We had a really good session with a good turnout and much lively and thoughtful discussion – of course not all agreeing, but all listening to each other carefully. As a result I have revised the paper I used as the basis for my talk and I am placing it here. If you would like to add comments agreeing or disagreeing with me please do so saying if you would like them to be placed at the end of this article.
This paper does not cover the whole issue which is much more fully examined in the two papers on this site. They are worth copying and printing off if you want to read them. Email your comments to me please. firstname.lastname@example.org
Abortion the Pro-life Catholic case examined.
Do the Prolife People have a Point even if they are wrong?
Abortion. Who Suffers? John Baxter for ANVIL 11-3-15
A paper for reflection. There are some general points I wish to make.
1. Abortion raises fundamental questions about who we are and how we should make moral decisions bearing in mind the near universal rejection of abortion in all the main religions. Personally I think the moral challenges abortion raises also challenges the way people make their moral choices. In particular I see it as discrediting moral theories which are not consequentialist but absolute.
- It makes us look hard at what it means to be human, to be persons and to be self-conscious social beings. More recently it has made me more aware of the strength and importance of instinct in making our moral judgments, particularly as regards infants, children and disability.
This paper then is written from a broadly consequentialist/utilitarian point of view. This means I see good actions as actions which promote the lasting happiness and well-being of persons and reduce unnecessary suffering while bad is the opposite.
Such an approach involves an acceptance that the rightness or wrongness of an action can never be seen in simple absolute terms, (as a right or wrong action in itself) but has to be judged in the light of intended and likely consequences, (and in the case of law its unintended consequences.). It also follows from this that we cannot escape from making the best practical moral judgments we can in any given situation, but that also means we recognise that others, using their own intelligence and sensitivity, may read a given situation differently and come to differing conclusions as to what is the right course of action to take – both in terms of exercising personal moral choices and in formulating laws for society. This of course is not a weakness, but a strength, providing the justification for careful dialogue and respect for others within a democratic process so that consensus and agreement can be achieved where possible, laws passed and differences recognised.
I think those who base their opposition to abortion simply on the grounds that it contradicts the teaching of the Jewish or Christian Scriptures, the Koran or the Hadith and that is the end of the matter are making a fundamental error. Such authorities while useful for giving a warning that abortion is a very serious step to take, do not excuse us from contemplating and examining the consequences of having or not having an abortion.
An example of such absolutist thinking and the flawed consequences it gives rise to is illustrated in the following case. The Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien gave a sermon in 2007 to mark the fortieth anniversary of the passing of the Abortion Act. In it he described abortion as an “unspeakable crime.” So unspeakable did he find it that he compared it to the massacre of schoolchildren that took place at Dunblane. He justified his position by saying, “I can’t change the Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not Kill.” (Actually the commandment is “Do no Murder” ie no private killing of persons that is not legally sanctioned) Shortly afterwards, despite his longstanding membership, he also resigned from Amnesty International “for its decision to support the decriminalisation of abortions” Amnesty only referred to cases of rape, sexual assault, incest, and where the pregnancy threatens the woman’s life. Nevertheless as a result of such statements by members of the hierarchy thousands of Catholic members worldwide of Amnesty who had joined because of their concern about torture and the abuse of human rights have felt they should withdraw support for Amnesty. A sad consequence.
This approach is not new. O’Brien’s predecessor Cardinal Thomas Winning drew a parallel between the abortions now carried out in this country with the millions slaughtered in the Nazi Holocaust and the founder of Life (a Pro-life pressure group) supported him saying that he saw “no moral distinction between killing adults and killing unborn children.” In 2007 there was an unsuccessful attempt to get part of the Abortion Act revoked to stop the small number of very late abortions (less than 1%) carried out each year. The law allows this in cases where the fetus has been diagnosed as having “severe mental or physical abnormalities.”
If this move had succeeded the consequence would have been that a mother who knew she was bearing a severely handicapped fetus would be forced to go through with the pregnancy and the doctors who were ready to help her could find themselves facing criminal charges.. This strikes me as a terrible imposition of unnecessary suffering on ALL concerned. How then do people convinced they occupy the moral high ground come to advocate such a change in our law?
The present Catholic position is based on a simple line of argument promulgated by Pius XI in his 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii. This is that from the moment a human sperm fertilizes a human ovum the fertilised cell becomes a unique new being and the bearer of an immortal human soul. Before that, while the Church always counselled against abortion, its position, as taught by St Thomas Aquinas and others, was that the fetus was only considered to have received a human soul on quickening, i.e. when the mother could feel it move at about five months. The position Pius XI took and Pope Benedict has repeated is that the fetus is a person in the eyes of God from the moment of conception. Thus it follows they regard the deliberate destruction of a fertilised ovum at any stage as being morally, if not legally, an act of murder – regardless of the circumstances.
