The Catholic Church argues that abortion is morally wrong because “the one eliminated is a human being at the very beginning of life.” (Pope John Paul II, 2003) The position of the Church is clear. Human life begins from the very moment of conception. This means that "no period from the moment of conception and along the path of embryonic and fetal development can be drawn to merit a moral justification for abortion on the basis of the right to privacy" or freedom of choice of the mother, "unless the life of the mother is in danger."
The Position of the Church
The position of the Catholic Church indicates that "a fertilized egg already has the full genetic code of a human being" right after the moment of conception. It argues that it is already human in view of this uniqueness. As such, the unborn from the moment of conception on is already endowed with the dignity of a human being.
This position further advances the idea that, “some people try to justify abortion by claiming that the result of conception, at least up to a certain number of days, cannot yet be considered a personal human life. But in fact, from the time of that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun…” Abortion thus violates the right to life of the unborn. For the Catholic Church, the unborn is simply a victim of a kind of violence. Pope John Paul II speaks of this innocence:
No one more absolutely innocent could be imagined. In no way could this human being be considered an aggressor, much less an unjust aggressor! He or she is weak, defenseless, even to the point of lacking the minimal form of defense consisting in the poignant power of the newborn baby’s cries and tears.
For the Catholic Church, the unborn deserves all the respect that must be accorded to a person. This also means that the unborn must be protected from harm. If the unborn child does no harm to any person, if this child is innocent and powerless, why sacrifice the life of that child? It is morally plausible to argue, even without the basis of faith, from the point of view of our moral intuitions, that the life inside the womb has a moral value. Pope John Paul II summarizes the position of the Catholic faith and makes a moral evaluation of the same:
In the case of abortion there is a widespread use of ambiguous terminology, such as ‘interruption of pregnancy,’ which tends to hide abortion’s true nature and to attenuate its seriousness in public opinion. Perhaps this uneasiness is also symptomatic of the uneasiness of conscience. But no word has the power to change the reality of things: procured abortion is the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth.
The position of the Catholic Church regarding the issue of abortion, a moral stand that has influenced the 1987 Philippine Constitution because of the country’s deep Catholic tradition, tells us that the unborn possesses the same dignity as any mature adult. In this sense, the unborn has a right to life. The State, thus, protects not only the life of the mother but the life of the unborn as well. This means that the unborn must be given all the rights and entitlements necessary to be given birth. It is a gross violation of the unborn child’s right to life to interrupt any pregnancy and consequently, this means that the no resource of the state should be utilized in support of abortion rights.
To say that the unborn has the same moral status with that of an adult means that killing the unborn is not different from killing a mature person. Thus, for Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church, abortion is direct killing or murder.
The Legalization of Abortion in the United States
Now, let us discuss the landmark Roe v Wade case (1973) in the US Supreme Court which gave women in the US the right to an abortion. According to the US Supreme Court:
In areas other than criminal abortion, the law has been reluctant to endorse any theory that life, as we recognize it, begins before live birth or to accord legal rights to the unborn except in narrowly defined situations and except when rights are contingent upon the live birth.
This means that the US Supreme Court does not believe that there are plausible reasons to say that human life begins at the moment of conception. And because no human life exists, subsequently no right can be given to the unborn. Morally, this means that full autonomy, which is the capacity of persons to argue for the moral good, is not conferred by the US Supreme Court on the unborn. This also means that the Court subjects the full development of the unborn to the decision of the mother and the State.
Mary Anne Warren argues for instance, that “it is possible to show that, on the basis of intuitions which we may expect even the opponents of abortion to share, a fetus is not a person, and hence not the sort of entity to which it is proper to ascribe full moral rights”. On this note, clearly for Warren, rights are conferred only to persons. To deny the right to life to an unborn child legally means that personhood is the necessary and essential basis of one’s right to life. The US Supreme Court decision concludes:
A state criminal abortion statute of the current Texas type, that excepts from criminality only a life saving procedure on behalf of a mother, without regard to pregnancy stage and without recognition of the other interests involved, is violative of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The US Supreme Court says in the ruling that any law prohibiting abortion should consider the interests of the mother. Otherwise, the rights of the mother, i.e. right to privacy, and other important State interests, i.e. health care, are violated. Impliedly, since the subject state law from Texas violates the Due Process clause as deemed by the Court, the ruling meant to manifest that the mother has the legal right to terminate the pregnancy.
