Abortion. Do the Pro-Lifers Have A Point – even if they are wrong?

As a result of a discussion with Julie Arliss, founder of the Academy Conferences who gives a presentation on “The Theology of the Embryo”  at these conferences for 6th Formers I have thought hard again about what I have written on Abortion and here is the result.

On the face of it it might seem my answer is “Not really” given the conclusion I reached after very careul thought in the paper, Abortion, Murder by Another Name? AMAN www.johnbaxter.org/ethics/murder-by-anothername/ These are:

  1. Imputing personhood to every fertilised cell and developing embryo is a serious mistake. The unborn are better described as potential persons because they are, right up to birth and for a short time afterwards, without awareness or consciousness or a capacity to suffer and to behave as if they do leads to such seriously flawed outcomes and attitudes as equating abortions with the Jewish holocaust and pressuring raped women and those carrying severely handicapped babies to go through with their pregnancies.
  2. What is more the dualist belief that both a fertilised ovum and a fully aware conscious person is the bearer of a non-material and immortal soul implanted by God that is used to mark out the specialness of human persons is generally recognised by philosophers as non-sustainable because such thinking is essentially non – scientific and “faith based” rather than evidence based.

We are however still left with questions and a sense of unease over such conclusions as “abortion should be freely available on demand” and that “there is nothing wrong with using abortion as a form of birth control.”  What is more should we not reflect on the fact that across cultures and societies there is a general feeling that “there is something wrong about abortion because it feels like the killing of a child” and there is a virtually “universal condemnation of abortion in all the major religious traditions” – something that goes far beyond narrow fundamentalism and attempts to maintain papal infallibility. Perhaps this widespread condemnation and unease about abortion is telling us something about human nature that we need to pay attention to.

In ANAN I pointed out that it seems the decision to terminate is not usually seen by most women in this country as a simple and easy option. I also mentioned that those women who (quite often repeatedly it seems) do make use of abortion simply as a form of birth control may be desensitising themselves to their own value and the value of the children they may yet wish to bear. What I did not do was explore why this might be so. This paper is an attempt to address  these issues.

Recognising the Role of Instinct or Inherited Behaviour and Attitudes

When for the third time I became a grandfather and my daughter came and spent some time living with us the answer to these issues struck me very powerfully as having a single focus.  As a result of their visit I have had far more to do with looking after my newly born grand-daughter and not quite two years old grandson than has happened before and I found the whole experience affected me deeply.  So what did this teach me?  On reflection it suddenly struck me as simple.

What is often mentioned is that babies come loaded with a strong set of instincts, (http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/humanbody/tv/humaninstinct/programme1.shtml)  most obviously to suckle and cry if uncomfortable or hungry.  What is easily overlooked or not mentioned is that every bit as important as the baby’s survival instincts are the instincts which are brought into play within those of us around her – starting with her mother. From the time a woman becomes pregnant, in fact from the time she expresses the desire to become pregnant – an extremely powerful desire which we see leading women to give up careers and which is clearly instinct based (inherent, an expression of biological factors, not cultural) – it strikes me that she and pretty well all of us are driven by a whole set of instincts, instincts to love, care and support the baby and her mother.

These instincts lead us to feel, and feel very strongly, and then to articulate that we think it is wrong, bad and unnatural to hurt any pregnant  woman and any baby and to feel obliged to support a mother and baby we recognise as “ours” as partners, parents, grandparents, siblings or extended family. This is not learnt behaviour, the result of teaching or reasoning.  It is just basic and instinctive behaviour.

Increasingly it is now recognised that this is in fact how we have evolved.  Strong bonding between parents, (a rarity among mammals) and loving, responsible, altruistic behaviour towards those closest to us and those we recognise as sharing some affinity with us we now can see is fundamental to our survival as humans, and for a very simple reason.  Without such instincts, feelings and behaviour and a readiness to continue to express and practice them over many years – the mental and physical life of all children is at risk.  This is because the cost of our evolving so we could walk on two legs and use our hands to wield tools and to develop big formidable brains capable of battling with and manipulating our environment and using language has been to make human babies and women particularly in need of extended support.

