A recent referendum in Ireland followed the popular vote of the people there and lifted a constitutional ban on abortions when the mother’s life is not endangered. The legislation has yet to be drafted, but it’s likely to permit abortions now for the broadest of reasons, up to three or six months—who knows. I kept tabs on news stories there during the run up to this vote, and from what I witnessed in pictures of rallies, saw in comment sections and read in published articles from both sides, the pro-life side was, on the whole, more civil and polite, and the pro-choice side was, on the whole, more rancorous, insulting, and boastful. I’ve seen the same thing here in the States. In the visible public square, the proponents of the pro-choice movement behave more poorly than their opposition, have ruder signs and more vulgar slogans. But clearly, the pro-choice camp is the majority in the entire Western world now. And I don’t believe all of them are the rancorous rally-ers and picketers in the images featured in news articles.
In fact, despite the gut feeling some pro-life folks may have as they’ve witnessed the great tide of pro-choice sentiment roll over their cultures and the untold number of corpses of aborted humans trucked out of abortion facilities, I don’t think evil is in the hearts of most of those voting for and procuring open-access abortions. I believe the end result is a great evil—in a very objective sense—but not the intention in the hearts of those who support it.
I think compassion is a large part of what drove the recent vote in Ireland: compassion for the tragic cases of mothers who had died from pregnancy complications, or botched abortions in back alleys or foreign countries; compassion for the victims of rape who have conceived a child from that heinous act; compassion for the young women in dire financial straights, or who’ve been told their unborn baby is severely disabled or disfigured. It’s these cases that were featured on wall murals and street signs and brought up over and over and over again in comment sections.
The threat of bodily control and manipulation from men over women was also at play in this debate. It’s real enough in the workplace, in religious institutions, and in the home, so gaining any victory of bodily autonomy is valuable. Thus moral motives—compassion for the needy, mercy on the afflicted, and freedom from malicious control—drove the pro-choice vote.
I want to acknowledge this position of compassion, to recognize and laud it, and to make it known that this, and not an intention of selfishness or evil, is where (I believe) the majority of pro-choice people are coming from. Acknowledging their intentions to be good, I nevertheless have to declare their logic to be flawed. There’s always an internal logic to moral positions and decisions. Feelings of compassion and desire for justice aren’t enough to build a moral platform on; the morality must match reality, the virtue must correspond to the facts.
The flaw in the logic of the pro-choice camp is this: they have a compassion for humans, but they don’t have a working definition of human. I’ve gone round and round with people on the issue of the humanity of the creatures in the womb, and have never gotten an internally consistent definition of what makes a creature a human. For now anyway, we all agree that newborn babies are humans with the right to life that all humans have. But that same newborn creature, minutes beforehand, was hidden, unseen in a womb. Weeks and months beforehand that same creature was a different size and shape, but it was the same creature. The amazing thing is that weeks and months and years in the future, that same creature will be yet another size and shape, and yet we all acknowledge it to be the same creature: namely, a human.
Every stage during a human’s development, like every time period in history, is somewhat of a categorical fiction we invent so that we can talk about it. Nobody really knows when the millisecond moment occurs between childhood and adulthood, or middle-age and old-age, or the medieval and renaissance periods for that matter. Nobody really knows the precise boundary line between “zygote” and “embryo” and “fetus”. . . and “baby.” All that we can really measure is the transition from two haploids with different sets of genes to a new diploid with a brand new, unique set of genes. From that point on, a brand new creature, distinct from both mother and father (though intimately dependent on the mother) is in existence. There is not a single point from that moment until death at a ripe old age that anyone can confidently point to and say that this distinct creature was before this not a human but after this a human. In the absence of a logical, unambiguously clear indicator of non-humanity vs. humanity, it’s simply not safe to call one of these creatures “not human.” Some (like me) go a step further and conclude cataphatically, through simple logic, that at fertilization, at the production of a new “diploid,” to use the biological term, a new human has formed. But at the very least, from an apophatic position, reason forbids declaring affirmatively that it’s not a human.
This logic is unarguable, if, that is, the term “human” is used like we use names for any other creatures. Monkeys, horses, squirrels, and buffalo—mammals, in fact—begin life at fertilization. Crack open any biology textbook for confirmation: the mammalian life cycle begins at fertilization. Humans are mammals.
But humans are perhaps something more, too, right? What sets us apart from the animals? Maybe when we use the term “human,” we’re not just referring to our mammal-ness. Thus, maybe even if our mere animality, our mere biological life, begins at fertilization, our full humanity hasn’t yet begun. After all, our very earliest physical forms are virtually indistinguishable from other mammals, even other taxonomies in the animal kingdom, all the way down to simple multi-celular life. This is the “clump of cells” argument many abortion providers still use (even if with purposely inaccurate visual aids). I won’t belabor the point that these “clumps of cells” or animal-like embryos, regardless of appearances, are distinguished from all other clumps of cells and animal embryos in that they alone will continue developing along the spectrum of human development.
