The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
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Published on July 9, 2014
Pro-Life versus Pro-Choice Two Misleading Banners

The abortion fight in the United States is one of the most intractable facets of the culture war. Time for an exercise of semantic hygiene with the terminology used by both sides in this conflict.

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 birthone 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.

  • Pete

    “Gail Collins and Maureen Dowd are regular columnists in The New York Times. Both are politically progressive, feisty, and very good writers. ”

    Yes, and both are certified dingbats who seem incapable of consistent logical thought.

  • Evan Seitchik

    This is an interesting contribution to the question of whether an individual can be morally permitted to get an abortion, but I think this is almost characteristically not what is at issue in the abortion debate.

    Although I admit this doesn’t appear to be the author’s position, even if it were somehow a certainty that it’s morally impermissible to ever get an abortion at any time after conception, it wouldn’t follow that the government should ban all abortions. All sorts of morally questionable acts are nonetheless not banned by the government in the name of preserving individual rights and freedom of choice–there are important political questions about the role of government with respect to morality that are central to the debate yet curiously set aside here.

    Ultimately we need to decide how to weigh the rights of an unborn child against the rights of a woman to make decisions about her body. In America today we have erred toward keeping the government out of it–from a libertarian perspective this ought to be comforting, not disturbing.

  • John Schwartz

    Given that we define a human life ending with cessation of heart beat and brain activity, would it be reasonable to use the beginning of brain activity and heart beat to mark the legal beginning?

    • gabrielsyme

      That’s not entirely accurate- while hear beat and brain activity are extremely useful indicia of life, the better definition is a loss of integrated bodily function.

      Of course, human beings have integrated functioning throughout their gestational development.

  • Marty Keller

    So, muddle through and cut everybody some slack?

  • Anthony

    An a priori example of semantics: “in sum, the question is not when life begins, but when the person begins.” And an example most troubling as it causes pause for anyone seriously contemplating issue. “One must leap and act” because beyond absolute conviction issue presents dilemma – as Peter Berger aptly asserts “it is not unusual in human affairs that we have to make moral and political decisions in situation where we don’t know all the facts” (Some may call it life).

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Berger’s clarifying middle position between the absolutism of the pro-life advocates and the relativism of the pro-choice advocates, together with his concept of personhood, provides a “relevance structure” for framing and understanding many contemporary issues.

    Let’s take the recent SCOTUS ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that closely held corporations are “persons” under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The issue was whether there is a religious, or other civil institutional or even business, sector in society that stands between private life and the state. Thus, “persons” are social products of certain mediating institutions. Those on the Left often revile this with the often- unstated slogan: “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state” (Benito Mussolini). And it is equally reviled by the libertarian Right on the grounds it is “crony Capitalism.” As is typical in both hot wars and culture wars, the “person” has to be first characterized in non-personal terms as an enemy, evil, or greedy to delegitimize their right to carve out a free sector between the state and religion. It is interesting that Justice Samuel Alito, who persuaded Justice Anthony Kennedy that his opinion was “modest”, drafted the majority opinion in the Hobby Lobby case. Despite the moral ambiguities of whether the State or “Big Business” can claim superior legitimacy, the middle ground was not only conceptual but also empirical and institutional. “Persons” are best grounded in certain mediating institutions.

    Liberals who opposed the Hobby Lobby decision contend that this extended “person status” to “Big Corporations” such as Walmart, Tyson Foods, Ford Motors, etc. No mention was made as to whether this also extended such “personhood” status to Big Unions who in California claim that any municipal reductions of their public pensions as “an arm of the state” would violate pensioners’ paramount legal status (as persons) over other debtors.

    Or let’s take the ongoing compound water shortage and natural drought in California. Droughts are natural and water shortages are man made. The origin of California’s current water shortage was when water reserved for drought and emergencies was diverted for fish without backfilling the lost water to farmers before the next drought occurred. The media culture war over water is often framed in terms of “fish versus farmers (persons).” Many environmental advocates have successfully claimed fish have equal legal status as “persons” with “farmers.” Ironically, it is often the same crowd who oppose Hobby Lobby businesses from having a legal status as “persons.”

    The ambiguities of whether fish or farmers should get water cannot be resolved by environmental science alone but only on the basis of cultural or even spiritual values. As medical ethicist Arthur Caplan states: “Similarly, science is all but useless in arguments about personhood. Because almost everyone who takes a position does so on the basis of religious belief.”

