As Roe v. Wade nears a potential end, and the culture wars in the US intensify, what's a Christian to do? At least two things: (1) approach abortion in a thoughtful way, whatever side you're on, and (2) listen in a loving way to the other side. The listening will not lead to agreement, but it will help create a climate of respect.
Thoughtfulness does not come easily for many of us, because our emotions run so deep on issues that matter to us. With regard to abortion, we find ourselves gravitating toward "pro-life" or "pro-choice" in an emotional and reactive way, unable to think about alternative points of view. Often we demonize the other side.
It helps if we see thoughtfulness as an activity into which God calls us and thus as an act of love. Love isn't just about caring and empathy, or even about acting in ways that are just and compassionate, it is also about being thoughtful, because thoughtfulness makes space for others. Indeed, thoughtfulness is an act of what John Cobb calls self-transcending selfhood. When we are thoughtful we transcend our gut reactions to topics and find ourselves open to new truths and insights. We become just a little more loving.
In the case of abortion, we need to be thoughtful about matters we might otherwise like to avoid: the rights of a fetus, the rights of a mother, when a fetus becomes viable, and the wider social context in which the pro-life and pro-choice debate occurs today. That context includes the history of patriarchy, the realities of poverty, the need for hospitable community, and the wider web of life.
Our need is to think about these matters in ways that are thoughtful, calm, rational, and humane. Our need is also to listen to them, hearing not only their 'positions' if they are on the 'other side,' but also their hearts.
This listening requires calm on our side: a place of non-reactivity, an inner peace in the heart. This is one reason why the contemplative prayer movement among Christians, or the Buddhist-inspired mindfulness movement, can be important. It can help all of us become better listeners.
If we are to be thoughtful in our consideration of abortion, and if we are to listen to, and recognize, wisdom on “the other side,” it helps to have a text, a presentation, that can be put on the table before us, in which a thoughtful person considers the various points of view in a sympathetic way. We need models of thoughtfulness.
One such person is the Christian theologian, John Cobb. In 1991 he published a book called Matters of Life and Death in which he treated animal rights, suicide, abortion, and sexuality. It is not a perfect book and his chapter on abortion can be enriched by recent work in sociology and embryology, but it certainly is comprehensive and thoughtful. I offer that chapter, with permission from John Cobb, in hopes that it might be used as a springboard for Christians and others who want to think about abortion in thoughtful, and perhaps even prayerful, ways. With his help, we can help create a climate of respect.
- Jay McDaniel, 5/7/22
The Right to Live:
The Meaning of Being "Pro-Life"
by John Cobb Chapter 3 of Matters of Life and Death
Westminster Press: Publication Date, 1991
The two preceding chapters, on the right to kill and the right to die, have also referred to the right to live. This right of human beings is much more firmly established in our culture, and it certainly deserves strong continuing support. Even if those who for good reasons wish to die have the right to do so, the emphasis should be that those who want to be kept alive despite loss of mental faculties have the right to live. They should make that desire known while they still can, and their wishes should be honored in all but the most extreme circumstances. They have the right to live. Certainly society should not relax any of the safeguards now exercised against the loss of life by those human beings who want to live.
Chapter 1 argued that authentic commitment to life should cross the boundaries separating human life from other forms of life. But the argument for this extension did not deny the right of human beings to kill other animals in many circumstances. Certainly the force of the argument was not to reduce human concern for human life. The purpose was to overcome the callousness this society exhibits toward the destruction of other living things.
Indeed, concern for human life should be heightened rather than diminished. Our First World society today too easily accepts killing of criminals of certain types and also in war. It seems to place the right to possess firearms ahead of the security of persons from random killing. It gives priority to high-tech ways of saving a few lives rather than to public health measures that would benefit far more. It often places economic gain above the security of life of human beings, especially those in the Third World. The basic need is to take more seriously the right to live!
Even more important than simply keeping people alive is reordering priorities so that those biologically capable of a full life can truly live. Simply preventing untimely death appears to be a very limited expression of being pro-life. Every child should be loved and cared for. Society should work to ensure that the child has a chance to become a full participant in the economy and in political life. Health care should be available to all, to ensure that physical and psychological suffering be minimized and the enjoyment of life maximized. There are fundamental theological reasons for being pro-life. God is present in all living things. Indeed, God's presence is the life of all that lives. God is the life of the world. To live for God is to live in the service of life. That does not mean that one can avoid terminating the lives of other creatures. Life feeds on life. But people can live so as to minimize the cost to other living things and so as to respect them even when they must kill them. This cherishing of life applies a fortiori to those living beings who bear the imago Dei.
