Gail Collins and Maureen Dowd are regular columnists in The New York Times. Both are politically progressive, feisty, and very good writers. I think of them as spiritual sisters, I rarely agree with their opinions, and I enjoy reading them. On June 28, 2014, Collins wrote a piece entitled “Our Eggs and Us”. [The date marks the 100th anniversary of the historic assassination in Sarajevo that started World War I; it was also the first day of Ramadan. I doubt if this coincidence is in any way relevant. But I tend to notice such things.] The eggs in Collins’ title refer to ova, which anti-abortionists believe to be fully human individuals as soon as they are fertilized. [No doubt because of my possibly pathological habit of making irrelevant associations, I just recalled the song “Every sperm is sacred” in an episode of Monty Python. Too late for the notorious British television program, but there could be a second verse, “Every egg is sacred”.]
Collins writes: “Personhood is an anti-abortion movement that holds that life begins at conception”. Collins is right in that the term “personhood” has lately been used in anti-abortion rhetoric and legislative initiatives. But it hardly refers to a new “movement”; the assumption about the status of the fertilized egg has been held by anti-abortion advocates for a long time. I am not clear what Collins is actually saying in her column, except to suggest that these advocates are often male politicians whose views on abortion have “developed” in line with electoral tactics (like Barack Obama’s on same-sex marriage?), and also to remind us that “men do not get pregnant”. [Are female politicians immune against such “developments”?]
The focus of Collin’s piece is on Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, who in 2013 introduced a “Life at Conception Act” in the Senate. He described himself as “100% pro-life”, though with “thousands of exceptions”. Paul is puzzling and somehow endearing as marching to his own drum, being both identified with the Tea Party and with Libertarianism. [He is also an ophthalmologist. I know of only one other political figure trained in this medical specialty—President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. I would not want eye glasses prescribed by either one—not, I hasten to add, that I would equate them morally.]
Collins describes the ongoing conflict over abortion as “a debate over theological dogma”. It is correct, of course, that theologically conservative religious groups, notably the Roman Catholic Church, and many Evangelical Protestants and Orthodox Jews, have strongly opposed abortion. But that position is shared by many Americans who are not so identified religiously. It is interesting that the figures for anti- and pro-abortion views have remained stable for quite a long time, but that the former have gone up recently—especially among young people! In other words, the numbers adhering to the anti-abortion “theology” have gone up among young Americans, but hardly as a result of religious conversion. I’m inclined to think that there are at any rate two reasons for this: over-reach by the pro-choice forces in opposing any term limits for abortion (including late-term, even latest-term abortions), a position that many people find morally repulsive; and the availability of ultrasound pictures of embryos, visible as clearly human beings at (for many viewers) surprisingly early stages of pregnancy. But this is not the issue I want to pursue here. Rather, I want to engage in an exercise of semantic hygiene with the terminology used by both sides in this conflict.
The term “pro-life” is misleading. The anti-abortion camp may come to regret its use of the notion of “personhood”, not because it is wrong but, precisely, because it is right—and may invite the observation that “life” is not a synonym of “person”, and that the latter word rather than the former applies here: The issue is not whether an embryo is human life, rather whether if is a human person. Of course it is human life, but is it a human person? My appendix, removed when I was about twelve, of course was human life—not dog life, or amoeba life; but its removal was not an act of homicide. If abortion were such an act, anti-abortionists should be in favor of putting all those involved in it, mothers as well as physicians, on trial for murder.
Recognizing even then that destroying an embryo is not the same as killing an irritating teenager, the charge may be something less than first-degree murder—say second-degree murder, or even manslaughter—but certainly not a charge for asserting “a woman’s right over her own body”. Defending the idea that the embryo is an individual entitled to legal protection, anti-abortionists appeal to science: The embryo already has the whole genetic makeup of the adult. That is correct, but, as the philosopher Max Scheler put it, I have my body, but I am not my body. An acceptance of this proposition must be the foundation of any notion of moral and legal responsibility. This touches on a basic mystery of human being, the dependence of the self on the body but yet the difference between the two. In other words, “my DNA made me do it” is not a valid legal defense. It is rather curious that many anti-abortionists who base their position on an alleged natural law do not perceive the profoundly materialistic implication of this position. In sum, the question here is not when life begins, but when the person begins.
