Abortion Revisited- Part I

In 1973, Justice Harry Blackmun writing for the majority in Roe v. Wade stated: “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer”.  That is to say, according to Blackmun, when life begins is unknown, a mystery, and should be decided by the individual. But must we really give up this easily? Blackmun is begging the question here. The “pro-choice” position is not a neutral view. It is based on the assumption that the fetus is not a precious, vulnerable member of society who is worthy of protection. For the “pro-choice” position to be morally correct, it must be established that the fetus is not a human person with associated rights. And, if we truly remain agnostic on the status of the fetus, then it would be better to error on the side of life. We do not say, for example, “I’m not sure if this guy is alive, so I will bury him”. Blackmun’s opinion amounts to bad philosophy, bad medicine, and bad theology. Moreover, he commits the ad populum fallacy when he sought to divert our attention away from arguments and to consensus. Beliefs are not true or false depending on how many people believe it. They are true or false based their logical structure and correspondence to an actual state of affairs. Method always trumps consensus.

The traditional prolife position is the following1:

1) It is wrong to kill innocent human persons
2) The fetus is an innocent human person
3) Therefore, it is wrong to kill the fetus

This is a valid syllogism. That is, this is a logical construct such that IF the premises are true, the conclusion necessarily follows. And, when the premises have been demonstrated as true, the argument then becomes sound, demonstrated by the force of logic to be true and the case is successfully argued.

In times past, the proposition “It is wrong to kill innocent human persons” was uncontroversial. More recently, however, leftists such as Mary Elizabeth Williams are becoming increasing comfortable with the idea. And, once the pro-choicer is forced into this indefensible corner and makes this concession, the moral debate is over. It has been for a long time actually. The pro-life camp has argued its positions with superior force for decades but we, as Americans, have just decided that we are going to legalize abortion anyway. “Why bother with the pretense of ethics? This is what we want!” a representative of the left, might say. It’s certainly not the good philosophy, though, that at least seemed important to Blackmun.

Premise 1) should be taken as a self-evident First Principle. A First Principle is a proposition or statement that does not need to be proven because without its ‘a priori assumption of truth, one cannot hold a meaningful, intelligible discussion about something. For example, in logic we have the Law of Identity: A= A, that something is identical to itself. If we deny this First Principle, we cannot make sense of anything at all. If John is not equal to John, we may not love him, administer justice to him, etc. The person in question is both John and not John which is unintelligible. Like the laws of logic, there are also Moral First Principles- ideas, beliefs, or statements so fundamental to rational moral reflection that they are undeniable. It’s the starting point of moral reflection. Hadley Arkes comments:

“Anyone tutored in logic would have understood that “First Principles” were indemonstrable in the sense that they depended on certain truths that had to be grasped, as Aquinas put it, per se nota, as things true in themselves, and true of necessity.”

If those, like Williams, are willing to surrender such a First Principle, they run into a logical cul-de-sac whereby they surrender the very ability to discuss any moral issue intelligibly, including their own perceived rights. That is, if it is ok to kill innocent human persons, then surely nothing is wrong with denying a woman’s right to have an abortion. If it is ok to kill innocent human persons, then there are no real and meaningful rights at all- anywhere and for anyone- including the feminist. Therefore, it is a prima facie truth that “It is wrong to kill innocent human persons”.  (Nor must one be a woman to know what a human person is and when it is wrong to kill.)

Abortion advocates are also quick to decry what they consider inappropriate appeals to religious beliefs. Appeals to natural law, however, are metaphysical in nature but are also are grounded common, publicly available observances that do not require adherence to any particular faith. Peter Angeles defines natural law in the following way:

“The description of what should be or what ought to be binding on all humans [i.e. universal] discovered by rational examination of human nature and successful human relationships…the moral rules of conduct, the sense of justice and
fairness, which humans possess by the pure activity of their reason and which is obligatory independently of, and in spite of, what other forms of law prescribe.”

Natural Rights, then, are freedoms (i.e. from being exploited) possessed innately and assumed by the very fact of being a human being. Natural Rights are grounded in ontological status, in human nature. Arkes summarizes his view with an appeal to the universality of the pro-life claims:

“The founders assumed , as Lincoln did, that we could tell the difference between a man and a hog: They thought that the difference was fixed in nature, in way that we are obliged to accept, not in a way we were free to manipulate. If we were free to shade that definition of a human being, we were free to deny people the standing of ‘men’ or moral agents. The point warrants restating without apology: If there is no “nature”, there can be no “human” rights springing from that nature. But in that case- as I will argue more fully later- there would be no rights at all, in the hardest and strictest sense”

Arkes makes a brilliant point. If there is no such thing as a human nature then there are no human rights to be had. The pro-choice’s claim to a right to abortion relies on the very thing for which they fault the pro-life camp. To say that a woman has a right to choose an abortion because there is no such thing as natural law or law above the law informing us as to whether our laws are just, is a self referentially refuting position. The very right claimed by the abortion advocate assumes the same natural law perspective that is earlier denied. Exactly where, we need to ask, is this right to choose coming from? Also implied is a recognition of a transcendent immaterial oughtness that cannot be accommodated by materialism. For if only the material world exists, things like “ought”, “should”, “good”, ‘rights” etc. have no real existence. A materialist has no grounds for using these terms. “Right” cannot be measured, weighed, or explained in the language of physics, chemistry, and biology. The pro-choice advocate co-opts a “religious” view that she earlier denies when she tells religious people or those arguing from metaphysical principles that they “ought” not think or behave in a certain way in denying her rights that can’t exist in her view. The best attempt to circumvent this criticism would include a discussion on how morality is based on rationality, but still, there is nothing pressing down us to prize rationality over other things such as pleasure, fulfillment, security, say-so, etc.

But aren’t there exceptions? What if one had to kill an innocent human person in self-defense? Moral philosophy does recognize that there are rare circumstances whereby to either take action “A” or “not A” results in violating moral law. Included in such would be self-defense in genuine life threatening situations. For this reason, the only morally permissible reason to have an abortion is to save the life of the mother. That is, if it can be established medically that pregnancy is likely to result in the death of the mother.

In Part 2, the second premise will be defended

1 This particular presentation was offered by Greg Koukl on his radio show in 2002. See www.str.org

2 Arkes, Hadley, Natural Rights and the Right to Choose (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2002) p40

3 Arkes, Hadley (2002) p32

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