Today the label "pro-life" has been taken by those who focus their concern on one point, the right of every fertilized human ovum to become a human being. Many of those who commit themselves to this right also consistently support human life in all the other ways mentioned. Ronald J. Sider has written a book entitled Completely Pro-Life, with the subtitle Building a Consistent Stance on Abortion, the Family, Nuclear Weapons, the Poor (Downer's Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1987). Evangelicals for Social Action set their opposition to abortion in the context of sensitive concern for the poor. The Catholic bishops have connected their stance in favor of the fetus with their opposition to nuclear war. The caricature of the pro-life movement as indifferent to other dimensions of human life is unjust to most of its proponents. The danger of narrowness exists in this movement, but then it exists in all movements of people who become deeply concerned about particular issues.
It may be a legitimate criticism, on the other hand, to say that the pro-life movement has been insensitive to the needs of all forms of life except the human. Even here there is an exception in David C. Thomasma, who is open to concern for animals as well. But in his book Human Life in the Balance (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990) this openness comes as an afterthought that has little effect on the argument as a whole. It may also be a legitimate criticism to say that those who have labeled themselves pro-life have accented biological existence for human beings more than the quality of life. Also, some in the prolife movement seem to neglect consideration of the rights of the mother, subordinating them altogether to the rights of the fetus. But all these criticisms should be made on a case-by-case basis rather than against all who support the right of the fetus to life.
It is important that the affirmation of human life, both in its commonality with all life and in its distinctiveness, be set in the widest context. It is also important that the quality of life and the rights of the mother be given full consideration in questions of abortion. But whatever criticism may be directed to the ''pro-life" movement in these respects, its focus on the rights of the fetus, and even of the fertilized human ovum, has forced all Christians to attend to a very important question. For this Christians are in its debt.
The Historic Teaching of the Church
Many of the strongest opponents of abortion understand their position to be required by Christian faith, and they are correct that Christian opposition to abortion goes back to the early church. The issue then was not whether abortion was permissible but how serious an offense it was agreed that once the fetus possessed a human soul, feticide was murder. But one tradition, grounded in Aristotle and supported by Augustine and Aquinas, distinguished an early period of fetal life before it is formed by a human soul. This was often thought to last for forty days. During this period feticide was not murder and was, indeed, not a very serious offense. Augustine wrote: "The body is created before the soul. The embryo before it is endowed with a soul is informatus, and its destruction is to be punished with a fine. The embryo formatus is endowed with a soul. It is animate being. Its destruction is murder, and is to be punished with death" (Questiones in exodum, 80).
With so long a Christian tradition in opposition to abortion, many assume that there is a biblical basis for this rejection. In one sense there is. There are many biblical grounds for the affirmation of life, especially human life, and of the evil involved in destroying it. But even biblical scholars strongly opposed to abortion are forced to admit that there are no biblical prohibitions. (See T. C. Smith, "The Abortion Issue: A Biblical PerspectiveA Baptist View," in Seminar on Abortion, edited by Claude U. Broach; Charlotte, N.C.: The Ecumenical Institute, 1975, p. 37.) Indeed, the only direct discussion of feticide in the Bible is Exodus 21:2225. Here the feticide is accidental, and it is treated as the destruction of property to be compensated by a money payment.
It would be a mistake to argue from this general silence, or from this one passage, that the Hebrews, or Jesus, or Paul did not oppose all abortion. But it would be at least an equal error to claim any direct biblical authority against it. Today's strong opposition among many Christians is grounded in tradition, not Scripture. Within the tradition it sides with one group of authorities against another.
To say this is not to belittle the theological position that defends the fertilized human ovum as having full human rights. It is only to say that equally committed Christians can come to differing conclusions from study of the same traditional sources, and that both sides need further arguments. The U.S. Catholic bishops, for example, in defending the view that human life begins at conception, recognize this need. They appeal to empirical evidence (not available to Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas) to the effect that a great deal about the person-to-be is determined at conception and that "from fertilization the child is a complex, dynamic, rapidly growing individual" (Documentation on the Right to Life and Abortion, National Conference of Catholic Bishops; Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1974, p. 9). Their formulation may be exaggerated, but the evidence against a radical and abrupt change at some one point in the fetus's development, such as after forty days, is strong.
The Rights of the Fertilized Ovum
The chapters on the right to kill and the right to die argued that there is no basis for an absolute right to either life or death. All rights have to be seen in a larger perspective in which other rights are also considered. The real question is how the various rights are related to one another. There are conflicts in which it seems that one type of right always takes precedence over another. For example, the right of a person to a good night's sleep free from mosquito bites consistently takes precedence over the right of a female mosquito to live and to propagate her kind. But in other cases, even when the tension is between human rights and animal rights, the outcome is not so obvious. For example, it is by no means clear that the human right to eat tuna always takes precedence over the right of porpoises to live.
What about the right of a fertilized human ovum to live? It certainly has such a right. The question is how this right is to be related to other rights, such as the right of the mother to make her own decision about whether to take on the enormous responsibility involved in giving birth to a child, the right of the father to share in such a decision, the rights of other children to have their interests considered, the right of society to expand or contract its population, the right of future generations to inherit a habitable world, the right of other animals to be fruitful and multiply.