Both mother and baby are particularly fragile. Mothers can and in traditional societies do die easily  when giving birth. Infants can and easily do die easily during and after birth. This we now know happens far more often than is the case for any other mammal (so much for intelligent design) and our young are more helpless and in need of support for years longer than is the case with any other species.  For any of us to grow into the functioning, speaking, self-aware persons that it is natural for us to become, each one of us can only do that if we are first treated as being little persons long before we actually are, and even when we become “functioning, speaking, self-aware persons” well before we are two years old, we remain extremely dependent.  This means every one of us has to be treated as the subject of twenty-four hour sustaining care for up to a decade plus further cultural immersion and trainings for years beyond that if we are to attain anything like the maturity needed to contribute to the society we live in.

Human nurturing is thus an incredibly complicated, relentless, drawn out and demanding process without equivalent in nature and this is as true for our hunter-gatherer ancestors as it is for us. What is more it is always a process that requires the active involvement and support of more than just the mother or even just the parents. (Again we instinctively find this whole process a great source of pleasure, pride and fulfilment) Without exposure to moral and altruistic behaviour and material support from partners, parents, grandparents and siblings our exceptionally weak and dependent young cannot thrive, and if they do not that is the end of us.

What is true for our hunter-gatherer ancestors as regards instinct and the need for a lot of support from others can also be seen in the development of contemporary parenting where in our industrialised sophisticated money economy support is provided through its health service, social services, education services, community and religious groups and an army of child care workers as well as by parents, extended family and friends. All these step in to fill the gaps which living singly or in couples leave – gaps which our money economy shows us are extremely expensive.

This means it is not surprising that the complex package of instincts we are born with lead us to feel that to kill an unborn life, a potential person – which we naturally imagine growing into full personhood – is to go against our instinctive sense of what is natural and right, an instinctive sense of how we should relate to each other – which is that we should nurture and care for our young..

So where to go from here? The natural rejection of abortion as bad promoted by the religions I would suggest is an example of where our instinct to care for a new human life and to treat it as a person is given a “divine sanction” making absolute a decision which if good in general needs to be more pragmatically taken.   Certainly sometimes these religious injunctions have good results – “suffer the children to come to me”or “you shall do no murder.” Sometimes the results can be pretty dreadful, causing an abuse of persons and much human suffering as in “Women should stay at home and wear the veil”or “women who are caught committing adultery should be stoned”.

On the other hand when we try to be rational, to respect persons and avoid them suffering from the painful consequences of their actions, there are so often unintended consequences. The introduction of the pill and birth control certainly allowed for planned parenting and freed women to develop their abilities. It also encouraged a lot of irresponsible sexual behaviour in both men and women when they ignored other elements of instinctive human behaviour (jealousy, and the need to develop long term trust  etc.) with consequences many now regret. More recently we have become aware that it has encouraged a dangerous delay in parenting by educated women which brings a range of unforeseen problems. One could go on and on.

What I think this adds up to is with the growth of neuro-science and developments in psychology we are only just beginning to understand the complicated interplay between inherited instincts and tendencies and learnt and repeated patterns of behaviour – linguistic, cultural, religious and moral. This complicated interplay also leads us to question the limits we are under as regards free will, the choices we make and what promotes sustainable human well being. The traditional religions give us more or less useful guidance as to how we should live and often pass on repeatable patterns of behaviour which have worked for some in the past, often for reasons we still do not yet fully understand, but many of these may not be sustainable in our world. (eg gender roles)

Add to that the increasing rate of technological change and advances in scientific understanding which provide along with many “mixed blessings” new opportunities for life extension and embryo manipulation every year and we are faced with a bewildering scenario.  We see huge social changes. We are faced with population growth, aging populations and the break-down of adequate parenting amongst significant swathes of the population, and of course we are also faced with the increasingly catastrophic effects of man-made climate change. Note all of these are the unintended consequences of our cleverness.

To be facile, and it seems hard to be otherwise, faced with so much what then of abortion?

