There is perhaps no topic that better illustrates Richard Weaver’s statement that “modern man has become a moral idiot” than the topic of abortion. The arguments made by virtually everybody except the Roman Catholic Church on this topic display a complete inability to grasp basic ethical principles let alone to reason properly and form sound ethical conclusions.
The word “abort” is a verb which has as its object a procedure. To abort something is to stop it prematurely, before it has run its course. When we speak of “abortion” we refer to the act of prematurely stopping a pregnancy which in ordinary circumstances must lead to the death of the developing foetus.
Here the Roman Catholic Church draws a distinction. The Roman Catholic Church says that the term “abortion” is properly applied only to procedures which are undertaken with the purpose of ending a pregnancy. A process that is undertaken for another purpose, such as surgery to save a pregnant mother’s life, that has as a secondary consequence the termination of the pregnancy is not an abortion. Upon initially hearing of this distinction, some might argue that this is purely semantic, splitting hairs, and allowing on the one hand what is forbidden on the other, similar to how the Roman Church’s stance on “annulment” and “divorce” is often seen.
That is not the case here. Here the Roman Catholic Church is applying fundamental ethical principles.
It is right to do good to others. Saving someone’s life is a good example of doing good to others. It is wrong to do harm to others unjustly. Taking someone’s life unjustly is pretty much the supreme example of this. The qualifier “unjustly” is necessary because we live in a fallen world, where people do evil to others, which sometimes requires that they be harmed to stop them from doing evil to oneself or to another person (this is called self-defense and it is recognizably just) and sometimes requires that the community in its law-making and enforcing capacity administer justice by inflicting upon a law-breaker the harm he has done to others. This must always be an act of the community carried out by those holding lawfully constituted authority to administer justice.
What happens when doing good to others results in harm to a third party? Here is where we must be careful. We do not want to carelessly overlook the harm our intended good to one person or group of persons may inflict upon a third party, much less to dismiss or justify that harm, by our intended good.
Thus, in the case of a doctor who is contemplating surgery to save the life of a pregnant mother who recognizes that the surgery will likely or surely also result in the termination of the pregnancy, the doctor must not thoughtlessly reason “well, I’m doing good by saving the mother’s life, therefore it is sad but alright that the foetus will probably die as a result”. This is a situation that the doctor and the expecting parents must consider together and what makes it permissible for them to go ahead with the surgery is the fact that the death of the foetus is probably inevitable either way. If the mother will die if the pregnancy continues to full term then the foetus will almost certainly die too. Therefore, it is permissible and just to save the mother’s life even with the knowledge that doing so will almost certainly mean death for the foetus.
It would certainly not be right, however, for a couple who wish to terminate a pregnancy for other motivations, to ask a doctor to falsely declare the expectant mother’s life to be in danger for the purpose of justifying a procedure that will result in the death of the foetus. Nor would it be right for the doctor to comply with such a request.
It is certainly not right for a society to declare that abortion must be available to any woman who wants it, legally, and at the society’s expense on the grounds that some mothers find their lives endangered by their pregnancies. A morally sane person can see that a moral dilemma exists in a case where the mother’s life is endangered by pregnancy and that the decision to save the mother’s life, while just, cannot be arrived at lightly. This must not be used to justify terminating pregnancies in other situations. There the moral dilemma does not exist because abortion is just plain wrong.
There are areas where a strong case can be made both for “this behavior is right” and “this behavior is wrong”. This is not one of them. To terminate a pregnancy is to terminate a human life. As mentioned above, terminating a human life can in certain circumstances be justified. If you accidentally kill someone, and there is no way you could have prevented the accident, if it is not the result of negligence of some sort, you are not morally culpable for the death. If someone is attacking you or others and he cannot be stopped in any other way than by killing him you are justified in taking his life. If someone has murdered somebody else then the lawful authorities of the community are justified in imposing death as a penalty upon the murderer. If a state of war exists between your country and another country and you are called upon to do your duty to your country by fighting for her in war, your killing the soldiers of your country’s enemy on the battlefield is not murder on your part. Abortion does not fall within any of these categories of “justifiable homicide”.
It must therefore fall within the category of “murder”. That is the only conclusion available for a morally sane person.
The arguments people use to avoid this conclusion are quite revealing.
There is the “what if the mother’s life is in danger” argument which we have already addressed. There is also the “rape” argument.
