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Matters of Life and Death

The Right to Lifers: Who They Are, How They Operate, Where They Get Their Money

by Connie Paige
Summit, 286 pp., $14.95

Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion

by Beverly Wildung Harrison
Beacon Press, 334 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood

by Kristin Luker
University of California Press, 324 pp., $14.95

In August 1982, Hector and Rosalie Jean Zevallos, the owners of a clinic that carried out abortions in Granite City, Illinois, were abducted. They were threatened with death unless they closed down their clinic, and were held for eight days before being released. Connie Paige describes this early episode in the wave of antiabortion violence in her book. She also tells of the partial burning down of a Planned Parenthood clinic, in St. Paul, Minnesota. One director of the clinic needed constant police protection, while others were threatened with the kidnaping or death of their children. A year after the fire, a bomb was thrown through the window of the clinic. And after a similar firebombing of a clinic in Omaha, a letter sent to a local newspaper is said to have ended: “You’d bomb a concentration camp—why not an abortion clinic?” By comparison, the harassment of Geraldine Ferraro over her views on abortion in last year’s election campaign seems almost civilized.

It is not surprising that abortion arouses such passion. The debate raises issues about feminism, about the relations between religion, morality, and law, and about the social control of medical technology. Underlying all this are questions about what it is to be a parent and about the right to life. With these matters at stake, how could abortion not cause deep and conflicting emotions? Yet it is hard not to be struck by the contrast between the complexity of the issues and the simplicity of the emotional responses.

Emotionalism and simplification lead to implausible claims on both sides. Some take it to be an obvious fact that an abortion is just something done to a woman’s body, comparable to the removal of an appendix. Others take it to be an obvious fact that a newly fertilized egg is as much a person as any teen-ager or adult. Opponents on either side are accused of supporting either the oppression of women or murder. It is sad that the debate is like this, since its outcome will affect even larger issues than the ones now seen to be at stake.

The distinctively modern voice in the abortion argument is the feminist one. For too many centuries the discussion, conducted by male theologians and philosophers, centered entirely on the fetus. The issue has been transformed by those prepared to say, as Beverly Wildung Harrison does in her book, that “the controversy over abortion is but one dimension of that far broader world historical struggle to enable us to ‘become the subjects of our lives.”’ She argues persuasively that procreation is so central to women that having a choice over it is a condition of their having proper control over their lives. Her case for the right to choose is partly utilitarian, based on the unhappiness of those forced to bear unwanted children. She also deplores the injustice of denying women the ability to make decisions that will deeply affect their lives.

One benefit of the change in consciousness brought about by the current wave of feminism is that it is now unthinkable to ignore the issue of women’s choice. And most of us now see that if men could get pregnant the right to choose would have had a central place in the debate long ago. All the same, there is something inadequate about the feminist case as it is often made. It is often presented as a matter of women controlling their own bodies, as if what happens during the period of being pregnant were the main issue. Yet the awfulness of an unwanted pregnancy is not primarily a matter of nine months’ invasion of the body. A far greater disaster is a lifetime of unwanted parenthood. To some of us, avoiding this disaster is a sufficient justification for abortion. There is the solution of giving the baby at birth to be brought up by one of the many couples who desperately want children and who are unable to have them. This possibility is not something just to dismiss, yet I doubt whether the satisfaction of this real need justifies forcing women to bear children they do not want and then go through the trauma of giving them away. Respect for the autonomy of women is hardly compatible with making surrogate motherhood compulsory.

But to justify abortion by appealing either to the disaster of unwanted parenthood or to respect for women’s autonomy presupposes that killing a fetus has a special status that marks it off from killing, say, a five-year-old child. No feminist would defend child murder as being justified by the greater control it would give women over their lives. To say this is not to suggest a reductio ad absurdum, implying that consistent feminists would have to accept child murder. It is to argue that personal autonomy does not have obvious priority over the right to life. For all its power, the feminist case is incomplete without an answer to the claim that the unborn child is a person with that right.