I think our starting point should be that we should recognise our instincts and admit that the killing of a potential person is a serious step to take because it may go against our natural sense of what is right and wrong and that to do that requires careful consideration. It is a step that becomes progressively more serious and traumatic for a pregnant woman who naturally feels and thinks the longer the pregnancy goes on that the unborn child she is carrying is a person, her baby.

As I have explored in ANAN I think the legal situation in the UK is about right, providing as it does for a questioning of motives and some counselling, but at over 200,000 terminations per year, the number is I suspect far too high. This is not because all those discarded foetuses have suffered or have had wasted souls, but because of what it may be doing to the girls and women who have an abortion and their partners and to those who are entrusted with carrying out the abortions.

For a start the UK not only has a high abortion rate, it has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the EU and proper sex education, including careful teaching about abortion, pro and con and the status of the embryo, really could influence that. Here the “pro-lifers” with their relentless opposition to all forms of birth control and rejection of all abortion have made things worse. Another unintended consequence.

Young people need to be shielded from sexual exploitation and peer group pressure and sex education should encourage young people to postpone having full sexual relationships until they feel self-confident and in control, and honesty and self-respect should be encouraged, (all easier said than done) but also every step should be taken to make night after pills available and early terminations available in order to reduce the physical and psychological consequences on those who fall pregnant “by mistake”. This again is because the longer a pregnancy goes on the more painful it becomes to plan to kill what feels like an unborn person, and however good the reasons for wanting a termination may be, the termination will be felt to be a sad and unnatural thing to do.

I have not read and do not know what research has to say about the effects abortion has on the lives of girls and women who have had abortions, on their subsequent parenting and what difference counselling or the time of the termination has made. It seems obvious that the earlier an abortion is carried out the better for the woman concerned. Let us also never forget that to be the unwanted baby of an inadequate single mother can be devastating for the child. There are a lot of them around.

It certainly would be good if counselling were given emphasising that there is no question of the unborn suffering while focusing on the feelings and needs of the pregnant girl/woman.  The adoption route for young mothers should also be explored in an encouraging way for those who do not wish to keep the baby, but do not wish to kill what already feels like their baby. It could be made more socially acceptable and attractive when there are so many wishing to adopt and be a more satisfying outcome for an unwanted pregnancy crisis for those who just hate the thought of abortion.

It is I think essential late abortions right up to full term should remain legal when a badly handicapped embryo is spotted by the medical team. No woman should ever be forced to have a badly handicapped child or forced to have an abortion.  In extreme cases of handicap I would also sanction some carefully regulated infanticide. In the past doctors and midwives simply did it and no one said anything. In doing so perhaps they were expressing and reflecting on an instinctive feeling that the seriously handicapped should be allowed or encouraged to die before they attain aware personhood for the good of all concerned – including that of the potential person who will not then be placed on a path to a life of relentless suffering. That though is perhaps rightly no longer an option in advanced countries like ours where medical decisions should be open and accountable.

In facing this whole area of considering when late abortions and infanticide might be allowed we come up against the most painful and challenging situations, but it is precisely in these situations that ethical absolutism, the idea that certain acts are intrinsically wrong and never justified can become blind, brutal and appalling in its consequences. These cases are of course extremely challenging and stressful not only for the parents involved, but also for the medical staff, doctors, nurses and midwives – particularly when such medical staff are also dedicated to keeping pregnant mothers healthy and premature babies alive.  They too have to deal with their instincts to feel that such helpless creatures are and should be treated as persons.  Here counselling and teamwork in order to reach consensus in each case would seem to be better than the intrusion of the law and court orders, though in the end that sometimes proves necessary.  It seems to me probably right that in such circumstances it is the mother who has the final say.

In conclusion I suppose what I am trying to say is that when we consider if it is right for a woman to choose abortion when faced with an “unwanted” pregnancy, it is not simply a case of drawing up a cost benefit analysis of the case for or against keeping the baby and drawing comfort from the fact that a potential person has no awareness and cannot suffer. Emotions and instincts also need to faced and reflected on before decisions are made, for they may remain long after the pregnancy is over.

Abortion I am sure cannot be seen in isolation from other social issues so I will end here.