A professor of philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Christopher Kaczor is the author of the new book The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice. He talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about life, death, justice, and the Star Trek transporter.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You write that The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice “provides reasoned justification for the view that all intentional abortions are morally wrong and that doctors and nurses who object should not be forced to act against their consciences.” What right do you, a man, have to make such a case? And why shouldn’t they be forced to act against their consciences? Abortion, you might recall, is legal in the United States. Don’t doctors and nurses have a moral obligation to provide access?
CHRISTOPHER KACZOR: You’ve asked three important questions, the first of which concerns the right to speak about abortion. Legally speaking, everyone has a right to free speech, including speech about abortion. Morally speaking, every person of good will has the right and obligation to speak out in defense of the defenseless and in favor of a just social order. The question “What right do you, a man, have to make a case against abortion?” seems to presuppose that abortion is simply and solely about women, but this is a false supposition. The majority of abortionists are men — more men than women describe themselves as “pro-choice” — and in the United States, men pay for abortions with their tax dollars. Aside from these considerations, every abortion involves the pregnant woman, the expectant father, the one who is aborted, and the society that allows it.
Secondly, although abortion is currently legal in the United States, it is also currently illegal to force any doctor to perform an abortion. The Church amendment, passed shortly after Roe v. Wade, protects pro-life doctors and institutions from being forced to carry out abortions. Doctors and nurses, as mentioned, have no legal obligation to provide access to abortion, nor do they have a moral obligation. Indeed, the Hippocratic Oath says, “I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy.” A doctor’s proper role is to heal patients and promote health, not to injure and destroy human life. I develop this case extensively in my book as well as elsewhere online.
LOPEZ: It’s all nice and good to engage in academic exercises about the ethics of abortion, but no book will eradicate the fact that there are women who will feel the need to abort their unborn children and doctors who will provide the service. It was the case before it was legal and it will be after. Desperation doesn’t always take a break for an academic debate before further action.
KACZOR: I think you are right that abortions took place prior to legalization and abortions would continue if abortion were made illegal. The same point can be made for theft, child abuse, and assault, which have always happened in human history and which will always happen. Indeed, if people never did the act in question, making a law about it would be superfluous. In any case, before anyone actually chooses abortion, that person first considers the possibility and endorses it as choiceworthy. I hope that my book can prompt people to reconsider the issue, to reconsider whether abortion is choiceworthy. Furthermore, thoughtful people, those concerned with justice and the promotion of authentic human flourishing, have a serious obligation to help all people, especially women in crisis-pregnancy situations, to find a way to provide concrete service and aid to everyone involved.
LOPEZ: What’s the most compelling argument advocates of legal abortion make?
KACZOR: The most compelling argument for abortion is made by David Boonin of the University of Colorado-Boulder in his book A Defense of Abortion. Boonin is a very smart philosopher and uses all his ingenuity to deny the fetal right to live until 25 to 28 weeks into pregnancy. His argument is that until a being has an actual desire of some kind, that being does not have a right to live.
Boonin’s view faces several difficulties. The first is that it opens to the door to infanticide, the killing of newborn infants, since many premature babies are born prior to 25 weeks, and so do not have a right to live in Boonin’s view. Secondly, it is implausible to hold that human beings only 25 weeks old really have desires, since desires involve judgments that something is lacking and that this something is worth having. Immature human beings do have pleasant and unpleasant sensations, but I doubt that they make judgments, and therefore they do not really have desires. If this is true, then infanticide becomes permissible according to the standard Boonin proposes until much later in human development, a year or two after birth.
LOPEZ: What’s the least compelling argument supporters of legal abortion make?
KACZOR: “It is my body, it is my choice.” This is really more a slogan than an argument, but as an argument it is not a good one. In abortion, there are two bodies involved, the body of the pregnant woman and the body of the human being in utero. We know there are two bodies involved because these two bodies can be of different blood types and different races, and it can happen that one of them dies and the other lives and vice versa. If there were only one body involved, then absurdities follow such as that a pregnant woman has two heads, four arms, and, if she is carrying a boy, also a penis. Further, “choice” is a euphemism disguising the reality. Everyone supports good choices that are just and promote human welfare. The question is whether abortion is such a choice.
LOPEZ: What’s different about your book and your argument?
