Abortion and Human Equality

by NR Interview
How to return the debate to the essential questions 41 years after Roe.

One of the underreported important celebrations over this past year was in June in Rome. Pope Francis hosted an event in the name of the late pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) in thanksgiving for human life. Francis J. Beckwith, professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University, was among the speakers and participants in a weekend-long event focused on prayer, penance, and education. At Baylor, he is assistant director of the graduate program in philosophy and co-director of the Program on Philosophical Studies of Religion. He is author of many books, including Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft, Return to Rome: Confessions of An Evangelical Catholic, and Defending: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice. In this interview we focus on the topic of the last one, as the nation marks 41 years of Roe v. Wade.


KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What are your thoughts as D.C. is about to see a March for Life against 41 years of legal abortion in America?

Francis J. Beckwith: Even though the advocates of the belief that unborn life lacks moral status have had over four decades to completely inoculate the wider culture from the sanctity-of-life ethic (through the media, the academy, and entertainment), they have been astonishingly unsuccessful in doing so. The March for Life, and the increasing numbers that participate every year, is as clear evidence of this failure as one could have imagined. And what makes it more astonishing is that no one in the march has a self-interest in its cause succeeding, since no one who marches is an unborn child.


LOPEZ: In what ways is the abortion debate really about human equality?

Beckwith: No one — not even the most sophisticated advocate of abortion choice — denies that the unborn are human beings, but one can only exclude them from the community of those whose lives we must respect if one claims that they lack some morally significant characteristic that is possessed by mature and healthy human beings.

If this is true, as some abortion-choice advocates maintain, then some human beings are so intrinsically inferior to others that they not only lack moral status but they can be killed without justification. Consequently, according to this perspective, possessing a human nature in and of itself is not morally significant. This is why in Defending Life I call some abortion-choice supporters Anti-Equality Advocates (AEAs).


LOPEZ: Is there an irony in the twin January memorials of Martin Luther King’s death and the Roe v. Wade decision?

Beckwith: When Dr. King eloquently defended the equal dignity of all persons, his words were deeply rooted in the theological tradition in which he grew up and received his religious training. This is why, for example, in his famous letter from Birmingham jail, he penned these words about the early Christian church: “They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.” And yet, how ironic it is that we now have an African-American president who, while surely a living testimony to how far we have advanced due to Dr. King’s work, would not support legislation that bans the near infanticide of partial-birth abortion or protects the born child that survives an abortion.


LOPEZ: Is it too much to assume that we can all agree that an unborn child is a “full-fledged member of the human community”?

Beckwith: Yes it is, unfortunately. The reason, as I have already noted, is not because there is disagreement over whether all living human beings are human beings and that the unborn are among them. Rather, it is over the question of what sorts of abilities, or characteristics, a human being must possess in order to have moral status. So, for example, in the May 2013 issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics, two Italian philosophers, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, argue that neither fetuses nor newborns are persons because they lack the ability to value their own lives or have a life plan. Thus, if their deaths are in the interest of their mothers, the government has no interest in legally forbidding either abortion or infanticide. Although there was much public outrage over this article, the position the authors defended is pretty ordinary in bioethics literature.


LOPEZ: How do we misunderstand Roe and why does it matter at this late date?

Beckwith: First, it matters because truth is always better than falsehood.

Second, it matters because many people who support Roe v. Wade think they are actually supporting a modest opinion, and it is in the interest of the pro-life movement to convert absolute adversaries into partial allies even if they never become passionate comrades.

One often hears — even from established news organizations — that Roe only permitted abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. This is false. Although it allowed for states to have more regulations in the second and third trimesters, at no point did the Court issue these limits because the unborn child is a person under our Constitution. It discussed the state’s increasing interest in the fetus as it became more developed, but that’s not the same as saying that the state ought to protect the late-term fetus or that it is required to do so by the Constitution. And although the Court claims that after fetal viability (or at, roughly, the beginning of the third trimester) the state’s interests in the developing fetus allows the state to prohibit abortion unless the life or health of the mother is in danger, the Court defines health so broadly in Roe’s companion opinion, Doe v. Bolton, by including “psychological” and “familial” health, that this “limitation” on the abortion right is effectively nullified by the Court’s Doe disclaimer.

For the 40th anniversary of Roe, the Pew Foundation commissioned a poll to examine the public’s opinion on the matter. Shockingly, Pew got Roe completely wrong, making this respected foundation seem like it had conducted a push poll for a liberal interest group rather than a scientific study based on the Court’s actual ruling. This is how Pew communicated its findings: “More than six-in-ten (63 percent) say they would not like to see the court completely overturn the Roe v. Wade decision, which established a woman’s constitutional right to abortion at least in the first three months of pregnancy.” There is no way to sugar coat Pew’s misunderstanding of Roe’s holding. The foundation, despite its stellar reputation, just got it embarrassingly wrong.


LOPEZ: How does “statecraft as soulcraft” apply to the abortion debate?

