Let’s begin with a definition of the action. The abortion I’m writing about is the intentional ending of a pregnancy that to everyone’s knowledge is normal, that is, among other factors of normalcy there is no indication of birth defects in the developing being or extraordinary danger to the mother.
What is the primary moral question? I believe the primary question is: Is abortion the moral equivalent of murder?
My answer is: It depends.
First, do we mean by “murder?” Murder is the intentional ending of a person’s life.
Second, what common ground can we find between those who would answer “no” and those who would answer “yes” to our question?
Abortion is unarguably the ending of a form of life. As such it is an act of violence and worthy of moral examination. It is an act of moral consequence.
It is also an act carried out by a person who has freely made the decision to end this life or has directed an agent to do so. To restrict the individual from acting on this decision (or instructing her agent) is a restriction of an individual liberty and as such it also is an act of moral consequence.
To put it more plainly. It is an act of moral consequence to abort a pregnancy, and it is an act of moral consequence to prevent someone from aborting a pregnancy and/or punish them for doing so.
What would make abortion murder and so justify its absolute prevention is if this being within the womb (Let’s call it a “bww”) has the moral status of a person. That is, does the bw have the same moral status as you or I or any other living thing we would regard as a ‘person.’
The question is not Is this a human being, a member of the species homo sapiens? Genetically it is. But is that enough to be considered a person? If not, what is?
The easiest way to answer the question of the bww’s moral status, personhood, is by choosing a point in the pregnancy—for whatever reason(s)—as the determinative criterion for being a person.
For those who make the case that personhood is a genetic reality, it is conception.1 For others it is quickening.2 Is it viability as decided by … who? what? Perhaps the easiest would be birth, but we have seen the debate is fierce over “partial birth” abortions. At what point in the process of birth is one considered fully born?
It would seem that the easy answers are not all that easy.
Let me propose another method of valuing the bww that is both reasonable and reflects the behavior persons. I’ll lay this out as a series of propositions.
1) The valuing of another being as equal in moral status, as a person is done by a community rather than discovered by a community. There is nothing intrinsic about one being or another that determines moral status or standing.3
2) In practice this valuing in our community/society is not a static event but a process. That is, we grant greater and greater status to the bww as the pregnancy continues. This is most clearly seen in the different levels of grief associated with the ending of the life. While for couples who experience the ending of a pregnancy soon after it is detected, say within a week or two, there can be profound disappointment and grief, it is not as great as a couple whose pregnancy comes to an unforeseen end in the weeks before an expected birth. In other words, while in theory we may be absolute in our valuing of a developing fetus, our actions, even the emotions of which they are an expression, bear a different witness.
3) This valuing happens in relationship not in theory. It does not happen until the relationship is established. This happens first with the mother, then with those whom she invites to know about and participate in the pregnancy. She may value this being within her as a child or as a developing fetus with the potential to be regarded as a child or as a bunch of cells. When she is the only one aware of the existence of the bww, she is the only one who can give it value. Others may have thoughts and theories about giving value to the bww at various stages of pregnancy but they cannot give value itself. Valuing, the giving of value to an entity, living or not, necessitates a relationship with that entity, which at minimum requires an knowledg of the existence of that entity.
In other words, nothing can be of value to me unless I know it exists. I can theoretically value something; I can propose that if such-and-such a thing existed I would give it some value. But if I don’t know of its existence, I cannot in reality value it.
4) As the mother shares her knowledge with others, they place a value on the bww. Usually, the father is second only to the mother in doing this. Later the grandparents, siblings, other family members and friends become involved. The bbw is spoken to, the mother’s belly is patted, the bbw is planned for, thought of, cared about not just as a possibility, but as a present reality. This increase in valuing, both on the mother’s part and the surrounding community is a process not an event. It increases as the pregnancy progresses.
4) As the value of the bww approaches the moral status of a person within the community which values it, the act of abortion increases in moral consequence.
Abortion then is an act whose moral judgment is both dynamic through time and dependent upon the parties valuing the developing being. It becomes murder when the community has come to a consensus that the status of this developing being has attained the moral status of a person, a full member of the community.
Conclusion. “You’re nobody ‘til somebody loves you.”4 This answer regarding the morality of abortion does not solve the dilemma of disagreement among various parties as to whether it is an act of murder or not. What I mean to lay out here is the difficulty that arises because of the absence of objective data on which to base a judgment, the ambiguity of regard among those who relate to the developing fetus, and most importantly the dynamism of pregnancy itself.5 And to lay out the various factors upon which we might base our conclusions in order to be clearer about our differing points of view and assumptions.
1It is worth noting that conception itself is a process every bit as much as it is an event. That is, it happens over a period of time. Is humanity established at the moment the entire sperm is within the egg? Is it at implantation? Is it at gastrulation when the father’s genetic code becomes fully involved in the development of the fetus? This doesn’t occur for 16 days. So “conception” is not quite the simple answer many assert it to be.
2Like conception, quickening as defined as either the assumed movement of the fetus within the womb or the perceived movement by the mother, is not as simple as it seems, depending as it does on either an assumption or an often very subtle perception.
3 History of our is replete with examples of valuing another as an equal or not—most notably with regard to race and gender, though in other categories as well. Indeed, it is (almost?) a necessity of war to devalue the enemy below the status of one’s own humanity in order to kill without disabling moral compunction.
4To put this in the context of belief in a Divine Being does not solve the problem. Changing the quote to “You’re nobody ‘til Somebody loves you” places the question within the mind/heart of God, making it inaccessible.
5 We might also add to this mix the degree of intention with regard to the pregnancy, laying greater responsibility on the woman/couple who pursue pregnancy and lesser on an unintended pregnancy and least on the victim of a rape.