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I suppose it is kind of preposterous that one imagines himself important enough to write down his opinions for others to read. Chattering superciliousness is one of the most infuriating things about academics and so-called intellectuals, generally, who feel compelled to share their thoughts. But here it goes, anyway.

Abortion and the Right to Choose Wrongly

By Michael E. Berumen 6-12-05

The argument that a woman has the "right to choose," which is to say, she has the right to kill the fetus within her because, after all, "It's her body," is an argument that I have long thought flawed. In a great many cases, it is logically equivalent to saying, "I won't support my child, since the labor involved requires the use of my body, and for various reasons I don't want to do this ." Notwithstanding the silliness of the "It's my body and I'll do what I want to with it" argument, many so-called "pro-choice" proponents believe that killing the fetus is morally permissible, and that there ought to be few, if any restrictions or reprisals from the government, and no opprobrium by society for having done so. They hold that the fetus is not really a person, and that the mother's right to control her body, upon which it surely depends, is inviolable. The disposition of her body, insofar as the fetus goes, cannot be made subject to extra-personal, objective standards of morality, and is absolutely off-limits to society. Society has nothing to say about a fetus. What happens to it is completely up to her, and the decisions in relation to her own body, we are told, ought not to be questioned by others, for only she is in a position to know what is truly right on such matters. It is a perfect form of moral relativism, with no preferred, objective standard by which to adjudicate or assess acts and judgments, each woman knowing, subjectively, what is moral for her and for the fetus.

As I have argued elsewhere, the principal objectives of the most important rules of morality, so-called universal rules, rules that apply to everyone, everywhere, and all of the time, are to avoid causing others to die--which is tantamount in practice to permanently losing consciousness or self awareness--and causing them to suffer, in just that order of importance. Impartial rational people will take into account both the lives and the suffering of those who have some capacity for consciousness or suffering. This applies not to humans, but to everything that has awareness or that can suffer. The potential for suffering or awareness among beings with complex brains and nervous systems is greater than that of creatures with relatively simple ones; we must therefore take into account their relative suffering in making moral prescriptions in relation to them. However, we must not ignore another being because its capacity for suffering or awareness is not as great as our own. Not causing others to die or suffer is the default position of morality. Exceptions to these proscriptions can be made, but only when they meet certain tests.

Some would have us believe only the lives and suffering of rational persons have moral standing. They hold that a non-human animal or a fetus would not qualify as a rational person, and, as such, they maintain other animals do not enjoy the same moral standing as fully rational persons. Some might distinguish a fetus at a later stage in its development---as one might with a young child---from other animals on the basis of being pre-rational, or having the potential for rationality, something it is presumed other animals do not have. However, rationality is not a discrete condition, but a continuous one, progressing from less to more, and beginning in utero. And it would seem rationality is not exclusive to humans. Adult chimpanzees, for example, are undoubtedly as rational, or in some instances, even more rational, than young human children, and even some human adults. It is also quite clear that some humans are more or less rational than others.

Basing one's eligibility for moral treatment on rationality would imply that the lives and suffering of the most rational among us ought to be accorded even greater weight than those whose capacities are not as large, which implies that the lives and suffering of infants, children, or the mentally disabled ought to be considered less important than those adults who are deemed to be "normal." Taken to its extreme, such a view would justify giving greater moral standing to people with IQs over, say, 150, than to people of less intelligence, including people of average intelligence, the bulk of humanity. One can also easily see how such reasoning leads to excluding groups on the basis of their race or for simply being out of social mainstream, or whatever unpopular group is branded as being less rational.

It is quite plain that having the capacity to suffer is a much better criterion than rationality is for determining one's eligibility for moral treatment. People sometimes are wont to confuse this eligibility criterion for the moral realm with the principle of moral agency. A moral agent is one who is obligated to behave morally by virtue of of his understanding. This does require at least the minimal ability to understand one's rational prohibitions and to formulate impartial rational judgments, for this is necessary in order to understand the fundaments of morality. However, the only requirement for moral treatment is the capacity to suffer. And, to bring this to the central point, a fetus can certainly suffer at a very early stage in its development.

