Lincoln and Abortion
George McKenna's article "On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position" (September Atlantic) accomplishes one important objective. It forces pro-choice supporters to acknowledge that abortion does involve the destruction of a potentially living person. It is a procedure that cannot be recommended lightly and should not be dismissed casually, even though McKenna's quotation from Christopher Hitchens that an abortion must "break some bones and rupture some organs" is a pro-life picture that does not apply to early abortions. I believe that pro-choice supporters should face the fact that we human beings, like all the other animals on this earth, are sometimes required to carry out distasteful, even immoral, actions if we are to survive. If we permitted cats, dogs, rats, mice, cockroaches, bacteria, and viruses to breed without limit, we could not survive. However, in using other living things for our purposes, we must always recognize, as Albert Schweitzer did, that the mosquito must be destroyed regretfully. Destroying a fetus may be necessary when birth-control methods are not available, but it should never be done casually.
Daniel L. Kline
In spite of the black-and-white positions taken by those on both sides of the abortion debate, the choice of an abortion almost always involves tradeoffs between greater and lesser negative effects. Very few people would refuse an abortion to a woman about whom the best medical opinion was that carrying the fetus to term would kill her and most likely the fetus as well. Few would refuse an abortion to a woman who was carrying a grievously deformed fetus. Probably a minority would refuse an abortion to a woman who was pregnant as the result of forcible rape or incest. On the other hand, probably the majority would prefer to refuse an abortion if a woman wanted a son but was carrying a female fetus. In every situation where a decision is made to have an abortion or not, the welfare of the woman must be weighed against the welfare of the embryo or fetus. Often the welfare of the man involved or of other family members must be taken into account.
I am unhesitatingly and unapologetically pro-choice, because I believe that women pay the major price for child bearing and child-rearing. As a society, we all pay the price for unwanted children--in the form of welfare payments, social efforts to assist abused children, the impact on society of dysfunctional adults who were poorly nurtured children, and much more.
George McKenna claims that abortion advocates are afraid to speak of what they support, but he neglects the fact that many abortion advocates favor just what they say they favor, which is reproductive choice, broadly defined. This entails access to birth control, protection from rape and abuse by a spouse or partner, education about their bodies and human sexuality, and, yes--sometimes--access to safe, legal abortion. Any abortion advocate with any sense would rather prevent a pregnancy than end it with an abortion, but until a whole range of social changes come into being--including easy availability of birth control, a reduction in our consumer society's obsession with selling things with sex, and a significant reduction in the risk for many women of violent reprisal from their mates if they refuse sex--that will not be possible in many cases.
Colleen Carpenter Cullinan
The Netherlands has attained the lowest abortion rate in the Western world and, note this, also the lowest percentage of unwanted babies (two percent), thus making politicking superfluous. These results were achieved in good measure by introducing at the elementary school level the subject of sex organs as a "natural" within the biology sequence--at an age when undesirable reaction is not likely. In high school, as part of their brand of social studies, comes a look at sexual behavior and how to handle it. About thirty years ago Denmark took the lead in this matter, and a significant number of our own schools are following suit. If this does not show the desired results in the United States, we'd better find out why. One can argue that such a curriculum may lead to increased promiscuity. Even if that is so, it is for the nation's health the lesser, by far, of the two evils. I, for one, believe that promiscuity, in particular in our inner cities, can be successfully addressed in schools only after basic sex education.
George McKenna's analysis would be more profound if he acknowledged that abortion is morally quite different from slavery. Even if one believes that an unborn child has a right to life, is it just that that right (and the interests of society in protecting that right) should impose such a potentially devastating burden on the mother? Can we so clearly conclude that abortion is wrong--as we can indeed about slavery--when the impact of carrying an unwanted child to term can be as life-threatening and as abusive of the mother as slavery itself?
Though probably right in principle, "tolerate, restrict, discourage" can work --and be remotely fair--only when democracy replaces hypocrisy. This country must enforce its statutory-rape laws, fund welfare and Head Start programs, track down deadbeat dads, and piece together its educational system. Until then I, for one, will continue to argue and vote strongly pro-choice, even though ideally I would support George McKenna's well-charted middle ground. Frankly, abortion is less wrong than the status quo, and is positively rosy compared with the status quo that would be born if abortion were illegal.
The moral premise of George McKenna's essay is that "abortion is troubling because it is a killing process." As a beginning of the candor and clarity McKenna calls for, it's worth trying to specify just why killing is wrong. What does it mean to say that life is sacred? Few people advocate compulsory vegetarianism; for most of us, only human life is sacred. What is the difference between human and nonhuman life? Human beings have ideas, passions, desires, hopes, memories, expectations, intentions--that is, feelings and mental experiences of a complexity and intensity apparently not found in other species. These feelings and thoughts are inestimably precious; they make life worth living. Having them is arguably what "being human" means. When a human creature stops having them--through brain death or some other irreparable calamity--we don't, in practice, consider him or her fully human any longer; and whether we deny or accord such creatures any further life depends not on their wishes--they have none--but on their families' and caretakers' wishes.
A fetus does not have ideas, passions, desires, hopes, memories, expectations, or intentions. As far as I know, no one claims otherwise, even those who are certain that a fetus is a person (whatever they may mean). A three-month-old fetus weighs one ounce. A six-month-old fetus weighs twenty-eight ounces. It does not have neurotransmitters, myelinated nerve fibers, or a well-articulated cerebral cortex. As a result, it has no sensations of any complexity and no awareness of itself. Late in pregnancy the fetus may perhaps feel pain, but certainly less intense and exquisite pain than many adult mammals, whom we annually slaughter by the hundreds of millions for reasons far less urgent than those of women seeking abortions. Why, then, might anyone believe that the life of a fetus is sacred?
I can imagine three reasons. First, its parents cherish hopes for it and would suffer greatly if it died. But these fetuses--they are the large majority--are not in any danger; on the contrary, they are cared for with all the resources the free market allows them. Second, it receives from God an immaterial, immortal soul at the moment of conception. McKenna should not underestimate how many people believe that this is why an unwanted fetus has a right to life, and thus to what extent the outlawing of abortion would be religiously motivated. Third, a fetus, though it is not a person, is a potential person. If it survives, it will eventually have ideas, passions, desires, etc.--will eventually become an actual person. Everyone can agree on this, but what follows from it? As far as I can see, nothing. It is arbitrary to restrict potential personhood to fetuses: every unfertilized ovum--for that matter, every sexual stirring--is, in strict logic, a potential person.