Skip to comments.Is Abortion a Moral Issue? A Fascinating Debate on the Left
Posted on 02/27/2006 2:46:42 PM PST by dukeman
America has been embroiled in a seemingly endless debate over the issue of abortion for four decades now, but the most fascinating dispute on this issue may now be among those who consider themselves, in one way or another, advocates of abortion rights.
An unprecedented view into this debate is available on the pages of Slate.com--a prominent Web site that features some of the liveliest reporting available anywhere today. Nevertheless, this exchange between writers William Saletan and Katha Pollitt did not begin on the Internet, but in the pages of The New York Times and The Nation.
Saletan fired the first salvo, suggesting in an op/ed commentary published in The New York Times that pro-choicers should admit that abortion is "bad" and that those who support abortion rights should work toward a truly dramatic reduction in the total number of abortions.
Saletan's argument is not exactly new, either for himself or for the movement he supports. In his 2004 book, Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, Saletan offered some of the most incisive and perceptive analysis of the national abortion debate. In essence, Saletan argued that America has settled on a fragile consensus he described as "conservative pro-choice." Americans are quite squeamish about abortion itself, but have resisted efforts to eliminate access to abortion altogether.
Even those who disagree with Saletan must take his argument seriously. Those of us who yearn to see America affirm the sanctity of all human life, born and preborn, must acknowledge that we have much work to do in terms of changing public opinion--the task of reaching the hearts and minds of millions of individual citizens.
That process of reaching hearts and minds is Saletan's concern as well, even as he is a strong defender of abortion rights. As he sees it, support for abortion rights is diminishing as the pro-life movement has been largely successful in focusing upon the moral status of the fetus and the objectionable--even horrible--nature of abortion itself.
Writing on the thirty-third anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Saletan boldly argued: "It's time for the abortion-rights movement to declare war on abortion."
That was a rather amazing statement, and Saletan clearly intended to catch the attention of abortion-rights advocates.
"If you support abortion rights, this idea may strike you as nuts," Saletan acknowledged. "But look at your predicament. Most Americans support Roe and think women, not the government, should make abortion decisions. Yet they've entrusted Congress and the White House to politicians who oppose legal abortion, and they haven't stopped the confirmations to the Supreme Court of John G. Roberts Jr. and . . . Samuel A. Alito Jr."
In terms of political analysis, Saletan reminded his pro-choice readers that abortion may have been a "winning issue" for their side sixteen years ago, but no more. "You have a problem," he advised.
His candid analysis was offered so that the pro-abortion movement might awaken from its slumber. "The problem is abortion," he summarized. In order to make his point, he raised the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act--both passed overwhelmingly by Congress and signed into law by President Bush--and reminded: "And most Americans supported both bills, because they agree with your opponents about the simplest thing: It's bad to kill a fetus."
Significantly, Saletan then offered his own moral analysis. "They're right. It is bad," he confirmed. "This is why the issue hasn't gone away. Abortion, like race-conscious hiring, generates moral friction. Most people will tolerate it as a lesser evil or a temporary measure, but they'll never fully accept it. They want a world in which it's less necessary. If you grow complacent or try to institutionalize it, they'll run out of patience. That's what happened to affirmative action. And it'll happen to abortion, if you stay hunkered down behind Roe."
Instead, Saletan argued that the pro-abortion movement should coalesce around an agenda of lowering the total number of abortions and increasing the use of contraceptives.
All this was just too much for Katha Pollitt, a fire-brand liberal who serves as a regular columnist for The Nation, one of America's most influential journals of liberal opinion.
Pollitt was shocked--absolutely shocked--that Saletan was ready to speak of abortion in moral terms. This is a move she emphatically rejects. "Inevitably, attacking abortion as a great evil means attacking providers and patients. If abortion is so bad, why not stigmatize the doctors who perform them? Deny the clinic a permit in your town? Make women feel guilty and ashamed for choosing it and make them sweat so they won't screw up again?"
Furthermore, she warned that abortion might soon "join obesity and smoking as unacceptable behavior in polite society."
Taken by itself, this is a truly amazing comment. At the very least, it suggests that, in Katha Pollit's social circle, obesity and smoking are taken as genuine moral issues, when abortion--the killing of an unborn human--is not.
But there's more. Consider this statement: "The trouble with thinking in terms of zero abortions is that you make abortion so hateful you do the antichoicers' work for them. You accept that the zygote/embryo/fetus has some kind of claim to be born." Did you get that? Any honest reading of her words would lead to the inevitable conclusion that Pollitt believes that the unborn human has no "claim to be born."
