people really believed an embryo or early fetus is a full human being (as some Catholics claim) they would name them, hold a service for them, bury them and put a grave marker on the grace. I am not aware that very many people have ever done that–even very strongly pro-life people–until recently and even now it’s rare. So it makes me wonder what they really believe.

      • ariofrio

        In my own experience as a pro-life activist, I find it harder to emotionally connect with unborn children being killed by their family’s decision than with, for example, born children dying of hunger.

        I think that’s normal. Maybe if I had never heard or read the words of a former African-American slave, I would find it harder to connect with them. I suspect that as we progress, ethical decisions will have to be made even in the absence (or weakness) of our emotional reaction to injustice.

  • Msironen

    “1) If you believe a person has absolute right to control his or her own body, do you believe a person, a woman, for example, has a right to sell a vital organ such as a kidney or ingest a drug such as cocaine?”

    – Yes, to both. I have no moral qualms with either, but there are substantial practical issues to both for sure (such as exploitation).

    “4) If you believe absolutely in “reproductive rights,” do you believe a person should be allowed by law to clone himself? If not, why not? If so, have you taken into account the fact that the clone will be the same cellular age as the man immediately upon being created?”

    – Again, no moral objection. Not really seeing how the cellular age is an issue unless you consider it somehow worse to bring an elderly person into being by cloning?

    “6) If you believe that a human infant, newly born, is worthy of the full protection of law against murder and abuse but that a full term fetus is not, how exactly do you draw the line at which that right to protection begins? What exactly is the difference between a fully developed and ready-to-be-born fetus and a just-born infant—in terms of ontology (being) and ethics (rights)?”

    – The just-born infant is no longer (directly) using another human’s body to support its own life. Bodily autonomy is absolute and you can even grant it to unborn children without contradiction since the fetus’ bodily autonomy doesn’t supercede the mother’s (if someone argues it does, I suggest they’re using a confused and unworkable definition of autonomy).

    “7) If you believe, as many “pro-choice” activists do, that a viable human fetus does not deserve legal protection from being killed by its mother, what do you think should be done to a person who causes a woman to have an abortion against her will? What crime was committed? What ought the penalty to be? Should it be harsher than if the perpetrator cut off her hair against her will? Why?”

    – In such case there has been a gross crime against the woman and her bodily autonomy. Penalty should be proportional to the physical and mental harm caused, which in case of forced abortion are likely much more substantial than hair cutting.

    • Roger Olson

      You make my point for me. Many “pro-choice” people have fallen into extremes in order to defend their political views. I doubt very many Americans would agree with your answers to my questions. And I doubt very many now pro-choice people would have before this debate became as vitriolic and polarized as it is. Both sides have dug in their heels and refused even to consider the possibility that they may be wrong about some aspect of their ideology.

      • Msironen

        I think my answers stem in a fairly straightforward manner from the concept of bodily autonomy, which I think the vast majority of people agree with. I agree that many find some of the conclusions unpalatable due to various fudge factors like religious-based thinking.

        Can I in turn ask whether you agree with the principle of bodily autonomy and if you do, where does my reasoning go wrong in the answers above?

        • Roger Olson

          I definitely do not agree with absolute bodily autonomy and I doubt most people do. They may think they do, but when I mention certain cases, they back off quickly. Frankly, I don’t think anyone believes in absolute bodily autonomy except perhaps a few extreme libertarians.

          • Msironen

            Fair enough. I think we’re at least in agreement that most people pay lip service to the principle of bodily autonomy, but can be made to back out of it by presenting some, in one way or the oter, offensive examples.

            I would also amend my answer in that that I wouldn’t use the word “absolute” if I were to write it again. I don’t consider it an absolute as much as an ideal to strive for.

            Lastly, I don’t think it’s a particularly libertarian position; I certainly don’t identify as one. I guess it could be one of those things where liberals and libertarians agree with, though.

            I do find the basics fairly difficult to argue against however, and would like to hear why you reject it.

          • Roger Olson

            I suppose I reject it for two reasons: 1) I’m a communitarian philosophically, and 2) I’m a Christian theologically. As a communitarian I believe what I do with my body is not just my own business; it affects others whether I know it or not. Some things I might do with my own body may have seriously deleterious effects on others–such as selling a kidney. The Pandora’s box of marketing vital organs is truly frightening and one I don’t want to envision. And, IF I could sell a kidney, why couldn’t I sell myself–as someone’s slave? Absolute bodily autonomy would have a hard time precluding that.