This way of putting matters is not common among the strongly committed antiabortionists. Their tendency is to view the right of the fertilized human ovum to life almost as an absolute. This tendency is derived from two foundational assumptions: One, the fertilized human ovum is a human being, so rights applying to human beings in general apply to it; two, human beings, at least those innocent of serious crimes, have an absolute, or near absolute, right to life. The qualification "near" is needed in the case of those who accept abortion if it is necessary in order to save the mother's life.
Chapter 2 considered the second of these assumptions. The notion of an absolute, or near absolute, right to life is closely connected with the notion that human life is sacred. But, biblically speaking, only God is sacred. Christians should speak, instead, of God's unconditional love of all creatures and especially of human ones. Christians should also love unconditionally. This means that they should allow others to carry out their projects unless these are excessively harmful to themselves or to others. Love, then, expresses itself foundationally not in keeping people alive but in respecting their freedom and responsibility. Since the great majority of people want to continue living and cannot carry out their other projects without doing so, there is an overwhelming weight in favor of keeping people alive. But when a person clearly, and reasonably, expresses the desire to terminate her or his life, this takes precedence. The person's right to have this desire respected, while not an absolute, does take precedence over the obligation to keep people alive at all costs. Respect for the central projects of others is called for by the unconditional love that is the basis for Christian action.
In short, although the right of a human being to life is quite fundamental, it is not absolute, It is derived from, and therefore subordinate to, the right of people to carry out their own projects. However, those to whom this right is properly attributed are those who have projects and can in some way express those projects. When matters are approached in this way it is clear that the fertilized human ovum is not a proper object of the respect due to human beings simply because they are human. The respect due to the ovum cannot express itself as the support of its avowed projects. One may reasonably argue that the fertilized ovum has as its implicit project living and growing, and that proper respect for it should lead to support of that project. But this is true for the human fertilized ovum in no different sense than for that of a mouse. One cannot derive from that project the commitment to keeping the fertilized human ovum alive even at high costs to the mother and others, a commitment that is characteristic of the "right-to-life" movement.
This does not mean that there is no difference in the claim upon us of the human ovum as against that of the mouse. It does mean that the difference needs to be specified. The difference is that if the human fertilized ovum is allowed to live, it will become a human being, one who should be allowed to carry out her or his projects, and hence one who has a quite fundamental right to life. To prevent the emergence of this human being certainly involves a loss. What might have been will never be. A potentiality for a unique human life is lost forever.
From this it follows that there is a prima facie desirability that the fertilized ovum develop into a child. The language of rights, developed with matured human beings in view, is difficult to apply in this case. Instead of speaking of the right of the fertilized ovum, it might be better to speak of the right of society to be enriched by this additional member. But, however it is described, those concerned for the fertilized human ovum are not wrong in holding that its destruction is a real loss. This loss is to be seen primarily not in terms of what the ovum now already is but in terms of potentials that will never be actualized. An attitude of casual indifference is not warranted.
Those who argue for the "pro-choice" position focus on the situation of the pregnant woman, rather than on the ovum. On the other hand, somewhere in the development from fertilized ovum to baby, the focus shifts. Most agree that once the baby is born, the mother's choices should be ordered to the well-being of the child. Those who describe themselves as pro-life, on the other hand, focus on the fertilized ovum from the beginning. When chided for insensitivity to the well-being of the woman, some argue that Christians should be especially sensitive to the needs of the weak and powerless. The woman may be relatively weak and powerless in relation to other people, but in relation to the fertilized ovum she is immensely powerful. Hence these defenders of the rights of the fetus affirm that from the beginning it is the interests of the fertilized ovum that Christians should defend.
This argument has merit, although like so many others in this debate its full implications are rarely drawn. If weakness and powerlessness were the major considerations directing the concern of Christians, they would be far more attentive to the suffering they inflict on the other creatures with which they share this planet. But since Christians should become far more concerned about these other creatures, and should apply the principle far more consistently in dealing with other human beings as well, the pro-life movement should be supported on this point. Hence, without ignoring the interests of the mother or of others, discussion in this chapter of the right to life of an unwanted fertilized human ovum will continue with a focus of attention on the ovum.
It was stated above that if the fertilized human ovum were viewed only as such, as what it already is, its right to life would be hardly greater than that of the fertilized ovum of a mouse. That would count rather little when weighed against other rights that must be considered. On the other hand, when viewed in terms of what can come into being if life is not terminated, that is, a unique human being, there is something very precious here that deserves the respect of all. It is not foolish or misguided to defend that precious potentiality against arbitrary destruction. Still, the principle to which appeal should be made should not be the fundamental right of human beings to be supported in their project to live. This right is grounded in the existence of a human being who has a project that requires continued life for its completion. The fertilized ovum does not have that kind of project. The principle favoring the right of the ovum to life is, instead, that people should support the actualization of valuable potentials, especially the potential of becoming a human being. This principle cannot be construed as an absolute, but that does not make it unimportant.