The real point is that even if humanity is something more than mere animality, defining exactly what it is that makes humans different than animals is tricky business. The most obvious answer might be reason, but if that’s the benchmark, then babies, mentally handicapped persons, and the elderly with Alzheimer’s (many of our parents and grandparents) would be disqualified or very close to it. Every other benchmark trotted out to answer this question is equally troublesome: heartbeat, brain function, viability, etc. If a creature at some point has a beating human heart and functioning human brain, then the creature that grew those items in the first place was a human, alive and functioning. What else could it have been? And “viability” is a moving target, changing with medicine and technology. It can’t define anything important about humanity. A toddler drowning in the deep end of a pool isn’t subhuman simply because she can’t swim—because she’s “inviable” in the deep end without assistance from adults. She’s a valuable human who ought not to be in the deep end for the sake of her survival, just as the unborn are humans who ought not to be outside of a womb for the sake of their survival. The solution (in the absence of any other solution to the key of human exceptionalism) is to say that the special moral value of all humans is attached to, contiguous with, the mere animal existence of humans. In other words, as soon as there is such a thing as a human creature (and biology makes it abundantly clear that that’s what a zygote is), human right to life attaches to it.
But all this focus on the unborn babies ignores the women in whom they grow. Men don’t have the burden of pregnancy; just women. It’s something that happens to their bodies, and their voices are the only ones that matter. Or so some say. Never mind the fact that the baby is half a man’s genes, or that men’s lives are also radically changed by children (and that it’s often men who pressure their wives/girlfriends/daughters into getting an abortion), or that half the babies aborted are male. If it’s only women’s voices that matter in this conversation, then the multitude of women who are pro-life ought to be respectfully listened to. The somatic experience of living an embodied life as a women surely does grant valuable, indispensable insight on the trials, troubles, joys, and all the ambiguities of pregnancy. But those insights again must be reconciled with the logic, the reason, and the science of what humans are and when they begin. Being a woman may indeed be the boundary of who has the final word on this issue, but it’s not the uterus that reasons—that’s the mind. Even if men weren’t weighing in on this, among just women are some of the fiercest champions for life.
And those champions, those who campaign and lobby for the abolition of abortion, I believe, also do so mostly out of compassion. They’re fully aware of the hard cases of rape and incest and poverty and illness. An accusation regularly lobbed at the pro-life camp is that they don’t care about the woman. But in my experience that’s just not true. The fact is they’re very aware of not only the struggles a woman may face by bringing a new child into the world, but they’re also awake to the traumas (often life-long) that abortion brings—physical, emotional, and spiritual. They do have compassion for women and believe that abortion always does harm.
But they also recognize the humanity of the unborn and have compassion on them, too. They understand that a woman’s body is not the property of anyone else, but they also know that in this discussion, there are always two human bodies—two distinct, individual human bodies—that we’re talking about. The major mistake of the pro-choice camp is failing to recognize the baby’s body (fetus, embryo, zygote, or whatever name you give to him at whatever point) inside her. Whatever one’s feelings on the fairness or unfairness of this biological situation, it’s not the fault of the defenseless human now growing and alive.
Some people say abortion is murder. Even extremely compassionate and holy Saints from the first millennium of the Church called abortion murder. But they lived in a world where I think humanity was thought of differently, where slavery was common and even infanticide—leaving babies out in the elements to die—had to be condemned and corrected by a Church converting a pagan world. It wasn’t the humanity of the unborn they had to convince people of, it was simply the value of all human life they had to convince them of. I believe in our day, for most people, it’s not the value of human life, but the fact that the unborn are human that is unknown. That’s why I don’t believe abortion is equal to murder in many cases, because murder requires the intent to kill a human. If you don’t think you’re killing a human, or at least not a full human, then it’s not the same. I think the fear, pain, confusion, misgiving, sadness, and regret of the vast majority of women exiting abortion centers demonstrates that they didn’t walk in there with the intent to kill a human being. But they all need to know that’s what has happened, so they and others never consider abortion again. They need support, counseling, and care, not judgement or penalties. That’s my position, and, if you actually investigate, the position of the majority of the pro-life contingent.
To reiterate: I believe compassion drives most pro-choice people, but their reasoning is flawed (or else they simply don’t know all the facts) and their compassion misfires. It results in the death of human beings. Compassion actually animates both sides, so neither should be assumed to be or caricatured as a hateful group. Yes, there are some motivated by dogmatism or selfishness on either side, but I’m astounded when I see pro-choice people characterized as murderers and baby killers, and astounded when I see (much more frequently, I’m afraid) pro-life people characterized as body-shamers and full of hatred or disrespect for women. If we can assume the best intentions from both sides, then maybe reason can drive our conversations instead of defensiveness, suspicion, and blind emotions.