Tuesday, March 13, 2007

on abortion

Here is a comment I made on a recent blog discussion over at Scott Freeman's free thoughts. I am posting it again here because, upon review, I think I managed to articulate exactly what I feel--not a common enough occurrence, generally speaking, and even more rare in the blogosphere.

"Caring for the unborn and for the mothers both is exactly what I’m trying to advocate for. Nor do I assume anyone here is unconcerned with this matter. But here is the difference. I don’t think it constitutes “care” for the mother to explain to her why she is wrong. Women who have abortions know exactly what it is they are doing. They know it better than any of us, because they know it from the first person perspective. They don’t need an ultrasound to show them it’s a baby. Their own bodies tell them in a way that it is impossible to appreciate until you experience it. Having my own baby radically changed my thinking on abortion–not in the sense that I “switched sides” but in the sense that I finally understood what it meant to have an abortion. It meant experiencing the anticipation of pregnancy as terror. It meant experiencing the growing life within you with dread. It meant agonizing over the fact that the tiny life completely dependent on you for survival is one whose blind trust is misplaced. It meant knowing in a place far deeper than the brain that the wrongness that marks our world runs so incontrovertibly deep that the possibility of new life is not always a good one. I firmly believe that most women who have abortions do so out of a sense of care for their unborn child–care that emerges in this monstrous and perverted form not because the mother is at fault or is morally deficient or ignorant, but because the world in which we live offers her no options than a choice between horrific evils. Is it caring for a child to bring her into a world where hunger, abuse, neglect are as inevitable as destiny? If you loved the baby in your womb, would you condemn her to that? What about women whose lives are so marginal that they physically cannot adequately nurture a child even in pregnancy? Is it caring to carry that pregnancy to term, knowing that you cannot provide even in the womb what that new life requires in order to flourish? Guilt lies in every direction for these women. Guilt for being pregnant–whether or not it’s their “fault.” Guilt if they birth a child they can’t protect and nurture. Guilt if they don’t. Yes, we don’t want her to live with guilt. So let’s recognize that no matter what the decision, guilt is there to be absolved. And that is certainly our job as the church. But we as the church cannot even begin the task of addressing and absolving this guilt unless we are also doing what is necessary to create a place for women to see beyond these desperate, guilt-inducing options. We have to make it possible for these babies to be born, and not just born, but nurtured and cared for in the same security we seek for our own. And we have to make this not only a fragile possibility but a stable reality that women can count on and expect, so that it is no longer necessary to end a life before it begins out of fear of what that life will mean. That is our real task. Legislation be damned."

For further reflection, here are a couple links to follow: "A Place to Turn when a Newborn is Fated to Die," (thanks to Joe for this link) and "Italy Takes High-Tech Tactics for Abandoned Babies" (thanks to Brent).


JTB said...

On second thought, I never say exactly what I want to say.

It seems to me as well, after pondering that NY Times article a bit, that in some cases abortion might be an ethical parallel to euthanasia. Of course, if you are anti-euthanasia (or as a student recently intriguingly phrased it, "against unnatural death") then that parallel isn't very illuminating--one wrong thing is like another wrong thing, so what? But if you find ethical room for end-of-life choices such as euthanasia, then perhaps it helps to make the comparison in the kinds of cases mentioned in that article. But, like euthanasia, the moral choice to be made is one made on limited information and is a matter of an empathetic "best guess"...and therefore I don't think anyone outside the decision makers themselves can pronounce judgment on the morality of that decision. Maybe not even they can. Maybe it remains a forever unknown, until that time when all things are known.

carolyn said...

I agree with a lot of what you have said here; but I also think that you're sweeping too broadly in describing the motivation for "most" women who choose to have abortions. The women I know who have had abortions did so not because the child would not be cared for, or because they lacked the means to provide for the child, or because the child would be neglected or abused, etc., but because they did not want the baby at that time. Either they were too young, not yet married, not yet "established" enough, or didn't want to endure the shame of their friends/peers/society by carrying the pregnancy to term. I realize I'm only talking about a handful of women here, but I believe that a significant portion of the women who have abortions have this same view.

