Fetal Life and Abortion:
Human Personhood at Conception
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Section 6: Because the Conceptus of Human Parentage is a Human Being, He or She has a Right to Life


The adult human being is the same individual who came into existence at conception. This is a biological conclusion, aided by philosophy. (See Section 2) Intra-uterine stages, such as zygote, embryo and fetus are developmental stages which continue after birth as child, adolescent and adult. Since an organism begins to be an individual of the same species as its parents, even in its zygote stage, the conceptus of human parentage is a human being.

Because the conceptus is a human being, the moral treatment of abortion must consider the right of the conceptus to life, since this is a right of all humans. And because civil law protects the right to life for every human being, civil law must be prepared to settle conflicting claims to the right to life, as in cases of self-defense and abortion. But what principles should govern legal decisions in which human rights are involved, especially the case wherein two individuals present opposing claims to the same right?

It is reasonable, first of all, that there is a priority among human rights. The right to life, for example, is more significant than the right to privacy. Since life is required for the enjoyment of all other rights, it seems reasonable that the right to life ranks high, if not highest, on the list of human rights.

In some cases of abortion the child's right to life seems to be weighed against the mother's right to life, as when a Fallopean tube, ruptured by an ectopic pregnancy, is removed to save the life of the mother. In this case it must be noted that the tubal pregnancy is terminated, not as a direct attack against the child's right to life, but is an indirect consequence of a necessary procedure to uphold the mother's right to life. This is in no way a denial of the child's right to life, nor is the child's death a means of saving the mother's life. The child's death, however sad, is not the prime intention of the surgeon, nor is his surgical procedure primarily directed against the child's life. In this instance, the mother's right to life does not take precedence over her child's right to life. The moral decision is limited to the judgment that the surgical procedure is justified as a necessary means of upholding the ailing woman's right to life. The child's right to life, rather than being denied, is the reason why only an equal good, namely, the mother's right to life, can justify the surgical procedure under these circumstances.  (See Links: Ethical Principle of Double Effect)

Any direct killing of the child, even to save the life of the mother, cannot be morally justified. Obviously, any lesser good, such as the physical or mental convenience of the mother, can never justify a direct attack upon her child's right to life. Even if it could be said that a mature person's life is worth more than the life of a human conceptus, and that the child may be killed to save the mother's life, which would be contrary to traditional principles of morality, surely the child's death could not be justified by her mere desire for physical or mental convenience, since the mother's convenience is not proportionate to the deprivation of her child's right to life. Yet, this is what is entailed in what has come to be called "abortion on demand."

Because a woman has the right to decide whether she will bear a child, it has been said that she is justified in procuring an abortion if she so wishes. Where is the logic in this position? Is it reasonable to hold that a woman has the right not to bear a child--after she has freely chosen to undertake the biological action which brought about the conception of that child? Those who hold for responsibility in human conduct must be willing to admit that certain choices, once made, are irrevocable, especially where the rights of others are involved. Involved in this case are the right of the child to his life and the right of the child's father to fulfil his obligation of caring for his child.

To legalize abortion on the demand of the mother, merely to avoid the occasional injury suffered in some illegal abortions, also seems lacking in logic. The same argument could be used to legalize bank robbery to prevent possible injury to the bank robber; policemen would never shoot at robbers if robbery were made legal.

It is sometimes said that civil abortion laws were originally directed against unskilled abortionists to prevent them from harming the woman rather than to prevent the killing of the child. If the claim is valid, perhaps it is time in the development of civilized society to examine the obligation of legislators to rectify their serious omission whereby some members of the human race are being discriminated against by an explicit denial of their right to life. At a time in man's history wherein the rights of the human individual are loudly proclaimed, from upholding the freedom of speech to opposing capital punishment, it does not appear consistant with logic that the most fundamental right of the unborn, his right to live, should be unprotected by law.

