The standard argument against abortion relies upon the language of “rights”: All human beings have a “right to life,” the unborn is a human being, thus, the unborn have a “right to life.” For at least two reasons, this argument fails to perform the task to which it has been assigned.
First, the notion of “rights” that are supposed to be universally distributed throughout the human species is dubious. More than a few thinkers, including Christian thinkers at that, have seconded Jeremy Bentham’s sentiment that the idea of “natural rights” is “nonsense on stilts.” There can be no question that, its truth or cogency aside, the doctrine of “natural” or “human rights” has kept its defenders busy with no small supply of problems with which to grapple.
Second, even on the assumption of the truth of this argument’s premises, the conclusion simply does not follow. The knowledge that so-and-so is a human being with a “right to life” is, by itself, insufficient to proscribe any action short of “unjustified killing.” Yet whether abortion is unjustified killing is precisely the question that needs to be settled; it can’t be supposed or else the argument is reduced to an exercise in question-begging.
Abortion is an evil, we can be sure of that, but we needn’t avail ourselves of the abstract universalism of the rights theorist to realize this fact. There are reasons much closer to home that convict us of the wrongness of abortion while at once exposing the superfluity of rights reasoning.
I am far from denying that there are cross-cultural and trans-historical principles of morality that can be abstracted from those points at which the world’s moral traditions intersect; but the only moral education worth speaking of, the education whereby virtue and duty are not taught, but imparted, is always a particular affair. Morality requires, not the impartiality demanded of the doctrine of “human rights,” but a partiality without which the relationships constitutive of the moral life would be impossible. The moral experience is concrete, not abstract, and while morality is an intelligent engagement, it is not an exercise in “naked Reason,” but a matter of habit and feeling—or “prejudice,” as Burke put it.
Now, the parent-child relationship is the most durable of all human relationships, the one relationship least susceptible to the contingencies that all too often threaten to ruin every other. There is a bond between parent and child that, especially on the parent’s part, isn’t so much acquired as it is spontaneous—or at least this is what it feels like. I recall that when my wife and I were expecting our son, a receptionist at the office of my wife’s doctor told us: “You will be amazed at how much love you will instantly feel for that baby who you don’t even know!” And she was right. It is not for nothing that the dominant metaphor for God’s love for humanity is parental love.
In fact, this love of parent for child begins before the former even meets the latter. This explains why miscarriages are experienced as tragedies. Notice, when a woman miscarries, no one so much as thinks to lament that God, nature, or circumstances conspired to “terminate the pregnancy”; neither is she consoled for having lost “the fetus.” Her situation is perceived, by herself and others, as tragic, because she lost “the baby.”
To permit the ontological standing of this prenatal being to depend on the desires and attachments of the parent is not only incoherent, it is morally repugnant. But in allowing for elective abortion, we accommodate just such an arrangement. This type of abortion is worse than the government-mandated abortion of, say, China; at least in China it is strangers who order the deaths of the unborn. We, on the other hand, sanction the morally inconceivable in allowing, not faceless bureaucrats, but mothers to visit lethal violence upon the very wombs that nature itself designed for sheltering and nourishing the tiny, powerless lives growing within them.
Neither war nor the death penalty nor euthanasia promise to eviscerate a peoples’ sense of the sanctity of human life like abortion, for abortion alone is an immediate assault against the one human love that strikes us as being, not an acquisition, but a dispensation of nature. The one fine line between civilization and barbarism is the parent: it is through the love, care, and education provided by the parent that the child is civilized. There is, then, no surer way to facilitate the decline of civilization itself than to not only permit parents to destroy their children, but to do all that can be done to convince them that this is one of their “human rights.”
Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.