What is properly objected to in the destruction of a fertilized ovum is the prevention of the development of a human being rather than the killing of one. The question now is how far the opposition to such prevention can be pushed.
Consider the situation in which a woman is ovulating and her husband is able to fertilize the ovum. A potential for a unique human being exists in that situation too. There is an ovum capable of being fertilized. There is a man with the sperm that can do the fertilizing. If the act of sexual intercourse needed to realize this potentiality is not performed, there is a loss: namely, the loss of some person who could have been brought into existence. The fact that the genetic character that person would have is not determinate can hardly be made the basis of a radical distinction between this and the case of the fertilized ovum where that determinateness exists. Yet most people, even the strongest advocates of the right of the fertilized ovum to life, do not call for the fertilization of as many ova as possible. Even those who oppose all artificial methods of birth control say nothing of the right of the ovum to be fertilized.
The absolute line they seem to draw between the right of the fertilized ovum and the lack of right of an unfertilized one probably derives from a view that rights belong to human beings, that the unfertilized ovum is not a human being, and that the fertilized ovum is. But this formulation greatly exaggerates the differences. The change that takes place at the exact moment when fertilization occurs is important, but not absolute. In a very important and obvious sense, the unfertilized ovum is human. Its project, if one can speak of projects at this primitive level, is to be fertilized and to become a human being. In other very important senses, the fertilized ovum is not a human being.
Of course, fertilization is one necessary step in the process of development from an unfertilized ovum to a human being. But there are other necessary steps en route to becoming human. Far less confusion occurs if references to killing the ovum use just that language. Killing a fertilized ovum is ovicide, not murder! When the Roman Catholic bishops speak of the fertilized ovum as a "child," they distort the discussion, and when opponents of measures that prevent implantation of a fertilized ovum in the walls of the womb call this murder, their rhetoric makes reasonable discussion difficult. If an ovum is denied fertilization, it dies. If the fertilized ovum is denied certain conditions essential for its growth, it dies. In terms of what dies, there may be somewhat more value already realized in the fertilized ovum than in the unfertilized one. But in terms of the potential that will never be realized, the loss is much the same. A human being might have come into existence. That human being will never exist. The difference between failing to fertilize the ovum and preventing the fertilized ovum from being implanted is real, but not of overwhelming moral importance.
This discussion has begun by analysis of the extreme limit of the concern of the advocates of the right to life. The point is that they are not wrong in seeing something of great value and importance at stake. What is lost when the life of a fertilized ovum is terminated is the potentiality of a hu man being. This loss is essentially the same if an abortion is performed three months later. A similar loss occurs when the opportunity to fertilize an ovum is passed up.
A Functioning Brain
By no means all of those who oppose abortion oppose the killing of fertilized ova. Many see the beginning of human life at later points. It is not practical to consider every possible place for drawing the line, but one other argument will be examined as an example: that of the philosopher Baruch Brody, whose study of the issues led him to switch from the easy acceptance of abortion to opposition. (See Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life: A Philosophical View; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1975.) The position to which he came is a contemporary version of the view of Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas mentioned earlier.
Brody sees that the first crucial issue is "essentialism." Those who reflect about humanity must affirm, he believes, that there is an essence of humanity, and that it is the presence of this essence in a being that calls forth the full respect that is to be accorded to any human being. Where this essence is absent, the entity in question is not human and does not warrant any special concern or treatment. Hence, like those who view the fertilized ovum as a human being, Brody believes that a definite line must be drawn, with full human rights accorded to everything that qualifies as human and none to what has not yet crossed that line. The difference is where the line is drawn.
Brody does not believe that the fertilized ovum has the essential characteristics of humanity. He argues that a functioning human brain is the essence of human being, so once such a brain emerges in the fetus, the fetus must be regarded as a fully human being. To kill a fetus with such a brain is for Brody morally the same as killing an adult human being.
Given that philosophical position, the question of when a fetus becomes human must be a factual one, rather than a convenient stipulation for certain practical purposes. Brody judges that the "fetus becomes a human being sometime between the end of the second week and the end of the third month" (Abortion and the Sanctity of Human Life, p. 112). If this is so, then most abortions at least risk being murders.
The basic weakness of this approach is precisely the essentialism that is crucial to it and that Brody makes so explicit. From an essentialist perspective, there must be a line such that everything on one side of it is a human being and everything on the other side lacks any claim to special consideration. The preceding sections discussed the justification for drawing that line at the point of fertilization. Brody provides a second possibility: the emergence of a functioning brain. If a line must be drawn, these are certainly two possible and relatively plausible places to draw it. But there are a number of other equally reasonable candidates.