This argument is based on a theory of the soul advocated by Plato and before him by Indian philosophers that we all possess an immaterial pre-existent and immortal soul. This became accepted within Christianity as an article of faith. As Pope Benedict Ratzinger recognised, “No experimental datum can be in itself sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul.” This means accepting the official church position as a divine revelation, – is it claimed infallibly? (Other Christians who reject abortion, particularly Evangelicals, base their view on their understanding of Gen 1:27, “God created man in his own image.”)
The pro-lifers call abortion murder, the killing of a person. The question is, can a freshly fertilised ovum consisting of a small number of rapidly dividing and growing cells the size of a pin head accurately be described as a person? Is not a person really much more than that? Then to take things on to full term, is it accurate to describe the developed fetus approaching birth as a person or is full human personhood much more than that? Are there not good reasons for considering full human personhood is something which can only blossom and express itself after birth? What these questions add up to is this. Is being a person something which is established in an instant, or is it something which grows in stages and comes to fruition after birth?
What is a Person? Persons as Self-conscious Moral Agents
Philosophers, theologians and scientists have long argued over what is distinctive about being a person, particularly in drawing a distinction between human beings as persons and animals as not. Their answers since the time of Kant are reasonably clear and do not simply say that what is special about being a person is membership of the species Homo Sapiens. They have noted that persons, like animals, are conscious. Persons, like animals, are capable of suffering. Persons unlike most animals are self-aware or self-conscious, aware of themselves in relation to the world, able to reflect on their behaviour in the past, predict the future, communicate through language or at the least gesture, and to act as responsible moral agents.
Interestingly theologians have seen these characteristics as signs that human beings bear that “Image of God”. Again to quote “Men and women have ordered the world to meet their needs because they are made in the image of God. That is to say, God has endowed them with the heavenly gifts of reason, self-awareness and foresight. They can choose between different courses of action, just as they can choose between right and wrong.”
Here then we have a fairly clear list of criteria as to what is special about being a person, and the most obvious of these is self-consciousness or self-awareness, being able to think of oneself in relation to the world and other people.
I would suggest that the argument that a human fetus before birth is a person is not based upon the evidence. Rather if we look at what we know about the growth in the womb of the unborn child and the growth of the brain after birth we can see that becoming a person is a process which unfolds organically in a series of stages before and after birth as body and brain develop. It is not a single event. If this is the case then surely it is more accurate to speak of the unborn child as being a potential person, a potential person which does not have any self-awareness or memory of its condition before, during or for some time after birth.
I would however agree that the destruction or killing of a human fetus which is a potential person becomes an increasingly serious and difficult step for a woman to take as a pregnancy progresses and she instinctively identifies with her unborn baby as a child she loves. This makes abortion, except possibly in the first few days when the “morning after” pill has been used (again something the “pro-lifers” condemn as murder) never a simple or easy option or one which should ever be taken lightly. Those who try to do so may find the result is serious if unforeseen physical and psychological consequences ranging from regret for a lost opportunity to have a baby to a sense of guilt for a selfish decision and avoiding personal responsibility to the undermining of relationships.(The point is not would such reactions be justified, but that they need to be carefully thought about – which makes the decision for or against a tough one.)
While those it seems to me add up to real issues a woman facing the abortion choice needs to reflect on, the pro-lifers” often add another i.e. they assert or imply that in some way the fetus suffers pain. Certainly all the reputable medical evidence I can find declares that this is not so. According to the evidence collected by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists the stillborn and the terminated do not suffer. This is because the fetus has not yet developed the neural pathways or sufficient awareness to know it is suffering. (In the case of the late abortions of the seriously abnormal the fetus was previously anaesthetised prior to the procedure as a precaution. This practice has now been abandoned as being unnecessary as regards the fetus and risky as regards the mother.)
To promote the idea that the fetus has the capacity to suffer at a late – or even at an early stage – as much pro-life propaganda showing foetal images does – is then to indulge at best in self-delusion, if not in dishonesty. It seems to me, therefore, that since the unborn child is not self-aware – however energetic its movements are as its body and brain prepare for birth – if it dies it suffers no more than if an adult dies unexpectedly while sleeping or under anesthetic. In fact the latest evidence is that the fetus in the womb is asleep “95% of the time” and also is under the influence of natural analgesics (painkillers) until it starts breathing at birth. This means there is a greater difference between the in-utero fetus and a prematurely born infant than was formerly thought.
