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Abortion: Maxims for moral analysis


At the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it might help if we could generate some moral conversation on the issues involved. As the debate has progressed, pro-life and pro-choice have staked out theological positions that, like most transcendent claims, are almost impossible to resolve. The ultimate theological character of Catholic pro-life arguments are clearly revealed when one goes beyond slogans like “respect for life” and asks, “Which life?”

A traditional Jewish position has been that when it comes to which life, it is the mother’s life that has precedence. The traditional Catholic position has been that if there were a life for life decision, either the mother or the child dies, it is the child’s life that has precedence because the mother has already been baptized and been able to work out her salvation; the baby has not. Whatever one may think of that argument, it is clearly one that works only within a set of rather special theological assumptions. It is not a moral argument available to rational assessment.

Decisions about “which life” are by and large hypothetical. Given modern obstetrical technique it almost never comes down to such a crisis. I was debating the abortion question with Joseph Fletcher, the chief proponent of “situation ethics.” Fletcher cited a situation where answering which life was compelling. In Nazi concentration camps, he said, women who were pregnant were immediately executed. Because of this policy, Jewish doctors performed hundreds of abortions for women in the camps.

Suppose, then, that a pregnant Jewish mother is cast into the camp along with her two young children. She has the decision to abort or to face execution and thus abandon the living children. The Jewish position would be that the mother as the center of the family takes precedence and in the concentration camp case there would seem to be a powerful moral obligation to protect the born even at the cost of the unborn.

Fletcher cited this example as an utter refutation of my own antiabortion argument. I countered that the trouble was that he was a failure as a situation ethicist. Extreme situations -- lifeboat cases as they are sometimes called -- do not as such give a rule for morals. We don’t think it permissible to eat the corpses of our friends -- but in a lifeboat when we are starving? Well.

Moral discussion proceeds from certain general maxims that may fail utterly in extreme situations. Could one really fault a Jewish mother who chose abortion over abandonment of her living children? I doubt it, but the extreme case does not validate abortion in general, in every case.

Which leads to the “theology” of pro-choice. Is a woman’s choice a value to be honored? Yes, that is a fixed moral principle. Are all the choices made by women (or men) moral choices? Hardly. Is the choice for abortion moral? It would certainly seem plausible in the concentration camp case cited. Would it be moral if a woman chose abortion as a way of punishing her husband or herself? One could at least have doubts that abortion out of vindictiveness is morally worthy.

For pro-choicers, these latter questions cannot be raised because “choice” has become theological, an action so sanctified that no situation in which that choice is exercised can be subjected to moral question. For pro-lifers the life of the fetus is sanctified in such manner that a situation of genuine moral conflict is impossible. No wonder we have got nowhere in the discussion of abortion in the last 30 years.

I would like to suggest that pro-life/pro-choice advocates reorient themselves to some moral discussion of abortion. Pro-life Catholics will have to put aside the theology that always gives precedence to the fetus; pro-choicers will have to put aside the theologizing of choice. The moral question is which choices, in what situations. To admit “situations” into moral discourse is not to subvert discussion in a slew of relativism. Moral maxims remain but morality is fitting maxims to situations. What would be some of the maxims guiding a moral discussion?

Maxim One: Abortion presents itself within a specifiable moral situation. This qualifies the pro-life position by insisting that situation is relevant, the fetus is not always protected. The pro-choice position is qualified by insisting that abortion presents itself as a moral situation. Abortion is not morally neutral like choosing cosmetic surgery.

Maxim Two: Abortion is a serious procedure. Pro-lifers can’t see abortion as a therapy at all, even to prevent serious harm. Pro-choicers fail to regard abortion as serious therapy, the sort of procedure that one would enter into only for compelling reason. Amputation is a serious therapy for serious conditions; abortion should be serious therapy for serious reasons. Abortion as a routine contraceptive technique trivializes the seriousness of the procedure not only for the woman but for what it says about the status of fetal life.

A challenge to pro-choicers: One need not invest fetal life with all the values claimed for it by pro-life advocates, but it coarsens human life to regard the fetus as having no value. The woman who miscarries in a much-desired pregnancy is not distressed over a nothing.

Maxim Three: No woman should be compelled to have an abortion. This follows from the admission that it is serious therapy. If there is an alternative to a serious therapy (abortion, amputation) one should opt for the alternative. Pro-choice and pro-life people should both applaud the no compulsion maxim. Both sides should therefore foster responsible preventive measures to avoid disastrous pregnancies that “force” women into the choice for abortion.

This is a challenge to pro-lifers mired in anti-contraception views that prohibit contraception as the “lesser of two evils.” Again, theological injunction blocks moral deliberation. If God forbids abortion and contraception as absolutes, there can be no weighing of “evils.” Fine, but that is not the stuff of moral argument.

Maxim Four: There are proper moral, political and cultural means that would eliminate much of the compulsion that leads to abortion as a choice. This is where things get difficult. It would require both sides to engage in mutual moral deliberation instead of trading theological absolutes. However, if one accepted the prior maxims there would be obvious ways to enrich the public policies, life situations and the discourse that affect the choice for abortion: available adoption, moral, economic and social support for unwanted pregnancies, recognition of some value for fetal life.

At the present time, both political parties play the issue false. The Democrats have made it a theological/litmus test to oppose any limitation on “choice” -- and thus any policies that might constrain or educate choice. Republicans inveigh against Roe v. Wade, posturing about a legal reversal, which they are reasonably sure won’t ever come about -- and probably would just as soon never happened.

Dennis O’Brien is the retired president of the University of Rochester. He is author of The Idea of a Catholic University (University of Chicago Press).

National Catholic Reporter, March 7, 2003