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The Abortion Debate: A Compromise


The fundamental issue dividing Pro- and Anti-abortionists is the question of whether or not the foetus/unborn child is to be regarded as a human being, a person with a right to life. An answer to this question which would satisfy both disputants must be developed in a consistent way from beliefs that are shared between them. I outline these shared beliefs (viz., attitudes towards potential life, and, how and when the value of life is realised by an individual) and argue that the quickening of the foetus is the point at which the adoption of a moral attitude towards it is consistent with both the Pro- and the Anti-abortionist standpoint.

The Abortion Debate : A Compromise.

The reason that the abortion debate has failed to produce either a clear winner or a reasonable compromise may be found in the fact that the arguments put forward by both sides are so different in character. Thus, for example, the Pro- abortionists often argue their case from what is essentially a practical point of view : 'Women', they say, 'have always sought abortions. They will go on seeking them - whatever the law. Why not recognize this fact of life and make abortion legal?' By contrast their opponents argue from a moral point of view : 'The foetus is a human being', they say, 'with a human being's right to life. It is wrong to kill human beings, whatever their stage of development'.

Neither party in the debate countenances the other's arguments, since from their point of view, their opponent's arguments are totally irrelevant to the issue as they see it. The result is a sterile shouting match. As things stand, winning such a debate does not involve an appeal to reason, but instead depends on organizing a majority whose shout will be the loudest. I think it would be generally agreed that an issue of this importance should not be settled in such a fashion.

But is this problem open to a reasoned compromise? I think that it is, but before I try to explain why I think so, I need to make one proviso concerning my explanation. The opponents of abortion who ground their arguments on a religious doctrine must not expect satisfaction from what I have to say. If their church is right, then they will be right to hew to its line. Reason has no power to dispute revealed truths. I shall, then, assume that those who oppose abortion on moral grounds, will be able and willing to support their arguments without appeal to Ex Cathedra statements of revealed truth from an established church. Let us begin then by considering in more detail the practical argument in favour of legal abortion. It begins with a statement of agnosticism with regard to the morality of abortion. "Whatever the rightness or wrongness of abortion, women have always, and will always seek to terminate unwanted pregnancies. When the state outlaws abortion, it, in effect, forces women to break the law and produces the misery, shame and horror of illegal 'back-street' abortions. In addition it produces one law for the rich and one for the poor. The rich are always able to circumvent the law by, for example, procuring an abortion overseas where it is legal. Thus, since women will seek abortions whatever the law may be, why not accept the inevitable, and make abortion legal and safe, thus eliminating the unpleasant and inequitable consequences of a law which is not in fact obeyed and cannot be enforced equitably."

The Anti-Abortionists reply that this overlooks the fact that, typically, laws do have a moral basis. They argue that overlooking this fact opens the door to such arguments as the following : "Whatever the rightness or wrongness of murder, people still murder other people. When murder is illegal, people who are not very clever at it are caught and punished, whereas clever people murder with impunity. Since people will always commit murder, whatever the law, why not accept the inevitable and legalise murder thus eliminating a situation which in practice means one law for the stupid and one for the clever."

It must be granted that the anti-abortionists make their point very effectively with this parallel case. Whatever the practical outcome of the application of a given law, the fact that there is a law against the act, indicates our belief as a society, that the act in question is morally wrong. Morality is the basis of law, and therefore no discussion which is concerned with what the law should be can disregard the rightness or wrongness of the act in question. What people actually do is not the basis on which we formulate our laws; it is rather what they ought to do which counts. Obviously the fact that Pro-abortionists put forward what are essentially practical arguments in favour of legal abortion, means that, in their view, the decision to have an abortion is not a decision in the moral arena. Indeed, in their view, there should, strictly speaking, be no laws at all concerning abortion, on the same grounds and for the same reasons as there are no laws concerning whether a married or unmarried couple should or should not have children, or whether a person should or should not become a teacher or a carpenter. They believe, along with their opponents, that morality is essentially concerned with how other people are affected by one's actions, and in particular whether or not other people will be harmed by them. Where one's decisions or actions do not harm another person, the act is morally neutral and is outside the scope of the law. The Pro-abortionist thinks that the decision whether or not to have an abortion is, in fact, morally neutral, because in such cases the Pro-abortionist believes that no other person's rights are being infringed by such a decision.

