“Can we talk about abortion?” Dennis O’Brien, Peter Steinfels, and Cathleen Kaveny asked in a noteworthy exchange in Commonweal (September, 23, 2011). Let me jump into the conversation and insist: Yes, we can. But in my opinion we can’t talk about it in the way most Catholic ethicists now do—at least not if we want to address the problem of abortion as it really is. If we want to do that, we need to expand the terms in which the Catholic case against abortion gets made.

In his excellent 2010 book The Ethics of Abortion, Loyola Marymount philosophy professor Christopher Kaczor identifies “the status of the human being in utero” as the crucial question on which “critic and defender of abortion disagree.” Sure enough, Catholic ethicists have tended to focus on just this question. Patrick Lee, in the recently published second edition of Abortion and Unborn Human Life, makes a strong case that “the human being is essentially a physical organism, and the organism comes to be at conception,” with the conclusion that “it is wrong to kill a human being whether he or she is two years outside the womb, one month past conception, or three days past conception.” And in Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen elaborate the case for the newly conceived, arguing that “human beings in the embryonic stage are already, and not merely potentially, human beings.” According to George and Tollefsen, the embryonic, fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages are all “developmental stages of a determinate and enduring being who comes into existence as a single-celled human organism and develops, if all goes well, into adulthood by a gradual and gapless process over many years.”

I agree that the case for the humanity and full moral standing of the fetus is a strong one. But here is where Catholic ethicists fail us. In my view, focusing the argument against abortion on the status of the unborn is too limited. The Catholic argument need not rest here—indeed, it cannot rest here if it is to succeed. Instead, the Catholic argument against abortion on demand ought to be recast as one that addresses not only the status of the unborn, but the proper attitudes to have toward developing human life whether the fetus is a full human from conception or not.

The first claim I want to establish is that while the case for the humanity and full moral standing of the fetus is a strong one, it cannot honestly be considered the only plausible position. My aim, again, is not to undermine Catholic opposition to abortion on demand, but to indicate that the terms of this opposition need expanding.

Let us begin by considering a recent article by the philosopher Andrew Peach, arguing against the developmental or process theory of human genesis. This theory takes its start from the widely shared intuition that a late-term abortion is more seriously wrong than an early-term abortion. As Peach writes, “in arguments in favor of abortion rights, the intuition that there are moral differences between late- and early-term abortions has been cited as evidence that an early-term abortion is somehow a different kind of act from a late-term one because of an alleged change in the moral standing of the fetus.” Such arguments hold that prior to some point in development, the fetus is not a full human being, and thus that “abortion is some type of action other than murder”—albeit an action morally significant enough to require justification. Warren Quinn’s 1984 article “Abortion: Identity and Loss,” from the journal Philosophy & Public Affairs, may serve as an example here. Quinn begins by articulating three moral intuitions that he finds “persuasive” and “compelling.” His key intuitions are that: (1) “a very early abortion stands in need of moral justification in a way that the surgical removal of a mere mass of tissue does not”; (2) “abortion occurring early enough in pregnancy, at least before all the organ systems of the fetus are complete, is not morally equivalent either to the killing of an adult or the killing of an infant”; and (3) “as pregnancy progresses abortion becomes increasingly problematic from the moral point of view,” such that “more, and perhaps considerably more, is required to justify an abortion at six months than at one month.”

Quinn proceeds to develop what he calls “alternative metaphysical theories of the status of the fetus and the nature of fetal development in which these moral intuitions could be seen as satisfied.” One is the so-called process theory, according to which “an individual human being gradually comes to exist.” In this view, a fetus is indeed a human being, but it may not be a fully realized human being at a given time: that is, it may be a human being in the making, only partly realized. Analogously, a house under construction is indeed a house—it makes perfect sense for someone to refer to his or her house under construction as a house—but it is a partly and not fully realized house. To make sense of this idea, Quinn introduces a distinction between things that possess a complex reality and can be broken down into two classes—one fully realized and the other only partly realized—and those that do not and cannot. Take, by way of example, houses, beer, and wine (and, ostensibly, human beings), and, on the other hand, paper, seashells, and currency. The implications of this theory for the morality of abortion are clear. From this point of view, abortion is always morally significant, since it is in fact the killing of a human being; but an early-term abortion is less morally objectionable than a late-term abortion, since the early-term abortion kills a partly realized human being—not the equivalent of a child or adult, whose killing would in most circumstances constitute murder. The seriousness of abortion increases, furthermore, as the fetus develops and becomes, gradually, a fully realized human being.