    It may have been moral to preserve salmon fish runs to the ocean but it definitively was grossly immoral to leave farmers and farm laborers with no backup water for droughts. Fish hatcheries have been proposed as an interim middle solution until California can replace the millions of acre-feet of water taken from farmers for fish. But once again, the same environmental crowd is opposed to any new dam construction, often justified on the basis of depersonalizing farmers as “greedy.” Paraphrasing one of Aesop’s Fables: “A bat (or fish), fearing the uncertain issues of the fight, always fought on the side which he felt was the strongest.” Political power in California is on the side of the fish but not always on the absolute side of morality.

    Or take the contentious issue of global warming, which has now lost its “paradigm” status and has had to be replaced with the notion of “climate change.” As Roberta Wohlstetter wrote: “In conditions of great uncertainty people tend to predict the events they want to happen will actually happen.” This is called a “self-fulfilling prophecy” in social science (see Robert K. Merton).

    I could go on endlessly with examples of public policies using Berger’s Fundamentalism – Relativism and mediating structures concepts together with his religious idea of personhood. The point being that the issue of abortion is not the only issue in which his “doubt” framework can have relevance.

  • gabrielsyme

    Human beings, no matter what their state of development, have the full range of human potentialities. For the disabled and sick, the realisation of the full range of potential may require medical treatment, even medical treatments we do not yet possess. The fact that many do not currently exhibit some human abilities does not make them less morally significant. For those in comas and the unborn, all it requires is time and the basic necessities of life.

    Could we justifiably kill a comatose patient, knowing that she would awaken in nine months? No more can we justify the killing of children in the womb, months away from birth.

    • TheRadicalModerate

      “The fact that many do not currently exhibit some human abilities does not make them less morally significant.”

      You could make the same argument about sperm and egg. They have the potential to be combined to form a complete zygote, which has the potential to exhibit all the attributes of personhood. For that matter, the constituent atoms of the sperm and egg, before they’re taken up by primary oocytes and spermatocytes, have that potential.

      You’re simply not going to find a clean dividing line in the physical world. All you have is a vague thermodynamic boundary that’s throwing off copious amounts of entropy as it grows more complex. If you’d like to make a supernatural or theological argument, I’m pretty sure you’ll make more headway but, as you can’t yet prove that type of argument and the law refuses to accept its assertion a priori, I’d say that that’s a dubious basis for public policy.

      “Could we justifiably kill a comatose patient, knowing that she would awaken in nine months?”

      The difference is that the comatose patient has already demonstrated his/her personhood. A blastula/embryo/early fetus hasn’t.

      • gabrielsyme

        You could make the same argument about sperm and egg.

        One could, but it would be a faulty argument, since neither sperm nor egg are the same organism as the human being that may come from them. Biological identity is a clear and common concept in the biological sciences.

        The difference is that the comatose patient has already demonstrated his/her personhood. A blastula/embryo/early fetus hasn’t.

        This is an unworkable and morally incoherent standard. In important ways children and some disabled people have not demonstrated various of their human potentialities. This does not make them non-persons or less morally significant, but your standard of past demonstration of personhood necessarily makes them less-than-full members of the human family.

        If you’d like to make a supernatural or theological argument, I’m
        pretty sure you’ll make more headway but, as you can’t yet prove that
        type of argument…

        You can’t prove any normative moral judgement by empirical proofs at all. Everyone who makes normative claims about morality is necessarily working in the realm of metaphysics, and any “proof” whether theological or otherwise is dependent on agreement on the metaphysical premises of the argument.

        Moral argument, if it is to be rational, ought to be focussed on our shared moral intuitions. Most people believe that children, the disabled, the comatose, the senile and the healthy normal adult all have equal moral dignity. The most plausible explanation for this equal moral dignity is that it is not rooted in our demonstrated or present capabilities, but our innate potential to exhibit the full range of human characteristics. Applying that principle, it follows that the unborn child is of equal moral value. You can disagree with the premises; or one can try to articulate another explanation of why we attribute equal moral value to such differently-situated human beings, but it isn’t good enough to throw up one’s hands and say “moral arguments can’t be proven.”

        • TheRadicalModerate

          “…neither sperm nor egg are the same organism as the human being that may come from them.”