Some would suggest that we should only be concerned morally or legally about the fetus from the point it becomes "viable," and only at which time it is thought by some to be a "person" with legal or moral standing in society. Thus, they would say, a fetus in the last trimester ought not to be aborted, for it is presumed to be viable. What does viability really mean, though? An infant is no more viable than a fetus is, after all, if by that we mean it is no longer in a state of dependency, able to function on its own. By such a definition of viability, many medically disabled and elderly people could not be considered viable, for they also would be dependent upon others, and to a very great extent, on the bodies of others, since, after all, the labor of others is but an extension of their bodies. If viability means functioning on one's own or independence, consistency would demand much more than excluding the fetus from the moral realm. There is clearly a great deal of ambiguity, indeed, even arbitrariness in determining what constitutes viability.

The fact is, the more consistent proponents of choice are not as concerned about viability, per se. They would impose no restrictions if they had their way, for, in their minds, what is at stake is really the control of the woman over her body, without regard to the status of the fetus within her. This is why they would not exclude so-called partial-birth abortion during the latter stages of pregnancy. They are actually less disingenuous than those who say that the ability to survive outside of the womb is their principal criterion for determining when abortions ought to be allowed. To illustrate my point, here, the day might come, however, when medical technology enables even a two-week old fetus to survive outside of the mother's womb. Does anyone seriously think that the proponents of abortion then would willing to deny the women's "right to choose" after two weeks? Of course, this is not what they really want. What they want is for women to have the freedom to shed any unwanted dependency, the personal freedom to avoid being inconvenienced by someone else, even when doing so means that the latter must die. They simply realize that most can make this decision earlier.

One might reasonably ask why the most radical pro-abortionists do not also propose infanticide? The grounds for this practice certainly logically follow from the very same "It's my body argument." Most mothers, even the most radical pro-abortionists, would not consider this, of course, for this is well beyond what is socially acceptable, even amongst radical abortionists. Besides, from a practical perspective, post partum bonding can arouse the most hardened person's maternal and protective instincts. And then, the father is presumed to have more say in the matter. But on an abstract level, infanticide is completely consistent with some of the main arguments of the pro-choice group.

We now know that the fetus is fully capable of feeling pain at a very early stage in its development, and that it begins to be self-aware in a matter of weeks. Morality, therefore, requires that we take its suffering and consciousness into account. Now, morality also permits us to depart from the general prohibition against causing others to die or suffer, but only when we can prescribe the same exception in all circumstances sharing the same universal properties, having taken into account the relevant facts of the matter, including the perspectives of the potential victims, in this case, both the mother and the fetus, and, of course, only when our analysis and the exception that we prescribe are in conformance with reason.

As difficult as it might be, we must try and imagine what the perspective of the fetus would be if it were accorded the information and reasoning powers of an adult. What is more, we must imagine ourselves and those we care about if they were in the same position as the fetus, given a similar circumstance (e.g., the health of the mother, prospects for living without unmanageable pain or disability, dire poverty, and the impact on the mother's life plans). We must also examine the perspective of the mother as if we or others were in her position, and even imagine how the fetus itself might react (having mature perspectives), if it found itself in the mother's position. In other words, we must be willing to evaluate all of the angles, reversing the positions of the participants and potential participants in various ways, examining all of the relevant, universal properties at hand, including the various psychological perspectives, and then we must be willing to apply the exception to all similar circumstances, including ones in which we or our loved ones are involved. This is the total nature of impartiality, applying the universal rules of morality (i.e., don't kill or cause suffering) or any proposed violation of those rules without bias and without regard to any preferred outcome.