  • Karlw1988

    I think “pro-life” people would benefit from understanding the following contextual points about Roe v. Wade:

    1. Historically, pre-Roe v. Wade prosecutions for abortion were rare. Abortion was treated more like manslaughter and women were rarely prosecuted for it.
    2. Abortion was a common and accepted practice that midwives regularly performed.
    3. Elective abortion was legal in New York, and you could get an abortion legally in most other states by petitioning a panel and convincing them that you needed it for health reasons.
    4. The justices at Roe v. Wade were (more or less) striking down unenforced laws and probably thought that people would generally only get abortions for health reasons.

    “Pro-life” people need to recognize that most reflective “pro-choice” people support elective abortion because they think it’s the best way to make abortion available to women with health concerns. I disagree with this since (as other commentors have noted), this leads to a “slippery slope” in which abortion becomes a back-up method of birth control. I think abortion should be an option for “severe” health reasons. Otherwise, it should be treated as manslaughter before a set time, and murder after the set time (there could be an option to charge a distressed woman with a lesser crime like infanticide, and those who assisted her with murder).

  • Shirley K

    Roger, I would describe myself as personally prolife and politically pro choice. I have a hard time with the notion that an individual who describes themselves as pro life can then advocate for war in which many innocents are murdered or differentiate between the unborn life of a child of rape or a child of consensual intercourse. Ultimately I feel we should leave this decision to a woman, her doctor and her God. Why are we not focusing in supporting lives. It seems too much time is spent on condemnation.

    • Roger Olson

      I just don’t think your stance is reasonable IF a fetus is at some point a human being. Sure, there are many things I am morally opposed to that I wouldn’t want criminalized, but protecting an innocent human life isn’t among them.

  • Donalbain

    As an abortion rights “extremist” my answers are as follows:

    1) Yes.

    4) Yes

    6) The question is not the right of anyone to protection, it is the right of a woman (or a man) to determine who gets the right to use their own body. A abortion is a woman deciding that a foetus does not have the right to use her uterus and so has to be expelled. The death of the foetus is the only way to achieve that end. Once a baby is born, it is not necessary to kill it to prevent it from using the bodily organs of another person.

    7) A person who causes a miscarriage against the will of the mother is guilty of violating the principle that I used in answer to number 6. They have denied the woman the right to decide who or what gets to use her own bodily organs. It is a serious form of assault and should be dealt with as such.

    • Roger Olson

      As you admit, that makes you an “extremist” in my view. We will never get anywhere toward solving this issue as long as both sides take such extreme positions.

      • Roger Olson

        But you are equating belief that a not-yet-born child with “emotional reasoning.” I consider that a failure of imagining. You ought to be able to consider the possibility that a not-yet-born child or fetus is a real human being, a human life. As for bodily autonomy: What would you think, how would you respond, if a person established a storefront business the sole purpose of which was to cut young women as painlessly as possible and leaving as little scar tissue as possible–to relieve their anxiety (so they don’t have to do it themselves)? Oh, and then they add a “service”–how to practice your eating disorder as painlessly as possible? Sure, it sounds ridiculous. But I have trouble believing any bodily autonomy defender would defend such a business as moral or legal.

  • Daniel W


    I am on the same page with you in general, but I don’t think your first question makes your point very well.
    I don’t think that using cocaine and willingly selling organs are as controversial as you expected. I know many people my age (mid-20s), both liberals and conservatives, Christians and people of other faiths, who would not get very riled up at the idea of cocaine being legalized or someone selling an organ by choice.

    Perhaps some different example would better make your point, though I can’t think of one at the moment.

    • Roger Olson

      Perhaps you’re right, but that is a sad commentary on your generation and the possible future. But you didn’t mention my ultimate one–perhaps I only brought it up in a response to a comment–cloning? IF a person understands cloning and the potential legal issues human cloning would raise (to say nothing of the biological issues) I have a hard time thinking a morally thoughtful person wouldn’t limit bodily autonomy in such a case. I could have also mentioned prostitution–something many pro-choice, especially feminist, people strongly oppose.