For example, it can be argued that conception has not really taken place until the fertilized ovum is implanted in the wall of the womb. In that case, preventing this step from taking place is birth control rather than abortion. Since there are standard procedures for preventing pregnancy that function in this way, and since even apart from such intervention nearly half of all fertilized ova fail to implant, the distinction between fertilization and implantation is an important one.
Alternately, the line may be drawn at viability. The question, it can be argued, is whether the life of the fetus is independent, or potentially independent, from the mother. Or it can be asserted that birth itself is the crucial line. Only with birth does the fetus become a baby and a member of the human community. It is even possible to argue that there is no real human being until some stage of maturation after birth. These days, in academic circles, the emphasis on language is so great that it may seem that one is not human until one participates in its use.
Once an essentialist mode of thinking is adopted, everything depends on the decision as to what constitutes the all-decisive essence. Such a decision, obviously, is highly disputable. There seems to be no basis on which agreement can be reached.
The truth is that something important happens at each of the points identified as possibilities for the drawing of a line, but that to turn one of the many necessary stages in the development of a human person into an absolute, and then to treat the others as negligible, is perverse. Is it not more consonant with good sense to recognize that there are a number of very important stages of human development, and that any answer to the question of when to say that the developing organism has become a human being is dependent on definitions of the human being that are somewhat arbitrary? If there must be a line, then it should be drawn for practical purposes as issues arise. It does not express a decisive fact about the objective humanity of the fetus itself.
Since the real issue is when to accord to the organism the sort of right to life that is accorded to mature members of the species, it would be well to ask what characteristics of mature human beings justify the ascription of this right, The point at which these characteristics emerge can then be ascertained. It is not the right to live in general that emerges at that point, for even the fertilized human ovum should be accorded some qualified right. The question is when the organism is to be accorded the nearly unqualified right to life of fully developed human beings. From this point of view, the question is not whether a functioning human brain is essential to being truly human. Surely it is. The question is whether it is sufficient. The answer is, surely not. Being human has something to do with subjective experience. A functioning brain is certainly indispensable to that experience, but so are relationships with others. Whatever kind of experience the fetus has in the womb is very unlikely to have any of the distinctive characteristics that lead to attribution of special value and importance to human beings in comparison with other animals. Indeed, the experience of a mature dog probably resembles that of a mature human being more than does that of a three-month fetus.
The implication is not that people should be more concerned about the mature dog than about the human fetus. The implication is that the reason for prizing the human fetus lies in its extraordinary potentiality, not in what it has already become. A three-month fetus has already realized many of the potentialities of the fertilized ovum, including the potentiality of developing a functioning brain. But it is the potentiality of that functioning brain to interact with other people and the wider world, and thus to support genuinely human experience, that makes it so precious.
The Process of Becoming a Person
Although what is destroyed when a fetus with a functioning brain is killed is still primarily potentiality for becoming a human being, nevertheless the actuality of what is killed is far greater than in the case of a fertilized ovum. There is, therefore, an important difference. Two major changes have occurred. First, from a single fertilized cell there has developed a complex system of cells organized into organs and united into a single organism. Second, within this organism there has emerged a single centralized experience, related to the brain and having a richness of experience quite beyond that of any of the individual cells in the brain or elsewhere in the body. It is reasonable to assume that the killing of this more developed fetus involves pain of a sort an ovum cannot feel.
These are major transformations en route to becoming a human being. But there are additional transformations still to come. Two are crucial to distinctively human experience. First, the unified experiences related to, but not identical with, the multiplicity of brain cells must develop a new kind of sequential relation. An infant's experience is predominantly reflective of the condition of its body. When that bodily condition changes, there is little influence of its previous condition in its present experience. There is very little memory or anticipation. The infant lives quite fully in the present. This changes rapidly in early childhood. Although the present remains important, it is increasingly viewed and interpreted in a larger context that includes past and future. The child comes to have her or his own projects that demand respect. Experience becomes personal. That is, the relation of one momentary experience to the sequence of past experiences and to anticipated future ones has become more determinative than the immediate reception of bodily experience. For many animals this never happens, and life is lived quite fully in the present. But for human beings the present becomes the meeting place of past and future, largely shaped by memory and anticipation.
The second transformation is of the relation of the personal experience to the body. In infancy the function of the unified experience is to serve the body. The unified experience mediates between the physical condition of the body and the activities, such as crying, that are important for getting the attention the infant needs. But as time passes, the relation is reversed. Projects are envisaged and developed at the level of the unified experience. The body is used to implement these projects.
Although there are no neat lines distinguishing all human beings from all other animals by peculiarly human capacities, most other animals, at least in their natural condition, do not take this last step. They have unified experience with considerable memory and some anticipation. But this experience, even if it is called personal, is basically in the service of the body. The animal's projects are for the sake of the well-being of the body. Some animals do make great sacrifices for the sake of others, but it is hard to think of nonhuman animals sacrificing their bodily well-being for the sake of ideal goals. Yet this is widely characteristic of human beings. It is one way of thinking of the imago Dei.