          The problem with this is that the zygote isn’t the same organism, either. It has to undergo all sorts of developmental challenges, varying nutrition mixes, odd epigenetic triggers, plasmid swapping in maternal gut bacteria, and maybe a dash of maternal or fraternal chimerism. At the risk of wandering off into the tautological tall grass, an organism is what an organism is at that moment in time, and you can either talk about what it might become, in which case you’d better be dealing with its gametes, and consequently warming up for the chorus of “Every Sperm Is Sacred”, or you can limit yourself to what it is at any instant.

          There’s nothing magical or mystical about fertilization. It’s just one of billions of events that have to go just so in order to produce a person, including those of your ancestors and those that occur as you develop, both in- and ex-utero.

          “Most people believe that children, the disabled, the comatose, the
          senile and the healthy normal adult all have equal moral dignity.”

          True enough, but that consensus doesn’t seem to hold when you’re talking about blastulas, embryos, or early-term fetuses, or we wouldn’t be trapped in this particular tar pit. And if you can’t command a moral consensus on the argument, you’d better have a legal or scientific argument that will hold water.

          Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m not a complete nihilist (well, not today, anyway). I put as high a value on the lives of babies, children, adolescents, the disabled, the elderly, the incompetent, and even the odd bureaucrat or politician. And, while I disagree with you on the “potentiality” of personhood, I will acknowledge that a zygote with a human genotype is in fact human, irrespective of how many cells it contains and how those cells are organized.

          But there’s no magic to the chemistry. A human blastula is still just a ball of cells, and it is no more a person than Berger’s appendix. Somewhere along the line, that ball of cells becomes something that we all can agree is a person, and deserving of the protections afforded to persons. And there is indeed broad moral agreement about those protections.

          The problem is that, in the absence of a good definition of when personhood occurs, there are competing moral interests. Preservation of persons is important, but so is the cultivation of a young woman’s potential to be the most productive member of society possible, or the cultivation of an economically strapped family to raise their existing children outside of poverty, which would almost certainly stunt those children’s potential. Absolutism just isn’t gonna cut it.

          • gabrielsyme

            At the risk of wandering off into the tautological tall grass, an organism is what an organism is at that moment in time

            While this is perhaps a necessary corollary of a naturalistic philosophy, it eliminates all identity through time. Suffice it to say that it contradicts our own self-understanding, and the common language of mankind which does identify people (and things) through time. Needless to say, this is an uncommon and counter-intuitive view. If it is yours, I assume you reject the ethics of imprisoning people whose merely have the misfortune of being inaccurately taken to be the same person who committed a given crime. As an aside, in biology while some types of organism create dispute over what constitutes an individual of a species, for humans and other complex, sexually-reproducing species it is quite clearly defined, and an individual exists from conception until death.

            that consensus doesn’t seem to hold when you’re talking about blastulas, embryos, or early-term fetuses

            Moral intuition isn’t perfect, or we could simply ask ourselves what we feel about a given action, and no moral reasoning could assist us. There are good reasons why people might have conflicting moral intuitions about abortion: the unborn child is unseen, it doesn’t currently exhibit some human traits, and there are powerful selfish and ideological reasons to preserve the option of disposing of it. Often enough, we need to work from common moral intuitions to discover the underlying moral principles that order those intuitions and constitute the moral order. Then we can apply the underlying moral principles to areas where our moral intuitions do not speak as clearly.

            But there’s no magic to the chemistry. A human blastula is still just a ball of cells, and it is no more a person than Berger’s appendix. Somewhere along the line, that ball of cells becomes something that we all can agree is a person…

            With all due respect, we are all reducible to chemistry and physics on a naturalistic view. I cannot see how, on your view, there isn’t some magic in the chemistry of a sufficiently old human being that produces a person. Now, I can give an account of why there is moral significance to various bundles of tissue; you apparently are left with magic, and that ought to concern you.

          • TheRadicalModerate

            “…it eliminates all identity through time. Suffice it to say that it
            contradicts our own self-understanding, and the common language of
            mankind which does identify people (and things) through time. Needless
            to say, this is an uncommon and counter-intuitive view.”

