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Terminating a Pregnancy or Killing an Unborn Child?: A Moral Analysis

October 12, 2011 4:54 pm 12 comments

Pregnancy  as Problem

Pregnancy is the – uniquely feminine – obstacle that often hinders a woman’s admittance into the world of wealth, fame, and success. President Barack Obama clearly enunciated this idea when he declared in 2008 that he would not want his daughters “punished” by requiring them to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. Obviously, he was referring to a situation in which pregnancy would interfere with the “normal” progression of education, career, and the accompanying processes of emotional  maturity and  personality development.

The feminist movement that began in the 60’s was largely a reaction to the societal barriers that prevented women’s professional advancement. The emptiness and frustration that women  were experiencing at the  time, as described by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique, were depicted as resulting  from a profound sense of disconnection both from their essential selves and from genuine opportunities for  growth  and  personal acomplishment. A woman was regarded, and was accorded value, primarily as a bearer of children, as their devoted caretaker, and as a loyal appendage to her husband. The latter being  engaged in matters of  importance  in “the world out there.” What sparked the feminist revolution was the perceived denial of women’s fundamental human need for, and right to, recognition in their  own  right; that  is  to say, the acknowledgment of  their  intrinsic  value .

It seems quite reasonable that if – although perhaps a  rather  dubious “if” – true human fulfillment and self-esteem are achieved through wealth, fame, success, career advancement, and financial independence, then it would be terribly unjust to allow the “handicaps” of pregnancy and child bearing to interfere with the attainment of these goals. Ergo, one of the cardinal dogmas of the feminist philosophies that emerged from those turbulent times was that a woman must have unrestricted control over her reproductive function, including the right to “terminate” a pregnancy.

While the internal logic behind the formulation of this central dogma might be sound, there is obviously another crucial issue that must be clarified before any reasonable and morally sensitive person could give such an irrevocable act  their stamp of approval: When does life begin?

When does life begin?

There is universal agreement that no man or woman is justified in murdering a living child when that  child  is perceived as interfering with one’s career or path to self-fulfillment. It would seem obvious then, that before a morally compelling argument could be accepted for granting women the license to “terminate” a pregnancy at their own discretion, it must be preceded by an extended period of intense – and most likely agonizing – analysis  and  inquiry into the definition of human life . This  is  not  a question to be  dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders or a wave of the hand; our topic is not  the removal of a wart, a tummy tuck, or liposuction. To neglect  this duty and  the acccompanying soul-searching is to be intellectually dishonest, morally anesthetized, or  criminally negligent.

Absent divine revelation, it is difficult to justify the assertion that a newly fertilized ovum is a living human being. While undeniably a potential human being, few (if any) would argue that the destruction of a growing blastula is an act akin to murder in the first degree. On the other hand, absent a clear and imminent threat to the mother’s life, it is impossible for any moral/rational human being to accept that the procedure known as a “partial birth abortion” – wherein the entire body of a living baby has emerged, feet first, outside the mother from the neck down, the skull then pierced and the brains sucked out through the incision – is anything other than murder in the first degree.

We can also reject the absurd notion that upon exiting the birth canal, the baby undergoes a magical and mysterious metamorphosis from protoplasmic blob to full-fledged human being. There is obviously no reasonable, non-arbitrary distinction that can be made between a baby one minute before birth and the same baby one minute after birth. Men and women possessing any semblance of moral sensitivity must, therefore, honestly and fearlessly confront the following self-apparent truth: At some point in time between the successful penetration of the female egg by a determined sperm cell and the birth of a child, the entity growing inside a woman’s uterus crosses a line that separates an indistinguishable mass of growing cells, from a living human baby that has an unalienable right to life of its own. After that line is crossed, we are not dealing with the “termination of a pregnancy” or the “abortion of a fetus”, we are dealing with the murder of an unborn child.

The proposed Ohio law that prohibits abortions after detection of a fetal heartbeat is a serious and responsible attempt to address this issue. A beating  heart  is one of the most  widely accepted indications of the presence of human  life, and it’s absence, an indication of its cessation. Another possible indicator would be the detection of fetal brain activity. The often cited “viability outside the mother” standard might raise more questions than it answers. While viability might function as a convenient legal guideline, it is difficult to understand what is so unique about “outside viability” that helps us in our mission to define when life begins. What if a baby, temporarily, cannot live outside an incubator or without a respirator? Is it “alive?” Would it be murder to kill such a baby? Remember, we are looking for moral answers, not legal definitions.

There are those, of course, who will solemnly proclaim that the fundamental right to abortion is enshrined as the law  of  the land. THE SUPREME COURT (!) has declared it so. Indeed, “Roe v. Wade” has, for many, become a sort of secular catechism or mantra, invoked  to dispel all the profoundly disturbing  moral  issues surrounding abortion. For those – please forgive me – pathetic souls whose only concern here are legal  precendents – or worse, opinion polls – this writer has nothing to say, except that he and  they obviously inhabit different universes.

It is the Question that is critical

When an abortion doctor stated on film regarding the  babies  he  aborted, “I never look at them,” is there anyone reading this who does not intuitively understand why he “never” looks at them? Many pro-choice advocates become incensed when pro-life activists show graphic pictures of aborted babies. Why? Evidently they are  afraid that the sight of fully formed human babies piled in a garbage bag might ignite sparks of human compassion or perhaps even moral revulsion. The American public was justifiably outraged when it was revealed that NFL star, Michael Vick, acted with barbaric cruelty to dogs; what then is so abnormal about feeling compassion for discarded human babies? This writer finds it incomprehensible that the same person who is appalled by cruelty to animals could be so indifferent to the sight of perfectly developed fetal body parts in a dumpster.