I also recall the Planned Parenthood "I Had an Abortion" t-shirt campaign in which one of their spokeswomen stated that she aborted one of her three triplets because she didn't want the kind of life that having triplets would entail--specifically a life in which you buy gallon-size jars of mayonnaise at Costco.

While I recognize that the situation that you describe certainly does occur, and is a tragedy, it's hard for me to agree with you that legislation is not the answer, and that women don't need to be "taught" the truth of what they are doing. What is the harm in having them view an ultrasound? In explaining to them where their child is developmentally? What is the harm in making abortion illegal? (After all, it is not legal to kill an unwanted baby once it's been born).

I agree with you 100% that we need to make it possible for all children to be cared for and nurtured. But I don't agree that legislation and/or seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade are not also our tasks if we truly want to see fewer abortions.

carolyn said...

I should have looked this up before I posted--I was referring to Amy Richards, who aborted two of her triplets. I hope this link works:

Kenny Simpson said...

You state your point well, but I too agree that not "most" women have abortions because of "caring for their unborn child", but they care more for their own life. There of course are different reasons, but I would maintain most are for some sort of selfish reason.

JTB said...

I suppose that I could be too hasty in my generalizing. I guess I was assuming that most people require some sort of compelling overriding reason to counter the instinctive urge to identify with and protect an unborn life. I think we typically recognize rape as one of these sorts of compelling overriding reasons--the kind of circumstance that makes not being able to identify with and empathize with and desire to protect that unborn life a comprehensible reaction. I think that we often fail to recognize that there are more types of these compelling overriding reasons, and that is the kind of thing I am trying to describe here.

Are there women who have abortions for purely shallow, selfish reasons? I suppose that's possible. But I doubt this describes the majority of women who have abortions. I don't know anyone who would describe abortions of convenience as moral, and I say this after a seminar on the topic at Princeton University with a roomful of self-avowed atheistic secular humanists, who seriously considered the question and unanimously condemned abortion as immoral if done for any reason short of the kind of scenario I tried to portray here. The point is simply that even these people, who argued passionately for the right-to-choose, who had no religious objections to abortion, still understood very clearly that what is at stake is a human life, and this is not to be considered lightly or frivolously. Perhaps I am placing too much faith in human nature here, but I find it impossible to believe that the majority of women undergoing abortions do so out of a wish not to be bothered. It is life and death being considered here, and even a scared 15-year-old understands that. If what we (collectively as a society, or a church community) have done is make it seem like choosing the death of another human being is morally preferable to being dicovered pregnant, then I would have to say that we (collectively) bear the guilt of the death of that innocent as much as the mother. Why should it be this way?

carolyn said...

I realize that I’m in the minority on this, but in my view rape is not a “compelling overriding reason” to justify killing an innocent human being. I think that most people (including those in your Princeton seminar) would find it morally reprehensible were a women to kill her child after it has been born; regardless of whether or not she became pregnant as a result of rape or if the child cannot be properly cared for. If they would agree that such a killing would be immoral, then why is such an act moral before the child has been born? We know that it is a human being; we know that it is alive--the only difference is that it is still inside the mother’s womb. Why should this fact mean the difference between whether the child has a right to be protected from being killed? This simply makes no sense to me.

As for the church’s role, I agree it has failed in many respects and that it, along with society, does bear the guilt of the prevalence of abortions in many ways. I also should clarify that most (but not all) of the women I know who have had abortions are not Christians, and were not believers when they had their abortions. Thus their view of what is moral does not come from anything that the church has taught them. The message that they received (and we all receive) from society is that it is your right as a woman to only have a baby when you are ready, regardless of the fact that you may already be pregnant.

