Abortion debate turns on definition of terms

A recent column (“Right-wing foolish: abortion is necessary” 10/5) criticized the pro-life position by noting its concurrence with unpopular opinions attributed to the American right wing. The argumentative tactic — guilt by association — made an emotional appeal in an attempt to amplify disgust for the pro-life position. Of course, nothing is inherently wrong with an emotional appeal, nor is it misguided to discuss abortion in its larger social and political context. Nevertheless, it would be helpful to hone in on the issue itself without getting overly preoccupied with partisan politics or with contemporary social movements.

Most arguments put forth in favor of abortion can be reduced to the question of whether or not a fetus is a human life. There’s the argument, for instance, that the poor or the young are entitled to have an abortion because they would be unable to care properly for children. This line of reasoning rests entirely on the assumption that a fetus is not a human life. After all, no one (or, rather, almost no one) would say that the poor or the young, because of their inability to care properly for a child, are entitled to kill their 1-year-old infant.

Another set of arguments for abortion stem from our society’s obsession with unrestrained liberty and categorical equality. One form of the argument runs thus: women ought to be equal with men in their ability to enjoy sexual freedom, and the only way that this is possible is through legal and accessible abortion. Now, the idea of sexual freedom involves another debate altogether, but what we must consider here is whether the enjoyment of sexual freedom could in fact outweigh the value of someone’s life. Whether the fetus actually is a life then becomes the question that must be addressed, and that is precisely the point — it is the central question of this debate. After all, if a woman’s 2-year-old child is hindering her from experiencing sexual freedom, most of us would deny that the mother has any right to kill her child.

It is also contended that abortion is necessary for women to have an equal footing in the workplace. This argument falls prey to the same counterexample: if a woman’s 4-month-old baby is thwarting her career-oriented pursuits, we would not say that the woman is thereby entitled to dispose of the baby.

All of these arguments for abortion assume that a fetus is not a human life; likewise, all of these counterarguments assume that a fetus is as human as an infant. Hence, we are brought again to the central question: does a fetus have the same inherent value as an infant, or, for that matter, as a full-grown adult?

This raises the question of the source of human value and dignity. If we say that this value lies in sentience or consciousness, and that therefore a fetus is not as valuable as a more developed human, then we must follow our logic and concede that there is not much difference between aborting a fetus and killing a newborn child. The same result follows if we locate our value in the ability to think rationally. And some ethicists simply accept this result: infanticide, they say, is fine. Most of us would probably wince at the idea of killing newborn babies, but we must at least grant that these ethicists are consistent. If human value and dignity are found in sentience, consciousness or reason, then the killing of infants is acceptable. If, on the other hand, human value and dignity are found in simply being human, then abortion, it seems, would not be a moral option.

Then again, the aforementioned article referred to the fetus as a “non-human life.” Now, this is interesting. If a fetus, with its human genetic makeup, its 46 human chromosomes and its proven tendency to develop into a human adult is in fact a non-human life, then we would do well to wonder exactly what kind of life it is.

It is no doubt fascinating, and even important, to discuss the issue of abortion with reference to contemporary politics, women’s equality and the vast right-wing conspiracy. There is always the danger, however, that while some are arguing on the assumption that fetuses are not humans, and others are arguing back on the assumption that fetuses are humans, we will only talk past one another and neglect the central question of the abortion debate.

Bryce Taylor is a freshman in Silliman College.

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