These comments give some content to the notion that what is destroyed in the death of even a considerably developed fetus is not a human being in the sense in which human beings are the objects of exceptional duties and the subjects of special rights. It is a potential human being. It is now a potential human being with unified psychic existence and feelings and emotions. But these characteristics are shared with many animals whose right to life, in typical thought and practice, is quite conditional. It is still the potentiality rather than the actuality that grants special status.
The Mother's Perspective
The destruction of a highly developed fetus is without question a much greater evil than the destruction of a fertilized ovum. Not only is more lost, but there may be considerable suffering on the part of the fetus. Still, the most important difference between the older fetus and the fertilized ovum is not the extent to which the characteristics of human beings have been realized. It is rather the new pattern of relations between the fetus and human beings. In the case of the fertilized ovum, no one knows of its existence. No emotional attachment to it has been formed. Usually no one knows whether such an entity has been killed or not. What is lost is not mourned by others.
Once a woman becomes aware of a potential human being within her womb, this situation changes. Even if she does not want to bear a child, emotional ties begin to develop both to what the fetus already is and to the child that may be. Few women can be indifferent to either of these, and if such indifference is approximated, that can only be at some cost to the personality of the mother. If others share the knowledge, the pattern of relations is richer. The longer these relations exist, the greater is the loss and suffering if, for whatever reason, the fetus dies. If it dies because of the woman's decision, the pain is greater still. Sometimes the pain is so protracted that women in later years regret having decided upon an abortion, however acute the hardships avoided.
This is a very different argument against abortion than the one based on the rights of the potential human being. But in the present context, they are not unconnected. The major reason for the woman's suffering in the death of the fetus is simply natural. It has been argued that women are so constituted that tender concern for the new life within them is biologically and psychologically natural. But there is a secondary reason, stemming from social teaching. As long as many people believe and teach that feticide is a terrible sin, grief is compounded with guilt. Even conscious disagreement does not protect one. At this point, a change in social ethos could reduce the suffering of the mother in making the decision for an abortion. The right-tolife movement is, among other things, an effort to prevent that kind of change from taking place. The movement is correct in affirming that it is wrong to treat feticide as morally indifferent. But the real problem is excessive feelings of guilt when the decision to abort is otherwise justified. In any case, no change in ethos would completely end this suffering.
The major reason for supporting early abortions and opposing later ones is not, then, that what is destroyed is of greater value in itself or more subject to suffering, although this is true. The major reason is that the shorter the period in which the woman forms attachments to the fetus, the less she will suffer in terminating its life. This is a very significant point. Once the woman thinks of the fetus as a baby, the emotions that are natural and appropriate toward a baby come into being. The violation of those maternal feelings is likely to do permanent damage. In some cases, even if the woman thinks she wants an abortion, others, with a wider knowledge of human psychology, should work against it.
The focus of discussion has now shifted from the potential human being to the actual woman. This leads to support of ''freedom of choice." Respecting human beings means supporting their right to realize their own projects. The woman's projects should be supported out of respect for her right to choose. But this right, like all rights, is relative. The previous chapter argued that if one's choice to die adversely affects others, then one's right is qualified. Others have the right and duty to share in the decision. They may have an understanding of the situation that, in the intensity of immediate feelings, the one contemplating suicide cannot match. "Freedom of choice" is too strong an expression to apply when choices affect others as well as the chooser.
In the case of the decision to abort, there are always negative consequences. These include the death of the potential human being. That is a serious matter, but it is not decisive by itself. To kill the newly fertilized cell is little worse than to prevent fertilization. It can be considered a legitimate extension of birth control.
When the fetus has developed many of the physical features of human beings and has begun to have its own unified experience, what is destroyed in feticide is of quite considerable value in itself, even if it is not yet a full human being. Further, the woman will have developed an attachment to the fetus in her womb, the violation of which has extensive negative repercussions for her. Others are also likely to be involved by this time. To counterbalance all of this, the reasons for an abortion must be weighty.
Much thought has been given to what may constitute such weighty reasons. Knowledge that the fetus cannot develop into a normal child can constitute such a reason. The fact that the fetus is the result of rape can be another. The mother's mental or physical health is a third. But there are many more, and any effort to list them falsities the actual process of decision-making that must go on in the agony of each individual case.
By the time a woman knows there is new life within her, the value of that life in itself and her emotional attachment to it have become significant factors. The attachment increases as the fetus grows and becomes more active. If there are good reasons for abortion, the feticide should occur as early as possible. Yet the decision should not be that of the woman alone. Perhaps a week's delay, during which time professional counseling is provided by society, should be required. On the whole, counseling should be directed toward helping the woman make her own decision, but in extreme cases it may be appropriate for a counselor to have the authority to prevent the abortion or to carry the case to someone who does. If the desire of the woman for an abortion is countermanded, then society must assume major responsibility to help her deal with the crises she foresees.
