A rare post on abortion

In this editorial, the Christian Century articulates a middle-ground approach on abortion that I find largely persuasive:

Over the years, mainline Protestants have expressed their own reservations and qualifications. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), for example, declared that “the strong Christian presumption is that . . . all life is precious to God [and so] we are to preserve and protect it.” Therefore “abortion ought to be an option of last resort.” Voicing a similar position, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America urged the church to “seek to reduce the need to turn to abortion as the answer to unintended pregnancies.” Churches that backed legalization did not want abortion to be a routine means of birth control.

On those Christian grounds, it is good news that abortion rates in the United States dropped 5 percent in 2009 (the latest year of reporting) to the lowest rate in 40 years—15 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age. Rates have generally trended downward since 1981, when they peaked at 29. Health officials attribute the recent drop to more widespread use of contraception, especially by teens, and the use of more effective types of contraception.

U.S. abortion rates remain high, however, compared to other countries where abortion is legal. In Belgium and Germany the rates are below 10 per 1,000 women, and in the Netherlands, where abortion is freely available up to 21 weeks, the rate is 5, the lowest in the world. The Dutch have achieved that low rate through widespread education about family planning and easy access to contraception and by inculcating a general understanding that abortion is an irresponsible means of birth control.

The editorial concludes that this “nuanced position on abortion may not bring people to the barricades, but it points to a coherent, responsible policy.”

I think this is basically right, but it’s worth noting how this differs from the more absolutist pro-life position found among conservative Catholics and evangelicals. If you believe that abortion is morally comparable to killing babies, then nothing short of legal prohibition really makes sense. That’s why there’s a certain logic to not making exceptions even in the case of rape: why should an innocent child be killed because of the crimes of its father?

But the position sketched by the Century rests on a different view of of the value of pre-natal life–though one that also differs from a pro-choice position that assigns zero value to it. (I doubt this view is as widespread among pro-choicers as pro-lifers sometimes seem to think, but there probably are people who hold it.)

What this more moderate view presupposes is that pre-natal life has value, but that its value is not equivalent to the value of a newborn baby (or a 2-year old, a 5-year old, an adult, etc.). Moreover, it generally presupposes that this value increases as the pregnancy progresses: a very early abortion is less serious, morally speaking, than a very late-term one. To say, as the PC(USA) does, that “all life is precious to God [and so] we are to preserve and protect it” seems to allow for these kinds of distinctions.

I think that this kind of “gradualist” position makes sense of many people’s common moral intuitions. Most parents or would-be parents, I think, would say that a miscarriage at a very early stage of pregnancy would be a less grievous blow than one at, say, 7 or 8 months, much less the death of a newborn or older child. In other words, we generally act like the embryo or fetus is not, morally speaking, a fully realized person. Or to take another thought experiment: if you could save either a Petri dish full of fertilized embryos or a single child from a burning building, wouldn’t the right choice clearly be to save the child?

Now, just because many people have these intuitions doesn’t mean they’re right. And one problem that has always bedeviled the gradualist view is that it’s hard to draw bright lines demarcating the various stages of fetal moral considerability. By contrast, the hard-core pro-life view can point to such a bright line, namely conception. (Though even this is a bit fuzzier than people sometimes think: does it refer to fertilization? Implantation? The appearance of the “primitive streak” that determines whether an embryo will develop into one or two distinct beings?)

In my view, the clarity that comes from drawing such bright lines is purchased at too high a price if it requires treating a newly fertilized embryo as morally indistinguishable from a baby. It seems to me undeniable that nascent human life has value, but also that its value is less than that of a baby or child. Given this, a policy that places some value on fetal life while also recognizing that importance of women’s bodily autonomy makes sense and would aim at the “safe, legal, and rare” regime the Century recommends.

5 thoughts on “A rare post on abortion

  1. This represents my own view very well – I’m pro-choice. The idea that most pro-choice people are actually “pro-abortion” is untrue, I think.

    Though it’s probably not obvious, there is a range of opinion on this among Catholics, from those at Catholics for Choice to those of the US Bishops/the Vatican.

    Part of what’s strange about the extreme pro-life view is that it’s usually wedded to a refusal to do what will will make abortion less attractive …. promoting contraception and education. It’s that refusal that makes me wonder how much of the pro-life stance is really about lowering the abortion rate and how much of it is actually about controlling women’s lives.

    1. Thomas Martin

      Very good points. While few people would argue that they love abortion, there are well-intentioned people on both sides of the fence as to its legality. Many Catholics in fact are in favor of abortion remaining legal in spite of Church teachings. The Netherlands despite it being frequently categorized as a Protestant country, has in fact roughly two Roman Catholics for every Protestant and always has had. It’s Catholic Party was a strong ant-Nazi voice in the period leading up to Wirld War II. Netherlands Catholics are indeed liberal but clearly are the largest percentage of the nation’s church affiliated population. Most Dutch support a liberal contraceptive program. Part of the confusion about religion in the Netherlands is that roughly a third of the population self-identify as non-religious, and despite a Catholic majority among Dutch affiliated with a church, the 1648 Republic dis favored Catholics in the Netgerlans along with the Royal House of Orange which in extricating themselves from the largely Catholic Hapsburgs, created policies whereby Catholics were largely excluded from Dutch international slave and spice trading enterprises during the mercantilistic era. While those days of sectarian strife have thankfully passed. The Netherlands is today a champion of civil rights.The Dutch could teach many nations on earth how to balance legal abortion with progressive contraception policies thus making unwanted pregnancies relatively rare.

  2. I think there’s an influential view of human sexuality in Catholic (and other conservative Christian) circles that views opposition to abortion and contraception as being of a piece. The idea seems to be that it’s always wrong to frustrate the procreative possibilities of the sexual act–whether by contracepting or aborting. Even those folks, though, would (I think) regard contraception as the lesser evil, wouldn’t they?

    1. Camassia

      I’m no expert, but I do gather that one basic precept of Catholic moral theology is that the ends don’t justify the means. So using contraception to prevent abortion would not be OK, regardless of how the sins stack up against each other. (I’m not sure Catholics even stack sins that way, apart from the mortal/venial distinction.) On a more practical level, I think there’s also the idea that you’re still taking a sinful attitude if you WOULD have an abortion if your birth control failed. The sense of entitlement to nonprocreative sex is as much the issue as the body count.

  3. The church’s official view on contraception and abortion is riddled with nuance, especially birth control. Vatican II theologians and bishops were for acceptance of birth control (if interested, see my old post about this), when the pope took the minority view there was huge dissent from bishops and theologians, and this was even true to some extent about abortion, and it’s known that 90+% of Catholics use contraception and something like 25% get abortions.

    So yes there’s a view held by conservative Catholics and the bishops and the Vatican that contraception frustrates natural law (Aristotle) and that abortion is murder (and some try to say that contraception sometimes causes abortion) but I believe that’s something of a dead letter in that it’s a teaching not received by the faithful.

    The lesser of two evils – the double effect thingy – the idea that contraception promotes fewer abortions …. in the face of actual facts, conservatives would argue that this isn’t true.

    The issue is all about what the church thinks of sex: that it’s dangerous and bad if not controlled, about women: same thing, and the scholastic theology upon which the hierarchy rests its case is just disingenuous window dressing which most Catholics ignore. Or so I think 🙂

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