Abortion and Human Equality
How to return the debate to the essential questions 41 years after Roe.

Francis J. Beckwith



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.


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