The really important point surely is that there is a huge difference between a death in the womb (be it a stillbirth or an abortion) and the death of a self-aware child and it is this difference which the supporters of the “pro-life” stance seem to ignore or attempt to play down.
A death in the womb is the death of a potential life as a person, a life unexposed to experience, a life still incapable of reflection, a life where the brain in its early forms in utero is incomplete and even at birth is still far from complete and has yet to develop through interaction with the outside environment and with other minds the capacities which are needed to trigger that full functioning which leads to self-aware personhood.
Of course as with miscarriages (20% of recognized pregnancies and up to 50% occurring ) and stillbirths, (1 in 160) this death can cause great sadness, pain and a sense of loss to the parents and close relatives who have identified with it, particularly if it happens late or full term in the pregnancy. In the case of abortion I think we also have to face the instinctive reaction we naturally feel that “killing a child in the womb” is to a greater or lesser extent wrong and for a woman to go against this instinctive reaction needs to be very carefully considered for it can leave a deep sense of unease and guilt.
Nevertheless such a death in the womb should not be confused with the death of a child or adult who dies self-aware. Such a death is simply of quite a different order. The child or adult, like the victims of the Holocaust or Dunblane, dies a subject of pleasure, pain, joy and sorrow, the bearer of a self-conscious mind and imagination, able to choose, to love, fear and suffer. The terminated fetus and the stillborn simply cease functioning and die without suffering. It is the mother and others who are close who suffer. Surely then we need to conclude that there is something crude and very misleading about treating a newly fertilised human ovum as having the same value and status in the eyes of man and of any God there may be as the developed mind and personality of the mother who carries it.
We also need to ask what is it about human life that makes it so important we respect it? Is it simply our membership of a particular species, Homo sapiens? Surely not. Is it dependent on our believing as a matter of “faith” that “we are made in the image of God” or is it due to something special that perhaps that text alludes to, something we can all see, recognise and know – be we “believer” or “unbeliever” ?
I would suggest this is so and that behind the near universal condemnation of abortion across the religions lies an awareness and recognition of how special we are compared to other animals, in particular and that our respect for human life is based on our recognition that the most amazing and awe-inspiring phenomenon we encounter is the flowering of our human consciousness and our development after birth into thinking, morally responsible, self-aware persons.
If we recognise this then to equate the deaths of the unborn with the sufferings of Holocaust victims is a ghastly mistake. It is like saying there is no difference between the ending of a fetal life and a man being crucified.
Unfortunately the “pro-lifers” Catholic and Evangelical consider it is not enough to say that they personally would never resort to having an abortion, and that they would never expect or pressure anyone they knew to have one. That is a position I respect, as I would respect moves to define more clearly the abnormalities that should be accepted as providing good grounds for late abortions. Rather the “pro-lifers” promote, as we see happening in the US today, abortion clinics being forced to close and in many other countries the criminalisation of anyone who has an abortion however early, and anyone in the medical field who helps them to have one safely, so forcing every woman who becomes pregnant – regardless of circumstance or the prognosis for the infant – to take the pregnancy through to birth in the name of “respecting life.”
True respect for human life is surely a respect for self-aware persons, and there can be no respect for persons if a woman is denied the right to choose in such a crucial area as taking on the responsibility of being a parent.
Add to that this question which was raised in our discussion. What respect do we show a potential person who is born so badly handicapped or damaged that in the “natural order of things” – say even 50 years ago – it would have quickly and without attaining consciousness been allowed by doctors and midwives (as an elderly midwife friend assures me was the case) to die after birth? Now such a potential person is very often subjected to complex and intrusive treatments which succeed in extending life by condemning them to develop enough self-awareness to experience a future of pain and misery. What limits should be in place to stop this happening and what safeguards for parents and doctors should be in place? Yes. This is an issue which goes beyond abortion.
Some Statistics: (latest published figures are for 2013) The total number of abortions was 185,331. This was 0.1% more than in 2012 (185,122) and 2.1% more than in 2003 (181,582). 2,732 abortions (1%) were carried out under ground E (risk that the child would be born handicapped Abortions where gestation has exceeded its twenty-fourth week account for less than 0.1% of the total. There were 190 such abortions in 2013. 91% of abortions were carried out at under 13 weeks gestation, and 78% at under 10 weeks.