I also think it’s important to distinguish what is moral from what is legal. I’m curious if the persons in your Princeton seminar would advocate for abortions to be illegal unless the women could prove or articulate some sort of “compelling overriding reason” for killing her child. Probably not; and as the courts stand today no such law could pass. If abortion is legal; it must be legal for any and all reasons, including those of convenience. Anything else would be an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to choose.

To go back to a statement in your original post, when you asked whether a mother who truly loved her baby would condemn her to a life of hunger, abuse and neglect: my answer is, yes--considering the other option is having her murdered. That’s the way we view it outside of the womb; so why should it be any different inside?

JTB said...

Carolyn, there are a lot of really issues raised in your comments. I am about to leave for class but I will try to address some of the things that occurred to me as I read your comment just now, and what I miss I will try to pick up later.

The first thing that occurs to me is that in your first paragraph the relevant moral category is assumed to be "human being." A lot of moral philosophers or ethicists consider this question (and others such as euthanasia) in terms of "personhood" instead. Whether or not this is a good move, or even an illuminating one (as the concept "person" is difficult to define satisfactorily) may be debatable; but what happens here is that generally a significant degree of difference in terms of personhood is found to exist between various stages of development--and this is what makes the difference between killing a fetus in the womb versus killing an infant outside it. Sometimes this difference in personhood is cashed out in terms of rational, relational or volitional capability on the part of the fetus/infant; sometimes it is cashed out in terms of social personhood. I'm not necessarily defending this line of reasoning or advocating it--just pointing out that the moral categories differ: "human being" versus "person" not being necessarily coextensive.

I personally dislike language of "rights" in almost any context--so I don't particularly like the idea that it is a "right" to have a baby only when one is ready. I would rather say that it is a moral duty to have a baby only when one is ready--"ready" meaning when one is able to nurture that life as it should be into order to flourish. The fact that many women find themselves in the position of being pregnant without being ready in this sense is a moral tragedy, one without, at this point, any real clear moral response. I would certainly agree that there are degrees of unreadiness, and that some degrees of unreadiness may be so slight as to make it immoral to allow it to override the inherent value of new life. But these things are a matter of perception--and any outsider to the situation is not possessed of the point of view necessary for making that moral decision. Maybe the mother is not either, but that doesn't change the fact that, in the end, this a choice that she alone can make. It's not because "it's her right" to do with her own body what she pleases, but because it is her own body, and de facto, only she can make decisions about it. I think legislation tries to sidestep this reality, and this is why I think it is beside the point. Legal or illegal, a pregnancy is carried to term only if a woman chooses it--and choosing a pregnancy means a million decisions along the way about the most mundane aspects of bodily living, food, drink, staying near a toilet, on and on. A woman who does not abort does not then necessarily choose pregnancy: she can not choose pregnancy by not doing the million things to nurture it daily for nine months...and I don't think that this is a better case for mom or baby than abortion.

got to go. thanks for your comments. i will try to pick up with some more thoughts later.

JTB said...

The other thing that seems to be relevant here is the issue of exactly what a Christian view of death might be. Death is ambivalent in Christian theology: on the one hand, it is eschatological transformation--the way into eternal life, but on the other, it is negative--the "wages of sin." This is more obviously relevant in discussions of the morality of euthanasia. Here I think it becomes relevant when considering the issue of the "quality of life" being chosen for the child. (I put the phrase in quotes because I don't particularly like it but I have no substitute at the moment.) As parents we do all we can to ensure that the quality of life for our children is the best we can provide, in all aspects. In some instances I think this instinct of nurture can emerge in a decision to abort because of fear of the future. Sometimes, tragically, this fear is entirely reasonable, and sometimes, tragically, this fear may not be.