The claim that a child should be killed, rather than to be born unwanted by his parents, is based on poor psychology as well as on faulty logic. The claim brings suspicion upon itself when it professes to be motivated by concern over the child's happiness. Why not allow the child some choice as to what will constitute his happiness? Otherwise, in one blow, a defenseless human being, without due process, is deprived not only of his right to life, but also of his right to the pursuit of happiness. As for the excuse of "unwanted children," it would seem that any responsible use of the human reproductive faculties would include the wanting of whatever results naturally from the use of those reproductive faculties, which, very often, is a child.

Some people claim that society has the right to rid itself of the burden of caring for unwanted or defective members of the human race who are waiting to be born. Only a pseudo-sociology could subscribe to such a claim, in light of the fact that mankind's development in dignity is the story of man's need to reach out and to help carry the burdens of his brother. It would seem that those who wish to kill off the handicapped, in order to better the quality of life, are themselves deficient in the values which give quality to human life.

To say that some doctors would like more legal freedom in performing abortions is not a justification of abortion. Many other doctors would not want the awful responsibility, under the pressure of a distraught mother, to kill one of his two patients represented by the pregnant woman. If, on a wide scale, doctors should ever be eager to become legal masters of life and death, as in Hitler's program of eugenics, society may be in danger. Actually, by profession, doctors are saviors of human life, not killers. Patients have confidence in their doctors because they believe that every licensed doctor has pledged himself to preserve human life, even of the unborn.

The quasi-sophisticated assertion, that current moral climate dictates morality, is sometimes used to discredit the traditional medical philosophy as no longer suited to modern conditions. If this is true, that bad moral conduct is justified by the fact that it is more prevalent than good moral conduct, why speak of morality at all?

History seems to indicate that human destiny has been shaped by man's choice of direction and that morality has always been a significant parameter of his freedom. But history shows that the fundamental moral principles cannot change, despite the pressure of contrary practice, simply because the basic natures of the human individual, of his family and of his society do not change essentially with time or other circumstances. TO ABANDON MORALITY, THAT IS, CONFORMITY OF HUMAN CONDUCT TO HUMAN REASON, IS TO ABANDON REASON AND TO LOSE THE FREEDOM WHICH IT HAS BEEN DESIGNED TO PROTECT. It is because of man's free subscription to objective morality that the disorder caused by unreasonable conduct, however widespread, can become a mere episode of history, while man resumes his course toward a more lasting period of happiness, which good order makes possible for him to enjoy.

The traditional treatment of objective morality is based on the concept of what has come to be called "natural law." NATURAL LAW IS THE DICTATE OF HUMAN REASON, EVALUATING THE SCOPE AND DIRECTION OF HUMAN RESPONSIBILITY. It is promulgated for each human being by his own reasoning ability whereby the individual, according to the degree of his intelligence, is capable of discerning the limits of his own freedom. Natural law is the law of God as revealed in His works of nature, including man himself. Being intelligently able to discover the design of God in His works of nature, anyone should be able to guide himself toward the best use of his own freedom.

Natural law is not to be confused with conscience, which is the act of reasoning whereby an individual judges the moral right or wrong of his own action. Natural law is the objective measure according to which the reasoned judgment is evaluated, that is, the rule according to which a person judges the fitness of his action in light of God's design and, therefore, his responsibility under any given circumstances.

It should be noted that natural law is the same for every human being and that the conscientious judgments of all human beings could be in agreement with one another. But it is known that persons, each in good faith, do not always agree in conscience. The problem, evidently, goes back to the difficulty of correctly recognizing natural law to the full extent of its application.

In all honesty anyone might say that he acts "according to his lights," but does not always see natural law as clearly as others see it. It might be said that the consensus of many persons' judgments should quite closely correspond to natural law, by a kind of averaging process. However it must be admitted that the judgments of many can be influenced by extrinsec factors, just as can be the conscience of any individual. One who has been frequently mistreated by his neighbors might find it difficult to discover that justice to one's neighbor is a dictate of the natural law. An extremely selfish person is likely to have the same defect of vision when it comes to considering his obligations toward his fellow men. A large segment of any generation of people might have been mistreated or might be selfish and, therefore, blind to their social obligations.

