Fetal Life and Abortion:
Human Personhood at Conception
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Section 1: Many Persons are Involved in Every Abortion


Different people give different reasons for wanting abortions. The man and woman responsible for the unwanted pregnancy might simply wish to rid themselves of a burden or even feel that they are patriotically solving a pollution problem. A pregnant teen-ager's parents might feel compassion for their daughter's distress or fear the shame which might fall upon their family. The owner and employees of an abortion referral agency might be interested only in the financial profits from their business or assume that they are offering a worthy social service. A group of college students who fund the expenses of a co-ed for an abortion might be acting out of sympathy for a fellow student or might be protesting what they consider a restriction by "The Establishment."

Some persons who favor abortions might offer several reasons to justify their desire. A social worker, for example, might feel distraught at the emotional difficulties encountered by unwed mothers attempting to raise their children to an adequate quality of life and might also bewail the rising cost of the local A.D.C. program.

Many who involve themselves in an abortion have conflicting reasons, as a doctor who knows that his professional competence is aimed at saving life rather than destroying it; at the same time he is aware of the patient's threat to use harmful alternatives to a "safe" abortion. In treating a pregnant woman the doctor has two patients, the mother and her child. For the doctor, then, abortion has no simple solution, but is a complex problem.

IT IS MORE THAN ACADEMIC TO CONSIDER REASONS for favoring or opposing an abortion, since it is a human characteristic to have reasons for doing something. And one likes to have a good reason for one's action. Respect for oneself demands deliberation about any act which may have irrevocable consequences for oneself and others. Responsibility for one's action includes accountability for its results, especially when these can be foreseen. Responsibility demands that one should "look before one leaps."

It has been said that if a person could foresee all the consequences of any single action before performing it, one would never do anything harmful to one's best interests as seen from the long-range view of one's total destiny, whatever that is considered to be. But human experience indicates that knowledge, however complete, is not enough to guarantee a person's best interest. A lack of sufficient will-power can militate against one's best interest when it leads one to risk a distant advantage for a lesser good available at the moment.

An understanding of the many aspects of the abortion problem could go a long way toward solving the question of whether or not, and under what circumstances, abortions are helpful or harmful to those who are involved in them. Assuming good will on the part of most people, it is probably true that such an understanding would lead to a wider agreement among citizens and therefore facilitate the formulation of acceptable civil laws to regulate abortions. There are some, of course, who contend that abortion does not fall within the jurisdiction of civil law. Perhaps this current aspect of the problem could be clarified by a better understanding of law, as well as of abortion.

Civil law does not protect a citizen against hurting his own best interests; it is designed to protect one from being harmed by others. In the matter of drug abuse, for example, laws are aimed at preventing the misuse of drugs only insofar as the misuse directly or indirectly endangers the well-being of others than the user. In practice, this might be the same as a prohibition against hurting oneself, because any disability to the user of dangerous drugs may endanger others, as in the case of a drugged driver on the highway.

FOR THOSE WHO SEE THE FETUS AS A HUMAN BEING, THE FIRST "OTHER PARTY" IS THE FETUS, A PERSON HAVING THE RIGHT TO LIFE, LIBERTY AND THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS. Very recently some who admit that a human being is present from the time of conception, deny that a person is present. Others say that the unborn individual's right to life is quite inferior to the various rights of the mother, the social status of the persons giving each a different legal value.

If the fetus were taken to be a merely "potential" human being, the continuation of its life would not seem to be a right inherent in the developing organism, since only persons can have rights. But does this imply unlimited freedom to destroy the fetus? WHAT IS TO BE SAID IN FAVOR OF GOD'S RIGHTS? God is the author and designer of all nature, including the nature of the organism which is claimed to be in the process of becoming human.

That God is always an interested "other party" to each abortion should not seem strange when one recalls that the reproduction of any organism is a natural process whose purpose must be traced back to nature's Author. Authorship gives the author certain rights, called authority, with respect to that which has been authored. In a very real sense, because they are functioning as natural entities, the parents cannot reproduce anything independently of God, since He is working in them, through the nature which He designed and gave them. Because of this they would have to consider God's rights over the fetus in all their abortion deliberations.

SOCIETY, TOO, HAS CERTAIN RIGHTS AS A PARTY TO ALL ABORTIONS. Social interest in reproduction is seen in the practice of granting marriage licenses and in recording births and deaths, the "vital statistics" familiar to readers of the daily newspaper. Society has an interest in reproduction not only for its own survival, despite the current so-called population explosion, but because of the need for promoting a proper dignity in all things human, especially in those areas wherein body function might otherwise render man indistinguishable from the lesser animal organisms. To permit any form of irresponsible tampering with the human reproductive function could brutalize a society and be instrumental in its own downfall, as evidenced by the fall of decadent cultures of the past.

All major segments of society might profitably address themselves to a vigorous consideration of the many simultaneous aspects encompassed within the abortion problem. Too often a group settles upon only one aspect and disregards the others. But unless there is a clearing house for evaluating the conclusions of the many groups, the efforts of the many will not solve, but only confuse, the issues. In this day of individualism will groups work together to provide such leadership? If not, each individual has an obligation to study all the aspects of the problem and to integrate his own conclusions. The human mind, although influenced by emotion, is capable of resolving problems with a remarkable degree of objectivity. Many individuals, simultaneously arriving at unprejudiced conclusions, could provide equitable solutions for major problems which arise in their society.