Pollitt was responding directly to Saletan's op/ed in The New York Times. In her view, Saletan was simply giving away the store by admitting that abortion was indeed a serious moral issue and that it is a "bad" reality in and of itself.
From their initial exchange in the Times and The Nation, Saletan and Pollitt continued their debate at Slate.com. Their exchange took the form of lengthy letters addressed to each other, with Saletan first clarifying what he really intended to say as he argued about abortion in moral terms. "I'm no fan of the language of sin," he clarified. "But I don't see why we have to shrink from words like good and bad. It's bad to cause a pregnancy in a situation where you're going to end up having an abortion. It's bad to cause a pregnancy in a situation where you can't be a good mom or dad. Our high rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion are a collective moral problem. If we don't want the government to tell us what to do, we'd better address the problem individually."
Beyond this, Saletan also told Pollitt that his purpose was not to create a movement that would combine pro-choicers with the pro-life. Instead, "I'm trying to form a coalition with the public," he suggested.
Saletan is an ardent supporter of abortion rights, but he positions himself in something of a centrist position--at least his position looks somewhat centrist with Katha Pollitt as background. He is concerned that when Pollitt dismisses any claim to life on the part of the fetus, she confuses the fetus with the zygote, "alienating people who see the difference and might support us if they realize we care about it." This is an interesting move, and a move I believe to be destined to fail.
Why? Because Saletan's effort to suggest that the fetus might have some claim to life while the zygote evidently does not, is based in no clear or compelling scientific definition of life. The human continuum begins with the union of the sperm and the egg and continues throughout gestation and life until natural death. At no point along this continuum does the life suddenly "become" human. Such arguments are based upon convenient abstractions or arbitrarily chosen capacities or characteristics. Pollitt's position is truly abhorrent and radical, but it is at least consistent.
Responding to Saletan, Pollitt accuses him of offering no real rationale for why abortion should be seen as "so outrageous, so terribly morally offensive, so wrong." She is willing to speak of abortion as a "difficult" decision, but that is about all. She explains that opposition to abortion is really an extension of an effort to deny sexual freedom to women, and to stigmatize sex outside of marriage. She identifies this with what she sees as the nation's "already broad, deep strain of sexual Puritanism, shame and blame."
Responding to Pollitt, Saletan clarified his position: "This is why I use the word 'bad.' It upsets many people on the left, but for the same reason, it wakes up people in the middle. It's new, and in my opinion, it's true. (I don't use the word 'wrong,' because to me that implies a prohibitive conclusion. 'Bad' is a consideration. Abortion can be a less-bad option than continuing a pregnancy. In that case, it's bad but not wrong.)"
Pollitt remained unmoved. "Morality has to do with rights and duties and obligations between people," she insisted. "So, no: I do not think terminating a pregnancy is wrong. A potential person is not a person, any more than an acorn is an oak tree. I don't think women should have to give birth just because a sperm met an egg. I think women have the right to consult their own wishes, needs, and capacities and produce only loved, wanted children they can care for--or even no children at all. I think we would all be better off as a society if we respected women's ability to make these decisions for themselves and concentrated on caring well for the born. There is certainly enough work there to keep us all very busy."
In the end, Saletan appeared to have retreated somewhat from his argument about the moral status of abortion, but the very fact that he addressed the issue so clearly and candidly is telling in itself. As for Pollitt, she was eventually willing to admit that abortion is "icky." As she explained this term: "I think that expresses rather well how lots of people feel about abortion: They may not find it immoral or want to see it made illegal, but it disturbs them. It just seems like a bad thing."
Why should pro-lifers pay attention to this debate among advocates of abortion rights? The answer to that question is simple--the exchange between William Saletan and Katha Pollitt demonstrates the inherent weakness of the pro-abortion argument, or its pro-choice variant. Lacking any objective definition of human life and the status of the unborn, the pro-abortion movement is mired in a pattern of endless internal debates and confusions. Saletan's argument is less radical than Pollitt's, but his position is morally arbitrary, based more in pragmatic concern than in moral philosophy.
In any event, the exchange between William Saletan and Katha Pollitt indicates that the pro-abortion movement knows that it has work to do in reaching the hearts and minds of Americans. The pro-life movement had better remind itself of the same challenge. Both sides are locked in a race to reach the hearts and minds of those still stuck in the middle.
Huh, now that you mention it ...
In favoring the mother over the unborn child, they are favoring the powerful over the powerless, a reversal of the lefts usual position. Their claim that an unborn baby "isn't human", just doesn't pass the smell test, especially with late term pregnancies.
