Pro-life. Pro-choice. Women's rights. "Right to life." abortion. These words and phrases are enough to heat up any discussion a few degrees centigrade. Some readers may think the title of this article is too difficult to achieve, and in many cases they may be correct. Humans are an emotional breed, oftentimes overly so, and no topic is as emotionally-charged as abortion. Nevertheless, I have hope that a level of objectivity can be maintained, even when the abortion controversy is raised. Needless to say, the task of approaching abortion objectively is daunting, and hard work is the key. There are three steps to achieving it.
Approaching the abortion issue objectively means we must first overcome the strong emotional reflex so common among both pro-lifers and pro-choicers. I'm not suggesting apathy; quite the opposite in fact. The person who desires to reason objectively about abortion is one who takes tremendous emotional stock in coming to terms with such a weighty issue. The rational person longs to handle this sensitive topic appropriately in an attempt to arrive at the truth. What I'm suggesting is not an abandonment of emotion, but a proper channeling of one's passion. This is step one.
Step two involves looking beyond the abundance of spin and rhetoric. Both the pro-choice and pro-life camps have their legions of sophists who hurl their talking points and jargon at each other. This leads to a lot of words launched back and forth, but no real conversation; as a result, the separation and hostility between the pro-life camp and pro-choice camp continues to intensify.
When we discard the jargon and rhetoric, a door of opportunity opens - the opportunity for pro-lifers and pro-choicers to find commonality. The third step towards objectivity is to walk through this door. If approaching abortion objectively appears difficult, then finding commonality among these two seemingly opposite camps must appear impossible. Even so, I maintain that both groups adhere to many similar values, and understanding this commonality is crucial to addressing the abortion controversy objectively. In considering the issue of abortion, Francis J. Beckwith writes:
The conventional wisdom is that the moral and legal debate over abortion is a dispute between two factions that hold incommensurable value systems. But the conventional wisdom is mistaken, for these factions hold many values in common. 1
Before I continue, I invite the reader to engage in a little self-examination. Did the emotions shift into a higher gear after reading Dr. Beckwith's words? Has his claim already been rejected, even though his argument has not yet been presented? Perhaps a few readers went directly to the footnotes and felt inclined to either accept or reject these words because I am quoting from an obviously Christian book. I chose this particular book intentionally for the purpose of evoking feelings in the reader, whether negative or positive. As I have said, hard work is the key to thinking objectively, and anyone wrestling with strong emotions at this point should now be aware of this truth. The remainder of this article will be of little value to the reader unless the first two steps towards objectivity are accomplished. With that said, we return to Dr. Beckwith:
First, each side believes that all human persons possess certain inalienable rights regardless of whether their governments protect these rights. That is why both sides appeal to what each believes is a fundamental right. The pro-life advocate appeals to "life" whereas the pro-choice advocate appeals to "liberty" (or "choice"). Both believe that a constitutional regime, in order to be just, must uphold certain fundamental rights.
Second, each side believes that its position best exemplifies its opponent's fundamental value. The pro-choice advocate does not deny that life is a value but argues that his position's appeal to human liberty is a necessary ingredient by which an individual can pursue the fullest and most complete life possible.2
If the average pro-choicer truly agreed with the pro-lifer that abortion is equivalent to the unjust murdering of an innocent human being, I'm convinced the pro-choice advocate would change her views on abortion. The problem (at least from the pro-lifer's perspective) is that the pro-choice advocate does not consider the fetus a person entitled to the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Dr. Beckwith continues:
On the other hand, the pro-life advocate does not eschew liberty. She believes that all human liberty is limited by another human's right to life. For example, one has a right to freely pursue any goal one believes is consistent with one's happiness, such as attending a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game. One has no right, however, to freely pursue this goal at the expense of another's life or liberty, such as running over pedestrians with one's car so that one can get to the game on time. The pro-life advocate argues that fetuses are persons with a full right to life. Since the act of abortion results in the death of the unborn, abortion, with few exceptions, is not morally justified.3
Regardless of whether abortion is murder (as pro-lifers believe) or outlawing abortion is stripping women of certain inalienable rights (as the pro-choicers believe), the truth is that the average pro-choicer is not a Jack the Ripper-type who delights in murdering other human beings; likewise, the average pro-lifer is not a King Edward the Longshanks-type who wants to take away people's freedom. The distinction between ontology and epistemology must be made here. Ontology refers to what is, whereas epistemology refers to what we know or understand about what is. By describing abortion as murder, the pro-lifer is making an ontological claim concerning abortion: it's the unjustified termination of a human life. According to the pro-lifer, that's what the act of abortion is (ontologically speaking), regardless of whether one doesn't believe or understand that reality (epistemologically speaking). Similarly, by describing the pro-life movement as "an attempt to strip women of rights," the pro-choicer is making an ontological claim concerning the pro-lifer's actions. According to the pro-choicer, that's what the pro-life movement is, whether the pro-lifer realizes it or not. Dr. Beckwith continues:
The pro-choice advocate does not deny that human persons have a right to life. He just believes that this right to life is not extended to fetuses since they are not human persons. The pro-life advocate does not deny that people have the liberty to make choices that they believe are in their best interests. She just believes that this liberty does not entail the right to choose abortion since such a choice conflicts with the life, liberty, and interests of another human person (the fetus).