The term “pro-choice” is also misleading. A woman surely has the right to choose what to do with her body: The question is when an abortion destroys the body of another person. Thus all this talk about “reproductive rights” (which Collins also invokes) is very misleading. An individual has choices, but not all choices are morally equal. An ardent pro-abortion activist may insist that a woman has the right to choose an abortion a week before birth would occur: Why not a week after birth? Or for that matter a month, or three months, or a year after birth? If the basic criterion is the well-being of the mother, surely a one-year-old baby is a greater burden than an eight-month old embryo. As far as I know, pro-abortion ideology does not ask such questions, instead perceives them as legitimations of the “war against women”. This perception comes out of a quasi-theological “dogma”. A dogma typically has a list of forbidden questions; to raise them makes you a heretic.
Pro-life advocates proclaim that a person begins at the moment of conception, pro-choice advocates that presumably he or she begins much later than that (it is unclear just when, as the fierce opposition against bans on late-term abortions suggests). I think that both positions are implausible. Both sets of advocates should tell us whether their position (prosecution for homicide or unlimited license) holds for any phase in the nine-month cycle of pregnancy. I suppose pro-life advocates will say “all phases”; pro-choice advocates who don’t say “all phases” should be pressed to specify the phase. When in the nine-month trajectory does a person appear? I think that an honest, non-dogmatic answer will have to be we don’t know. It is not unusual in human affairs that we have to make moral and political decisions in situations where we don’t know all the facts. What is distinctive about this case is that the basic fact, an ontological mystery, is not only unknown but unknowable by any empirical methodology. This should incline one toward a middle position between the dogmatic opposites. The decision may be guided by moral reasoning, but it will inevitably have an arbitrary quality.
I cannot resist the temptation to tell a joke typical of an American genre. As all jokes of this genre it begins “A Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, and a rabbi are talking…” In this instance they are discussing when life begins. The priest—at conception. The minister—when the embryo is independently viable. The rabbi—when the children have moved out and the dog has died. [We are standing here before a profound mystery. This does not mean that we have to check our sense of the comic at the entrance. Sarah laughed! I can imagine that Abraham did too!]
When does a person begin? I don’t know, and I am skeptical about those who claim to know. By eliminating the extreme poles—at conception or at birth—one is compelled to consider a date somewhere in between. But there is no date that is unambiguously indicated. The decision will unavoidably be arbitrary. In this dilemma, after all relevant moral factors have been considered (the terrible shadow of possible murder, the miseries in store for an unwanted child, and for those who will have to care for him or her, the slippery slope to other allegedly humane killings), one must leap and act. I recall the advice that Luther gave Philip of Hessen, one of his most faithful followers, who was morally troubled about what he should do about his bigamy—go on living in what he thought was grave sign, or inflict great suffering on the one wife and her children he would have to throw out. Luther told him: “Pecca fortiter, et crede fortius”—“Sin boldly and believe more boldly”.
One could put this answer in more secular terms: “Do the best you can, and stop tormenting yourself”. A larger point to be made here is that a measure of doubt is usually a healthy thing in the making of moral decisions [In 2009 I published a book, In Praise of Doubt, co-authored with my friend and colleague Anton Zijderveld] The great Supreme Court justice and Harvard law professor Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935) served as a young officer in the Union army during the American Civil War. Appalled by the cruelties he saw perpetrated by both sides in the conflict, he returned to Cambridge with the conviction that all absolute certainties are potentially murderous. [The Mexican writer Octavio Paz, 1914-1993, coined the phrase “syllogism-dagger” to denote ideas that kill. He had in mind the horrors of Mexican history, from the human sacrifices of the Aztecs to the slaughter of the 20th-century revolution.]
I don’t completely agree with Holmes: There are some, rather few, moral certainties—for example, the conviction that slavery is morally abhorrent, at every time and in every place. I am absolutely certain about this—as I am about the absolute abomination of torture and child abuse. I have no doubt about these (no matter that I can be shown that, empirically, these acts have been deemed acceptable in different societies and periods of history). Actually, slavery in 19th-century America is a good case in point. Abraham Lincoln was deeply convinced about the intrinsic evil of the South’s “peculiar institution” (and was clearly not dissuaded from this conviction by the knowledge that most white people in the slave states thought differently). Yet he was tormented by doubts how, in his actions, he should weigh this conviction against other morally relevant considerations, such as ending a terrible war, preserving the Union, abiding by the constitution. He evidently struggled with all this, and in the end (probably in violation of the letter of the constitution) issued the emancipation declaration.