It is not likely that anyone would welcome a civil abortion law which contradicts natural law, since there is no other basis for vindicating the validity of conscience. And, short of force, conscience is the only hope which society has for the observence of civil laws.

Natural law helps one to evaluate various claims against the unborn's right to life and presents reasonable criteria for settling claims which are in opposition. The starting point for any defense of the unborn's right to life, of course, is the fact that he or she is a fellow human being. Objective reasoning leads one from that point to the content of the Declaration of Independence, wherein it is recognized that all human beings have the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Whenever conflicting claims to rights occur, it is reasonable that they be resolved legally through due process of the law, giving an equal hearing to each of the contesting parties.

Those who do not see the unborn of human parentage to be a full- fledged human being should make a thorough investigation of all the factors involved in establishing the species-status of the conceptus. If anyone is still in doubt as to when the human being begins to exist there remains only one course to follow. Objective reasoning would incline such a one to know that, because of the doubt, a conceptus, at all stages of its development, ought to be treated as though it were a human being, to avoid the possibility of killing what scientific evidence proposes to be a fellow human being. IF A HUNTER WERE DOUBTFUL WHETHER IT IS A DEER OR A FELLOW-HUNTER BEHIND THE BUSHES IN HIS GUNSIGHT, HE WOULD NOT BE MORALLY FREE TO PULL THE TRIGGER.

It is the citizens who formulate the laws of the community. In so doing, they must be attentive not only to the rights of individuals, but also to the common good. Besides defending the rights of unborn fellow human beings, there is another question which each member of the community should consider: whether liberalized legal abortion has any adverse effects on the society as a whole. THERE MAY BE SOME WHO FAIL TO SEE THAT ALL CITIZENS ARE INVOLVED IN EVERY CASE OF LEGALIZED ABORTION. But democracy is government by the people, and all who participate in organized injustice are as culpable as when they act alone. If government professes abortion as a means of population control or as a bone thrown to appease a segment of that society, all its members are responsible, even though they have legalized their mischief into the laws of that society. Civil laws favoring one segment of society against the rights of any other segment is not rule by law; it is anarchy.

As for individuals most closely involved in procuring abortions harmful effects can be demonstrated in many aborted women and in their doctors. Experience in eastern Europe and in Japan is already showing effects of a widespread trauma of guilt in large numbers of aborted women. Where the practice of irresponsible abortion has been of shorter duration, ample individual cases indicate that her complicity in an abortion is a hard fact for a woman to live with.

Doctors who perform abortions may find it difficult to assure themselves of their own honesty, having been educated to value life rather than to destroy it. Many nurses and paramedical personnel have found the so-called therapeutic abortions so revolting that they refuse any longer to assist at them. It should be pointed out that for these people who are accustomed to death and mangled human flesh, the nausea is not physical, but is a rebellion rising from their outraged moral sensibilities.

In questioning the right of government to legislate against deliberate abortion, some persons suppose that government is infringing upon the personal liberty of those who want abortions. One representative of this viewpoint goes so far as to insist that an abortion is no different than an appendectomy, so far as society is concerned and, therefore, not a basis for civil legislation. It should not be difficult to see that in one case only an individual and his appendix are involved. In the other case an unborn member of our human society is being killed. What is done with one's appendix is, indeed, one's own business, but what is done with the life of another human being is a concern of the whole society.

If parents should insist that they may freely kill what they have freely brought into existence, let them consider the simple fact that the bringing into existence involves the responsible follow-through of giving birth and caring for their offspring. This is one case in which a man and woman are not free to change their minds. In conceiving a child, they have committed themselves to the child's welfare. To abandon this minimum concept of responsibility would be to deny all hope of order in society.

Besides the immediate social consequences of legalized abortion there are others which are likely to show up in the future. For example:

Persons who have managed to escape legalized abortion can hardly be expected to have respect for a society which might just as well have permitted their extinction instead of birth. Those who favor abortion today would do well to see what they are planting for the future.

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