The second hypocrisy is hammering this as a "right of privacy" for the mother and her doctor. While not supporting the "right of privacy" for men and women to control their own bodies regarding drug usage. The constitution clearly gives us a "right of privacy" to control every action of our bodies, or it doesn't. Pick one.
A common philosophical misconception (no pun intended). Just as there is no point along the continuum of humanity, there can be no point at which the sperm and egg have fused, only a smaller compressed continuum. Once you understand this, you realize that development of human features is what makes life meaningful, features like neurons to feel pain, human form, etc. These are (in my opinion) developed in the 8-10 week timeframe. Of course by specifying them, I am specifying a "point" in the continuum and violating my philosophy. But I believe that morality is derived from empathy and empathy comes from human form and function. I have very little empathy for a cell.
-Responding to Saletan, Pollitt accuses him of offering no real rationale for why abortion should be seen as "so outrageous, so terribly morally offensive, so wrong."-
Another idiot woman wannabe who can't see past her vagina. Abortion is narcissism of the worst kind, but it's a result of other social ills and not a cause in itself. In the great scheme of things, women who kill their own offspring, no matter how "difficult" the decision is, reveal the bitter coldness of our current society. Any woman who is pro-abortion just plain isn't qualified to talk intelligently about the matter. They can't face their own demons, speak in euphamisms, and can't be honest even with themselves.
Most abortions are performed between 6 to 12 weeks, well past the "cell" stage. Of course liberals still claim at 5 months that the baby is just tissue or a lump of cells.
Bad analogy. A fetus is not an adult any more than an acorn is an oak tree. But fetus and adult are both human just as an acorn and an oak tree are both oaks.
You might find this of interest, considering your position on the subject.
ping for later
The liberals who deny the humanity of a 5 month fetus have either lost their empathy or have supressed it with dogma. Either way, it's unhealthy.
There certainly is a point where sperm and egg each contribute 23 chromosomes to make the human compliment of 46. It occurs at conception. If you don't want to call that fusing choose another word but that's what it means.
There is no one single point in time where that occurs. It is a continuous process of fusing already overlapping with cell division and development. My point was to not choose a word or a point, but rather use the human emotion of empathy for another human. That empathy is naturally built up continuously from conception until it is becomes an overwhelming moral force when the fetus takes on human characteristics and emotions. But basing a morality on a particular imagined point in time is a metaphysical choice, not a moral one.
Sure there is. There is a point at which, when a sperm enters an egg, the outside of the egg changes to permit the entry of no other sperm. While you can argue that that process does not happen in zero time, there is a line in time at which the process becomes a foregone conclusion, just as at the end of life, every cell in a body does not die at once but at which their collective death is all a foregone conclusion. Essentially, there is a tipping point between one state and the other. That tipping point is a line and exists, even if we can't discern it with scientific instruments.
Once you understand this, you realize that development of human features is what makes life meaningful, features like neurons to feel pain, human form, etc.
Actually, it's not that difficult to prove that this thesis isn't true, at least to the extent that it doesn't explain a lot of mainstream views about life, death, and so on. In fact, if you look at how we define death and rate the severity of crimes and tragedies, you'll notice that the future actually matters much more than the present does. Would we pull the plug on brain-dead people if they could recover from their injuries? Given a choice between saving two people inside of a burning car, would most people save the infant boy or an elderly man? Is shooting a person slowly dying from painful wounds to put them out of their misery the same a killing a similarly wounded person who can be saved and fully recover to put them out of their misery?
In the case of a brain dead person, that they will lack features in the future (a working brain) matters more than if they currently have those features. In the case of saving an elderly person over a child, the elderly man likely has more of the features that make us distinctly human than the infant, yet many would consider the infant more deserving of rescue. In the case of a mercy killing vs. a murder, you are killing a person with the same capabilities -- all that differs is their future prospects.
What makes life "meaningful", to the extent that it should be protected, is the promise of more life in the future. If you want a futher example, there was a good example in the original Star Trek series. Aliens turn two crewmembers into little foam polyhedrons. They crush one of the polyhedrons blocks of foam and restore the other to life. Did they commit murder by crushing the polyhedron blocks of foam?
Your philosophy can't properly address that scene, at least not in the way the authors could expect the majority of the audience to respond to it. The foam polyhedrons had no human features, no neurons with which to feel pain, no human form, and so on. They were innert foam blocks. Yet for that scene to work as intended by the writers, the audience needs to empathize with those foam blocks as people. The audience had to feel like crushing a block was mudering the person who had been turned into that block. What made the act of crushing the block murder, rather than the act of turning them into blocks in the first place?