What the above means for us is that it assumes that the unborn fetus is an alien entity using the body of the woman. Being an alien entity, the continuation of the pregnancy should require the consent of the mother. Judith Thomson echoes this when she says that “for what we have to keep in mind is that the mother and the unborn child are not like two tenants in a small house which has, by unfortunate mistake, been rented to both: the mother owns the house”. The point of Thomson is to demonstrate that, in defense of women’s rights, she says that “at least some and perhaps most cases, a woman is under no moral obligation to complete an unwanted pregnancy”.
Consider for instance the argument comparing the unborn to some violinist. Hypothetically, Thomson says, consider that you have given a violinist the right to use your kidneys in order for him to live. But what if you decide to unplug him from your kidneys? No one could have given him such a chance. But it is your kidneys and you have made your decision. Is it unjust? Thomson says that it is not unjust because you own your kidneys. She says that, “the right to life consists not in the right not to be killed, but rather in the right not to be killed unjustly”. Thomson holds the same against the fetus, suggesting that “you are not morally required to spend nine months in bed sustaining the life of that violinist…”
The right to privacy tells us that women are autonomous subjects. Thus, it is said that they deserve respect with regard to their decisions as mature consenting individuals. The right to privacy includes the right to choose, i.e. on how to use one’s body. It is a right flowing from a woman’s being an absolute holder of moral value, i.e. being an autonomous subject. Thus, it is a right which goes on to mean that the mother has the moral power to decide as to whether or not she would allow the fetus to depend on her. Justice Blackmun also notes that:
For the stage prior to approximately the end of the first trimester, the abortion decision and its effectuation must be left to the medical judgment of the pregnant woman’s attending physician.
Based on the decision, the choice to continue or terminate the pregnancy must be accompanied by certain conditions. Thus, the US Supreme Court decision states that “for the stage subsequent to approximately the end of the first trimester, the State, in promoting its interest in the health of the mother, may, if it chooses, regulate the abortion procedure in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health”.
Concerns regarding public health are thereby invoked in the decision. It clearly stipulates that after the first trimester, the different states in the United States may regulate abortion, with the general compelling reason of protecting and preserving maternal health. This stipulation rules that pregnant women do not have the absolute right to procure an abortion after the first trimester. It dictates that US States do have some form of regulatory power on abortion after the first trimester.
The decision does not mean that the US Supreme Court has acknowledged the right to life of the unborn after the first trimester. The ruling sidesteps the question on the personhood of the fetus. It is essential, but the Court rules that it is not legally possible to have any plausible argument to determine substantially if the fetus is a person. The decision on Roe v Wade simply rules that US States have certain regulatory powers with regard to abortion after the first trimester on the basis of State interests. Below, we shall consider the general reasons for abortion.
Therapeutic Abortion and the Principle of Double-effect
Therapeutic abortion is done in order to save the life of the mother. One case of therapeutic abortion is ectopic pregnancy. It is a condition where the embryo fails to implant in the uterus and is developing inside the fallopian tube. In such a condition, continuing the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother. It is the moral urgency of saving the life of the mother that makes therapeutic abortion morally justifiable.
The argument proceeds from the principle of double-effect. In the principle of double-effect, one is to choose a lesser evil in order to achieve a greater good. The principle of double-effect tells us that one act (in this case abortion) has two effects – one, saving the life of the mother and second, ending the life of the embryo. The end of the non-viable embryo is not intentional but comes as an effect in the effort to save the mother’s life by terminating the pregnancy. The good of saving the life of the mother is greater than the value of the non-viable embryo.
Non-moral Types of Abortion
The science of eugenics employs the science of genetics in order to create better species. By better, we mean that these species are more desirable because of their better physiological traits. Following this stance, eugenic abortion terminates the pregnancy in order to avoid giving birth to infants with physical deformities. Parents usually undergo prenatal screening to check for abnormalities in the unborn fetus. A fetal anomaly is used as basis in deciding to terminate the pregnancy.
Eugenic abortion relies on the idea that fetuses are not yet persons. Thus, since fetuses are not persons, they do not have rights. Fetuses, following this argument, are said to possess no moral status and thus, they do not have a right to a full human life.
But the most compelling reason against eugenic abortion is that it considers the unborn as a mere object without any dignity. It makes the wrong judgment that an unborn child who may have disabilities cannot live a meaningful human life. It is something that reduces the life of the unborn to an object of scientific manipulation and control.