      • jasmine999

        Many of my generation would not mind seeing cocaine (and other drugs) legalized because we’ve seen what “war on drugs” has done to this country, and to other countries. There are ways of helping the addicted other than imprisoning them, often based on skin color.

        My generation would not find the voluntary selling of organs sinful because, you know, it’s voluntary. They’re your organs. You wanna sell a kidney, donate an egg or use a sperm bank? Go right on ahead.

        As far as prostitution, I think any country that has legalized it, and tries hard to keep the workers safe is on the right path. Prostitution has been with us for a very very very long time, and prostitutes are at great risk without some protection.

        Re cloning, idk, sorry. That has nothing to do with drugs, selling organs, or prostitution, however.

        • Roger Olson

          But it has everything to do with body autonomy. And if “your generation” believes individuals should be able to sell body organs, well, all I can say is “your generation” hasn’t thought deeply enough about the larger issues involved in that. I really don’t think “your generation” believes what you say; those are your opinions and I think they are scary.

  • axelbeingcivil

    The reason you see so many strog absolutes is the question of if a fetus pre-viability is a person or not. If it is, then abortion, even in the case of rape, is unconscienable. If it isn’t, then forcing someone to have a baby against their will is unconscienable.

    There is a reason people gravitate to these extremes and absolutes; the only middleground exists in when you define fetal personhood.

    • Roger Olson

      My whole point is that people need to begin to use their imaginations to try to see the possible truth in the other side’s beliefs. Use what Miroslav Volf calls “double vision” in Exclusion and Embrace.Too few activists on both sides of the abortion debate (and others) seem to want to even try to see the issue from any perspective than their own.

      • axelbeingcivil

        Having been on both sides of the debate at various points in my life, I’m talking a bit from experience here. While, in many debates, people gravitate to extremes merely out of a kind of tribalism, here they do because the extremes are the only real positions that make much sense. It ultimately comes down to whether you consider the fetus a person or not and, if you do, what point in the development it becomes so.

        Now, if you mean that people could use some time examining the reasons why each group believes a fetus is a person at any given time, we’re certainly in agreement there. Sadly, though, people rarely choose such a definition on anything more than an emotional basis in my experience. If they haven’t even examined their own beliefs, they can rarely be expected to examine others’.

        • Roger Olson

          My whole effort was to get them to examine their own by considering possible inconsistencies in them. So far as I have been able to discern, every position about abortion is problematic in some way.

  • axelbeingcivil

    I left a post here earlier but I feel it’s worth elaborating on. I’ll start with a reiteration and move from there.

    Extremes in the abortion debate are as inevitable as the tides. If you believe that a fetus is a human being, worthy of personhood, then questions of “What about rape victims or incest?” fall on deaf ears; the fetus is a human being and to kill it would be to murder an innocent victim.

    Meanwhile, if you believe a fetus isn’t a human being and doesn’t achieve personhood until a certain level of development (I set it at 24 weeks, mostly for caution’s sake, as that’s when the synapses begin to form in the higher part of the brain) then forcing a woman to undergo the process of pregnancy and childbirth against her will is unconscionable.

    After that, questions of personal autonomy or what have you sort of fall by the wayside; they become rallying cries for each side, all of which will fall on deaf ears because of this fundamental issue. Questions of personal autonomy, of dignity, of pretty words are all pointless before this fundamental question and, as long as people disagree on this, the abortion issue shall never be settled.

  • Ori

    The Australian philosopher Peter Singer has begun calling for an honest reappraisal of infanticide for infants with severe developmental abnormalities – why not wait until a child is born, look it in the eye and then kill it? Seems more honest than sneaky euphemizing by abortion rights advocates. Singer is also a radical animal rights activist, which can seem starkly contradictory re. his current and previous stances toward human fetal life, until one considers that he is just extending abortion reasoning to its logical end, whether seriously or in a kind of radical social provocation.

    Throughout much of antiquity, infanticide was practised, but not just child sacrifice. Family limitation through infant abandonment was also widely done in known public places where such infants could then be procured to be raised as slaves, foundlings, religious oblates, etc. See historian John Boswell’s The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. Then look at the story of infant Moses in a new light.

    The question for me is the difference between killing and murder, which I also ask of the contractually undertaken killing in war, capital punishment, and the social devastation caused by extreme poverty and ecological disasters.