By contrast, the Anti-abortionist thinks that the decision to have an abortion is a moral decision because the rights of another person, viz., the unborn child, are infringed by such a decision. Thus the central issue that divides these two camps is not a moral issue - ie., whether or not it is morally permissible to infringe upon the rights of another - but rather a question of definition: is the foetus/unborn child to be regarded as a human being-a person with a right to life?

Now to say that this problem turns on a matter of definition is not to say that we can simply decide in favour of one definition or the other arbitrarily. The value of a definition consists in our willingness to live with it, and be ruled by it, and this in turn is a function of how it fits in with our understanding of related concepts which we already accept and live by. Thus we can decide whether or not the unborn child is to be regarded as a human being with rights, or not, only by clearly defining what a human being is, and why it is valuable, and on the basis of that agreed definition determine whether or not an unborn child falls under this concept.

Our search for a definition of what human life is and why we value it, can best be settled by considering why it is that we value our own lives. Certainly everyone will answer this question in different ways. There will be a widevariety of experiences which make us glad to be alive, but there would, I think,be general agreement that it is our consciousness of pleasant experiences that makes life worth living. A life filled with unremitting pain or constant depression invites suicide, and we are not puzzled when a person in such a situation takes their own life. The value of human life is thus not a high abstraction, but is firmly based on our conscious appreciation of actual experiences of joy in our own lives. These moments are, in fact, moments of self-reflection in which human beings delight in their own existence, moments in which the value of being alive is fully apparent to us.

Now since it is our knowledge of our capacity to experience joy or happiness based on past experience which makes us value our own lives, it must be our recognition of this same capacity in other human beings which gives their lives value in our eyes. To recognize them as human beings is to recognize their capacity to be happy and their right to the pursuit of happiness. Now it must be granted that this understanding of what constitutes the value of human life - namely, the personal realisation that life is worth living - comes about through a reasonably sophisticated self-conscious act. It involves more than just simply being happy. It involves knowing that one is happy and in virtue of this knowledge being in a position to appreciate the fact of an existence which can bring such happiness. Thus, as children, we seldom - if ever - appreciate, in this sophisticated sense, the fact that we are alive. Because this conscious recognition of the value of our own lives only dawns on us as we mature, the value of our own lives during this maturation process is not manifest to us. And indeed we must be carefully protected at this stage or we would throw our lives away a dozen times before we came to value our own survival and act accordingly.

Clearly those who look after us recognize our 'blindness' to the value of our own lives, and look forward to the day when we will recognize it for ourselves and begin to be motivated by this realisation rather than the passing impulse of the moment. Thus as children, our value as human beings manifests itself as a potential value. We are cared for because one day we will 'wake up' to the fact that we are alive and realise ourselves that life is worth living. At this point we will have actualised our potential value as human beings. In doing so, we will have acquired the right to be treated as individuals and the insight to see that our fellows have the same right. Moral or other-regarding behaviour is not possible until this self-regarding point is reached. If this definition of what the value of human life consists in is accepted, it is clear that children - and by implication, unborn children - contain within themselves the potential to realise this value, and are to be valued accordingly.

How then is it possible for Pro-abortionists to ignore this potential value when dealing with the life of the unborn child, while recognizing it in the life of a new-born infant? To the Anti-abortionist this attitude seems unintelligible, for in either case, the value of the human life involved is equally potential, and if it is recognized in the one case, how can it be ignored in the other?

Since Pro-abortionists are not morally blind in other respects, they must make some distinction between the potential value of human life as it manifests itself in the unborn child, as compared with its manifestation in the new-born infant, a distinction which will serve to explain to the Anti-abortionist what otherwise seems to be a moral blind spot. On what basis do they make this distinction? The basis lies in their seeing the potential value of the unborn child as being on a par with the potential value of the child whose conception is prevented through birth-control devices. Every fertile woman is capable biologically, of having a dozen or more children, but few achieve this potential, nor is it considered desirable that they should. Yet the potential is indisputably present and curbing this potential through birth-control devices undoubtedly deprives countless millions of potential human beings of their lives. Despite this waste of potential life, no one regards the use of birth- control devices, (bearing in mind our proviso concerning views based on religious doctrines) or indeed simple abstention, as a moral act even though the result of these acts is the loss of countless potential lives. Family planning is not classed as murder.

