This post is drawn from Ari Armstrong’s and my new policy paper: The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception. I’m currently posting the full paper as a series of blog posts. You can read the full paper in PDF format or HTML format.
The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life: Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception
By Ari Armstrong and Diana Hsieh, Ph.D
A policy paper written for the Coalition for Secular Government (www.SecularGovernment.us)
Published on August 31, 2010
The Morality of Abortion
In addition to the political debates about abortion rights, many people condemn abortion on moral grounds as an evasion of responsibility for the known consequences of sexual intercourse. In fact, however, the termination of a healthy pregnancy can be–and usually is–a morally responsible choice.
Most people do not object to abortions in cases involving rape, incest, deformity, or risk to the woman’s life. Yet they question or even condemn abortions obtained for seemingly less weighty reasons, such as financial hardship, the demands of career or school, problems in the romantic relationship, or not wanting another child. Moreover, when birth control was not used–or used carelessly–people may condemn the abortion as particularly irresponsible. Undoubtedly, these moral objections to abortion stem from implicitly regarding the embryo or fetus as a person, at least in part. People often suppose that the interests of the embryo or fetus should be weighed against the interests of the pregnant woman, such that the termination of a healthy pregnancy cannot be morally justified. In the face of these views, we should ask: Is abortion a morally proper choice simply because the pregnancy and resulting child is unwanted? If so, why?
People should not allow themselves to be buffeted through life by accidental circumstances, for to do so is to court disaster and misery. Instead, people ought to consciously direct the course of their lives by their own rational judgment and long-range planning. With respect to procreation, a woman and her partner ought not bear a child just because she happens to become pregnant. Instead, they ought to consider the impact of the pregnancy and resulting child on their health, finances, careers, and overall well-being. They ought to consider whether their relationship is stable enough to withstand the strain of raising a child. They ought to have a child only if they are willing and able to be good parents.
As Ayn Rand wrote in her essay “Of Living Death,” in defending the morality of abortion:
The capacity to procreate is merely a potential which man is not obligated to actualize. The choice to have children or not is morally optional. Nature endows man with a variety of potentials–and it is his mind that must decide which capacities he chooses to exercise, according to his own hierarchy of rational goals and values. …
It is only animals that have to adapt themselves to their physical background and to the biological functions of their bodies. Man adapts his physical background and the use of his biological faculties to himself–to his own needs and values. That is his distinction from all other living species.
To an animal, the rearing of its young is a matter of temporary cycles. To man, it is a lifelong responsibility–a grave responsibility that must not be undertaken causelessly, thoughtlessly, or accidentally.
A couple seeking to live fully rational, purposeful, and hence human lives must decide for themselves whether and when to have children, based on their interests, capacities, and circumstances. To fail to do that–to assume the enormous responsibility of a child simply due to the accident of pregnancy–would be self-destructive. As such, and given that neither the embryo nor the fetus is a person with a right to life, abortion can be a moral choice.
These same basic considerations apply, even when irresponsible sex causes the pregnancy. Unfortunately, such is common. One study found that 46 percent of women who got pregnant unintentionally weren’t using any birth control. Among the rest, only 13 percent of birth-control users and 14 percent of condom users reported correct use. The undesirable outcome is not surprising, as the difference in outcomes between “perfect use” and “typical use” of birth-control methods is dramatic.
Couples who cannot be bothered to use birth control or who use it carelessly, then terminate the resulting pregnancy by abortion, deserve some blame. Yet the problem in such cases is not the abortion. If an unwanted pregnancy was caused by irresponsible behavior, then that behavior ought to be morally blamed, not any ensuing abortion. (Similarly, if a skier breaks his leg by skiing too fast in dangerous terrain, we ought to blame him for that skiing, not for his sensible choice to restore his leg to health by surgery.) In the future, the couple ought to resolve to always use birth control properly, in order to avoid the distress, expense, and risks of another unwanted pregnancy. Yet they should feel no guilt for the abortion, if that best served their interests–but only for engaging in irresponsible sex. Moreover, to the degree that a couple’s irresponsible use of birth control indicates habits of irresponsibility, to demand that the couple forego abortion as a matter of moral duty would itself be terribly irresponsible. Such a couple would likely be ill-prepared for the immense burdens of parenthood, and a child should never be inflicted as punishment for the irresponsible decisions of its parents.
Opponents of abortion often present adoption as the moral alternative to abortion for an unwanted pregnancy. Yet adoption is not a viable option for many couples, often for good reasons. To carry any pregnancy to term itself involves some risk, as well as time, effort, and endurance. For some women, that burden might be too great. Moreover, putting up a child for adoption can involve severe and enduring emotional costs, precisely because the born infant to be bestowed on strangers is a person–and one’s own child. That is not true of the embryo or fetus destroyed in abortion.
Opponents of abortion also claim that couples can protect themselves against unwanted pregnancy by refraining from sex entirely. However, sex is a magnificent human value integral to any healthy, developed romantic relationship. To advocate this course is to demand that a woman and her partner choose between abstinence and procreation. That is morally wrong: it is not a choice that couples in a modern society should be obliged to make.
In sum, anti-abortion activists often gather support for their cause by associating abortions with promiscuous, irresponsible sex and other self-destructive behaviors. However, women often become pregnant unexpectedly through no fault of their own. In other cases, the error was not the abortion but the irresponsible sex. Whatever the cause of the pregnancy, the embryo or fetus is not a person whose interests must be balanced against those of the woman. So a couple faced with an unintended pregnancy ought to consider the impact of bearing a child on their own lives, as well as the kind of life they could offer that born child. In many cases, abortion might be not just a moral option, but the best one too.