Reflections on Ethics 36
Position Statement on Abortion
This article is reprinted with permission from The Truth Tree, an online political and educational forum.
Let me begin this position statement with a letter I received before the statement was prepared:
The time has come for some straight talk about abortion.
The idea and practice of ending the life processes of the unborn, for the sake of convenience, marks the ultimate in barbarism. If people do not want children, they should not conceive. That is when "Human Beings" should make their choice: Before conception.
How, in these so-called "enlightened" last months of the twentieth century, can any nation seriously refer to itself as "One nation under God" while actively condoning the practice of liberal abortion? What arrogance! What unsurpassed audacity!
I wonder how many of us now living would be here today had our parents harbored the same calloused attitude? The exercise of free will must be accompanied by the full acceptance and understanding of the responsibilities for the effects which result. Our very civilization depends upon our recognition of this basic premise!
Oh How Tragic,
You "liberated" ones,
Who use your "Right to Choose,"
For Death is your companion!
The Truth Tree's goal as stated on the home page is to facilitate "the unfolding of the great experiment of life, wherever it may be found." Unlike any other life form on our planet we have the ability to take responsibility for the realization of this goal. We have the intelligence to learn and understand the necessary conditions for happy fulfillment of all the living things on this planet. But, unfortunately, we humans also have a tendency to think superstitiously and to espouse false religious and ideological assumptions. The question of whether abortion should be a legal option and if so under what conditions goes to the very heart of our stewardship of the planet.
There can be no doubt that unless we change some of our behavior our Space Ship Earth, as Carl Sagan was fond of calling it, will become a much less hospitable place for us and the other life forms who live here. There is much talk of the ozone layer, CO2 in the air, global warming, de-forestation, over-fishing, poor soil conservation practices, and many other problems which need to be coped with. But the one underlying problem which it seems people are less inclined to admit is overpopulation. Every environmental problem has overpopulation at its heart.
There are currently two political factions which call themselves "Pro-life" and "Pro-choice." These names are unfortunate and misleading. Their opposites reveal their flaws. Who would be "Pro- death?" And if choice means freedom, who would be "Pro-slavery?" The important values seem not to be mentioned. We should not be "Pro-suffering." And yet if all pregnancies are brought to term much avoidable suffering will certainly occur. And how about "Pro-stultification?" This is what will be brought about if young women lose their right to choose their full potential. Let's agree that we are all "Pro-joy" and "Pro-fulfillment." Then we can get down to the business of actually realizing these goals.
It is The Truth Tree's position that there should be no laws prohibiting abortions performed by qualified medical practitioners. The decision whether to abort an embryo or a fetus should be made by the pregnant woman in consultation with a physician. The physician may wish to bring others into the decision making process (with the pregnant woman's permission) such as the parents, if the pregnant woman is very young, or the male responsible for the pregnancy.
Concepts of "morality" are often central to arguments about abortion. The position taken by some is that the pregnant woman shouldn't have gotten pregnant in the first place and that she must now take responsibility for her ill-advised sexual activities. What if a young woman goes out on the ice (perhaps against advice) and the ice breaks and she is helplessly swimming about in the freezing water? Should we rescue her? Perhaps we should shout out to her, "You should have known better than to go out on the ice. You should have taken the advice of your parents. Now you must accept the consequences of your actions." It is all very well to say "should" and "should not" but in the real world people don't always do what they "should" or "should not" do. When they inevitably make mistakes, what course of action is best? Clearly the course of action which helps the most people to have the most joy and fulfillment in their lives.
