The Morality of Abortion: Missing the Point

Date April 27, 2007

The recent decision about partial birth abortion has stirred up all the old ire on both sides of the issue re: the legality and morality of abortion. Here is another place where we argue and harangue incessantly, but in a very myopic fashion. In my humble opinion, we debate principle (it is or isn’t murder) and totally skip a more pragmatic and essential nub of the problem (who is going to take care of these unwanted children if we force the mothers to birth them)?

Of Course Abortion is Murder
So what is our definition of ‘alive’? Consciousness? A beating heart? A separate physical entity (in or outside of the uterus)? Able to live and breath on its own?
For anyone who has been close to a pregnant woman, the fetus in her uterus is obviously alive. It moves, it responds if you talk to it or rub the mother’s belly (very satisfying and sensual), and all this as early as the 4th month. By the 7th month, its personality already seems to be showing itself. It is very obviously alive. Terminating a pregnancy at any point is ending a life – “murder” as the pro-lifers say.

This is kind of irrelevant, isn’t it?

Aren’t the civilians in Iraq alive? What about the children who pick up the cluster bombs the US military drops in vacant fields in Baghdad suburbs? Aren’t we pretty inconsistent about how much we care about human life? Let’s not be so righteous about morals; we’re constantly killing people when we think it’s worth the cause. (It’s a very powerful capacity of the human brain called “justification”. Try it, it works on everything.)

(Righteous) Morality is a Core Problem in the Abortion Debate
What’s ambiguous and potentially dangerous about what I’ve written above (and for effect, I’m aiming to be a bit provocative) is that it could seem to be pointing towards a mindset of amorality or immorality. I’m not at all seeking to encourage us to let go of our goals of being humane to each other, (nor advocating that abortion should be legalized and practiced without taking into account the gravity of the act) but rather suggesting that we let go of our righteousness before we tackle the question of whether or not to allow abortion.

This righteous stance of principle is in fact an enormous part of the abortion problem. The pro-lifers insist that life is precious and abortion is murder, while the pro-choicers say that a woman has a right to choose what she does with her body. Hmm, both sound like pretty sound positions to me. Is it possible to acknowledge the validity of both points of view? And who is fighting to protect the life and emotions of the children who are born to parents who would have preferred (for whatever reasons) to not have them? The pain of feeling unwanted, unloved, or unnurtured is a brutal, heart-wrenching experience for a child. Growing up in such an environment produces troubled, hurt teenagers, and often creates scars that are carried into our adulthood (which we then pass onto our children). This raises all sorts of issues, such as the impact of such youth on society, or the resentment and guilt such a parent is liable to experience in not being there for a child as fully as needed. Raising a child is so incredibly challenging, who should really be able to dictate this experience to anyone? It is very noble of me to insist that you protect the life of your unborn child, since I don’t need to be there day and night for the rest of its life to take any responsibility for my position.

A Different Compass
This is where the responses that typically jump out are: ‘well, they should have paid attention (or abstained all together)’, or ‘they just need to live with the consequences’, or ‘too bad, it’s murder, so anything else is a sin’. I understand and even emotionally relate to each of these positions. And yet I think these come from this place of righteousness I discussed briefly above. Life is imperfect, we make mistakes, we hurt others — it is so much more complex and gray than our little morality. I suppose in all of this I think we need to find another compass, but I’m not sure what it might be. Perhaps that’s partially what I’m searching for in musing on this topic.

For example, resolving the question of an abortion in a context for humanity might seek to take equally into account: the life of the fetus; the emotional trauma the parents may experience in committing the abortion; the likely emotional experience of the child if it is preserved, including a deep discussion of just how sensitive and precious children are and what it entails to raise one; the ability and desire of the parent to fully assume all the changes and challenging emotions of parenting; and what else? A compass of humanity vs. that of morality. Perhaps it is better to abort a child than to bring it into a world where it is not wanted by its parents, the ruling ethnicity, the economic machine of society? Is making such a choice really worse/more immoral than the terribly loved and wanted children we are indiscriminately killing in Iraq for such dubious reasons?

If we sought to bring these elements into the discussion, I think we (including the pro-lifers and pro-choicers) would all be far more aligned with each other than we are today; I think that repeat abortions would drop, as people became more aware of the emotional consequences of their actions; we would have a higher percentage of ‘wanted’ children; perhaps the parents who have gone thru this would eventually pass on this greater sensitivity to their children when they do have them. I plan to.

Conditions for Making Abortion Illegal
So perhaps we could outlaw abortion unilaterally (or forbid it in a case by case basis) if we could furnish people who are ready to love each child, want them, and raise them as their own. This means families, not orphanages. The people that stand outside abortion clinics in outrage could instead meet that day’s clients and immediately adopt (with a commitment of parental love) whatever and however many prospective children they want to. If you are not ready to take resopnsibility for the child, than you have no say in whether the mother should keep it. The day that every single child in the world is deeply wanted, then we can tell women, “Listen, you didn’t mean to get pregnant (we could even use the word ‘mistake’ but I got chastised for employing that term in another post); the consequences are that you need to bear this child to term, and give birth to it. It’s liable to be painful (of course, there are drugs…). After that, the child will be taken in by these people that are ready to love him/her.” We would give the importance to the child’s emotional experience that it deserves. But until such time that we (society, government, each of us in our cozy little righteous positions) are ready to collectively commit to the future lives of these fetuses, outlawing abortion is more inhumane than preserving it.

So having said all that, I respectfully protest the Supreme Court’s recent ruling.


Shayne Hughes


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