            Two things:

            1) My whole point is that there is no common or intuitive view about early-stage fetuses, because there is no basis for intuition. We have an intuition about babies, because we see a lot of them and we’ve been evolved to react to them in a “moral” way–and even at this point, some societies have considerably different views on infanticide and care for defective newborns. And we can even extend that intuition to later-term fetuses–because they look like babies. But at some point, that intuition breaks down, because early-term fetuses don’t look–or act–much like babies

            Furthermore, the only intuitions we have about fetuses are extremely recent–much too recent to be subject to any reliable moral consensus–and they’re confused at best. I have no problem with a morality based on evolved human behavioral norms. But those norms can’t have evolved much since the eighteenth century, which is about as early as the general public could possibly have been exposed to any systematic description of fetal development.

            2) Your initial point was that there is a moral consensus about the potential of any human zygote to become a person. And your argument to support that was based on its biological distinctiveness.

            But that’s a naturalistic argument, not a moral one. You can’t have it both ways. Again, if you want to argue that the moment you have a diploid human genotype something transcendent happens, I’ll respect your assertion and we can stop arguing. I won’t agree with it, because I’m a pretty hard-core agnostic (atheist down to Big Bang + Planck time, but exceptions are exceptions…), but it’s hard to say that somebody who can look into the howling abyss and see some sort of benevolent design there has the worse end of the argument.

            But this is, not only legally but logically, a lousy basis for significant public policy decisions. The (religion-neutral) moral consensus you’re asserting simply doesn’t exist in the timeframes I believe abortion should be legal (up to 20 weeks, although I could be talked into 16). Various religious consensuses, sure. But that’s not sufficient.

            PS: “I cannot see how, on your view, there isn’t some magic in the chemistry of a sufficiently old human being that produces a person. “

            Not magic. Awe-inspiring beauty, but not magic. Just because complexity theory doesn’t yet have all the tools necessary to describe emergent properties doesn’t mean that they won’t be discovered. On that point, I have… faith.

  • Lee Dryden

    If an appendix is left in its normal place, the
    human abdomen, it will never become a human person. If a human embryo is left
    in its normal place, the uterus, it will become a fully human person. No sperm
    and no ovum itself has such a capability.

    The human embryo/fetus/newborn transition refers
    to level of maturity. The physical body referenced does not become a different
    kind of being in this process. It becomes more mature.

    The embryo/fetus/newborn’s “human person status”
    is controversial when it is an embryo. It’s “human person status” is widely
    acknowledged when it is a newborn. But we are talking about the same it. What
    physical reference point for this transition is intellectually defensible?
    There is a lot to be said for fertilization. It is not difficult to rationally
    challenge every other transition point, but at fertilization all the
    information necessary to drive development along the typical trajectory is
    present. One avoids arbitrary choice by choosing the option with overwhelming
    biological evidence.

    I am a human animal. This particular human
    animal (me) began to exist when I was conceived in my mother’s womb. I developed
    consciousness and self-consciousness as I developed and matured. “I” cannot be
    identified uniquely with my self-consciousness because I am a body that is conscious
    and self-conscious. My conscious and self-conscious features exist only insofar
    as my body exists and no farther.

    The embryo should therefore be identified as an
    immature human person.

  • TheRadicalModerate

    “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…”

    Speaking as someone who is pro-abortion (not pro-choice: I do not support a woman’s right to do anything with her body she chooses, like use it to break into my house and steal my stuff), I have to say that this is a dumb argument. I would guess that most on the pro-life side would argue that, while an embryo may not be a person, it has the potential to become one. That’s never going to happen with your appendix.

    Nor do I think your distinction between a human and a person holds much water. If it did, we might easily wind up with legal infanticide, because a newborn baby has about as much resemblance to what we’d ordinarily think of as a person as a blastula has to a newborn baby.

    I suspect that, if this thorn is ever to be removed from the side of the body politic, that’s going to involve some sort of compromise between the “if it’s got a human genotype it’s human” absolutists and the “if its feet haven’t left the birth canal it’s not human” absolutists. I can’t say that abortion before 20 weeks isn’t distasteful, but I do think that the good of being able to avoid unwanted pregnancies–which not only burden the mother but her family, including older children, who may be deprived of the resources they need to grow up happy, healthy, cognitively robust, and well-educated if another child in the family drags everybody into poverty–outweighs the bad of freaking out the genotype absolutists. Ultimately, this comes down to how we choose to define murder, and we have all sorts of conditions where the destruction of distinct human genotypes isn’t considered murder (war, self-defense, defense of others, executions, accidents, etc.). Abortion before 20 weeks seems like a pretty good one to add to the list.