Although it can be said that the science of eugenics aims at the improvement of the human race, it is wrong because it employs unethical means. In this regard, Don Marquis writes that “since a fetus possesses a property, and the possession of which in adult human beings is sufficient to make killing an adult human being wrong, abortion is wrong. ” To tamper with human life in the womb is to grossly violate the very uniqueness of each individual being, a uniqueness that only God confers. The end or purpose of developing a super human race does not justify the use of evil means, i.e. aborting undesirable embryos.
In most poor societies, many women are burdened by the mental stigma and the economic difficulty of raising a child as a single mother. Many women also feel shame and isolation due to their condition. The economic burden of raising a child as a single mother is due to the fact that unwed single parents are usually jobless. Women are usually ostracized by society and sometimes by their families. In the absence of family support, raising a child would be very difficult. It is for this reason that some see abortion as an option.
But abortion for psycho-social reason treats the unborn as a mere means to an end and is therefore wrong. The unborn is reduced to an object which is sacrificed to serve the purpose of freeing the mother from some sort of psychological or economic difficulty. What is most unfair for the fetus here is the deliberate act of adults to evade the responsibility of caring for the child in the future.
It can be argued against the proponents of abortion that the right to privacy misunderstands the relation between the mother and the unborn child. It unacceptably views the unborn child as a stranger. The unborn child is only seen as a separate and an unwelcome entity. Thus, the unborn child is reduced to an alien object.
Psycho-social abortion also over-emphasizes the idea that women have absolute ownership over their bodies. It therefore neglects the special relationship between the mother and the unborn. Motherhood should be a kind of relationship based on real love and care. It should not be about whether or not it is convenient or comfortable on the part of a woman to carry a human life inside her womb.
Pope John Paul II expresses that while “it is true that the decision to have an abortion is often tragic and painful for the mother, insofar as the decision to rid herself of the fruit of conception is not made for purely selfish reasons or out of convenience, but out of a desire to protect certain important values such as her own health or a decent standard of living for the other members of the family” or that in many cases, “it is feared that the child to be born would live in such conditions that it would be better if the birth did not take place” , he strongly argues that “nevertheless, these reasons and others like them, however serious and tragic, can never justify the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.”
Let take up the difficult issue of humanitarian abortion as considered by Fr. Romeo Intengan, SJ, in his paper Bioethics. Somebody who is raped and becomes pregnant can carry the mental or psychological stigma of the crime of rape. In addition to this, the new born child becomes a reminder of the crime perpetuated against the mother. Under this circumstance, a very careful consideration of the situation of the woman is necessary.
Thomson says that unborn persons whose existence “is due to rape have no right to the use of their mothers’ bodies, that aborting them is not depriving them of anything they have a right to and hence is not unjust killing” . Thomson points out that it is not the responsibility of a woman to aid a person that she finds unwelcome. She likens it to helping “an ailing violinist who is a stranger to her”.
The argument however is that the unborn is not supposed to suffer the consequences of a crime. The unborn should not be made to pay for the crime of the rapist. Aborting the fetus does not amend nor erase the criminal and moral offense that has been committed against the mother. It is not the fault of the unborn. Why then should the unborn child be made to suffer?
On the other hand, incest is a peculiar case because of the possibility of the mother carrying an unborn child who may have some form of physical deformity. But the argument runs that choosing to abort the child because of such fear can be eugenic in nature. If the incestuous pregnancy is due to rape, then the argument against abortion due to rape counters such.
But as the category suggests, some argue for this type of reason to abort for the sake of the mother who has suffered greatly from the crime of rape or the psychological stigma of an incestuous pregnancy. Some may argue that for the sake of the mother, the pregnancy should be terminated. This of course is not without opposition. The unborn child is a human being and should not be sacrificed for the sake of a co-equal good. In this sense, the rule of the thumb that a wrong cannot be rectified by another wrong applies.
The condition of a woman who is impregnated against her will violates her dignity as a human being. The woman in this sense also needs proper care and attention. Sometimes, it happens that the pregnant woman is also a minor. This puts a considerable health risk. In this sense, a careful deliberation should be done with the help of medical experts and committed family members. It should be determined whether the life of a minor is endangered by the pregnancy. In such a serious case, the principle of double effect should be applied. But if there is no apparent danger on the life of the minor, then post-childbirth options should be availed of to help the minor parent.
Basically, from a moral point of view, the argument we put forward here is that the all-encompassing principle with regard to the issue of abortion is the respect for the dignity of the human person. The unborn child, just like the mother, is entitled to that respect. Thus, any decision pertaining to such should first and foremost consider the fact that the unborn has an unequivocal right to a full human life.