KACZOR: I’ve tried to write a comprehensive, up-to-date, and clear account of why abortion, the choice to intentionally kill a human being prior to birth, is always morally wrong. The book is comprehensive in that it deals with all the major arguments given by philosophers over the last 40 years to justify abortion. It is up-to-date in that I took into account the latest research in an area of ongoing philosophical dispute and inquiry. Finally, I tried to write it in such a way that both regular people and professional philosophers could read it with profit.
My argument is not faith-based, but rather based on reason and evidence. There is no appeal to theological authority; there are no Scripture citations to justify conclusions, and no premises that come from ecclesial authority. The case against abortion is made to all persons of good will, regardless of their faith or lack thereof.
LOPEZ: What’s justice got to do with it?
KACZOR: Aristotle understood justice as giving to each what is due. Abortion is clearly a justice issue. If defenders of abortion are right, then critics of abortion are doing something unjust in trying to curtail and criticize the legitimate actions of women who are terminating their pregnancies. If pro-life advocates are right, then those who perform, obtain, or defend abortions are doing something that is unjust, depriving innocent human beings of their lives. Whatever your view of abortion, justice is involved.
LOPEZ: Is it just to tell a teen she’s got to have a kid when we, culturally, and specifically in some classrooms — sometimes by mandate (see Mike Bloomberg’s sex-ed mandate in New York City schools) — provide no coherent view of the dignity of the human person, and a moral education, which would give a boy and a girl reason to wait?
KACZOR: Of course, no one should ever be forced to become pregnant, but a pregnant woman already “has a kid.” She is an expectant mother with an existing relationship to her own child, who is developing in utero. After pregnancy has begun, the question is not, “Do we force her to have a kid?” but rather “Will we support this expectant mother and her child?” People of good will should answer “yes” to their latter question with their actions. I do think that we do young people a disservice when we do not give them a sound moral education. If we promote an “anything goes” policy with respect to sexual behavior, we can hardly be surprised when unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections arise.
LOPEZ: What does Aristotle have to do with the poor mom who feels as if she has no alternatives when she realizes she is pregnant? The desperate teenager? The single professional who can’t both do her job and have this child?
KACZOR: I believe that everyone, including the poor mom, the desperate teenager, and the single professional, desires to find true happiness. I also believe that Aristotle, and even more fully Thomas Aquinas, showed that the way to true happiness consists in activity in accordance with virtue. There can be, therefore, no authentic happiness found in activity that is unjust. Aristotle’s perspective has found a powerful analogue in the findings of contemporary positive psychology, which emphasizes the concept of flow in activity, strong relationships with others, and forgiveness.
I know that many women face unbelievably difficult circumstances in their pregnancy. For this reason, I think that all people of good will have an obligation to help them, to celebrate their heroism when they choose life, and to love them even when they do not. I can think of one case in particular: a young student, not yet finished with her education, who found herself pregnant with a man she did not know well. With so many responsibilities, both to her extended family and to her studies, she felt desperate, alone, and trapped. It was truly an act of heroism for that woman to decide to place that child for adoption. I know the woman in the story very well. She is my birth mother. I feel such an enormous debt of gratitude to her. Even though her choice was unbelievably difficult, I know and she knows that she made the right decision not to end my life. I don’t think there is any woman who in the long term regrets, even in the most difficult of circumstances, making the choice for life. But I know there are many thousands of women who still remember and mourn, even decades later, the date that their baby would have been born.
LOPEZ: You teach at a Catholic school. Can a thorough case truly be made about the ethics of abortion without involving religion or religious principle on some level?
KACZOR: A case against abortion can be made, and has been made not only by me but by many other philosophers, that does not appeal to religion or principles of revelation. In all the reviews I’ve read of my book, they have taken note that this is a secular, not a religious, treatment of the ethics of abortion.
LOPEZ: Are there myths about abortion you’d like to use this book to shoot down?
KACZOR: There are many myths surrounding abortion. One, just mentioned, is that all opposition to abortion is based on religious faith. A second myth is that there is a debate about “when life begins.” In fact, informed parties, both those opposed to and those in favor of abortion, acknowledge that the human fetus is a living organism, growing, developing, and maintaining homeostasis. These are characteristics of living creatures. Only living things can die, and clearly the human fetus can die, so it is alive. A third myth is that the debate is about whether the “fetus is a human being.” Informed participants in this discussion, regardless of their views about abortion, understand that the living organism within the woman is a member of the species homo sapiens. With a human mother and a human father, with human DNA and a human path of development, the progeny is a human being. The real question in the debate is: Should all human beings be respected and protected, or just some? I favor the inclusive view in part because every single time in human history that we’ve chosen the exclusive view, we’ve made a horrible mistake.
