In light of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade and comments as to its seeking to impose its own shari’a on the country, it is particularly important to understand the moral considerations underlying abortion.
The abortion issue is rather simple. But to understand it, it helps to see it as two separate issues. One is the issue of the morality of an abortion. The other is that of a woman’s moral right to an abortion. It is important to see these as separate issues. One may have a moral right to do something, even if it is immoral to do it.
Steve, who believes himself to be the incarnation of Adolf Hitler, is running for county supervisor on a neo-Nazi platform. It would be immoral for me to vote for Steve. But I have a moral right to vote for him. It would be immoral to deny that right, to summarily discard my ballot.
Similarly with abortion, even if an abortion is immoral, a woman may still have a moral right to an abortion.
Are abortions always immoral?
Consider a woman with an ectopic fetus. If she tries to carry the pregnancy to term, the fetus will die, and the mother will probably die. Suppose the mother has several children who depend on her for their survival. If she dies, they will starve to death. In such a case it may be immoral for the mother to NOT seek an abortion.
The morality of an abortion may then depend on the circumstances, the motivation. And even if one has all the facts, a moral assessment may be difficult.
What about a woman’s moral right to an abortion?
If one has the moral right to anything, it is to one’s own body.
But doesn’t the fetus have a right to life? And if the woman’s womb is necessary to its exercising that right to life, doesn’t that give it the right to her womb?
It is not clear if or when the fetus gains the right to life. But even if it has the right to life, that does not automatically give it the right to the mother’s womb. I have the right to my car, having purchased it with my hard-earned money. But someone has stolen my car, and the police are on strike. I require your fast sports car to chase down the thief and recover my car. I have the right to my car. I require your car to exercise that right. But that does not give me the right to your car. The woman, then, is the only one with the right to her body and her womb.
A conceptus-embryo-fetus is a person.
We appropriately call something a person – or a dog or a cat – if it is sufficiently similar to other things that we have learned to call persons – or dogs or cats. All things that we have learned to call persons have a range of properties in common. They have central nervous systems, including brains. They have internal organs. They have blood. They have skin. They are conscious and behave in certain ways. A conceptus-embryo-fetus, especially in early stages, has none of these. It becomes increasingly like a person. But there is no single point at which it becomes a person.
We may talk about a fetus becoming a person, in the same way that we may talk about a seed becoming a plant. If the seed were already a plant, if the fetus were already a person, we would not talk about its becoming a plant or a person.
Life begins at conception.
That is clearly false. If the egg cell and sperm cell were not already alive, conception could not take place. Life must begin well before conception. The difference between an about-to-be-fertilized egg cell and a just-fertilized one is not a difference between non-living and living. Both are alive.
Life itself is sacred.
Anything we eat was alive. When we take an antibiotic, we kill many living bacteria. When we scratch an itch, we kill many living skin cells.
Anything alive with complete human DNA is a human and therefore sacred.
Your teeth meet that requirement. Try telling this to your dentist. A murderer? Consider how many live human skin cells you kill if you scratch an itch.
Even if the fetus is not yet a person, it is sacred because under normal conditions it will develop into a person.
One could say the same thing about an about-to-be-fertilized egg cell. What is the relevant moral difference between an about-to-be-fertilized egg cell and a just-fertilized one?
Abortion is immoral because it prevents something – the fetus – from developing into its true potential.
Failure to rape would be similarly immoral because it prevents something – the egg cell that would be fertilized – from developing into its true potential. Failing to place a stem cell (and who knows how many of these we generate) into an artificial incubator similarly prevents it from developing into its full potential as a human.
The Bible condemns abortion.
The Bible treats abortion, the extreme abortion of causing a late-term miscarriage, as a property crime, to be paid in sheep, goats, oxen. It does not appear to regard abortion as a particularly serious crime. By contrast, it regards defiling the holy Sabbath by working on that day as a serious crime, punishable by death.
Weight of Evidence
An abortion may or may not be moral. In either case, the woman has a right to her own body. It would be immoral to override that right. The Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn the previous Roe vs. Wade ruling may have had sincere religious reasons for such a ruling. Yet as history shows, from autos da fe to religious wars to religious terrorism, there is often an important difference between religion and morality. Independent of their religious sincerity, the Supreme Court ruling was simply immoral.