These conclusions have supported the primacy, though not the exclusiveness, of the right of the woman to decide and the undesirability of establishing rules indifferent to her situation. But at some point the woman's rights cease to be determinative. No one believes a mother has the right to kill her two-year-old child, however great the hardship imposed on her by the child's existence.
Despite the lack of any one change in fetal-infant development that justifies drawing a line between rightless nonhumanness and the possession of full human rights, for practical purposes a line must be drawn with respect to any specific right. In this case the issue is the right to life. If it is recognized for what it is, a partly arbitrary social decision, then laws following from drawing the line can be enforced with some flexibility.
At least superficially, the clearest line is birth itself. Whereas many ancient societies practiced exposure of unwanted infants, Christians overwhelmingly rejected this practice, and this rejection has now become general throughout the world. From this consensus it is a small step to the view that premature infants should have the same protection as others, if by such protection they can be kept alive: in short, if they are viable. This remains true even if the fetus has been artificially removed from the womb. Hence, viability constitutes a natural and widely accepted boundary. Once a fetus is viable, reasons for killing it should be very weighty indeed.
The prohibition, or severe restriction, of killing a viable fetus has considerable support in society as a whole. For practical purposes this works well today in virtually excluding abortions after twenty-three or twenty-four weeks of gestation. Insofar as a line must, for legal purposes, be drawn, this seems to be the best place to draw it.
One concern about drawing a line this way is that to some extent viability is a function of medical science and technology. As these advance, younger fetuses can be kept alive. This accents the point that there is no drastic change in the fetus at some one point. In principle, technological ability might lower the age of "viability" considerably. Indeed, someday it might be possible to fertilize an ovum outside the womb and provide an artificial environment. In some sense the unfertilized ovum would then already be "viable."
Despite such reductions of the criterion to absurdity, for the foreseeable future it can work reasonably well. During the past fifteen years the age at which a fetus can be kept alive with artificial aid has been lowered less than fourteen days, and the danger that these younger fetuses will not develop into healthy infants is considerable. Assuming that "viability" includes a reasonable chance to develop into a normal human being, there is no reason to expect major changes soon.
It should also be emphasized that the fight to life of the viable fetus remains relative. If the mother's life is endangered, few hesitate to save her at the expense of the fetus.
The Wider Context
A consistent theme in this book is that a purely individualistic view of rights should be rejected. Human lives are so bound together that all decisions about life and death need to involve the others who are affected. This is true even when only the well-being of those most closely involved is considered. But, in fact, changes in attitudes toward life and death are important for the whole community, indeed, for all humanity. Hence the issue should be viewed also with a much wider horizon.
One context in which the discussion of abortion now needs to be set is that of the recent realization of the depth and comprehensiveness of the oppression of women in patriarchal society. The question of whether a woman should bear a child has in the past been decided, for the most part, in terms of the interests of men, and the woman's role has been to serve the patriarchal society. This is not the place to elaborate on the extensive denial to women of control even over their own bodies. There is justice in the current demand on the part of women that their right to decide about what happens in their bodies be respected. Because self-determination is so central to women's struggles today, this right should be given special weight.
Some women today, in reaction to millenia-long deprivation of rights, use absolutistic language about this fight to determine their own destinies and to control what happens in their own bodies. Some have overstated the extent to which the fetus is part of their bodies and lacking in independent existence and value. This exaggeration is an almost necessary reaction to the continuing tendency in a patriarchal society to subordinate women's rights to those of others: the father on the one side, and the fetus on the other.
Given the historic context of the discussion today, there is reason to lean heavily toward the affirmation of the woman's right to decide. Society has the duty to lean over backward to assist women who are seeking, psychologically and publicly, to take full responsibility for their lives. The decision as to whether to bear or not to bear a child is so central to that responsibility that social interference should be muted. The proposals made above about mandatory delay and counseling before an abortion are in tension with the demands of some women for complete control over the decision. Such tensions are the stuff of both morality and politics. The tension cannot be removed, but it can be eased if the implementation of such proposals is sensitive to the massive oppression that women have suffered and continue to suffer. For example, any required counseling or, in the extreme case, any decision to refuse the woman's request, should be by women who are themselves committed to the empowering of women.
There is also a still wider context within which this reflection needs to proceed. The historic opposition to abortion arose in general in societies where it was in the interest of the community to have more children. Where so many children died in the early years, the prevention of a potential birth was antisocial. It threatened the survival of the. community as a whole. All the traditional religions came into being in that kind of world. Marrying, having children, and bringing them to adulthood so that they in their turn would marry and have children was foundational to the individual's responsibility to society. If that were the situation today, then, although the personal needs of the pregnant woman might sometimes outweigh the interest of society in having more children, her reasons to abort even a very young fetus would have to be quite strong.
