Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, February 21, 2005

The "A" word

Well, somebody besides Hillary needs to talk about it. It appears there is a movement underway among some Democrats to find a "moderate" stance on abortion, to look for common ground between "pro life" and "pro choice" constituencies.

Unfortunately, if you cast the conflict in those terms, as public discourse generally does, there isn't any common ground. If human life is somehow sacred, inviolable, or infinitely precious, and a fetus is human life, then a pregnant woman has no right to choose to destroy her fetus, any more than I can choose to rid the world of my obnoxious neighbor. To portray the issue as a conflict between a woman's right to autonomy and a human being's right not to be murdered leads to only one possible conclusion.

Politicians and even the most ardent advocates of the right to choose abortion seldom talk about the real issue here. A fetus is indisputably alive, just as an amoeba, a horse, or a tumor are alive; and it is indisputably a form of human life, in the sense that it can be assigned to the human species and only the human species. The question is whether it is morally, a person, entitled to the respect we accord persons. ("Person," in this case, is used in a specialized sense.) Persons gain respect because they are moral agents -- self-conscious, aware of themselves and their surroundings, capable of planning, choosing, and being morally responsible. We gain these properties gradually, not by virtue of possessing human DNA but by virtue of the development of our central nervous sytems and the accumulation of experience, knowledge, and connection with others.

Newborn infants cannot plan, choose, or be morally responsible, but they are at the beginning of awareness of self and the world and clearly they can form connections with others. Late term fetuses undoubtedly have some form of awareness but the earlier in pregnancy, the less they must have, and before they have a well developed frontal cortex they must have none. This is closely related to the moral controversies over maintaining the lives of severely brain damaged individuals, at the other end of life. Is the "human life" of people who cannot communicate, act or perceive infinitely precious, or has their status as persons been so diminished -- as they lack autonomy, awareness, connection with others (except in a purely passive sense) or moral agency -- that it no longer makes sense to preserve their biological life?

It is important to remember that there is not one word anywhere in the Bible about abortion, Old Testament or New, although abortion, and for that matter infanticide, were common in the ancient world. The Catholic Church did not decide that abortion was a sin until the latter 19th Century, at a time when the major cultural issue was the economic, social and sexual liberation of women, not respect for human life -- of which the Church, historically, had very little indeed. It is apparent that many people in the "Right to Life" camp at least subconsciously hold doubts about the personhood of the fetus, as they support the right to abortion in case of rape. How is the moral status of the fetus affected by whether the mother consented to the act which created it? Obviously it isn't. This shows that their true moral concern is with sexual behavior, not life. Many of the same people also condemn contraception, and homosexuality, which is further evidence that the true issue for many people is whether sexuality can be separated from reproduction, not the value of human life.

But for the many people who are sincerely disturbed by the destruction of what they perceive as human life, I ask two questions:

From where does this value derive? Haveyou ever really thought about it?

And why are you not even more passionate about the 29,000 young children around the world, already born, who die every day from readily preventable causes -- a holocaust that exceeds the toll (if that's what is) of abortion in the United States by orders of magnitude?

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