Responsibility is a very important virtue for all of us to cultivate. We are quite rightly concerned with the problem of influencing young people to be more responsible. Let us imagine that we are being consulted by a teenage girl and boy who are trying to decide whether having sex would be responsible or not. Let us imagine (and this will require some imagination!) that they have come to us, their elders, for advice. What would we say to them? Let us assume that they have no birth control but are in the throes of intense passion. What would we say to them about the responsibilities involved in the decision they are about to make? Would we remind them that they are very young? That they have no means of supporting a child? That they aren't emotionally ready for parenthood? That their plans for college may be jeopardized? That if they can't go to college they might not be able to support a child in the manner that they would like to? That if they abandon the child someone else will have to shoulder the responsibility of raising him or her? That it would be unfair to their parents or grandparents to add such a burden to them? That it would be unfair to their community to burden social agencies with the expensive job of finding a place for the child? Now, let's suppose that they go ahead and have sex anyway and the girl gets pregnant. Would any of those arguments against having sex have changed their force? Well, then, don't those arguments support the proposition that it would be the more responsible decision to abort?
Another argument says, "How many of us wouldn't be here if abortions had been legal back in the early days?" Another form is, "Just think of all the geniuses and world leaders who will never be born if we permit abortion." A persuasive TV commercial against abortion shows an exquisitely lovable little boy tasting rain with his tongue. Somehow, if you are opposed to legal abortion, all prevented births would have resulted in beautiful, happy, talented, intelligent, loving, lovable, and benevolent children. To be fair you should also think of all the mentally retarded children and children with incurable developmental disorders and children with criminal personalities who will never be born if abortion is permitted. And what about the night you were going to have sex but instead you turned over and went to sleep? How do you know you wouldn't have brought a world leader into the world?
Just a coincidence?
Inspection of the graph above shows that from 1983 to 1991 crime of all sorts was on the increase. Starting in 1991, however, crime rates declined. Now look at the graph for number of abortions performed. Starting in 1973, the year of the Roe vs.Wade decision, abortions rose (as would be expected) but levelled off in 1980. This levelling off is encouraging and argues against the proposition that abortion rates would increase indefinitely. Bill Clinton's suggestion that abortions should be "legal, safe, and rare" seems attainable. At least there does appear to be some natural limit on the annual number of abortions performed after the decision. But the most interesting aspect of these graphs is that it was approximately eighteen years after Roe vs.Wade that crime rates started down. This is the year when the fruits of unwanted pregnancies might have been expected to give us a large number of eighteen-year-olds. Eighteen happens to be the age at which young males are most likely to engage in criminal behaviors. A viable explanation of this apparently coincidental time relationship is that young females often find irresponsible young men to be exciting, dashing, and perhaps sexually attractive. And such irresponsible young men are likely to have criminality in their own personalities and in that of their progenitors. How many young women who have been made pregnant by these unusually attractive and daring young men have second thoughts about actually bearing their children? I suspect quite a large number. The decision of the court may have made a very positive contribution by bringing crime rates down.
The Truth Tree takes the position that we should not only allow abortions under medical supervision but that we should make every effort to develop the technology necessary to select zygotes (fertilized ova) so that every couple can have the best children their genes can provide. The only time we presently do this is in cases of in vitro fertilization. Perhaps the day will come when most pregnancies will start with the implantation of a zygote (or a germinal stage embryo) fertilized in vitro with defective genes screened out and particularly advantageous gene combinations selected.
This position statement may seem heartless and even cruel to some people. I can imagine that some people will be actually offended at the inclusion of Robert Schumann's Child Falling Asleep. I understand these emotional reactions, and I believe that people have every right to their feelings. What I am asking is that people examine the philosophy behind these feelings. Robert Schumann's little piece is, I think, a small masterpiece. Especially the way it ends on the sub-dominant. It contains the ambivalence that every child feels when falling asleep in the occasional major and minor sevenths which introduce a dissonance perhaps representing the child's wanting to stay awake. The sub-dominant ending implies a temporary suspension and holds out the promise of a future full of adventure and fulfillment. And that is why I have included this music on this page. What I want to see is children who can fall asleep with confidence that they have a future of adventure and fulfillment, not a future in which they may starve or be beaten cruelly or be unable to extricate themselves from some ghetto or other.