  • ljgude

    My sense is that human life begins at conception and killing it not like removing an appendix. Nor it is killing giraffe life. The fertilized ovum has everything it needs to become a full grown human being. You are taking a whole human life when you abort the fetus and that individual will never be born or grow up. And because we know to it safely, it sometimes needs to be done. And as a man I also believe that the woman who is pregnant should have the final say on what is to be done.

    I think it is also right to try to save as many of those potential babies as we can by persuading their mothers to carry them to term and making it socially,financially and in every other way we can, easy for them to do so. Germany does this and has a lower abporion rate to show for it because the Christian Democrats insisted on making counseling mandatory before an abortion. I was an anti abortion activist in the early 60s and helped young couples in trouble find doctor’s prepared to perform then illegal abortions. But I learned observing many of my women friends over the years develop a real sense of loss from having abortions despite there being the best of reasons at the time. Then shortly before my own mother died she told my sister how hard it had been to carry memory of an abortion she had had done in the 30s. I recall watching a women’s conference on CSPAN where Hillary talked about the psychological damage abortion does to women without in any way taking a pro life position of course. There is a middle way here. We need the babies and we have many childless couples wanting to raise them. To appreciate the high variation across the world Google the World Abortion Rate Map at and click “Maps of percentages of pregnancies aborted.”

  • Gary Novak

    Several commenters have noted the teleological difference between Berger’s appendix and an embryo. Regardless of its current status as a person, an embryo is headed for personhood; Berger’s appendix is not. But that was precisely Berger’s point: since the two are so different– despite both being living human tissue– life is not the issue. As a biological phenomenon, life can be studied naturalistically, but there is no observable point at which a person arises “naturally” from a lump of clay. Personhood is, Berger says, an ontological mystery. The point at which we can safely exterminate a potential person without offending God is unknown and unknowable. Is a condom a sin against Monty Python’s sacred sperm?

    Trimesters, heartbeats, and brain activity may be useful for making legal distinctions, but the personal questions will remain. The most valuable “evidence” on this issue comes not from science but lived experience. Commenter ljgude gets to the heart of the matter when, after helping young couples find doctors for illegal abortions in the sixties, he writes: “But I learned by observing many of my women friends over the years develop a real sense of loss from having abortions despite there being the best of reasons at the time.”

    Since, in facing abortion dilemmas, we cannot be sure we are making the right choice, Berger’s advice is sound: Do the best you can, and stop tormenting yourself. And doing your best means not allowing yourself to become too distracted by two misleading banners.

  • FriendlyGoat

    Ah, the social solutions we wish we could have, but can’t have:

    1) Every guy who gets a tattoo must get a vasectomy.
    2) Every guy who gets a pit bull must get a vasectomy.
    3) Every guy who watches porn must get a vasectomy.
    4) Every guy who votes for male legislators to ban abortion must get a vasectomy.

    Well, it would be a start for simplifying this debate, don’t ya know?

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Berger points out that we have to make many decisions, whether they are personal, corporate, or societal, on the basis of faith. As he puts it in secular terms we have to make the next best decision we can at the moment and not be tormented by perfection or by the decision, albeit full-well knowing it might not be the right decision in the end. I’m not sure Berger would agree with this but we’ve all heard the phrase “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Perfection is for the world hereafter, no matter that we should strive for it in this world.

    Berger writes that one should not be tormented by a decision where there is no clear basis on which to make the decision. However, as Berger has written elsewhere, one’s religious faith should be such that it is tormented at times by doubt (see his “In Praise of Doubt: How to Have Convictions without Becoming a Fanatic”).

    I don’t think Berger would extend the line of reasoning in his above article, however, to the casual abortion to avoid being inconvenienced by pregnancy when one has a planned European summer vacation. An abortion is not the same as having a tooth pulled or a cellulite reduction for vanity purposes as commenter Gary Novak points out. A fetus is not an appendix or decayed tooth. And it never should be. That is why even the most liberal societies like France discourage abortion.

    California has just opened up its first marijuana market. Abortion clinics should not be marketized just as botox aesthetic facial treatments are, no matter which side of the issue one is on. (Parenthetically, California now has pseudo-markets for pollution, marijuana, and health exchanges but not for water, energy, or medical care and we can see the consequences. Charter schools are an unqualified success).

