Unholy Dying, Part I: The Abortion Debate
This is the first part of a long essay on birth and death, which will conclude volume three of Properties of Blood. It was first written perhaps 20 years ago and has not been revised for perhaps seven years. In putting up either the whole or the most relevant extracts, I shall have the opportunity to revise and update the arguments. Speaking of Properties of Blood, copies of the first volume, The Reign of Love, should be arriving at the magnificent headquarters of the Foundation in perhaps a week.
Birth, Copulation, and death
That's all the facts
When you come to brass tacks
T.S. Eliot's three facts of natural life have always been circumscribed with such custom and ceremony as to become social and cultural facts. Birth, copulation, and death may be virtually the same everywhere, when you come to brass tacks, but being born, getting married, and dying are experiences that vary from culture to culture and more resemble forms of art than facts of life. There are some societies in which expectant fathers experience the pangs of birth and many more in which men regularly name their day of death.
In the 20th century the most powerful and difficult transitions in human life have been turned into political war zones in which the different sides routinely invoke the power of government to establish and enforce their points of view. Few debates have been so heated as those involving the decision to terminate life. On the question of abortion, while both sides seem to speak the same language of individual rights, personal autonomy, and political responsibility, the terms are used in such diverse senses as to make translation from one dialect to another almost impossible. "Right conflicts with right, and might with might." On both sides of the debate, there are continuums from moderate to radical, but it is still possible to sketch out general pro and anti abortion positions that represent something like the consensus of each side.
Those in favor of abortion usually speak of a woman's unrestricted life to control her own body. Choice in this matter is, they argue, the fundamental point of women's rights. No matter when life may be said to "begin," prenatal life (up to the point of viability) is only potential, not actual, and it is wrong to compell an actual person to sacrifice herself for the sake of a potential human existence. It is the quality, not the fact of life that counts, and the pro-abortion party wonders why anti-abortion groups care so little for what happens to children once they are born. This argument often takes the form of a joke aimed at the right to life movement: "Life begins at conception and ends at birth."
Unwanted children, children born into the pathology of poverty will not grow up to be fully human beings, and their very existence takes resources away from children whose lives might be improved. Adoption may be a remedy for some, but it is not a sufficient answer to the "quality of life" question, since it is impossible to know what sort of family a child will be adopted into. Besides, abortion before "quickening" or ensoulment was generally licit in ancient and medieval Europe; in the United States it is only in the 19th century that abortion is made a criminal act. But neither law nor tradition nor family bonds can legitimately restrain a woman in the exercise of her right to choose.
The pro-life position is similarly couched in the language of rights, not of women but of unborn children. Life begins with conception, and all human creatures, once the fertilized egg starts dividing, have a moral right--which ought to be made a legal right--to be born and to be protected and cared for. This was understood by virtually everyone until the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade, which reclassified unborn children as unworthy of protection. Insensitivity to the fetus's right to life leads inevitably to a blunted moral sense that will withdraw protection from the deformed, the elderly, and other classes of human beings judged to be inferior.
This is not the first time the Court has tyranically excluded a helpless minority from legal protection. In the Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Roger Taney declared negroes to be non-citizens, outside the purview of the Bill of Rights. The right-to-life movement is, therefore, a civil rights crusade for minority rights and should emulate the actions of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders who struggled to secure equality for blacks. [The Dred Scott/Roe v. Wade comparison is ubiquitous among right-to-lifers, but for ain influential coherent statement, see Lehrman, NR 1986] A significant minority of pro-life activists do not shrink from the conclusion that civil disobedience is a right and proper tactic for their movement.
Neither position is logically consistent or historically accurate. Abortion was not, in fact, universally treated as murder either in pagan antiquity or in Christendom. Nor, on the other hand, were early abortions regarded as moral and licit. In the first place, most theologians before recent times condemned all forms of contraception as attempts to frustrate the natural purpose of copulation. Whether abortion constituted homicide or not was the subject of debate, but the practice was unequivocally condemned as immoral.
As for pagan antiquity, of course the ancients were generally tolerant of abortion; they tolerated infanticide in many forms. Ancient physicians, however, did have their reservations, and the Hippocratic Oath contains language that seems to condemn the use of pessaries to induce abortion. Some supporters of abortion have adopted the pagan view that one way or the other, seriously deformed or brain-damaged children ought not to be reared. (Englehart). Most shun this eminently logical conclusion and prefer to specify a date some time before birth as a point of no return beyond which a baby must be allowed to live. Various criteria are put forward, e.g. the viability of the infant, its capacity for independent existence, etc., but none of them is really adequate. Medical technology is every day pushing back the date of fetal viability, and quite apart from this technology, it is impossible to draw lines, clearly demarcating the various phases of human development.