Beckwith: One often hears that the government can remain “neutral” on abortion by simply allowing people to make the choice themselves. That is, by remaining “neutral” the state is allegedly not trying to shape people’s characters or trying to make them moral, or, as the ancients might have put it, engaging in soulcraft. But, as should be evident after 41 years of Roe, this is not possible.

First, by excluding the unborn from the human community, and claiming that this being is not the sort of human that requires the law to protect it, the state is in fact making a non-neutral claim: The unborn child is not one of us.

Second, when both our nation’s highest court and our current president claim that abortion is a good that women cannot live without, their moral logic is painstakingly clear: Because the government has an interest in advancing the good of its citizens, and abortion is a good, we may not only pay for it, but we may also suggest that those who think it is not a good are adversaries of the common good. New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent diatribe against pro-lifers is evident of this logic, and he did more than just suggest it. He explicitly said, in so many words, that pro-lifers are enemies of the state.

To his credit, Governor Cuomo seems to understand the logic of his own position and is willing to admit to it publicly. Will pro-lifers in New York State, including its Evangelical pastors and Catholic bishops, rise to the challenge, and stand up for the sheep that they have been called upon to guard and protect? Or will they remain mute and confirm what Governor Cuomo probably believes about the quality of their spines? Time will tell.


LOPEZ: How is the abortion debate about “who and what we are and whether we can know it”?

Beckwith: If the unborn child is one of us, that is, a being of immeasurable dignity and intrinsic worth, then all the popular arguments for abortion choice are irrelevant. For example, if one thinks that abortion choice is justified because of poverty or the woman’s marital situation, why can’t she kill her born children for the same reasons? If it’s because the born children are persons and the unborn are not, as it is typically argued, then the issue is not really the woman’s poverty or the marital situation, but the nature of the being who is marked for elimination. So, if the unborn child is not one of us, why even bring up such arguments? They are unnecessary. To paraphrase my friend Gregory P. Koukl: If the unborn child is a human person, then the popular arguments for abortion choice are irrelevant. On the other hand, if the unborn child is not a human person, these arguments are unnecessary.

There are, of course, some philosophers, such as Judith Jarvis Thomson and David Boonin, who argue that the central issue in abortion is not the moral status of the unborn, but the bodily rights of the pregnant woman. That is, they argue that parents have no obligation to care for their children unless they explicitly consent to care for their children. Consequently, unless a woman explicitly consents to carry her child to term, the child has no claim upon her bodily integrity even if the child needs her body to survive, just as my neighbor has no claim on my kidney even if he will die unless I give it to him. (The arguments are, to be sure, more sophisticated than this, but that’s their gist). Still, even with these sorts of arguments, it comes back to the question of who and what we are and whether we can know it, since these arguments assume that there are no special obligations that parents have to their children that they don’t have to strangers. Although this sort of argument is not about personhood per se, it says something about how people should think about the nature of family, moral obligation, and parenthood. It seems to deny the normativity of those natural institutions that serve as the infrastructure of our lives and provide the contours of how we learn to love one another, share our burdens, and give of ourselves to those closest to us without expecting anything in return.


Lopez: What is the difference between preference claims and moral claims, and why is it important?

Beckwith: Our popular culture, especially in its discussion of the abortion debate, often confuses preference claims with moral claims. In Defending Life, borrowing from the work of my friend Hadley Arkes, I point out that moral claims are not about what people prefer, but rather, they are about what people ought to do, whether or not they prefer it. Take, for example, the abortion-choice retort and now bumper sticker, “Don’t Like Abortion? Don’t Have One.” It is an odd thing to say, since for the pro-lifer the wrongness of abortion does not hinge on whether or not she likes abortion. In fact, the pro-lifer could easily envision cases in her own life when she may be tempted to have an abortion. She may in certain difficult situations be drawn to it, seeing it as a good that would relieve her of a heavy burden. So, she could easily say to the abortion-choice advocate: “At this moment in my life I seem to like abortion, but since it is wrong, I will not have one.”

We could easily see how silly the retort is in other contexts. Imagine if someone had a bumper sticker, “Don’t Like Slavery? Don’t Own One,” or “Don’t Like Spousal Abuse? Don’t Beat One.” Seeing such slogans, we would not only be horrified, but we would also realize that the person who plastered them on his bumper has no idea what it means to believe that something is wrong. Clearly, as these examples show, preference claims are not moral claims. (This, of course, by itself, does not mean the pro-lifer is right about her moral claims about abortion. It just means that before the abortion-choice advocate tries to refute those claims, he has to be clear about what the pro-lifer is actually claiming!)

Having said that, not all abortion-choice advocates are that simplistic or unreflective. Some of my friends who are pro-choice are intelligent, good-natured people who eschew the popular rhetoric. Even though we have our disagreements, I respect them. Nevertheless, they are not the ones who are shaping the moral sensibilities of popular culture, the news media, and civil society. That is being done by ideologues who are more interested in figuring out ways to end debate and silence opposition than to advance the conversation. They do this, I suspect, because, like Governor Cuomo, they are not very confident in the intellectual credentials of their position. To employ a papal analogy that the governor would surely understand, they are more Borgia than Bergoglio.


