A few rational thoughts about abortion

PregnancyScanFor two Christians there’s nothing to argue about: abortion is wrong because the Church says so. Why waste time debating?

Yet Christianity is a rational religion. Hence reluctant as a Christian may be to waste breath discussing abortion, he could if he had to. And he’d have to when talking to an infidel. The Christian wouldn’t then be able to invoke the authority of the Church: his interlocutor simply wouldn’t accept it.

Therefore, if a rational Christian wanted to win the argument, he’d have to step outside religion. Or so he might think. Yet no Westerner, even a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, can help touching upon Christianity, if only tangentially.

For ultimately the pros and cons of abortion can be crystallised to a simple question: does the foetus possess a human life or is it merely a part of the mother’s body? Is it typologically close to you and me or, say, to the appendix?

If the answer is the former, then any moral person would have to be anti-abortion: a human life mustn’t be taken arbitrarily. But why not?

We’ve shut the door on Judaeo-Christian morality, but it has climbed in through the window. Because the answer is that our fundamental laws derive from the Decalogue, in this case from the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”.

Either this commandment is part of our congenital make-up, as Kant believed, or an acquired taste, but it’s so firmly ingrained that even atheists agree that yes, taking a human life arbitrarily is wrong.

If so, a logical pro-abortion debater has only two ways to go: he has to claim either that a foetus isn’t human at all or at least that it’s not yet human enough. The first option is illogical: a developing human life is still a human life.

Hence the pro-abortion chap must insist that a foetus only has a potential for human life, not life as such. This moves abortion morally close to contraception: a life not so much destroyed as prevented. Here the pro chap curiously joins forces with the Church, although of course the Church believes that preventing life is wrong, and he doesn’t.

Since nobody denies that sooner or later a foetus will become fully human, even if it isn’t already, the argument can be further reduced to a simple question: at what point does a foetus become fully human?

Because abortion is always discussed in America more vigorously than elsewhere, especially at election time, this brings us to a landmark decision by the US Supreme Court: Roe v. Wade (1973).

The Court ruled that the right to privacy extends to a woman’s decision to have an abortion. However, the Court illogically ruled that this right must be balanced against “protecting the potentiality of human life”. In the third trimester this ‘potentiality’ reaches a point of no return.

Thereby the Court implicitly claimed it pinpointed exactly when life begins during pregnancy: six months plus one day. This is patently ridiculous, and in 1992 the third trimester was replaced with ‘foetal viability’, defined as “potentially able to live outside the mother’s womb, albeit with artificial aid.”

That point, according to the Justices, occurred at 23-24 weeks, or, depending on medical advances, even earlier. The UK Abortion Act reached the same conclusion in 1967, setting the legal limit at 24 weeks, with no potential medical advances mentioned.

Alas, any limit is so arbitrary that it holds no logical water whatsoever. So at 167 days no human life exists, only to appear miraculously a day later? Or, acknowledged the Supreme Court, it could even be 161 days but not a minute earlier, barring ‘medical advances.’

Well, the medical advances have been such that a foetus can be created and grown artificially, with no mother’s womb in sight. Conversely, if we disregard artificial methods, a foetus can no more survive on its own two months after birth than two months before. The difference between prenatal and postnatal abortion stops being immediately obvious.

When intelligent people can’t argue a case logically, there’s something wrong with the case. So there is, for conception is the only indisputable beginning of life. Any other moment is subject to doubt – and any doubt should swing the argument towards the anti end. If it’s at all possible that abortion represents an arbitrary destruction of a human life, it must be banned.

I once made this argument to a pragmatic thinker who then asked a practical question, as pragmatic thinkers will: “So, if abortion is unlawful, should the woman be prosecuted for murder?”

My reply was that, if an anti-abortion law exists, then the law-breaker must be punished, though I’d be more inclined to treat as the perpetrator not the woman, but the abortionist.

However, even the staunchest Catholic would admit that abortion isn’t identical with murder. For a doctor charged with performing an abortion may present a valid medical defence. The choice, he may plead, was between preserving either the mother’s life or the foetus’s, not an uncommon situation.

Abortion then moves morally closer to justifiable self-defence, which isn’t a crime. The conclusion is that, even as not every taking of a human life is prosecuted, neither should every abortion. But laws against killing still exist – and so, rationally speaking, must laws against abortion.

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