Though Andrew Peach agrees with Catholic ethicists on the moral status of the unborn, his principal response to the process theory is not to attack the thesis that substances admit of degrees or grades. Such an attack might succeed in casting some doubt on the theory, but would leave untouched the intuitions underlying it. So, instead, Peach offers an alternative account of the grounds of such intuitions—that gut feeling that when it comes to abortion, “later is worse than earlier.” Whereas proponents of the process theory develop this intuition into the position, in Peach’s words, that “an early-term abortion is somehow a different kind of act from a late-term one because of an alleged change in the moral standing of the fetus,” Peach holds that it is consistent to regard all direct abortions “as acts of murder and inherently wrong” while acknowledging that abortions can differ in moral gravity according to the circumstances in which they are performed.

Consider what Peach calls, following Aquinas, the circumstances “touching the act.” Peach proposes that it makes sense to consider the act of a late-term abortion worse than that of an early-term abortion because of “the greater likelihood of the fetus feeling pain” in the second and third trimesters. In the second and third trimesters, moreover, “the possibility of the [fetus’s] living outside the womb increases,” and thus “the decision to abort, as opposed to having the child removed and incubated, should be regarded as more wanton…than the decision to abort a previable fetus.” There is no implication here that aborting a previable fetus is not wrong; instead, the point is that aborting a viable fetus is generally “more wrong” in the sense of graver and more objectionable—provoking the moral outrage that many people feel, for example, over partial-birth abortions.

Late-term abortions provoke outrage and even disgust not only toward the circumstances of the act, however, but toward the agents. “Other things being equal,” Peach writes, “it is possible that, in the earliest stages of a pregnancy, a woman, as well as the father of her child, may be antecedently [that is, inculpably] ignorant of the moral standing of the developing human life.” To abort the child would be wrong, yes; but the woman and man in question might deserve pity rather than condemnation. By contrast, Peach goes on, “to deny the humanity and personhood of the fetus at later stages of the pregnancy almost certainly must involve some active cooperation on the part of the agents involved”—in a word, negligence, if not malice. Hence the feeling that “later is worse than earlier.” Similarly, we can also understand that a woman first apprised of an unexpected pregnancy might well feel a wash of passions—“dread of the burden of carrying the baby…apprehension and anxiety at the notion of being a parent…fear of being financially and emotionally abandoned by the biological father, etc.,” and so her decision to have an early-term abortion, while still wrong, can be forgiven as an act of weakness rather than malice. Yet, Peach observes, “should a person (or persons) endure the initial onslaught of emotion and, after ample time for deliberation and investigation into the nature of the being in the womb, still decide to abort in the later stages of pregnancy, one may more reasonably suspect”—other things being equal—“that the parties in question have a wanton disregard for human life.” Hence, again, the feeling that “later is worse than earlier.”

Peach goes on to consider the further ramifications of late-term abortions, but the point is already clear: there is reason to find late-term abortions more objectionable than early-term abortions—but not, on Peach’s account, because they are a different kind of act. In terms of the act itself, there is no reason to view an early-term abortion as something other than the intentional killing of an innocent human being, even if we do sometimes find it more forgivable. We might sum up by saying that on Peach’s account, the difference between early-term abortion and late-term abortion is that, other things being equal, the latter constitutes murder under aggravating circumstances, the former murder under mitigating circumstances.

How are we to decide between the way process theory accounts for the intuition that “later is worse than earlier” and the way Peach does? Peach recommends his account by deriding process theory’s “dubious account of personhood,” and Patrick Lee has claimed that “being a certain kind of substantial entity is an either/or matter—a thing either is or is not a human being.” Along these lines it might also be objected that there is no clear, nonarbitrary point at which we could say a human being in the making becomes a fully realized human being, with the full moral standing of children and adults. Quinn proposes that “it is natural to think that the becoming process is over when the higher nervous system is developed enough for the organism to start learning, in the fashion of the normal neonate, the ways of the world”—but why is it “natural” to think so? And should we conclude that mentally disabled infants, who cannot learn “in the fashion of the normal neonate,” do not constitute full human beings with full moral standing? Quinn for his part does not maintain that a six-month-old fetus, albeit still an only partly realized human being, may be killed simply at will; he insists that serious justification would be required. Yet what precisely would constitute such justification is an issue Quinn leaves “gladly…aside.” “How the complex web of moral forces vectors out in particular situations,” he closes his article, “is, as Aristotle would say, what the wise man knows.”

Such a conclusion will strike many as insufficient, even evasive. Nonetheless, Quinn’s distinction between complex and simple types of being seems at least plausible, and in light of that plausibility Lee’s claim that “a thing either is or is not a human being” is not as self-evident as he might believe. And while it seems right that there is no clear point at which we can say that a human being in the making becomes a fully realized human being, the conclusion does not necessarily follow that we must abandon this distinction altogether. Is there a clear point at which a house in the making becomes a finished house? After what number of lost hairs does a man become bald? To be sure, these examples do not establish that human beings come into being gradually, but they do make the proposition intelligible; at the very least, they exempt it from derision.