“Rape is sexual intercourse that is forced upon a person against their consent. If a woman gets pregnant as a result of a rape, how can it be just to force her to go through 9 months of pregnancy and to nurture and raise the child of the man who raped her?” The answer, of course, is that it is not just, but neither is it just to allow her to have an abortion for this reason. The human life growing within her – which is an outgrowth of her own life as well as that of her rapist – bears no culpability for his father’s guilt. She will not have to nurture and raise the child after the pregnancy if she does not wish to do so as she can give the baby up to adoption. The pregnancy will undoubtedly be traumatic for her as a constant reminder of the event which caused the pregnancy. An abortion will be traumatic as well and possibly even more so than carrying the pregnancy to term. Unfortunately, there is no just outcome to this scenario.
Like the case of the expecting mother whose life is endangered by her pregnancy, however, this is an extreme scenario. The vast majority of abortions, legal or illegal, are not done for reasons like these. If society were to decide that of the various unjust solutions to the problem of a woman pregnant due to rape the least unjust is to allow the woman to have an abortion that would still not warrant making abortion legal, easily accessible, and paid for by the government, to all women.
Some try to argue for liberal abortion laws by questioning who qualifies as a “person”. This argument can take on a number of forms. There is the form which says “the law defines personhood as beginning at birth”. All that proves, however, is that progressive liberals drew up the law. Neither truth nor fact can be generated by legislation. If human personhood begins at conception then no amount of laws saying that it begins at birth will change that fact. (1)
Another form of the argument is the agnostic form – “We cannot know when personhood begins”. While I don’t accept that as being valid, let us assume for a moment that it is. Ted Byfield irrefutably answered this argument decades ago. He wrote:
Here is a problem in “values” of the type that modern social studied teachers are encouraged to pose. Several men are out in the woods hunting. Suddenly one of them sees something move in the bush. At last he rejoiced, a deer. Then a warning flashes through his mind. That might not be a deer. That might be one of the other hunters. Question for the class: Should the hunter fire at the thing if there’s a chance it’s another human being? The approved answer is no. (2)
Mr. Byfield went on to explain that he had raised this scenario on a CBC television program where he put it to Dr. Henry Morganthaler! He said “the tape was killed, the program was never run, and I was never invited back”.
The point that Mr. Byfield had made was that it is not enough for the advocates of legal, open-access abortion, to cast doubt upon the status of a developing foetus as a “person” or “human being”. They have to prove that the foetus is not either of those things to make the case for legal abortion.
Having established that, we do not need to depend upon the burden of doubt. It is ridiculous to assert that we cannot know whether or not the foetus is a human being. Leave terms like “human being” and “person”, which have apparently become plastic and malleable in recent decades, and nonsensical rhetorical categories like “potential human being” aside. The foetus is unquestionably a human life. When a human sperm fertilizes a human egg, a zygote is formed which possesses a full set of human chromosomes, a mix from its father and mother which are unique to itself. The process of growth through cell division and replication begins immediately. This is a new life, a unique life, and a human life, from the moment of conception. All scientific facts support this.
That should settle the question for anyone possessed of a modicum of moral sanity. The foetus is a life and is identifiably human, terminating its life falls within none of the categories of justifiable homicide, therefore abortion must be murder. The “pro-choice” movement however argues that “a woman has the right to control her own body”.
It is here that the progressive liberals believes that they have made their own irrefutable argument. The argument is worded in such a way that a denial would have to take the form of “no, a woman does not have the right to control her own body” which would seem to suggest that someone else does, making that women as a class are under the perpetual control of that someone else.
There is a question here, that is desperately looking for an answer. Why does “abortion must be legally accessible to all women” logically proceed from the assertion “a woman has the right to control her own body”? Or to put it another way, why does a woman’s having the right to control her own body mean that she has the absolute right to the final decision of whether another human life lives or dies?
What these questions reveal is that “a woman’s right to control her own body” is not the definitive, irrefutable, argument that the “pro-choice” movement wants it to be. As George and Sheila Grant put it:
When the argument for easy abortion is made on the basis of rights, it clearly rests on the weighing of the rights of some against the rights of others. The right of a woman to have an abortion can only be made law by denying to another member of our species the right to exist. The right of women to freedom, privacy and other good things is put higher than the right of the foetus to continued existence. (3)
Or, as the old adage puts it, “your right to swing your first ends where my nose begins”.
What this means is that no person’s rights are so absolute that they are not limited by the rights of others. Now since that argument must apply to the right of the foetus to life as well, does that leave us in limbo, in a stalemate where the rights of women and the rights of foeti perpetually cancel each other out?