An important ingredient in the rage that people may experience when considering abortion is the idea of the suffering of an innocent child. The phrase "baby killer" immediately calls to mind pain and brutality. But this phrase is an extreme of prolexis. An embryo is certainly not a baby yet. Here we run into semantic problems. Let me suggest that suffering and pain are two important ideas. No one wants any child to suffer or be in pain. What is required for pain and suffering? Consciousness is required. (That is why we use anesthesia for surgery.) Without consciousness there can be no pain or suffering. So when is the developing human conscious? I would like to suggest that consciousness does not appear until the cells of the brain begin to interact. There have been many misleading statements about when organized brain function first appears. A good discussion of this is to be found here. I doubt that anyone can present convincing evidence that such activity happens much earlier than the eleventh week of gestation. New research using the fMRI technique (functional magnetic resonance imaging) may help to clarify this question.
And then there is the concept of murder. The Ten Commandments say, "Thou shalt not kill." We manage to justify exceptions for warfare, self defense, capital punishment, and euthanasia. Recall that joy and fulfillment have been two of the leading concepts here. Why is it wrong to murder? Because it stops not only the joy and fulfillment of the victim but the joy and fulfillment he represented for others. For the victim, his own joy and fulfillment may have peaked after a certain age, but the extent to which he contributes to the joy and fulfillment of others may remain high even into old age. One thing I notice as I write this is the fact that people are not accustomed to actually evaluating the worth of a person. We have been taught that a person's life is "priceless" and we don't like to have to actually think about its worth. An interesting moral exercise is to ask what you would do if you had to choose between killing several hundred prominent scientists or several hundred fishermen. This choice might arise in the case of an atomic bomb which can't be stopped but which can be deflected to one of two targets. The teaching that human life is "priceless" reminds me of the problems in quantum physics where certain terms in the equations inconveniently become infinite and have to be "renormalized." The decision to abort or not should depend on a sober assessment of the likely course of events and the likely joy and fulfillment resulting for the unborn, the parent(s), the immediate family, the society and even the world at large when considering population pressures.
All arguments about "when life begins" are completely irrelevant because there is no such moment. Life never ends. The sperm is alive. The ovum is alive. The zygote is alive.
Some arguments are based on the notion that the "soul" enters the zygote at the moment of conception. But the "soul" is a religious idea and as such is difficult if not impossible to discuss in a rational context.
There is an argument based on the question of just exactly when the embryo becomes "human". There is no such moment, and the argument is misleading. It is naïvely based on the notion that words have absolute meanings and that if we can only discover their "true" meaning we can improve our decision making. A germinal stage embryo, for example, has human genes, but it doesn't have a human language or human relationships. Acting as if a determination of whether the embryo is human will make any kind of argument is quite absurd.
For an excellent series of pictures showing embryos and fetuses in different stages of development, go to Early Human Stages.
Finally, before anyone says that The Truth Tree is in favor of abortion, let me declare here that The Truth Tree is opposed to abortion. The world would be a better place if we could somehow avoid situations in which abortion is an option. In every case where abortion is considered as an option, it would have been better had abstinence or birth control been used to prevent conception. In the same sense, The Truth Tree is opposed to poverty. In every case of poverty, it would have been better if the poverty-stricken had behaved in a manner to prevent the poverty, assuming that there was something that could have prevented it. But poverty occurs and will occur. Abortion occurs and will occur. What The Truth Tree opposes is passing laws which force abortion to be practiced in secret by unqualified people or which force women to give birth to unwanted children, or children who can't be supported by their parents, or children with genetic defects. If everyone in the world suddenly became responsible in the sense suggested by the letter at the opening of this statement, the world would suddenly become a much better place. In the meantime, we must bite the bullet of hard reality and behave responsibly with a responsibility that does not hide from reality and which takes into account all the factors, not just the ones we like to think about. We are over-populated and must take measures which actually work to save our planet. We may not like what we have to do to achieve this end, but we have no choice!