Should the United States government (federally or through states and territories) restrict (totally or partially) a woman’s right to an abortion? This article is the first round in a debate series on the topic of abortion. Read the opposing argument here.
As a matter of legislative, jurisprudential, and/or constitutional policy, we as a country must move, sooner rather than later, to make abortion illegal—as should all countries. But before we can understand why the law must proscribe abortion acts, we must first explore the proposition philosophically.
Proponents of abortion will often say that they are merely interested in securing a woman’s right to “choose,” to which the retort must be: Choose what, precisely? The ability to choose from various options is typically seen as a great good, but one must be specific about the object of one’s volition, otherwise, we are doomed to deal with little more than an empty platitude. When we talk about abortion, we must first ask what we mean when we say “abortion,” i.e., what is it, and what does it entail?
Abortion, I submit, is the intentional cessation of the life of an in utero human being, a member of our species: Homo sapiens. Basic embryology tells us unequivocally that what exists at the moment of conception is a zygote: a human organism with its own distinct set of DNA at a very early stage of development. Whatever else it might be, it is without a doubt and inalienably a member of our species. Abortion, then, is necessarily concerned with a particular object: human life.
With those basic facts out of the way, we can turn to investigating the issue philosophically. What is the nature of the fetus? (For reasons owing to economy of language, I will restrict myself to the term “fetus,” but it is meant as a general stand-in term, inclusive of various other developmentally-specific names one might assign to the preborn organism, such as “embryo.”)
Something has a “nature” in the relevant sense when it possesses an internal principle of change, growth, and development. This is self-evidently the case for the fetus. It needs nothing more than what we born human beings, at any age, need to survive: nourishment and not being intentionally killed. No one denies that the consequence of an elective abortion is the termination of the existence of a fetus.
Since our concern is with what the law ought to say regarding abortion, we must now inquire into the nature of the State. At a minimum, the State must protect those persons within its domain from physical violence of any sort, and so we can say with certainty that the State has a duty to protect the fetus from the physical aggression of those who would seek to destroy it, just as it would for any born person. Whatever else a State can do, it cannot rightfully be called a State unless it does at least this—for without life, one cannot hope to exercise any other rights (whatever you happen to think those are). Without the right to life, all other rights are meaningless.
Exponents of abortion may concede to the argument thus far but insist that abortion ought to remain legal because the fetus is not a “person”—only human, not a person: a bearer of rights, worthy of the protection of the laws. But this is incorrect, for it misunderstands the nature of the human being.
Consciousness, rationality, and/or the ability to be self-aware are the most cited candidates for markers of personhood by pro-choice advocates. Absent the ability to exercise them, the human organism which we are discussing is not a person and so is not reached by the protection of the laws—the very same protections afforded to all of us outside the womb. The fetus is not conscious, rational, and/or self-aware and cannot exercise those abilities; for that reason it is not a person; therefore, abortion is, if not morally good, then at least permissible, and the law should not ban it.
But the abortion exponent equivocates with respect to the idea of “exercising” those properties. A distinction must be made between the immediate capacity to, say, be rational or exercise rationality, and the root capacity to actualize that natural ability that comes with being the type of thing the fetus is by nature: an immature, though internally complete, human being.
If we were only concerned with the immediate ability to be conscious, rational, or self-aware, then children as young as five might not be persons, nor would sleeping people, nor would very sick people. All, then, would logically be candidates for termination in what we might charmingly call “after-birth abortion.”
Logically, neither are the circumstances of the conception or the pregnancy, difficult though they may be, able to tip the scales in a pro-choice direction. That a fetus was created in rape does not change its nature as a human being, nor does it change the fetus’ status as a person worthy of the State’s protection, nor does it change the State’s duty to protect all persons in its domain. How could it? Further, that a mother has a difficult pregnancy changes nothing either. Remember, we are here concerned with elective abortion: that procedure which has as its principal end the destruction of a human person—not cases where legitimate medical triage must be employed.
Finally, nothing in this argument necessarily entails that mothers ought to be legally punished for seeking or obtaining an abortion. Traditionally, the law has never punished mothers in these circumstances but has always deemed it sufficient to sanction, fine, and jail only their enablers: abortionists, colleagues, friends, and family. It is therefore not unreasonable to posit that the normal demands of the law simply do not apply, at least not as stringently, when it comes to the unique and intimate relationship a mother has with her unborn child.
But the law also acts as teacher and educator. If, by some miracle, Roe v. Wade (1973) were to be overturned tomorrow, it is obvious that this would not change the reality that the populace has received a perverse education at the Court’s proverbial knee these last 40-plus years. Time would be needed to reverse the twisted and incorrect lesson that abortion is morally permissible.
Society might at some future time, however, move, via the democratic process, to decide whether its people had truly internalized and learned the new, anti-Roe lesson well enough that punishment for women for procuring abortions or attempting to procure them would be harsher than the historical norm, but, again, there is no reason to believe that the punishment of women in those potential circumstances is required by the pro-life position just expounded.
We must therefore accept that the location, size, state of dependency, and seeming foreignness of the fetus—It is just a blob of cells!—are not relevant considerations when deciding whether it ought to be free from the threat of abortion.