Careful thought should be able to distinguish valid argument from emotional propaganda. The woman's simple desire for an abortion, for example, must not outweigh the value of conclusions deduced by careful reasoning on the other essential aspects of her situation. If it can be demonstrated that the conceptus is not a disposable part of the mother's body, but a human individual in his or her own right, this claim ought to be given a hearing.

If parents had freely used their bodies in actions naturally ordained to conception, are they free to change their choice after the child has been conceived? The correct answer to this question would seem to follow from the nature of human responsibility. To say that some parents do not freely cause the conception of a child, because they habitually use contraceptives, seems to argue for what seems to be irresponsibility. It should be common knowledge that present contraceptive methods are not totally effective. What, then, justifies contraceptive intercourse and the risk, however small, of bringing into existence an offspring who is destined for abortion?

The very fact that the offspring is unwanted by its parents is sometimes offered as justification for killing it before its birth. There is no doubt that a child, already born, is an object of pity when unwanted by his parents, but does this validate the practice of killing offspring before they are born? Perhaps society needs to make a decision about the meaning of free choice and responsibility, to avoid the chaos of contradiction in accepting the growingly popular expression "unwanted" children. Society might serve its interests better, it would seem, by inculcating responsibility, rather than permitting it to degenerate completely.

THE POSITIVE SIDE OF THE COIN is manifest in heroic efforts within certain local communities to sustain medical, housing and counseling services for parents who need such help, as alternatives to killing their unborn offspring. Liberalized legal abortion is a poor substitute for such genuine human compassion and assistance. Not only does abortion harm men and women morally and emotionally in many instances, but it turns an influential segment of society against a defenseless one, tending to destroy an honored value of civilized society.

THE DOCTOR WHO IS ASKED TO PERFORM A THERAPEUTIC ABORTION FINDS HIMSELF IN AN EMBARRASSING POSITION. By his professional code of ethics, he has personally pledged himself to the preservation of life. Now he is asked to kill, deliberately. Although many doctors do not hesitate to affirm the human status of the conceptus, they attempt to justify the killing by calling it the lesser of two evils or the doctor might assume that the woman will become emotionally upset, or economically impoverished, or resort to a less skilled abortionist if he refuses to grant her request.

Concerning the first two assumptions, the doctor might well wonder whether a medical procedure should be invoked for an obviously non-medical problem. Would it not be more logical for him to refer her to sources of psychiatric and economic help? Why should a medical doctor be asked to substitute a questionable remedy for the competent help which other professionals are trained to offer?

As for the third assumption, it may be true that some of the women whom he refuses to abort would suffer injury from unskilled abortionists. But the doctor might ask himself how many of the unborn would he have to kill to prevent one woman from being hurt in the process of killing hers. Those who favor abortion themselves insist that abortion procedures are sufficiently simple for paramedical personnel to perform them safely. The risk of injury to the woman who will have an abortion at any cost hardly warrants the doctor's decision to prevent that risk at the cost of his complicity in killing even one unborn of human parentage.

Because of their refusal to abort anxious women, some doctors have received gratitude from the mothers after their children had been born. Is it likely that easy legal abortion would solve so well the perplexing problem of anxiety which often is associated with pregnancy?

Medical doctors ought to be as skilled in ethics and psychology as other educated persons who are working in areas of human sensitivity. But it seems from newspaper accounts of some doctors' endorsement of liberalized abortion that some medical schools have neglected this aspect of a doctor's education. With the present tendency to accelerate medical training, the neglect is likely to become more widespread. To retain the time-honored confidence of their patients, doctors may have to take it upon themselves to develop their understanding of moral values.

Some doctors, impressed with their discretionary powers of limiting aid to brain-damaged patients, may carelessly identify such cases with the condition of the early embryo. If an absence of brain waves in the former warrants the probable opinion that the human being has ceased to exist, is it necessarily true that the lack of brain waves in the early embryo indicates that a human being has not yet begun to exist? IT SHOULD NOT BE DIFFICULT TO SEE THAT THE TWO CASES ARE QUITE DIFFERENT.

In the case of irreparable brain damage, the body which seems to be merely "vegetating" might or might not be the body of a human person. Perhaps the adult should have brain waves; the early embryo should not. The damaged adult body, moreover, will never generate brain waves again, but the embryo, given the opportunity which belongs to it by nature, will soon generate them. In the early embryo there is no lack of what should be present at that stage of its development. As for brain waves, it is questionable whether they are a universal criterion for the presence of human life.

If emotional causes underlie anyone's desire for abortion, let the problem be resolved by experts in the sciences and arts of psychology, not forced upon medical experts whose full-time skills should be directed toward the cure of damaged bodies. Where poverty is claimed as the excuse for abortion, let the social sciences have an opportunity to be truly human and helpful in their contribution to the improvement of society, by offering workable alternatives for the killing of the unborn. If the vastly weakened state of moral values in society is used as an excuse for condoning abortion, let the moral leaders be challenged to rise up and fulfill their role of guidance in society, with courage and determination.

In this day of technical advancement, sophisticated instruments, even in the field of communication, are often directed toward the killing of human offspring, rather than toward endowing them with a patrimony of love and justice. Persons who have escaped the fate of the eliminated members of their generation can hardly be in full agreement with such a sense of values. What respect can they have for a society which might just as well have permitted their extinction instead of birth? Once these persons experience a taste of the life which might have been legally denied them, they will begin, bitterly, to establish their self-sufficiency against the day when society might, again, want to kill them, this time by legal euthanasia. Those who favor abortion today might do well to think upon such consequences to themselves and their society in the future.

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