The bottom line of all this is that we must weigh the loss of consciousness or suffering that will occur by aborting versus the loss of consciousness or suffering that might be avoided if we were to choose differently. Thus, for example, we might conclude that the risk of the mother's death from the pregnancy or delivery outweighs the interests of the unborn child. We might also conclude that a fetus without a brain, who would be doomed to an empty existence, or one with a severe and irreparable disability that could result in its experiencing extraordinary pain over a short life span, ought to be terminated. In the former case it is tantamount to being dead; in the latter, death is preferable to the amount of suffering involved. Then there are the cases of rape or incest, where some would argue the lifelong suffering of the mother and the "unnaturalness" of the conception are prima facie justifications for an abortion.

While they seem obvious to some, even cases of severe impairment, rape, and incest are not without profound moral difficulties, partly because of our limited understanding of the medical outcomes for both the mother and the child. Making judgments about a person's prospective physical and mental capacities rely on our very tentative understanding of science and our limited ability to predict the future. In the latter cases of rape and incest, or at least many of them, one might argue that the suffering of the mother cannot be entirely reversed no matter what we do, and that some of it might even be alleviated through putting the child up for adoption, and that notwithstanding the tragedy of rape and incest, the mother's suffering does not exceed the potential value of the life to be exterminated. I myself remain uncertain, though I would be inclined to approve of abortion in such cases.

In any case, it is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of abortions do not result from rape or incest. Most arise from a lesser degree of suffering or anticipated suffering, usually on the mother's part, and primarily, I fear, as a result of the inconvenience she shall incur during the gestation period. Here I mean the usual kinds of inconveniences associated with raising a child: impoverished circumstances (though many of the proponents of abortion, and, I suspect, many who have undergone one, are relatively affluent); the ignominy of a pregnancy out of wedlock; the introduction of a significant obstacle to one's life plans; or having the physical discomfort and pain associated with carrying a child to term and childbirth. Keep in mind, however, I do not mean to understate the gravity of the inconvenience that is sometimes or even often involved, but I believe these examples of suffering are far outweighed by the kind of suffering many unborn fetuses experience as they undergo an abortion procedure, not to mention their having permanently lost their consciousness and their entire life's potential.

Some might say, have said, I am not a woman, therefore, I am incapable of weighing in on evaluating a woman's predicament, her suffering, or making comparisons to others. It is quite true: I am not a woman. I also have not leaped off of a skyscraper, either, but that does not imply that I do not have some idea about its consequences. Many less dramatic examples come to mind. It is a silly argument. Men and women are equally qualified to make moral judgements about one another. Males, females, and fetuses share more than that which separates them, and that which makes us different is not wholly or even mostly outside of our ability to make reasonable inferences. Indeed, our entire understanding of suffering, our understanding of other minds, is highly inferential, notwithstanding one's sex. This does not render such judgments meaningless. They are necessary in order for us to function in society.

The "It's my body argument" has other limitations. The fetus is not a part of the mother in the same sense that a kidney or a finger is. The relationship is more of a parasitic one, whereby the fetus is the parasite and the mother is the host, and the former is completely dependent upon the latter. In a very large sense, this state of affairs is no different than our relation to a human infant, which is also wholly dependent upon an adult, usually its biological parent, though not always, and even though there is no longer an in utero biological connection. For one to say that she ought to have control over her body, and therefore the dependent fetus' existence, is logically equivalent to saying that she ought to have control over the use of her body in all circumstances (e.g., her time and labor), and, therefore, even over a dependent child's existence. In other words, I believe that the underlying argument for abortion, when we strip away the bark, is logically equivalent to arguments one might make for infanticide or for not caring for others dependent upon us, even the elderly.

Some will rightly argue that we can easily regress to absurdity if we do not draw the line as to when organic tissue ought to be the subject of morality. There is always going to be some arbitrariness in choosing the criteria for when an abortion might be legitimate. The critical consideration is to what extent do the mother's interests outweigh the suffering of the fetus. We must of course first establish what the capacity for suffering is. While there is eventually some point where we can say the fetus no longer suffers, we are still left with the matter of potential---that is, the potential for a full life, for personhood, however we define it. I would not want to overstate the importance of this, however, for we can speak of the potential of sperm and ova, too. Notwithstanding the Catholic Church's view on the sanctity of sperm, based on some rather fantastic musings of the good Saint Thomas Aquinas, this seems to carry things too far. The critical difference for moral formulations is that sperm and ova do not experience suffering. Similarly, there is no reason to suspect the embryo at its earliest stages is capable of suffering.