LOPEZ: What the heck does the Star Trek transporter have to do with the ethics of abortion?
KACZOR: In this debate, many colorful and striking images and analogies are used — talking kittens, kidnapping space aliens, waking up hooked up to a violinist. For the most part, I avoid these bizarre analogies, but you’ve mentioned one bizarre analogy that I did not resist. My point was fairly simple that if you and I were fused into one — say via a machine like a Star Trek transporter gone amuck — that would not mean that you and I aren’t still individual, independent persons. So too, if human embryos fuse in utero, this does not mean that there weren’t two independent, individual embryos prior to fusion.
LOPEZ: What is the sum of all personhood debates? And why does it matter?
KACZOR: The debate about “personhood” is really the debate about who will be included in the human community, who will be respected, and who will receive legal protection. This debate goes back over the centuries, throughout which various classes of human beings were excluded from the human family. Those excluded tend to change over time but have been at various points Native Americans, Africans, Catholics in Protestant-dominated countries, Protestants in Catholic-dominated countries, non-Muslims, Jews, the handicapped, and women. Every single time we’ve said, this or that class of human beings does not merit protection and respect, I think we’ve made a terrible mistake. Today, I believe we’re making another terrible mistake in excluding from full protection and respect human beings prior to birth.
LOPEZ: Do advocates of legal abortion and opponents of legal abortion have more in common than is ever portrayed?
KACZOR: At Princeton University a year ago, I participated in a conference called “Open Hearts, OpenMinds and Fair Minded Words.” It brought together some of the most prominent leaders of both sides of the debate, people like Peter Singer, John Finnis, Frances Kissling, and Helen Alvare. I think that (almost) all the participants in the discussion were civil, and most attempted to be reasonable and consistent in their views. Obviously, there are huge disagreements, but there is also a shared commitment by at least some “on the other side” to fairness. Peter Singer, not once but twice, chided the defenders of abortion for misrepresenting the pro-life view. Although many people defending the pro-life view are Catholic, they are not appealing to the pope or any religious presupposition to defend their view. Although I strongly disagree with Singer’s views on most matters, he showed a great deal of consideration and fairness in these remarks.
LOPEZ: Is abortion ever ethical?
KACZOR: No, at least if you mean by “abortion” the intentional killing of a human being prior to birth. There are some abortions, sometimes called “indirect abortions,” in which a legitimate medical procedure is performed to save the life of the mother and as a side effect, unintentionally the life of the unborn is lost. Take, for instance, the case of a gravid cancerous uterus. The cancerous organ can be removed even if there is a pre-viable fetus within it. This is morally permissible, but properly speaking it is not an abortion, even though as a side effect, fetal demise takes place.
LOPEZ: So what if a mother’s life is in danger? What if she has cancer? What if she will likely die if she is not treated? And what if when she is treated, the child might very well die?
KACZOR: As mentioned, any legitimate medical procedure that is needed to save the woman’s life — whether or not she is pregnant — may be performed, so long as the death of the unborn child is not sought as a means or as an end. Of course, a pregnant woman may choose, if she wishes, to decline such interventions in order to preserve the life developing within her. These cases are governed by what is called the principle of double effect or double-effect reasoning. So long as the death of the unborn child is not sought as a means or as an end, and the procedure is necessary in order to save the life of the mother, it may be done even if it brings about the bad effect of fetal death. In a similar way, the death of the mother may not be sought as an end or as a means, yet she may choose to accept her own death as a side effect of protecting the life of her child. Innocent human life is worthy of respect and protection, but in some tragic situations, life will be lost whatever is chosen.
LOPEZ: You write about rape: “It turns out that most women who actually conceive a child do not choose to have an abortion.” How can that possibly matter?
KACZOR: Morally, it is irrelevant whether all women who get pregnant via rape get an abortion or give birth. My point was simply that even though people may think that women who get pregnant in this way all want to get abortions, this is simply not true.