But this is not the kind of world in which we live. On the contrary, overpopulation is a major problem. Indeed, it contributes to many deaths, especially of children, through hunger and malnutrition. These are closely related to other problems, such as resource exhaustion, pollution, climate change, depletion of the ozone layer, desertification, deforestation, and erosion, that make the prospects of the newborn bleak. Overpopulation is connected with problems of social injustice and war as well. Population stabilization is a high priority for any rational social policy in most countries. In time the issue may become how to reduce population humanely.
For the world as a whole, therefore, it is generally desirable that the rate of births be reduced. Given that fact, it seems evident that it is better for this reduction to come from unwanted births rather than from wanted ones. The time may come when more countries limit the right of couples to have even the children they want. That will be a sad day! But because that may become necessary for the sake of preserving the possibility of a decent life for future generations, it is certainly desirable now to seek ways of stabilizing population that do not involve this denial of freedom to propagate as one chooses. Giving women now the right not to have children, the right not to bring fertilized ova to term, is certainly one of the more favorable ways of attaining the goal. It implements the general principle that unconditional respect for others expresses itself in allowing them to fulfill their projects. If society now grants the right not to have unwanted children, it may assure future couples the right to have wanted ones. Neither of these rights is absolute, but both should be real.
This reference to the wider context is usually omitted in the consideration of issues that are thought to belong to personal ethics. Indeed, many view this qualification of the autonomy of personal ethics with horror. It seems to imply that social needs can override individual rights, and this seems to be precisely the doctrine of totalitarianism against which Christians have struggled so hard. There is much justification for this concern.
However, the effort to dissociate individual matters from social ones is unrealistic. The evil of totalitarianism arises from its tendency to treat the collective as if it had some kind of existence and value apart from the persons who make it up. The interests of the "fatherland" could be conceived of in ways that were clearly not the interests of the people who lived in, and constituted, the nation. This hypostatization of the nation must be vigorously opposed. But extreme individualism is little better. To accent the rights of individuals and the freedom of individuals in ways that cause all to suffer together does not really serve the individuals. Individuals exist as part of the community, and the community is nothing more than its members in their mutual relationships.
Garrett Hardin's parable of the commons is telling here. Hardin describes a pasture open to all herdsmen. Each herdsman gains by adding cattle to the commons. Up to a certain number, his gain costs the others nothing. But even beyond that number, even when the grazing exceeds the carrying capacity of the commons, adding an animal still benefits the individual herdsman, since the gains are his, while the costs are shared by all. Hence, when each pursues his own interest rationally, the commons are destroyed, and all lose. (Exploring New Ethics for Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle; New York: Penguin Books, 1972, p. 254.)
If each individual is free to use shared resources without check, all will suffer through their overuse. All benefit if the total use is within the carrying capacity of the system. Once population passes a certain point, the task is not to guard the freedom of each individual to do as she or he pleases, but to establish as just a system of distributing the rights to use the resources as can be devised. If population reaches the limit of the carrying capacity of human beings living at an acceptable level of resource use, then the right to reproduce can no longer be viewed as absolute. A decision that was previously made by each couple privately now becomes a matter of public importance. All will suffer if human population continues to rise. Individual rights must be adjusted to the new situation.
Drastic action is not needed in the United States, at least for the present. Such action was needed in China and is needed in some other places. Still, even for the United States now, consideration of the respective rights of fetus and mother needs to be set in this larger context. If society's interest lay in the woman's giving birth to every fertilized ovum in her womb, that should count in the balance. If society's interest is in reducing the number of births, and especially of unwanted ones, then this should count in the balance also.
The lives of the members of the community are bound together. It is in the community's interest that its members have as much freedom as possible in making decisions about their own lives. But if those decisions imperil the community, that means that they imperil all the individuals who make up the community. It is in the interest of all these individuals that the community restrain actions by each that thus imperil all. The aim should be to devise policies that maximize both personal freedom and community well-being.
This book is proposing such policies. The right to die should be granted to those aged people for whom life ceases to have positive value either to themselves or to others and who desire to die. The right to end an unwanted pregnancy, especially at an early stage, should be granted to women. Such rights are not absolute. They should be checked by society. Both the decision to terminate a severely deteriorated life and the decision to prevent a potential human being from actualizing that potentiality are serious ones that involve loss and suffering. Nevertheless, they are often justified by immediate considerations without regard to the wider context. When that context is fully considered, the importance for society to grant that right to those most closely involved is accentuated.
Granting the right to individuals to have more control over their own lives is in itself a humane action. This humane action will ease problems of population growth. If society fails to take humane measures of this sort now, the next generation may be forced to take inhumane actions. Christians do not have the right to impose on the future the kind of world that allows their children no other choices.