In the end, it might be thought that the critical question on which the morality of abortion turns is whether substances do in fact admit of degrees or grades of being. But this suggestion ought to strike us, I think, as amazing. Consider the decision of whether to abort a fourteen-week-old fetus: does the rightness or wrongness of such an action truly turn on such an abstract, disembodied consideration? As the philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse has remarked, it is “a most bizarre aspect of nearly all the current philosophical literature on abortion…that, far from treating abortion as a unique moral problem, markedly unlike any other, nearly everything written on the status of the fetus and its bearing on the abortion issue would be consistent with the human reproductive facts (to say nothing of family life) being totally different from what they are.”

The process theory is not the Catholic theory, of course, and the great majority of Catholics reject its implications. But why? It might be thought—the Catholic ethicists I have cited seem to think—that Catholic opposition to abortion stands or falls with metaphysics. But, so far as I can tell, the jury is out—and is likely to stay out for some time to come—on such metaphysical questions as whether substances admit of degrees or grades. Yes, it is important to have arguments supporting the humanity of the fetus. But there is no need for the argument to rest there, and as we have seen, it cannot rest there, given the plausibility of the process theory.

So how should the argument against abortion be expanded? Let me come at this question by considering a concrete example. An August 2011 New York Times Magazine article, “The Two-Minus-One Pregnancy,” looked at the phenomenon of so-called pregnancy reductions. Developed in the 1980s as an emergency medical intervention in response to “mega-birth pregnancies” created by fertility treatments, the practice “has quietly become an option for women carrying twins,” the article notes—with one fetal twin receiving a fatal injection of potassium chloride while the other is carried to term. There is typically no medical indication for the procedure; it is done because the woman or couple simply does not want twins. One woman who chose to abort one of her two fourteen-week-old fetuses explains her and her husband’s decision this way: “Things would have been different if we were fifteen years younger or if we hadn’t had children already or if we were more financially secure.” Predictably, the procedure is controversial, even among obstetricians who have no qualms about aborting singletons, healthy or not. Yet, as one doctor rather defensively asks, “In a society where women can terminate a single pregnancy for any reason—financial, social, emotional—if we have a way to reduce a twin pregnancy with very little risk, isn’t it legitimate to offer that service?”

How should Catholics—or anyone else for that matter—argue against this practice? In my view, insisting that a fetus is a fully realized human being from conception is not the right point to push, or at least not the only point. For even if the fetus is regarded as “merely” a developing human life, it still seems deeply callous to reject it on the grounds that one had hoped to have only one child at this time, not two, and that a second will make life more difficult. Surely to abort a fetus because it is inconvenient is to exhibit the wrong attitude toward the value of human life.

It is not difficult to anticipate the reply: What gives anyone the right to prescribe for anyone else the right attitude toward the value of human life? But this reply is thoughtless. For it is no minority opinion that human life is precious: we know that it is. A full account of the Catholic attitude to life would delve deeply into theology, yet the position that human life is precious and calls for great respect need not be explicated or grounded in terms of this or that faith tradition. On this point, secular and faith traditions come together in an overlapping—and overwhelming—consensus. Take another example: deciding whether to abort a fetus found to have a serious illness, defect, or developmental challenge. The political philosopher Shelley Burtt writes that 

the question is not whether it is right to desire a “normal” child, but how one ought to respond when genetic testing reveals that desire has been thwarted. To take steps at that point to abort the fetus and “try again” is not just to decide against being pregnant or in favor of “controlling one’s life.” It is to decide in advance and for another that a certain sort of life (a female one, a physically handicapped one, a mentally retarded one) is not worth living. The moral scope and impact of this decision appears to me far more troubling than a decision for or against parenthood based solely on a positive pregnancy test. Postponing an abortion decision until one knows what sort of child has been created places relative weights on human beings: some are more worthy of living, of being cared for, of being cherished, than others.

And such an attitude toward human life is surely wrong to have—not the attitude, at any rate, that a wise, virtuous, caring person would exhibit.

In the United States, since Roe and Casey, the law of the land holds that states may not unduly burden women opting for abortions within the first two trimesters of pregnancy. That a person has a legal right, however, does not mean that he or she is right—meaning virtuous, as opposed to callous, self-indulgent, or cruel—to exercise it. The moral argument over abortion extends beyond the legal argument and need not be limited to its terms. What I find lacking in the way most Catholic ethicists argue against abortion is precisely that they limit themselves to the consideration on which Roe turned—namely, whether the unborn constitute persons. Soon after Roe, Catholics and others began comparing it to the Dred Scott decision, which denied “negroes” citizenship, excluding them from the collective “we the people” of the Constitution. The comparison of abortion to chattel slavery is now common in the literature opposing abortion: just as slavery was premised on a denial of the personhood or full humanity of blacks, so is abortion premised on a denial of the personhood or full humanity of the unborn. Accordingly, there has recently developed a movement to pass amendments to state constitutions declaring a fertilized human egg a legal person—responding to Roe much as the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution responded to Dred Scott.