LOPEZ: Congresswoman Jackie Speier made headlines this year when she emotionally talked about her abortion on the House floor, supposedly having the rhetorical effect of shutting down pro-life congressman Christopher Smith? Can you bring some ethical clarity to that episode?
KACZOR: After hearing Christopher Smith describe the gruesome reality of an abortion procedure, Congresswoman Speier said, “I really planned to speak about something else, but the gentleman from New Jersey just put my stomach in knots, because I’m one of those women he spoke about just now. I had a procedure at 17 weeks pregnant with a child who moved from the vagina into the cervix.” She continued, “I lost a baby,” she said, pausing again. “But for you to stand on this floor and suggest, as you have, that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly or done without any thought is preposterous.” I’m not sure that Congressman Smith claimed that this was welcomed or done without thought. I also don’t think that Congresswoman Speier can generalize from her own case and say that all abortions are similar to hers. But what is at issue is not whether abortion is done thoughtfully or cavalierly, but whether what is done is intentionally taking the life of a human being prior to birth. The implicit and fallacious argument of Congresswoman Speier seems to be, “Abortion isn’t bad because I did it.” She is confusing a judgment about persons — this person is bad — with a judgment about actions — this act is wrong. We can and should refrain from judging people who have had abortions, since we do not know their mind and heart. We cannot judge their culpability for their actions. But at the same time, we can and must judge whether particular actions are just or unjust.
LOPEZ: How about the ethics of this: Do pro-lifers do enough to promote adoption? To make it easier both for people who want to adopt and for people who want/need to offer their child to adoptive parents?
KACZOR: I think pro-life people do a lot to promote adoptions, but I don’t think the same thing is true of “pro-choice” people. If they are really in favor of choice, I would expect them to be big proponents of adoption. I may be mistaken but I don’t think Planned Parenthood spends much if any money promoting this choice. By contrast, pro-life people run crisis-pregnancy centers from coast to coast. Of course, more can be done, but I’ve been impressed by the continuous and courageous efforts of so many people to promote adoption. As mentioned, I am a huge beneficiary of these efforts.
LOPEZ: You are optimistic about the prospect of artificial wombs bringing an end to the abortion debate. But that could be a tad fantastical, couldn’t it? Friendly human-like aliens who want to adopt children might end the abortion debate too. I’m sure there are awesome pro-life sci-fi movies to be made, but we don’t live in The Twilight Zone.
KACZOR: I’m not especially optimistic about this prospect on the practical level. First, I think it would be fantastically expensive, at least at first. Secondly, I think that many women who seek abortions would choose to end the life within them rather than choose an early adoption through artificial wombs.
LOPEZ: Can the abortion debate end without artificial wombs?
KACZOR: I don’t see any end to the debate for some time, but of course something radical could happen that changes everything. For example, if the very existence of the human race were threatened, I can imagine people thinking very differently about abortion. But this is rather sci-fi.
LOPEZ: How do you hope pro-lifers use your book?
KACZOR: I hope that this book can be of use to many students who encounter justifications for abortion in the classroom. It could be used to train pro-life speakers and advocates. I know it is already being used in classrooms at Georgetown University and Catholic University on the East Coast and Biola University on the West Coast.
KACZOR: The book has already been reviewed by many who favor abortion, and I was happy to see that they seem to be respecting the position the book takes even if they do not agree with it. For example, David Boonin said, “This is one of the very best book-length defenses of the claim that abortion is morally impermissible. It is clear, thorough, thoughtful and carefully argued. I would strongly encourage anyone who is interested in the subject to read it and to study it.” In a prominent journal in philosophy called Ethics, another defender of abortion, David DeGrazia, said, “In my estimation, the greatest success of the book is that it suggests to any fair-minded reader that the pro-life view remains standing as a reasonable position, notwithstanding some very powerful arguments from defenders of abortion.”
LOPEZ: What’s the most important point made in it?
KACZOR: The most important point is that all human beings regardless of race, sentience, gender, viability, class, or birth have intrinsic dignity and a right to life.
LOPEZ: If there can be only one take-away from your book for anyone, what would you hope it would be?
KACZOR: I would hope that after reading my book, someone would either come to the conclusion or be strengthened in their belief that abortion is wrong. This idea was so well articulated by the late Richard John Neuhaus, “We shall not weary, we shall not rest, until every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life.”
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.