Unholy Dying, Part II: Viability–The Receding Horizon
It no longer makes any sense to distinguish between the fetus before or after the first forty days or the first trimester or even between the status of a human life before or after birth. In this latter case, we run into a problem of infinite regression as in the famous paradoxes of Zeno. In order to defend Parmenides metaphysical argument that motion and change were incompatible with reality—that is, absolute reality—Zeno challenged his master’s critics by constructing a series of paradoxes.
In one of the simplest, he uses the metaphor of a single runner in a race: Before a runner can complete the course he must run half the distance, but before he can complete half the distance, he must run half the half and so on ad infinitum. So using the same method we may ask, If it is not licit to kill the infant the day before it is born, what about the week before, the month before, three months before? If we draw the line at the first trimester or 90 days, what about 89 days or 88 or 87 all the way back to the moment of conception. Similarly, if abortion is licit six months before birth, why not five or one or one minute before? And what differentia distinguish a minute before from a minute after. "A day, a week, a month, a year," sings Yum Yum (in The Mikado) of her bridegroom under sentence of death. "Life's eventide comes much too soon," comes Poobah's answer. The progress of growth from conception to adulthood is continuous, and the human species does not go through the metamorphoses of butterflies.
Feminists, in devising their defense of abortion, usually have recourse to somewhat strained analogies. Judith Jarvis Thomson, giving "A Defense of Abortion," rejects this conclusion by the familiar analogy of acorns turning into oak trees: "It does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that we had better say they are." Of course an acorn is not an oak, any more than human beings are trees or birds. From a biological perspective, we are highly developed mammals, or, if we want to be more specific, big-brained apes that propagate sexually and live in groups where females assist each other in rearing the offspring and males defend the group. What humans have to do with species that reproduce by wind pollination of flowers is behind my limited powers of imagination.
From at least one perspective, however, the acorn "really is" an oak tree, since the mature stage of development is the fulfillment of the seed's potentiality. In discussing contraception, the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe used the oak/acorn analogy to illustrate the difference between "an act's intrinsic character and... the character it has by incidental circumstances." Just as most acorns fail to grow into oaks, most couplings result in no children, but since "acorns come from oaks and oaks come from acorns; an acorn is thus as such generative (of an oak), whether or not it does generate an oak."
Apart from Anscombe’s analytical objection, the oak analogy is seriously flawed. To be precise, an acorn is not at all the equivalent of a fetus; at best, it is in the condition of a fertilized ovum before cell division begins to take place. Most acorns do not actually grow into oaks--they are eaten by squirrels, fed to pigs, or rot on the ground, and even if they do successfully mature into great trees, the value of each oak individual is very low, except to the timber industry.
For such an analogy to work, we should have to imagine the rare--or, better still, the only--seed of a uniquely precious tree, something of great and irreplaceable worth. If a vandal deliberately destroyed such an acorn, we would not assess the damages at the worth of an ordinary nut; we would punish him for the destruction of the valuable tree which can never exist. If an adult human life is both unique (genetically, at least) and precious (if only to itself), then destruction of the fetus is tantamount to killing the adult human being that will never now exist.
What the oak/acorn analogy obscures is the obvious fact that in everyday life, we routinely value things for their potential, rather than their present worth. If a windstorm destroys a half-grown garden, we do not sigh and say, “Well, it could have been worse!. At least we did not lose any mature plants or ripened melons.”
Or consider this analogy. Suppose you have taken a photograph for which a gossip magazine will pay $1000. You are an old-fashioned art photographer who uses a non-digital camera that requires film. If a friend of the subject destroys the film, he has caused a loss of more than the few dollars the film has cost. The true worth of the film can only be measured by the picture that will be developed. Similarly, a young athlete suffering injuries as the result of negligence will sue not just for medical costs and personal sufferings but for the loss of his potential future earnings.
No argument can be put forward for abortion that cannot be applied to infanticide. When does a woman's right to control her body stop? If she gives birth in the wild, does a mother have a moral obligation to nurse a newborn and warm it with her body? If circumstances, e.g., rape, incest, or deformity, are sufficient causes for terminating a pregnancy, why don't the same arguments apply to newborns? And if viability or independence are the criteria, most parents can testify that their twelve year olds would probably not last very long, if they were forced to provide for their own necessities.
Unlike many proponents of abortion, Garret Hardin was neither an ignoramus nor a fool. As an ecologist, he was keenly aware that population growth was a major cause of environmental deterioration, and as a thorough-going materialist, he valued human life only insofar as it was constructive and not parasitic on the natural world. He was too intelligent not to perceive the arbitrariness of most defenses of abortion, but he preferred not to face the rational consequences. Calling fetuses mere "blueprints for human beings," he argued on merely practical grounds that women will not want to have earlier abortions. After this sophistry, he declared that "To a scientist, Catholic theology seems very much caught in a web of words that have only a tangential contact with the substantial world," a description that applies to his own bad-faith logic that derives from a political objective. To be fair to the hard-headed materialists, many of them conceded the basic point: That if abortion is justifiable, so is infanticide.
If infanticide is the logical skeleton in the pro-choice closet, many pro-lifers try to shun the most obvious conclusion of their own line of reasoning: If all life is equally worthy and deserving of protection, therapeutic abortions, even when undertaken to save the mother's life, are unequivocally murder. Practical considerations, such as the value of a mother to her living children, cannot be considered, unless we are willing to justify the sacrifice of a born child's life to save the mother. Besides, physicians rarely know for sure that the completion of a pregnancy will result in the mother's death. Many abortions of this type are performed only to eliminate a high or even moderate risk to the mother's life. If human life is human life—with no casuistic allowance to be made for exceptional circumstances or particular duties— then there are no merely pragmatic circumstances that justify the sacrifice of an innocent person.
Of course, one effect of this line of reasoning is to privilege the life of born children above all other human life and above all other moral constraints. This is why Catholic women are willing to defy the Church’s teachings on artificial methods of propagation and offer to put their wombs in service to another woman’s child. If the virtues occupy, as Aristotle and Saint Thomas have insisted, then we should be looking for the mean between the two extremes, that of killing unborn children for any or no reason and that of sacrificing all other interests and principles in order to save the life of an unborn child.