The moment a sperm fertilises an egg, an inexorable process is put into motion that, all things being equal, results in a child. The rights of the unborn can begin no earlier than this point – fertilisation – or else every sperm is entitled to rights, an absurd proposition that makes every teenage boy into a mass murderer. But this is not to say that we must grant all of our human rights at this point in the process – a process that will result in a person is not a person – and it is this disagreement that lies at the heart of the abortion dispute.
There is no more contentious issue in contemporary metaphysics than abortion. That it is a metaphysical issue is beyond dispute, since there is no absolute way of assigning when a human life begins – it is up to the individual to determine this for themselves. On the one hand, we have people who believe a human life begins at fertilisation (the pro-life camp), often as an outgrowth of religious beliefs, although note that the establishment of fertilisation as the beginning of the life process is a scientific belief. On the other hand, we have people who believe that a woman has a right to control her fertility and pregnancy (the pro-choice camp), which leads to the metaphysical belief that the earliest states of the development process – the zygote, embryo and (to some extent) the foetus – are not yet a human life.
As with any purely metaphysical argument, it cannot be resolved through discussion. To one who sees the early life process in terms of an unborn child, abortion is the murder of innocent unborn children – the very idea causes cognitive dissonance for obvious reasons. But equally, to one who sees the early life process as a physiological state inside the body of a woman and not (yet) as a person, the pro-life camp's rhetoric causes cognitive dissonance – especially in the light of the fact that many such people know friends or relatives who have terminated a pregnancy, and the framing of their loved ones as child killers naturally causes strong offence.
The metaphysical positions involved are not subject to change, therefore if this problem is to have a solution in the spirit of relative ethics it requires concessions by both sides. The pro-choice camp must concede to their opponents that – at the very least – an abortion erases a potential child from the future. Conversely, the pro-life camp must concede to their opponents that legal bans on abortion do not prevent abortion, they rather create a dependency on “backstreet abortions” which make the procedure vastly more dangerous, placing the life of the pregnant woman at risk. Since the pro-life stance prioritises human life, it has a duty of care to the potential mother that cannot simply be overlooked.
There is some common ground between the camps that it worth emphasising. Most importantly, neither side likes abortion – pro-choice advocates are not walking around with a T-shirt reading “I heart abortion” – both sides see it as both serious and unpleasant, and share in common a desire to reduce the number of termination procedures that take place. At the moment, approximately a quarter of all pregnancies throughout the world end in abortion – and almost half of these occur in countries where abortion is illegal. For context, it is worth remembering that the vast majority of abortions take place during the period of pregnancy when miscarriages occur (i.e. the first twenty weeks). Almost a third of all pregnancies end naturally in miscarriage during this period. This also means that one in three abortions effectively induces a miscarriage that would have happened anyway – it is not the case that every abortion erases a child from the future.
The Catholic Church is a
major driver in this issue, because it takes an absolute stance and refuses to
allow for abortion under any circumstances. The political theorist Bhikhu
Parekh, who I’m honoured to report was appointed to the House of Lords in the
When the Roman Catholic Church insists on the sanctity of human life and rules out all forms of abortion, it is clearly being absolutist, unworldly, unrealistic, and oppressive. However, is also serves the vital function of affirming an important value, nagging our consciences, requiring us to reflect publicly and critically on our moral practices, and forcing us to consider issues we would happily prefer to suppress or ignore. We might, and in this and other matters should, challenge and even reject the Church’s views, but this does not detract form the fact that its voice deserves to be heard with respect.
He challenges the Catholic position, noting (among numerous other arguments) that if the Catholic Church can think in terms of a just war, it should also be able to think in terms of a just abortion. He also observes that while it is free to ban abortion for its followers, it has no right to force this value upon society as a whole – and if it insists on behaving otherwise, then liberals may attempt to force their value of equality of the sexes upon the Catholic Church, requiring the ordination of female priests and even female Popes. Perhaps his strongest argument on this issue is that “banning abortion damages human dignity as much as and to an even greater degree than allowing it.”
There is a larger issue in
the Catholic Church’s position that Parekh does not touch upon. If the aim is
to reduce the number of abortions (a goal the opposing sides of this issue have
in common), then we should strongly advocate contraception – preventing a
pregnancy through pre-emptive methods must be more desirable than terminating
Some will argue a position that equates to demanding that teenagers be responsible with their sexual activity. It is wise to caution prudence, but unreasonable to expect perfect compliance. Whereas other mammals go into heat periodically, and can be isolated during this time to avoid unwanted pregnancies, humans are effectively in heat from the onset of puberty onwards – and animals in heat experience a powerful sexual drive that can be utterly overwhelming. This does not mean the individual is not responsible for their actions, but some diminished responsibility does occur – giving all the more reason to advocate the use of contraception and, for that matter, to encourage masturbation as a means of releasing sexual pressure in teenagers. If one cannot prevent sex from occurring – and we clearly cannot – we can at least council safer sex. In terms of minimising abortion, this is the responsible course of action.
The ethics of abortion rest upon the individual’s beliefs. From a theistic perspective, the decision to abort a pregnancy is between the individual and God; otherwise, between the individual and their own conscience. It is a terrible choice to have to make, but if a woman chooses to terminate a pregnancy that is her judgement to make. The decision to become a parent must belong to the parents, and thus to the potential mother. We have no more business interfering in this than we do in any other aspect of family life.
Those who wish to represent the rights of the unborn are free to do so – but if they resort to intimidation and inflammatory rhetoric they become self-defeating. Those they wish to convince are not swayed by such an approach – rather, they become further entrenched in opposition as a result of such aggressive tactics. Christians who oppose abortion must find a way to feel compassion for the woman, as well as the unborn child, otherwise they fail both in their religious duty and in their goal of being persuasive. People are not open to influence by those who do not respect them.
The metaphysical disagreement over when a human life begins will not be resolved, therefore we will all have to compromise to some degree. Now that abortion has been culturally established, it cannot be eliminated – the genie is out of the bottle. But we all more or less agree that we want to minimise abortions, so we should focus on this common goal. There is no better way to achieve this objective than providing adequate sexual education to teenagers, and, if they are unable to resist sex, teaching them to always use a condom.
This is an extremely contentious issue so please, play friendly in the comments.