    In 1936 sociologist Robert K. Merton opened up a systematic treatment of the problem of taking action based on uncertainty or what he called unintended consequences. Unintended consequences pose problems for most normative moral frameworks.

    Daryl Koehn in her underrated classic book “Living with the Dragon: Thinking and Acting Ethically in a World of Unintended Consequences,” analogizes unintended consequences to a “dragon” that is always present in the background of life.

    Koehn quotes Nigel Dower in her book:

    “It is all too easy to thin that what morality really requires of us is to avoid intentionally doing harm to one another, to avoid deceiving, stealing, letting down, assaulting, libeling one another, and so on, and that, in general, what really counts in moral assessment is what one aims at or intends…That might be very well if we lived in a world where the unintended consequences of our actions did not materially affect the conditions
    under which others pursued their objectives…But the world is not like this.”

    I believe Koehn accurately points out that the standard moral frameworks to deal with the problems of unintended consequences all fall short of the mark. Utilitarianism, Kant’s deontological morality, the liberal’s ‘morality of care’ and religious virtue moralities all fail to address let alone prescribe solutions to the knotty problems of unintended consequences.

    As Berger has pointed out, citing Niccolo Machiavelli and Max Weber, this is the difference between an “ethic of intention” and an “ethic of responsibility.”

    The consequences of such decisions as abortion or war are not fully foreseeable as no one has enough foresight to know whether they might be negative or positive. This is not a relativist position: when we see evil such as slavery, child abuse, killing fields, using children as political pawns, convenience abortions, or genocides there is need to act. There are “signals of absolute damnable acts” as Berger might put it.

    In Koehn’s classic book she offers a number of practical remedies for unintended consequences mostly at the macro level (be skeptical of prophecies especially inflated prophecies, intervene cautiously, where possible discern foreseeable consequences, etc). To these I would surmise that Berger would add to “be skeptical of social movements” no matter of which political label and the slogans and banners and certainties they offer up.

    At the micro-level the dragon of uncertainty need not always torment us for adopting out an out-of-wedlock child or similar personal decisions; however, we can’t avoid the dragon “bad faith” for not taking responsibility for unintended consequences that were foreseeable whether at the micro or macro level. Here I have in mind the notorious and socially contagious shootings by often overindulged disturbed young men who have been given liberal access to guns; and to police departments who fail to do their duty to check for guns when they are asked to do personal “welfare checks” on individuals such as in Santa Barbara.

  • Colin

    Excellent article, marred at the end by a typically liberal/neoconish retreat into political correctness. “Slavery as absolute evil” – what utter rubbish! When did Christ condemn slavery per se? NEVER. St Paul? NEVER. They preached the moral duties of masters to slaves, and vice versa, but never did they utter a condemnation of the institution of slavery. Who is Peter Berger against these?

    As for child abuse, if by this is meant sexual molestation, then of course that is always morally abhorrent (but why not include rape in the list?). But what constitutes “child abuse”? Spanking? Beatings on the backside with a bamboo rod, as was done at my prep school well into the 80s (and was considered something of a badge of honor for the “victims”)? The 19th century blacking factory (but what if the family is too poor to afford an alternative)?

    Still more rubbishy is the “absolute abomination of torture”. I agree that putting white men into nonwhite dominated prison blocks in order to be homosexually enslaved and repeatedly gang-raped by packs of (often HIV-infected) underclass Africans is perhaps the purest, most horrifying torture ever invented, and has no place in a future civilized America (RESEGREGATE AMERICAN PRISONS – NOW!). But what about waterboarding terrorists to gain vital information to prevent a WMD attack? What about Dirty Harry Callahan torturing a psychopath to gain the whereabouts of a little girl buried alive and running out of air? What about restoration of the whipping post as a dramatically inexpensive alternative to our disgraceful (but terribly expensive prison system)?

    Dr. Berger’s moral pretentiousness cannot withstand serious intellectual scrutiny.

  • CPCaesar

    You were doing so well up until the very last word! The Emancipation *Proclamation* I know this is nitpicky, but I was fully immersed in the article and argument until the very last word broke the spell.

  • billyoblivion

    It’s easy to see why you like Dowd. If this article is any indication you’re as incapable of linear, coherent, rational thought as she is, and you fill your writing with irrelevances and asides akin to gossip.

    American Disinterested.