Although it should be clear to any thinking person why the abortion issue refuses to go away, I will not presume – in this forum – to propose a definitive answer. First and foremost we need to focus and agree on the question. Unless it is clear how frighteningly powerful the question is; unless we accept the painfully heavy burden of responsibility for what is at stake here, I seriously doubt that anyone would be motivated enough to invest the necessary energy to arrive at a worthwhile answer. Excluding those who have reconciled themselves to a mindless slide into the moral abyss, we had better be prepared to lose more than a few nights sleep while attempting to formulate a meaningful and morally potent solution for this problem. A man who brutally rapes and murders young women, can sit on death row for decades while appealing the sentence. Every opportunity is given him so that he should not be put to death without absolute certainty that the cause of justice is being served. Do unborn children not merit the same type of consideration? Perhaps they also deserve to live.

12 Comments

  • I’m just glad my children are alive and well. Sadly, this is a such a tender subject that there will never be a time when we all agree. The only thing that has any potential of gaining consensus is birth control…but even that is a charged subject.

  • Go ahead – ban abortion. It’ll stop women from terminating pregnancies the same way Prohibition stopped people from drinking. Except instead of the certain destruction of one life, there is the additional possibility of destroying one more – the mother’s life, through the side effects of a dangerous and unregulated “procedure”. Whether it is done with a coat hanger or a cup of bleach, the result is the same: Two lives will be harmed instead of one. If social conservatives really cared about saving the largest number of human lives, they would support contraceptives, comprehensive sex education, and yes, even abortion – if not as a means of birth control, then as a last resort.

    • Mira,

      The notion that great numbers of women died because of ” back alley” abortions was a complete fabrication by groups like NARAL. The year before Roe. v. Wade, the Center for Disease control reported under 100 such deaths. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, one of the pioneers in the pro-abortion camp said there were in reality perhaps 200 such deaths and that they simply lied and threw out the number as being 10,000 in order to push their agenda. In fact there is a much greater chance of dying of a blood transfusion in a hospital than a woman dying from a back alley abortion.

      The abortion issue is not about incest or ectopic pregancies. The number of these cases are miniscule. It is about escaping responsibility for one’s actions (men and women) and that people are even prepared to kill a baby for convenience. It is also about MONEY. Abortion is big business. George Tiller was part of the 1%. There is a reason why abortion doctors and nurses are given strict instructions not to let the woman see ultra-sounds of the baby before it is killed. They know that most woman won’t go through with it once they see what they are killing.

      • “The notion that great numbers of women died because of “back alley” abortions was a complete fabrication by groups like NARAL.”

        [Citation needed]

  • Women have a right to choose – whether to have sex or not! But part and parcel with the decision to have sex is the natural outcome – pregnancy. There is not second chance to then abort. The choice was already made!

  • Pregnancy an obstacle, or problem? A bizarre idea. But no more bizarre than the idea that one can be imprisoned (or in the USA killed) for the murder of a new-born child, but condemned for not killing an unborn-child.

  • I think I mostly agree with jp ‘s comments but I question where that line actually is. And it changes as medicine advances. To give a real life example, was a baby born in 1940 at 26 weeks gestation, weighing only a pound and a half, past that line of viability? Most doctors would have said NO – even today, 71 years later, 26 weeks is VERY early to be born and survive – but that baby referenced above did live and even thrive. (He is my father.)

    At any rate, well written article. In actuality I’d prefer abortion only be available in cases of danger to the mother but I don’t see our society getting to that point anytime soon – it’s a sad society that only approves of pregnancies that are deemed convenient.

  • When has pregnancy become a disease? From the moment a mother has a life growing inside her, how has it become a disease? A tumor is a disease that if left unchecked will cause a mother to die. When has a woman died with today’s modern medicine died of lifeatosis?

  • I believe Catholic philosopher Francis Beckwith makes a strong argument (and a scientifically sound one) that life begins very early in his book Defending Life. He argues against the sustainability position. I believe the arguments are too nuanced to put forth in blog posts.

  • Moshe, I know we’ve disagreed – completely – before, but I must say I’m pleasantly surprised by the reasonableness of this article.

    I agree that we’re not going to find a solution to this issue by waiting for divine revelation. We each have different reasons for not expecting specific divine advice, I’m certain, but it really is clear that this is a problem that must be tackled using the moral sensibility we were all born with.

    As a feminist, I shake my head a little at your assertion that reproduction rights boil down to a demanded right to remove career obstacles – you really need to read more before attempting to put forward your version of a feminist position – but as it’s not central to your argument, I’ll let that slide.

    Also, I think that the highly politicised term “partial birth abortion” has no place in a balanced article. It’s not a term used by anyone except those wishing to emotively distort dialog towards a hardline anti-choice position – it’s certainly not used by anyone who performs pregnancy terminations.

    I personally favour outside viability as a starting point for where to draw the line (I also think that the line should be drawn several weeks earlier as a safety margin). You yourself say that it’s necessary to decide at what point a human life gains its own legal right to life. I think the problem with granting that right to a fetus so undeveloped that it could not possibly sustain its own life is fairly straightforward – it’s an unenforceable right. And likewise denying that right to a fetus developed enough that it *could* support its own life, with medical help as necessary, is also deeply problematic. The outside viability criterion seems the best way of balancing the moral issue of when separate rights are appropriate with the simple reality of when it’s possible for those rights to be taken up – no sooner, but no later either.

    It’s also important to recognise that while the grey area around the start of independent life is troublesome to define, that the vast, vast majority of terminations occur long before this stage, well away from any considerations as to whether the aborted fetus had brain activity or is independently viable. While that doesn’t absolve us of a need to do the ethical heavy-lifting of determining the boundary of what constitutes a new individual life, it should allow us to deal with cases away from that grey area (on both sides) with less difficulty.

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