The “pro-choice” answer is to state that the rights of a mature, rational, woman must take precedence over the rights of a developing foetus. At first glance this seems to make sense, although this Nietzschean exaltation of the rights of the strong over the rights of the weak is oddly inconsistent with the egalitarianism that most members of the feminist and “pro-choice” movements claim to believe in. If we look at it more closely, however, we realize that there is another factor that needs to be considered in addition to the status of those whose rights have come into potential conflict. That is the nature of the rights themselves. In the case of the foetus, the right in question is the right to survive, the right to live, the right to exist. In the case of the woman, the right in question is a right to decide and to act. Surely the former must take precedence over the latter in a rational hierarchy of rights, regardless of the status of the rights-bearer.
It is clear that sound, reasonable thinking about ethics, supported by biological science, is on the pro-life side in the abortion debate. Why then, is the other side winning and what could possibly draw someone to hold such an obviously wrong position?
This question became all the more puzzling to me several years ago when I read Dr. Lionel Tiger’s The Decline of Males for the first time. In that book, Dr. Tiger, who is the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University, in describing the effects of the invention of the birth control pill, wrote the following:
It is impossible to overestimate the impact of the contraceptive pill on human arrangements. The most striking display of this is the baffling historical fact that after the pill became available in the mid-1960’s, the pressure for liberal abortion intensified worldwide. This is remarkably, even profoundly, counterintuitive. It is also an implacable historical reality. Only after women could control their reproduction excellently did they need more and more safe abortions. (4)
Counterintuitive is an understatement. The invention of effective oral contraception meant that women no longer required the cooperation of men if they wished to have heterosexual intercourse without getting pregnant. You would normally expect that this would have decreased whatever demand for abortion there was. Instead it increased it. I had not considered how strange this was until Dr. Tiger pointed out the obvious.
Dr. Tiger’s explanation is that the increase in female control over fertility, meant a decrease in male confidence in their own paternity, and hence a lesser willingness on the part of men to stay with the women they impregnated, leading to the demand for abortion. This may have something to do with it – one would think, though, that if oral contraception created mistrust of women on the part of men it would take the form of suspicion they were taking the pill in secret and blaming the lack of offspring on male infertility than in an increase in the age-old fear of being cuckolded.
I’m more inclined to think that it is all about power. That is usually what lies behind demands that are couched in the terminology of rights. If the pill is regarded as a means of empowering women – it gave them more control over their fertility than they had ever possessed in the past – then what would be the next step in that empowerment process? Proclaiming that women have the right to decide to terminate their pregnancies. Such a right would inherently grant women unilateral decision-making authority over the survival of the human species – a tremendous blackmail tool and source of power.
Most women themselves probably would not have thought of it in those terms. Political radicals who seek to exploit issues pertaining to women to achieve their revolutionary goals, including power for themselves, would have thought of it this way, though.
Interestingly, however one wishes to explain the strange historical fact Dr. Tiger pointed out, it confirms the warnings which Pope Paul VI gave in Humanae Vitae about the consequences of artificial contraception. He warned, in that famous 1968 encyclical, that artificial birth control “could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards” and:
forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection. (5)
The position taken by Paul VI in Humane Vitae was the position of the entire Christian Church – Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant until very recently. In the four decades since the encyclical came out, Paul VI’s warnings have materialized. In Canada today, there are no legal restrictions on abortion and it is provided free to whoever wants it by the government out of our tax dollars.
It is best not to speculate on what the next exciting step on this road of progress free of all traditional ethical and moral restraints, will be. I’m sure we’ll find out, to our disgust and dismay, before too long.
(1) Similarly, no amount of legislation saying that a union between a man and a man, or a union between a woman and a woman, is a marriage, will ever make it so. The progressive liberal’s seeming faith in the ability of government to generate fact and truth by legal fiat is a superstition.
(2) Ted Byfield, “The question that got me thrown off a TV program”, originally his back page column for the July 25, 1980 issue of The Alberta Report, reprinted on page 105 of The Book of Ted: Epistles From an Unrepentant Redneck (Keystone Press: Edmonton, 1988)
(3) George P. Grant with Sheila Grant, “Abortion and Rights”, originally published as part of The Right To Birth: Some Christian Views on Abortion edited by Eugene Fairweather and Ian Gentles and published in 1976 by the Anglican Book Centre in Toronto, subsequently republished in Technology and Justice, a collection of Grant’s essays published by Anansi, also out of Toronto, in 1986, where it can be found on pages 117 to 130, this particular quotation coming from page 117.
(4) Lionel Tiger, The Decline of Males, (Golden Books: New York, 1999), p. 35. Bold indicates italics in the original.
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