Lopez: How can metaphysics help? That doesn’t seem the stuff of talk shows and the halls of Congress.

Beckwith: Metaphysics is that subfield of philosophy that studies nature and the order of things. So, for example, a metaphysician tries to answer questions like the following: What sort of thing is a human being? Do human beings have souls? Although living organisms change over time, they seem to remain identical to themselves. Why is that? The application to the abortion debate should be obvious. For this reason, even those in the halls of Congress, many of whom have never heard of metaphysics, wind up passing laws based on metaphysical assumptions. Take, for example, a congressman who votes to fund embryo-destroying research, but thinks its unconscionable to support infant-destroying research. That congressman believes that the infant and the embryo are two different things. The first requires our laws to forbid anyone from intentionally killing it. The second is the kind of thing our laws can permit the intentional killing of through research projects.

This is why advocates of abortion choice rarely bother with the facts of fetal development, since, I have already noted, they do not deny that the unborn child is a human being. Rather, they open the question: Is the unborn a moral subject? Unsuprisingly, they will answer this question in the negative, but the specificity of their answer will depend on what they believe is the point in its development at which the unborn becomes a moral subject. Some argue for a moderate position, arguing that the fetus becomes a moral subject (or a “person”) when it becomes sentient, which occurs sometime between 16 and 18 weeks after conception. Others argue that the fetus becomes a moral subject later in its gestation, at the onset of organized cortical brain activity, which arises 25 to 32 weeks after conception. Yet others locate this decisive moment at sometime after birth, arguing that even newborns are not moral subjects. This is why pro-choice advocates will refer to fetuses prior to whichever decisive moment they have chosen as human beings that are potential persons but not actual persons.

Pro-lifers, with few exceptions, argue that the unborn is a moral subject (i.e., a person) from the moment it comes into being at conception, because it is an individual human being and all human beings have a personal nature, even when they are not presently exercising the powers that flow from that nature’s essential properties. These essential properties include capacities for personal expression, rational thought, and moral agency. The maturation of these capacities is the perfection of a human being’s nature. Contrary to what some abortion-choice critics claim, the human fetus can be wronged even before it can know it has been wronged.

To understand the pro-lifer’s point, consider this example. Imagine that an abortion-choice scientist wants to harvest human organs without harming human beings that are persons. In order to accomplish this, he first brings several embryos into being through in vitro fertilization. He then implants them in artificial wombs, and while they develop, he obstructs their neural tubes so that they may never acquire higher brain functions, and thus they cannot become what the typical prochoice advocate considers “persons.”

Suppose, upon hearing of this scientist’s grisly undertaking, a group of pro-life radicals breaks into his laboratory and transports all the artificial wombs (with all the embryos intact) to another laboratory located in the basement of the Vatican. While there, several pro-life scientists inject the embryos with a drug that heals their neural tubes and allows for their brains to develop normally. After nine months, the former fetuses, now infants, are adopted by loving families.

If you think what the pro-life scientists did was not only good but an act that justice requires, it seems that you must believe that embryos are beings of a personal nature ordered toward certain perfections which it is wrong to obstruct. This is why pro-life advocates would say that human embryos are not potential persons, but rather, that they are persons with potential.


LOPEZ: What is the most important point anyone can ever make about abortion in discussing the pro-life case?

Beckwith: We should always bring the conversation back to the only really important question: Who and what are we? If you can’t answer that question, you can’t answer the question of whether abortion is unjustified homicide or not. As I have already noted, the popular arguments for abortion choice all assume that the unborn child is not one of us. For if he were one of us — as we believe of the two-year-old and the adolescent — these popular arguments would never work. Can you imagine if someone suggested that the best way to reduce poverty would be to require that all poor children under the age of five be exterminated? Yet, many people have argued that abortion is a way to reduce the burden of poverty. Consequently, without first assuming that the unborn child is not a moral subject (and thus begging the question), this sort of argument would not even get off the ground. This is why even some very pressing issues, ones for which the pro-lifer ought to provide answers, can’t really be addressed until one answers that first question.

Take, for example, the question of whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest. I was asked this question 25 years ago in a discussion I had at the Las Vegas Athletic Club, where my wife was the manager at the time. Soon after working out one evening I got into a conversation with a club member, a local optometrist, who had asked my wife earlier in the evening to sign a petition supporting Roe v. Wade. During our conversation the optometrist asked me, “Are you against abortion in cases of rape or incest?” I replied, “If there were no cases of rape or incest, would you still be for abortion rights?” She answered, “Yes.” I said, “Then those cases are irrelevant to establishing your point. Why then do you offer them in support of your position?” We then went on to have a very long and friendly discussion on what it means to be a human person.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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