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The Ethics and Politics of Abortion:
Local and Global

by Charles Hlavac

The editors of the text Philosophy and Contemporary Issues (Burr and Goldinger) in their Introduction to Chapter Three: Morality and Society, begin with the following statements:

An issue much debated at present is the morality of abortion...

Is it ever morally justified to kill one innocent person to save another? (174)

The word "morality", for me, has undertones of religious or cultural practices which promote standards of behavior for all, and that, as with "criminal justice", any deviation from these standards is to be considered "immoral" or "criminal", if they have become the law. The editors again refer to their section on this subject as "The Morality of Abortion" (225), as if to make sure that we somehow begin to feel that there may be an "immorality to abortion". And, of course, the phrase "to kill one innocent person" is loaded with judgmental nuances. I also suppose that I may be overly sensitive to their approach, although it seems to be stacking the deck, so to speak, in favor of an anti-abortion ethic.

So, ethics enters the picture, even though related to the term morals:

'Ethics' can be considered to be a 'meta-moral' "inquiry about ways of life and rules of conduct." (Edwards, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. Three, pp .81-82).

To continue:

Metaethical statements...are about the uses or meanings of normative ethical statements, utterances, or terms, about the logical status of moral claims, or about what constitutes morality. (Edwards, 118).

If we look at the abortion issue from a purely metaethical approach, there are really no grounds on which to firmly plant an opinion, unless there is a bias that has some other rationale, e.g. "pro-life", "right to life", "right to choose", "the greatest good", etc. There are no grounds for any of these opinions because they are based only on the current "feelings" of those expressing them, even though supposedly "justified" by some other meta-normative system (Christianity, rational humanism, political or cultural ideology, etc.).

To be purely metaethical is take the query above and beyond the local and national level, as if seeing it from the perspective of an observer in a distant galaxy. What can be seen then is that what almost all of the papers written by philosophers and theologians have in common are the core questions: "What is human life?" and "When does it begin?". The ethical question then is, "Is it right to terminate human life before live birth for any reason?" (The anthropomorphic factor is implied in the term "human life"!)

From the metaethical/ galactic perspective, and with reference to John Stuart Mill, it can be maintained that "the good of all men or the greatest happiness of the greatest number must be the standard of what is right in conduct" (op. cit. Titus 366). Further, and with my own reference to abortion: "Such sacrifice is not an end in itself; it is a means to the greater happiness of a larger number of people...The morality of an act depends...on its effect on society" (op. cit. Titus 366).

While this is a utilitarian view applied to the ethics of abortion, it cuts across national and religious boundaries into the world at large and fits both a metaethical and global perspective. Ethics is bound up with value theory and one of the predominant discussions regarding values is whether they express knowledge or feelings (op. cit. Titus 340). It seems to me that every culture places varying values on human and other forms of life, whether it be mature or pre-natal, based on what that culture feels is necessary for its continuance or success. Whether seen by Western observers as "moral" or not, these other "ethics of abortion" are real. There are many value systems operating here including critical societal issues such as overpopulation and, more often than not, religious or local ethics regarding the treatment of pregnant women and their fetuses. Whatever happens in each culture must be viewed as the way in which that culture feels that it is obtaining "the greatest happiness for the greatest number".

Some of the issues in abortion debates can be capsulized as follows, and most confront the question: "What is the value of human life?", yet most do not address the utilitarian issue of the "greatest good":

— Human life is sacred and can never be taken at any time.
— A fetus is a "person", and has a person's rights.
— Human life begins at conception and cannot be terminated for any reason.
— Human life begins at "viability" (2/3rd trimester), so abortion is OK before that.
— Human life begins only at live birth, so abortion is OK before that.
— Abortion is not allowed because our population needs to grow.
— Abortion is mandatory after the first child is born. Only one child per married couple. (China)
— Abortion is OK if the mother was raped.
— Abortion is OK if the mother was raped by a close relative.
— Abortion is OK if the mother is single/ criminal/ drug addict/ homeless etc.
— Abortion is not OK "just because the mother wants it".
— Abortion is not OK because the unborn has "human rights".
— The mother has "rights" to her body. Only she can decide to give birth or not.

As a counterpoise to the issue of abortion, there is the hard fact that in many cultures newborn, live infants, have been put to death because the family already has too many children or the child was an unwanted male or female.

With euthanasia, we run across the same "sacrosanct life" concept, in that the voluntary taking of life (your own or another's) is somehow immoral, regardless of the pain and suffering that maintaining that life may inflict upon the owner of the life or others. This is a metanarrative that speaks only to the feeling or spiritual morality of those who ask the rest of society to accept their interpretation of what is, in general, an unknowable and unverifiable ethic: That the taking of life is a sin/ immoral, regardless of circumstance, and which always implies a directive from a Higher Power.

Basically, none of the articles in the text confront the supra-ethical issues, and instead remain provincially attached to the Western and particularly the American abortion dilemmas created by a Bible Belt mentality.

A simplified view of Roe vs. Wade is that it is basically a compromise which balances a liberal metaethical view with that of the religious and powerful minority in the United States by first claiming that abortion is OK, under most circumstances, in the first trimester, but gives up the 2nd and 3rd trimesters to a rather vague definition of "viability" and then lets the rest fall within "States' Rights", in other words, back to the local societies to decide.

Again, the two papers by Noonan (op. cit. 225) and Thomson (op. cit. 231) miss the point. It is not a matter of life/ death or pro-choice vs pro-life, or at what point two pieces of homo sapiens DNA get to be labeled "human life", it is what we do with the life we have, what we have planned for the life about to begin, and about the quality and viability of life after birth.

There is some contradiction, too, in Mill's remarks. For instance, while he did propose "the greater happiness for the greatest number", he also wrote: "Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign." (op. cit. Magee, 184). As a political issue, abortion faces the same tension between the struggle for individual freedom and the need for order and security as expressed in the laws of each society. Which is why I believe that there is no answer to the question: "Is Abortion Immoral?" If anything, philosophy should view abortion as a pragmatic social issue with utilitarian bases, and not as something whose value can be discovered in reality or in logic.

If values are to be useful, they must be in some way pragmatic and situational in that there can only be an approximation to the highest values among any group of humans, considering issues of survival alone, and that these values must address those already living and productive, who are given the responsibility of preparing the world for newcomers, as they are accepted and welcomed into the community of humanity. This preparation includes a world where violence, famine, disease and hatred is diminished and where creativity, learning, exploration, health, and joy in life are given the highest priority.

Custom, then, is the great guide of human life. — David Hume

The more...interactions we ascertain, the more we know the object in question. — John Dewey


The book The Ethics Of Abortion has some very poignant articles against abortion, including one where the unborn 25th week infant perceives the needle entering the womb of its mother. The point is that the arbitrary positioning of the end of the first trimester or any other trimester will not satisfy the issue of "What is human life?" or "When is a fetus viable?". It is a very powerful essay.

My personal feelings are conflicted in that any human potential may prove to be an enormous asset to humankind (consider the crippled physicist Stephen Hawkins, Helen Keller, etc.), and that human consciousness is somehow unique in an otherwise unconscious universe (as far as I know!).

I took a utilitarian point of view since it seems to me to be the only way to account for the diversity of values placed on the issue of abortion, from a global perspective. In China, abortion is mandatory if a couple already has one child. I feel that too much of the abortion debates in the US are provincial in the sense that they are driven more by Biblical concerns than with overall human welfare and the quality of life.

So, maybe it's appropriate to quote this here:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it. — Karl Marx

© Charles Hlavac 2003