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A lover of the liberal arts, especially antiquity in its diverse forms, I am nonetheless wholly devoted to, utterly transformed by divine revelation. I seek to know the thought of the past, articulate my deepest longings aroused by the wise, and understand the uneasy relationship between reason and revelation; all for the sake of proper action and contemplation, both now and in the future.


On the Anti-Abortion Case

Full disclosure: my belief in divine revelation has waned and waxed over the years and my opinions concerning the city have oscillated wildly, but I have always hated abortion, just as I have always hated premeditated murder, rape, and other base, shameful acts. This opposition to what I have always seen as a grave crime is unlikely to change. This brief essay is thus an attempt to outline what I hope is the best of the anti-abortion case (I name it anti-abortion, for this is less ambiguous than 'pro-life', just as 'pro-abortion' is less ambiguous than 'pro-choice'.

First, some questions. What is abortion? Ought it to be permitted? How ought we to evaluate this problem, and what sources of knowledge ought we to use in our evaluation?

Abortion is the removal and destruction of a woman's fetus. This practice is currently legal in all the states of the Union, and in most countries of the world. Approximately fifty million fetuses have been aborted in the United States since it was widely adopted and endorsed some years ago; if we include the 'morning after' pill the worldwide total rises to more than one billion. The stakes are higher than any other moral dispute, and both sides fight with religious zeal. The anti-abortion argument in sum states that a fetus is in fact a human being, a person; thus abortion is murder and therefore it ought to be universally prohibited. Others deny this is the case, and the dispute has the irritating quality of tending to spin in circles.

What modes of knowledge should we use in approaching this dispute? One thing seems clear; the empirical sciences are of no use here; first because science has nothing to do with knowledge (in the strictest sense of the word, that is), and second, science has no concern at all with moral disputes, of which abortion is now the exemplar. Thus, scientific contributions are of little help in determining whether abortion ought or ought not to be prohibited. We must use immediate, non-scientific observations, taken from ordinary experience; and these, when coupled with sufficient reflection, shall be enough to cast some doubt on the pro-abortion case, and shed light on the anti-abortion case. One such coupling of reason and ordinary experience, providing a compelling case in favor of abortion is as follows: it is acceptable to kill a living part of yourself (cancerous growth, amputation, etc.), but not another person. A fetus is a living part of its mother, not a separate other. Giving birth is the act of separating with that part, so that it becomes an other. A newborn outside the womb is obviously an other, not a part of the mother. Therefore, it is acceptable to kill an unborn fetus, but this permissibility halts at birth.

This argument is the most convincing I have heard and am likely to hear. Of these four premises, I agree fully with the first and fourth, agree with the third in a qualified way (the result of birth is absolutely an other), but have some questions about the second. How do we know that a fetus is a part of the mother and not an other? To be sure, if the pregnancy is normal, we do not see, hear, or directly perceive the fetus at all. We might conclude, therefore, that was was there before birth was no person at all. Or we could conclude that it was a person all along, even though we could not directly perceive it. But an objection could be raised here; could we not say  the same of human eggs and sperm? Might this argument make them also persons? It does not, for we could collect a man's sperm and observe it indefinitely, and it would never be anything else. We could store a woman's monthly blood and observe the same result - nothing. They remain only elements and cannot of their own accord be anything more. Thus it seems reasonable to conclude that sperm and egg, considered alone, are not persons.

But what of their union? Though the resulting fetus is intimately bound to its mother, deriving all protection and nourishment from her, it develops through its own nature through various stages till birth. And why is birth so important? Because birth is when the child comes into the world, the moment when it is seen, felt, and heard. Thus we immediately perceive it is an other. But all these changes are changes in ourselves, not changes in the newborn. We perceive it, we see it, we hear it - how have our perceptions wrought any such important changes in the nature of the perceived? How could they?

It seems clear that a newborn is a human being, and it is as obviously unacceptable to kill it. It is becoming increasingly doubtful that any great change occurred moments before the child entered the birth canal. For if the newborn is obviously human, what of the newborn that is almost out of the womb, with perhaps just the feet inside? Is it still a 'part', not yet an 'other'? If it is now an other, what of when its head clears the womb? Just before? It seems that our initial inclination to judge a fetus as only a part of the mother and not yet an other has some serious difficulties; that if we recognize a newborn as a person, we ought to so recognize a fetus shortly before birth. We are back at the fundamental question: when does a fetus become a human being? After birth? During birth? Just before? When it becomes 'viable' (i.e., capable of living outside the womb)? When with sophisticated instruments we can discern brain waves? When its heart begins to beat? At conception?

If we are to rely on observations derived solely from ordinary experience (and I think we should, though the scientific 'evidence', as it gets more sophisticated, tends to favor the anti-abortion position, for it portrays the unborn as more and more recognizably human), it becomes ever more difficult to say precisely when the fetus becomes a human person. Obviously, it is folly to say personhood is something we may grant at will - nothing prevents race-based slavery, infanticide, or even genocide if we claim this; rather, we must say personhood is something we recognize as being present already - and it seems just as silly to claim that our acts of perception effect such a great change in the nature of the perceived that it is permissible to kill the perceived before birth, but to do so after birth would be a base crime. To draw an arbitrary line some time between conception and birth with an appeal to science seems dishonest. We have seen that the egg and sperm, taken alone, are by no means a person. The only remaining alternative, it seems to me, is that the moment of conception, where there is something other - something not entirely the mother, something which, when provided nourishment and protection, flourishes and grows according to nature - provides the most sound criteria for determining when the human person begins.

So much for the theoretical argument. Some might raise an objection here, for the decision to abort a child cannot be an easy one, and there are many factors which might impel a woman to abort: poverty, illness, rape, fetal deformity, retardation, etc. Surely those who would proscribe abortion see the world in black and white, and the reality is not so simple. There are so many varied particulars at issue here that a blanket, absolute prohibition seems clumsy and naive. An admirable sentiment in its place, to be sure, and certainly, the above factors are serious, serious difficulties in the way of having a child. But are there acts which are black and white? Rape seems and always has seemed such to me: I say it is always wrong to commit rape, no matter the circumstances. The woman never "deserved it", or "asked for it" - it is to be proscribed always. To this I would add crimes like murder and child molestation, and I am not likely to be alone in doing so. If then, there are actions which are black and white, the question is not to attack notions of black and white, but to ask whether abortion ought to be numbered among them. And if a fetus is a human person, the answer is yes. Just as we would forbid the killing of an infant for the above reasons, so too before birth we must forbid the same. Even in the case of rape, even rape-incest, a crime of almost demonic evil - killing the child is not the answer. No matter the case, no matter the circumstances, it is always wrong to commit abortion - just as it is always wrong to commit murder.

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