It is clear then, that Pro-abortionists see abortion in the same light as family planning. In both cases potential lives are eliminated for what are regarded - on both sides of the debate - as good reasons: we assume that Anti-abortionists would agree that the natural fecundity of womankind represents a potential for new life which should be governed by reasoned decisions, not simply by biological potential. It is because of these considerations that the Pro- abortionists regard an accidental pregnancy as essentially an example of nature out-witting our reasonable family planning decisions, and they act deliberately to rectify this error. They regard the potential life that is eliminated in the process in the same light as those potential lives eliminated through the use of birth-control devices. Because of this they can recommend abortion with a clear conscience, and regard the cry of 'Murder!' from their opponents as irrational.

However, the Pro-Abortionists are not coldly rational in their equation of abortion with birth-control. As the unwanted pregnancy approaches term, and the new individual begins to manifest its presence in a palpable fashion, it becomes more difficult to regard the unborn child as simply a potential child, on a par with those potential children whose conception is deliberately prevented. Typically, the Pro-abortionists' equanimity concerning the fate of the unborn child turns to uneasiness when the foetus quickens and its potential for life actualises itself in an undeniable fashion. And I think it is fair to assume that for women seeking abortions, the existence of their potential child does not call forth an emotional reaction to it as a potential human being, until it is sufficiently actual to literally make its presence felt. If this were not the case, it would be difficult to understand how otherwise moral women and their doctors could, from an emotional standpoint, bring themselves to opt for and perform abortions. The quickening of the foetus marks the point at which, in practice, ie., in terms of our emotional responses to it, and thus our moral regard for it, a potential child becomes sufficiently actual to begin to bear - in its own right - the value we accord to other human beings. It is the point at which, typically, a woman's pregnancy becomes 'real' to her, not simply an idea in her head, but a process involving another person. It is also the point at which emotionally, the Anti-abortionists' equation of abortion with murder begins to make some sense to the Pro-abortionists.

With these considerations in mind I think it is possible to envisage a reasonable compromise solution to the abortion issue. It is perhaps worth noting at this point that there is very little art in the 'art' of compromise. Properly understood compromise always involves a move by the disputants back from the area where they cannot seem to agree, to territory where they are in agreement. Then, step by step, the two parties can advance forward to the point were they part ways and fix their compromise at the previous step, so to speak. There is a large area of agreement between the contending parties in the abortion debate and there is a natural compromise for them which makes sense in that it is consistent with that area about which both parties agree.

Both sides of the debate agree that human life is intrinsically valuable and that potential life should be valued accordingly. Both sides agree that a woman's inherent potential for producing new life should be governed by her reason, not by her natural fecundity. They disagree over the exact point at which a deliberate act on the woman's part ceases to be a legitimate means of limiting her fecundity.

But there is room for compromise on this point : the Anti-abortionist, in accepting the legitimacy of family planning, must take into account the fact that birth-control devices are not 100% effective, and that human error and human frailty often increase the chance of an unwanted pregnancy occurring. They must therefore appreciate that a woman who conceives a child accidentally and then seeks an abortion is acting responsibly in line with her belief in family planning-a belief that the Anti-abortionists share. The Pro-abortionists, on the other hand, must recognize that the value they set on human life cannot emerge arbitrarily at the point of birth. They must accept that the value they accord to the life of the new-born infant has been gradually accruing as the unborn child has developed. In particular, the felt presence of the unborn child after the quickening serves to actualise the potential value of that child .

In summary : to be consistent with their beliefs concerning the legitimacy of family planning, the Anti-abortionists should allow a woman the right to control her fecundity through an abortion - provided she does so with sufficient dispatch to make it clear that her decision to do so is essentially a family planning decision. To be consistent with their belief that the life of the new-born infant is valuable, the Pro-abortionists should discourage abortions after the quickening of the foetus. For at this point, they must recognize that the child has begun to actualise its potential for life in a way which links it firmly with the potential for life which is actualised in the new-born infant, and, if they value the latter they must - to be consistent - value the former.