But it is naïve to think that the problem of abortion can be solved in this way. What is needed instead, or in addition, is a less abstract approach, one that focuses on the meaning and function of abortion in the living, breathing context of people’s actual lives. Referring to Roe, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin remarked in 1984 that “what the decision did not change was the substantial, broad-based, and solidly grounded view of American citizens across the land that abortion on request is not a satisfactory way to address the real problems individuals and families face in this delicate area of respecting human life.” Note that Bernardin does not deny that there are “real problems individuals and families face” here; indeed, he affirms it. The question to consider is how to address these problems, from lack of nutrition, housing, and health care (in a word, poverty) to a long list that Christopher Kaczor fills in: “broken families; drug abuse…; abusive relationships; incomplete education; fear of public humiliation; antagonistic partners; failed love.” To quote Bernardin again, abortion is surely not “a satisfactory way” to address any of these problems, and it is difficult to imagine people of good faith disagreeing with this claim. But simply outlawing abortion, on the grounds that the unborn constitute persons, also would not address these problems—the very problems that drive many women to abortion and that motivate women and men to defend abortion rights.

In this light, one wonders if Catholic ethicists focus exclusively on the status of the fetus and rule out all direct abortions as murder partly from a worry that Catholics might otherwise have to accede to abortion in some circumstances. For while it is easy enough to say that well-to-do couples who decide to abort a healthy twin exhibit the wrong attitude toward developing human life, what about an impoverished, overworked, and bone-tired woman who has already borne, say, ten children, and whose abusive and nonsupporting husband can be counted on only to want more sex? Would she show a lack of reverence for human life by seeking an early-term abortion? If we do not base the argument against abortion on the thesis that a fetus is a fully realized human being from conception, it may be difficult to know how to oppose abortion in such a case—and many such hard cases could no doubt be brought forth.

My basic claim is that, while it may be difficult to come to terms with such hard cases, it is a difficulty that Catholics, and in particular Catholic ethicists, must take on if we want to address the problem of abortion as it is—and if we want to be able to talk about abortion with people who do not see eye to eye with us on it. If Catholics cannot make the case that abortion is never properly regarded as a “blessed escape” from the problems pregnancy may throw at people, there seems little chance of seeing abortion rates significantly decline, even if Roe is overturned. Furthermore, arguments must be accompanied by initiatives, in our church and in our polity, to make Pope John Paul II’s “culture of life” more real. It is important to understand that the sorts of attitudes that people can sustain, or even comprehend, depend on the conditions of those people’s lives. In medieval and even early modern Europe, for example, child abandonment was widespread—not because children were not cherished, but because subsistence economies often did not produce enough food for the many children women bore. In short, an argument concerned with the proper attitude toward developing human life cannot concern itself only with developing human life. Attention must be given as well to the living conditions on the other side of birth, for these living conditions help determine how a new life will be greeted. As Bernardin insisted, “our lack of moral vision in protecting unborn children” is connected with “our lack of social vision in the provision of basic necessities for women and children.”

Attention must also be given—as John Paul saw—to the culture in which we live. For it is not only poor living conditions that may lead people to see abortion as a blessed escape. Say a woman is single and in her twenties, and finds herself pregnant after failed contraception. It is certainly understandable that she might see abortion as a blessed escape, for we can imagine how reluctant she might be to go through nine months of pregnancy and have a child at this point in her life and in these circumstances. What are we to say to such a woman? In order to know that, we have to be able to listen to her first. As Bernardin asked, “Have we stepped back from the legal debate enough so that we can really hear the issues, the struggles, and the anguish of women who face life issues in a way that we never will? I wonder whether we have adequately spoken a word of faith to them. I wonder whether we have inspired the community to help carry the burdens of our sisters in faith.”

Catholics, whose moral and social tradition joins concern for the unborn with concern for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, have an important contribution to make here. Catholic ethicists can help—but only if they can state the case against abortion in ways that do not turn solely on the status of the unborn. If they fail to do this, we Catholics will end up talking mostly to ourselves, and in ways that further entrench our political culture’s frustrating alternatives, the division of our concerns and energies into opposed commitments: for social justice on the left and the unborn on the right. Surely we can hope for better. I believe that achieving it calls for a richer—and riskier—moral discourse.

Funding for this article was provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. 

Bernard G. Prusak holds the Raymond and Eleanor Smiley Chair in Business Ethics at John Carroll University.

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Published in the 2012-11-23 issue: View Contents
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