The fact that they could be people again in the future, restored by the same technology that turned them into foam blocks. If they had been turned into foam blocks and could not be restored, then the act of turning them into blocks would have been murder. But because they could be people in the future, crushing the innert foam blocks that looked nothing like people was readily interpreted by the audience as an act of murder, even though the foam blocks looked nothing like a person, could sense nothing, could not think, and could feel no pain. What distinguished life from death, murder from imprisonment, had nothing to do with body form, neurons, or pain and everything to do with future prospects.
Science fiction, yes. But science fiction and fantasy is full of situations like this and if your claims that having, at any particular time, particular human features is what makes life meantinful, then it makes no sense to feel empathy without human form and function, then these sorts of scenes wouldn't work. Fiction, yes, but it needs to be plausible and in tune with conventional morality for it to work for an audience and for the audience to find it plausible and care about what happens.
These are (in my opinion) developed in the 8-10 week timeframe. Of course by specifying them, I am specifying a "point" in the continuum and violating my philosophy.
Nothing develops within that timeframe that is significantly different from what develops in another mammal during a similar timeframe yet doesn't make it a person. The form and function of a monkey fetus is essentially identical to the form and fuction of a human fetus during that timeframe. What's the difference, looking only at their present features?
But I believe that morality is derived from empathy and empathy comes from human form and function. I have very little empathy for a cell.
So the value of a person's life depends on whether other people feel empathy for them or not? And what happens to the ugly, deformed, or unpleasant in your brave new world of morality if nobody feels much empathy for them? Sounds like a recipe for euthanasia, too, to me.
You might also want to visit a fertility clinic where couples get pictures of their children sometimes from the point when they are an individual cell or clusters of cells and see how much empathy the partents have for them before conception (yes, this is before conception -- look up the definition of "conception" and contrast with "fertilization"). In fact, if you look at research into the role of empathy in the realm of moral decision making (this paper is a really good place to start), you'll see that it's incredibly subjective and uneven.
But basing a morality on a particular imagined point in time is a metaphysical choice, not a moral one.
The "imagined" point in time is as real as "imagined" emotions like empathy are.
First, conception is not fertilization. Conception is the start of a pregnancy (i.e., implantation). Fertilization is the joining of sperm and egg.
Second, palmer is using the fact that fertilization is a complex chemical process with lots of moving parts that takes place over some short period of time to claim that because it's a process that takes place over time, it's not a single point in time. That only works if you ignore the fact that there is a clear tipping point and that tipping points are perfectly fine and valid lines, even if you can't point to the exact tipping point under a microscope.
Using that sort of definition of an ongoing process, you could argue that a person who shoots a gun at another persons heart didn't actually kill the person by pulling the trigger because the pull of the trigger wasn't what killed them, nor did the bullet kill the person because they didn't die instantly from their heart being shot, nor can we define a specific point in time when the person died. They were only really dead when we feel they no longer deserve our empathy and it wasn't pulling the trigger or the bullet that killed them but the blood loss and so forth. Silly hair splitting, in my opinion.
I saw my child's heart beating at 7 weeks. I always thought that it didn't happen until 10 weeks and was quite surprised to see the beating heart on the ultrasound at 7 weeks.
Empathy for a block of foam is entirely possible if you know that the block was a human you had empathy for and has the potential to become a human again. Speaking of potential, I don't think empathy is strictly based on it. I empathize with the pain of an old person who is dying as much as a young child with a fatal disease. If anything I empathize more with old person who has a life of humanity built up in him. It is not at all true that my empathy would lead to euthanasia.
The monkey fetus is an interesting point. Obviously my moral structure is based on empathy but is built by reason. The only way I can compare the pain of an animal being killed with the pain of a starving human is a higher level value judgement based on reason. I have empathy for both, but would obviously choose to give food to the human. My own choices are somewhat hypocritical as I am not starving, could live on vegetables, yet choose to eat meat.
But back to the monkey fetus, I think one answer could be in the appreciation of the humanity of the human mother and child together. A deformed child or deformed fetus will gain more of my empathy as I feel some of the same pain. Again, I don't believe that can lead to euthanasia unless there are higher level interests forcing a certain outcome or a poorly developed sense of empathy. Again, it's incredibly important to learn and be taught to empathize.
A fully human life is formed when the sperm joins the egg. Any parsing or dancing around that point is a prelude to justifying the destruction of that helpless human.
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