Chapter 8 : Abortion


Bad arguments: twenty-five years after 'Roe.'(abortion arguments)

Author/s: Sidney Callahan
COMMONWEAL  Issue: Jan 30, 1998

Damn, damn, damn--to quote Rex Harrison playing Henry Higgins--I've let a friend persuade me to review a new book on abortion. Unfortunately, after thirty years, I can only echo Eliza Doolittle's "there's not a word I haven't heard."

Most of the time in these debates I seek common ground, but goaded by the twenty-fifth anniversary of Roe v. Wade and recent rationalizations of partial-birth abortion, I'm going to give way to spleen. Here are some of the worst arguments on abortion I've ever heard--and to be fair about it, I include both sides. I'll maintain anonymity as to my sources; full documentation can be provided on request.

I'll start with a few of the awful arguments from prolife circles. Abortion is wrong, I've been told, because "There are little souls in heaven waiting to come down to earth and abortion refuses them a chance for life and happiness." Since I don't believe in the pre-existence of souls, I can hardly worry about frustrating yearnings to be incarnate. Nor am I moved by purported dialogues in which embryos, or "babies," are depicted as saying, "Please, mommy, please, don't abort me." This is a pitiable ploy, if not an outright pathetic fallacy. It also seems presumptuous to assume that difficult circumstances in life can be solved with the pious claim that "each baby is born with a loaf of bread tucked under its arm; God will provide." Obviously, certain folks on the prolife side can err in sentimental exaggeration or pathologies of hope.

Other problematic prolife arguments, made by a few extremists, are less forgivable, because they're dangerous. To identify abortion with murder, for instance, or with genocidal holocausts, is incendiary hyperbole that can trigger violence in the mentally unhinged. "Murder" in my understanding is constituted by a malicious and calculated intention to kill a human being recognized as such. And in genocidal "holocausts" the goal is to wipe out whole races, whole families, whole sects or tribes by any illegal or violent means. Legalized abortion on request is bad enough, as a dreadful practice of unjust killing, without rhetorically upping the ante.

On the other hand, horrible prochoice arguments can be even harder to take. I've heard a lot of them in debates with both stars and footsoldiers of the radical feminist abortion "rights" movement. Abortion is said to be morally good because "Men have always killed, so why shouldn't women be able to?" Or, "Abortion is a sacramental moment for a woman." The sacredness referred to seems to be the woman's assertion of self in taking control of her life. Of course, to prolife ears this sounds just like Raskolnikov's act of killing that bothersome old woman in order to assert his freedom from conventional morality.

A self-identified Catholic in another abortion debate justified society's preservation of seals and eagles but refused protection to fetal life, since "humans are a renewable resource." You can always have another, and too many people in the world are having far too many. Another assertion was made that no woman's decision for abortion could ever be morally

More recently, I'm meeting New Age arguments for abortion. One beautiful young woman on a TV program assured me that it "was not her karma to be aborted," so presumably those who go down the tubes just don't have the right spiritual stuff. Another opponent tells me that "old souls," waiting to begin another cycle of reincarnation, are much too sophisticated to put up with the boring nine months in a dark confining womb, so they wait for birth to join up with their new bodies. Thus if you abort you really aren't doing any harm.

This fellow also claims that there are research studies that show that if a woman and her spiritual counselor convince a waiting soul that this is not a good time for her to have a child, a stillbirth can be induced--thereby solving problem pregnancies. This particular encounter made me renew my subscription to The Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine put out by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation for Claims of the Paranormal. Most of this crowd appear to be secular materialists, but they can be allies against junk science.

Back in the mainstream feminist pro-abortion movement I find an argument that plays down a woman's choice and focuses on the need for a woman's consent to pregnancy. If consent is absent, the woman has a right to kill in self-defense, just as she would against the assault of a full-grown person. The fetus is identified as an active aggressive agent; the operative image is fetus as rapist. Suggestions that a woman might complete her pregnancy and then offer the baby for adoption should be met with the counterargument that no one should ask a rape victim to wait until the rape is over before taking defensive action.

Pregnancy without consent is seen as a form of rape and slavery. Thus the state should permit and fund abortions so that every woman can be protected. After all, public tax money is used by the police and legal system to protect other citizens against other acts of aggression, invasion, and assault.

Needless to say, in this argument human biology counts for little. A woman's pregnancy has little to do with her fertility or with sexual intercourse, since it is only the active implantation of a fertilized ovum that causes a woman to become pregnant. (A rather truncated concept of causation operates here, that aptly matches the narrowed version of moral responsibility.) The fact that each woman's pregnancy is creating a unique new human life is also dismissed as irrelevant.

In this argument, women should emulate "the bad Samaritan" who does not allow altruism to be forced upon her. The emotions of maternal bonding and feelings of kinship are discounted because this approach is blind to the altruistic instincts of our common human nature. Only individual autonomous will, freedom, and control are exalted. Women should take up the macho virtues of self-defensive gunplay, "shooting aggressors in the stomach," if need be. Back to self-assertive sacraments of violence. "Non serviam," cries Stephen Daedalus, Joyce's hero (echoing Lucifer), and proceeds to smash out the lights. When the great refusals reign, dark destruction follows.

But like it or not, embryos are human, destroying human life is morally wrong, and humanity has to struggle against the violence of the jungle. We have less to fear from excesses of sentimental gush than from cold ideologies of autonomous control.

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