I am sure that I know some women who have had abortions--although I don't know who they are and no one has ever discussed it with me. But I would be surprised if there was very much difference in the statistics of Christian vs non-Christian women who have abortions. I don't think it's a matter of internalizing a sense of "rights" regarding one's body or procreation--I think abortion is a choice driven by circumstance. I know I'm not really making an argument here, just reiterating what was implicit in the original post. Maybe if I hung out at a clinic somewhere and interviewed people I'd be surprised at how callous/casual people's reasons are. But I just can't shake the conviction that more women abort babies out of fear for their future than a desire to fit into that red dress.

carolyn said...


I know I'm probably violating blog etiquette by commenting again on this old post, but my schedule has been overly crammed lately and I haven't yet had a chance to respond.


I know I'm probably violating blog etiquette by commenting again on this old post, but my schedule has been overly crammed lately and I haven't yet had a chance to respond.

I think you and I agree on a lot of things surrounding this issue; but perhaps just ultimately disagree on whether we can, as Christians, call a woman's decision to have an abortion "wrong." I say that we can--and we must. However, I completely agree that we have to nurture and support these women and babies so that women will no longer feel that they have no choice or that they are doing the best thing for their child by having an abortion. But I do not see how our response to a women who is struggling with this issue can ever be "yes, it's okay to kill your baby."

I also believe, as I stated earlier, that abortion should be illegal. The "personhood" arguments seem to me to be very similar to the arguments used by those who advocated for slavery (blacks aren't persons, they are property), the holocaust (Jews, mentally handicapped persons, homosexual persons, etc. are not really people), and the genocide in Rwanda (Tutsis are not people, they are "cockroaches"), just to name a few. I know those seem like extreme examples but I struggle to see the difference when we are saying that simply because of various developmental factors, mental capacity, or physical characteristics that unborn human babies are not "persons" and can therefore be killed by their mothers, no questions asked. The absurdity of this logic is further revealed in the fact that in many states, if someone kills a pregnant woman, they are charged with double homicide, as well as the fact that a woman who kills her baby immediately after giving birth is charged with murder.

As for the "rights" discussions, I'm not a big fan of the language either, and I agree that it certainly is a moral duty to only have a child when one is ready. That does not mean, however, that when a woman finds herself pregnant before she is ready and capable of caring for the child (while undeniably a tragic situation) that killing the child is consistent with that moral duty.

And on the issue of death: certainly, as Christians, death is not the tragedy that it is for non-believers. But there is a fundamental difference between not fearing death, and hastening the arrival of our own or another's death. There are millions of children who are living in atrocious circumstances: uncared for, abused, malnourished, starving, etc. Even though their suffering would come to an end if they died, I don't hear many people (Christian or not) advocating that these children should be killed. Yet this is logically consistent with the "quality of life" argument. It is undeniably our Christian duty to help these children, and to try to end their suffering---but not by way of death.

I agree that abortion is a choice driven by circumstance, and often fear. So is murder. And even though abortions are often the result of tragic circumstances, it does not logically follow that we as a society and particularly as Christians should therefore condone the killing of another person.

carolyn said...

I think it also violates blog etiquette to not cut and paste one's response correctly. Grrrr.

JTB said...

Hi Carolyn,

I'm sad that I am just now discovering your last comment on this post...grrrr myself!

I really appreciate this back and forth as I think, reading over it--it clarifies some things for me. I really wouldn't hesitate to say abortion is "wrong" but I also will not condemn someone for choosing it. I think in a lot of cases it might be equally wrong to have the baby. Sophie's Choice.

Your point about personhood is right on. It is not extreme to make this connection or the comparisons you offer--it's right on. I think the rhetoric about personhood functions to alleviate guilt in abortion discourse, and it's fudgy. And I think in the end it doesn't really work.

I think our disagreement comes in at the point of whether advocating legality means condoning abortion or indicates a kind of unacceptable moral permissiveness. I don't think so, but your comments seem to equate the two. And this leads to another issue entirely, about the nature of moral choice and how it happens individually and communally, and how those levels interact with the choice for or against abortion.

Thanks for a great dialogue.