Thus, when all is said and done, the debate over abortion is not really about conflicting value systems, for we all generally agree that life and liberty are fundamental values.4
When we finally discover common ground, we are then able to see actual disagreements more clearly. In the case of the abortion debate, the single area of fundamental disagreement between the two camps begins with how each answers this question: "Is the unborn a person?" If the fetus is nothing more than a mass of tissue, then abortion is comparable to an appendectomy. If the fetus is a human being who deserves the same rights the rest of humanity deserves, then abortion is murder.
For those of us who make it this far (congratulations, not many do), the next step is to understand that the abortion debate is two-fold. First, there is the question of morality: is abortion right? Second, there is the question of legality: is abortion a right? There are those who see abortion as morally reprehensible, yet they are opposed to "legislating morality." Thus, while they are opposed to abortion, they believe the government should have no authority to mandate that citizens adhere to a certain moral code. "Why outlaw abortion, and not adultery?" they ask.
This position is reasonable; after all, many pro-lifers are trying to push their religious and moral views on everyone else. However, there is a problem with the "legislating morality" argument: the reason abortion is considered wrong is ignored. Remember, the pro-lifers consider abortion the unjustified termination of an innocent human life - murder. If the fetus isn’t a human being, then there is no good reason to outlaw abortion, and anyone who finds abortion morally wrong needs to base that belief on something other than “abortion is murder.” Naturally, then, the abortion issue should not be merely about morality, but legality, particularly concerning human rights.
With that in mind, I propose three questions which, in my estimation, are the essential questions pertaining to the abortion debate:
Question 1: Is the unborn a human being (i.e., a person)? If the answer is yes, proceed to question 2. If the answer is no, then abortion should not be made illegal.
Question 2: Does the unborn have at least one right that should be recognized by our society, government and legislation? If the answer is yes, proceed to question 3. If the answer is no, then abortion should not be made illegal.
Question 3: Do the rights of the unborn ever supersede the rights of the mother? More specifically, does the unborn ever have a right to be born that should take priority over a woman’s right to do with her body as she sees fit? Consideration should be given to whether the viability of the fetus and/or its dependency upon the mother is relevant. Serious consideration should also be given to the commonly asked questions of rape, incest and health of the mother.
Pondering these questions is where critical and objective thinking about abortion should begin. Abortion is not as clear-cut a subject as many believe. The issue is quite labyrinthine, comprised of questions and concerns this article has not addressed. Overcoming our emotional impulses and focusing on finding the correct answers to these questions should spur us to engage in more productive discussions which will hopefully lead us closer to the truth. Above all, we must approach this issue with compassion, concern, and a willingness to see through another's eyes.
1. Francis J. Beckwith, "Why I Am Not a Moral Relativist," in Why I Am a Christian, edited by Norman L. Geisler and Paul K. Hoffman (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 2001), p. 21.
2. Ibid., p. 21
3. Ibid., p. 21
4. Ibid., p. 21