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The Logic of Abortion

April 24, 2013

The issue of “abortion rights,” and the ethical questions it poses, is again at the forefront of national news. Following an election period in which pundits assured us that the economy was the overriding issue for the majority of Americans, social issues (primarily gay marriage and abortion) have dominated headlines for the last several weeks across the country. The horrors revealed in the Gosnell trial have turned heads and stomachs across the country, in particular with conservative bloggers and authors wondering where the outrage from the media is to be found since the trial has been so scantly covered.

For many, abortion is seen as a religious issue, and it certainly is. Many, perhaps a majority, of those who oppose it in any form, or nearly any form (with exceptions perhaps in the case of the endangerment of the life of the mother), do so grounded in their belief that humans are a special creation of God and that human life is precious and should be protected. This desire to protect human life is most deeply valued for those who cannot protect themselves, and infants and the unborn are perhaps, if not clearly, the most fragile of all human persons. What seems to be ignored in the debate, however, is the logic of the issue. I do not dispute the legitimacy of arguing against the horrors of abortion on religious grounds, but the philosophical issues which undergird the debate are much more revealing of just how horrific the cultural acceptance of abortion truly is.

My desire here is to extend the principles which undergird the defense of abortion and show how untenable they truly are. Most would vehemently dispute the logical outcomes, but yet many of those who would dispute these outcomes still defend the practice of abortion, and clearly do so in fundamental philosophical conflict. So on what grounds is abortion typically defended?

One of the most frequent, if not the most frequent, justifications given for the right of a woman to have an abortion is that it is “her body,” and she has the right to do what she wants with it. This assumes that the fetus is not a separate organism from the mother, which clearly is not the case. What makes this especially fallacious is that, once the fetus is delivered and separated from the mother, its personhood is apparently seen as changed, though little has changed beyond the spatial location of the child. What is changed is the physiological dependence of the child to the mother via the umbilical cord. The child is, however, no less dependent upon the mother for survival after birth than before, as any new mother can attest. If the principle used here to defend abortion is dependence, then what prevents one from extending this beyond the womb? Children are dependent upon their mother/parents for long after they are born. So why do we not advocate for the right to parents to terminate the life of their children based on their dependence to them? Or furthermore, what about the right of caregivers to terminate the life of the terminally ill, elderly, or those with severe disabilities, since they too are dependent upon their caregivers? If dependence is the issue, then by principle the death of these individuals should also be justified, though few argue for such a precedent.

Another line of argument used to justify abortion is that the fetus in early development is not yet fully human because it lacks certain parts or capacities, or the actualization of certain capacities. Again, by principle of extension, this would assume that if such parts or capacities were missing from grown children, persons with severe disabilities, or the elderly, that their caregivers should have the option to terminate their life as well. Another angle on this argument is that because the developing fetus is not able to feel pain in its early developmental stages, an abortion causes them no harm. By extending the principle, however, the same argument could be made, for example, to justify the murder of an individual born with a neuropathological disease, such as CIPA, which prevents the person from feeling sensations of temperature or pain. In fact, this line of reasoning has been extended by Professor Peter Singer of Princeton University, who argues that caregivers should have the right to terminate the life of the human fetus, child, or dependent person (such as the elderly or those with severe disabilities) based on the preference of the caregiver. Because these persons lack certain capacities or the ability to experience certain sensations, Singer argues that their caregivers are morally justified to end their life. His position has been met with much outrage, but is philosophically consistent with those who would support abortion on these grounds.

Another common defense of abortion is that the child may be unwanted, and causes undo stress, because of emotional, financial, or physical reasons, to the mother. It is assumed that the relief of burden to the mother justifies the killing of the child. Again, by extending this principle, one sees that parents of grown children, such as school-aged children, may experience the same stresses or hardships, but certainly we would not see justification in the parents ending the life of their children simply because it causes undesired stress or hardships for them. Again, the same principle may be extended to those who care for their elderly parents, or adults who are dependent on others, which is equally as burdensome emotionally, financially, and/or physically. Yet who would argue for the justified murder of these individuals?

What each of these arguments assumes is that personhood is somehow defined by level of dependence, individual parts or capacities/actualization of capacities, or the level of hardship generated. Clearly when these principles are extended beyond the case of the fetus, the immorality and lack of justification for death is displayed. So what prevents us from seeing the lack of justification for abortion in the life of the fetus? Logically, nothing. ONLY if the fetus is viewed as less than a human person, which advances in medical technology are constantly rebutting, is such a view possibly justified. Murder of any innocent person is unjustifiable, no matter what “benefits” this may entail. On philosophical grounds, I do not believe abortion can be justified by any line of argument. For those whose lives and families have been affected by this tragedy which our culture has disturbingly accepted, the issue is far more than a philosophical argument, but a personal, and often very painful, experience. I believe fully that there is healing and forgiveness in Jesus Christ for the victims of this cultural stain. The Church has a duty to love and nurture those who have been wounded, while also maintaining its prophetic posture against this ongoing tragedy.

- A. Chadwick Thornhill,
Chair of Theological Studies, Instructor of Religion