The question remains, ought there to be legal consequences for an immoral abortion? It certainly sounds right when we say that the government ought to protect innocent lives; but this is perhaps too glib in relation to abortion, for the facts relating to homicides among the born are generally much less complicated than the facts and expected outcomes that pertain to pregnancy and abortion, and they certainly are not as subjective. What agreed-upon criteria would the government use, and who in government would be charged with determining whether or not an abortion is ever justified, as it surely sometimes is? I myself would not be too anxious to involve the government in reproductive affairs, even though I believe abortion is a very significant moral problem for individuals. As a general rule, I think that government power ought to be limited and well defined, for it tends to be abused and to grow in unintended and unwelcome ways. The evils that result from restricting our personal liberties can too easily outweigh the benefits.

Government ought not to be involved in preventing or even punishing every immoral activity individuals commit. It is usually immoral to lie and to break our promises, for example, but I do not want the government involved in trying to prevent every lie or broken promise, or to punish people for every transgression. Laws cannot protect society against every breach of morality. Not only is it impractical, it would be highly undesirable to have the state involved in nearly every human activity. With that said, I also do not want government involved in supporting immoral activities, directly or indirectly through funding, or in forcing others to do so (for example, forcing medical insurers to pay claims for elective abortions).

I should like to make it very clear that I am quite sympathetic with the special burdens women have as the bearers of our species' children, and as the ones who most often end up as their primary care givers, not to mention caring for nearly everyone else in the family. I am not saying that this is the way it ought to be. It is an empirical observation of how things are. It is a disproportionate burden to that endured by most men, and there seems to be no parity, perhaps especially in modern societies, for men are not required to protect and provide for the family as they might have been in former times.

Because of their extra burden, one that cannot be fully shared, it is reasonable for women to expect the support of society in ensuring their health and safety during pregnancy, and in providing minimally acceptable standards of living while raising children. Similarly, women who do not want to have children ought to be able to receive a basic level of care during pregnancy, and to have assistance in arranging for adoption of the baby upon birth and, of course, in helping to maintain her privacy. Moreover, women ought to be free from any social stigma or from any discrimination under the law as a result of a perfectly natural act. For society to provide anything less is patently uncivilized, not to mention hazardous to our own kind. I should think if society behaved more responsibly in these matters, women who had an undesired pregnancy would be much more likely to persevere through it. The fact is, however, our puritanical notions about sex and chastity, especially in relation to women, make this difficult.

And I do not want men to get off the hook, here, for their own sexual nature and their lack of control over their impulses, especially amongst younger males, often puts girls and women at an unfair risk of potentially burdensome consequences, particularly when the male does not marry her or provide continuing financial and emotional support to both her and the child. Young males need to be taught responsibility by their parents, including abstemious behavior, ideally, but also using proper birth control (condoms) and, if things go wrong, living up to one's duty to one's female lover and to one's children.

To conclude, I believe the proponents of abortion on demand are guilty of specious reasoning on various levels. They often hold very inconsistent views regarding the value of life. Their misunderstanding of the moral issues involved help to give license to a great deal of unnecessary suffering under the guise of the furtherance of liberty and rights. I do not believe the advocates of unfettered "choice" are evil, but I think they do fail to grasp the ramifications of their moral relativism. I do not advocate more govenrment intrusion into our personal lives; however, there is a very dark, even perverted aspect to the clamoring for "the right to choose." Calling the choice to terminate a life a "right" is itself a complete distortion of morality, and an example of Orwellian "newspeak" if ever there were one. This devaluation of life serves to coarsen society, and it is a tide that I hope we will reverse before it is finally too late.