When we consider the status of the fetus, the antiabortion position has obvious strengths. Fetal development is more like a smooth curve than a series of sudden jumps to more and more advanced states; so there is some force to the argument that a line cannot be drawn specifying just when a “person” comes into being. If we do not draw the line at conception, there seems no sharp and stable boundary until birth. One way of drawing a line has been to say that a fetus is not a person until it is “viable”—when it can live outside the womb. But “viability” is not a stable boundary, since it changes with medical technology. To draw the line at viability is to give up the idea that characteristics of the fetus itself determine whether or not it is a person. Two fetuses at the same stage of development may be in hospitals differing in the level of their technology, so that one will survive outside the womb and one will not. In such a case it seems paradoxical to say that one is not a person and may be aborted, while the other is a person with a right to life.

The difficulty of drawing any line during pregnancy that is sharp and reflects a cogent moral view may suggest to some that the moral frontier should be at birth. Conception and birth, unlike the fetal states between them, seem to be clear and important boundaries. But if facts about what the fetus or baby is like should determine whether it is a person, birth is not an easy line to defend. Is the newborn baby so very different from how it was yesterday in the womb? We make great efforts to keep premature babies alive. Why should a baby at the same stage of development have no claim on us just because it is still in the womb?

The bold course for the supporter of abortion, who sees that even birth may not be a clear and defensible line, is to deny that newborn babies are persons with a right to life. And a traditional philosophical view lends some support to this denial. It has often been argued that being a person is bound up with a minimal level of self-consciousness, an awareness of a frontier between yourself and the rest of the world and awareness of yourself as having continuous existence over time. It is far from clear that newborn babies have any of this self-consciousness. Perhaps they have to discover where they end and the rest of the world begins. And it would be a very confident developmental psychologist who claimed to know that babies have the concept of their own existence over time.

But if the supporter of abortion takes the bold course of denying, on these grounds, that babies have a right to life, the prolife party may feel that they can rest their case. For making the right to life depend on a degree of self-consciousness that babies do not have seems like accepting a reductio ad absurdum. The boundary of the right to life becomes intolerably vague. When does self-consciousness begin? At three months? At three years? How can we tell? And the position also seems repulsive. The prolifers have always said that even early abortion is morally like killing babies. The reply that they are indeed the same, and that both are acceptable, is not an attractive one.

We are right to be appalled by the conclusions that appear to lie in wait if we deny the right to life on such grounds. This is not to say that infanticide can never be justified. In cases of babies born with terrible abnormalities, there are reasons that perhaps justify overriding our normal respect for the life of a baby. But the extreme cases that may justify infanticide need not count against the view that killing a healthy baby is unthinkable.

While we are right to recoil from any position that removes moral protection from the lives of babies, this does not show that it is wrong to link being a person with being self-conscious. Perhaps there is not enough agreement about the use of the word “person” for it to be clear that any of the rival views on this issue of definition are simply mistaken. An alternate diagnosis of the general wrongness of infanticide is compatible with the view that one becomes a person at a later stage than birth. We have to take into account how babies are accepted into the human community. It does not need saying that, for many of us, the birth of a child is one of the deepest experiences in life. And our developing relationship with a baby starts from the moment it is born. The emotions of childbirth and of the early days and weeks of parenthood are utterly incompatible with regarding babies as disposable living material. Most of us are incapable of adopting such an attitude. And even if we could adopt it, the world would be a worse place if we did so. In other words, even if babies do not have whatever properties are required for being persons with a right to life, there are reasons having to do with our own moral feelings, and our relations with our children, which are more than adequate to justify extending moral protection to them. The same reasons may not apply to the unborn fetus.

The impasse in the abortion debate partly results from all parties treating it as an issue with only one dimension. The prochoice party often wrongly supposes that the woman’s claim to control her own life is enough to justify abortion, no matter what rights a fetus may have. And the prolife party often assumes that the only objection to killing someone is that he or she is a person with a right to life. Once this assumption is conceded, it is indeed hard to resist the antiabortion case. On this assumption, if it is wrong to kill babies, they must qualify as persons. And since it is difficult to draw sharp boundaries between conception and infancy, the prolife case can seem overwhelming.

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