Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Abortion and Human Dignity

When does life begin? Conception happens when a male cell (spermatozoon) fertilizes the female cell (the ovum). It then becomes a zygote. This zygote contains the full genetic code of twenty-three pairs of chromosomes. Afterwards, the zygote undergoes the process of cell division. The zygote then grows then moves through the fallopian tube and gradually implants itself in the uterine wall.

Later, up until the end of the eighth week, the zygote will be called an embryo. During this period of embryonic growth, the process called organogenesis occurs. This is the time when organic systems of the human being develop, including the formation of the brain. At the end of the eighth week until birth, while developing a recognizable human form, the life inside the womb is called a fetus.

What is abortion?             

Abortion refers to the spontaneous or induced expulsion of an embryo or a fetus from the womb of a pregnant woman. Abortion is spontaneous when the causes are natural. Normally called a miscarriage, it can be a result of environmental factors or trauma on the part of the pregnant woman. It usually occurs during the very early part of the pregnancy. On the other hand, abortion is induced when there is the intentional expulsion of the embryo or fetus from the womb, usually by medical means.

There are various procedures used in induced abortion. One of these is called the Manual Vacuum Aspiration or the MVA method. It involves the manual utilization of a syringe or an electric pump in suctioning the embryo out of the womb. It is employed only up to the 12th week of the pregnancy. Another method is Dilation and Curettage (DC). It involves the dilation of the cervix and the use of a suction curettage to remove the embryo from the womb.

If the abortion occurs after the 12th week of pregnancy, another method employed is the use of prostaglandin to induce premature delivery. Abortionists inject the amniotic fluid with either a strong saline solution or urea. The solution kills the developing entity inside the womb and forces premature delivery. If the abortion occurs at the later stage of a pregnancy, the method used is Intra-Uterine Cranial Decompression (IDX) or “partial birth abortion”.

Partial birth abortion or IDX would require the decompression of the skull of the fetus before it is evacuated from the womb. When abortion is also done during the very late stages of a pregnancy, such will require a surgical procedure known as hysterectomy. The surgery is similar to a caesarian section. It requires an abdominal incision to evacuate the fetus. All of the above are the procedures that abortion clinics use.

The Position of the Church

The Catholic Church argues that abortion is morally wrong because “the one eliminated is a human being at the very beginning of life”[1]. The position of the Church is that human life begins from the very moment of conception. This means that no period from the moment of conception and along the very path of the 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.

One basis of the Church in saying that abortion is morally wrong is the fact that a fertilized egg already has the full genetic code of a human being right after the moment of conception. Thus, it can be said that it is already human. As such, it must be endowed with the dignity of a human being. According to the Catholic Church, “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…”[2] Abortion thus violates the right to life of the unborn. For the Church, this life is simply a victim of a kind of violence. Pope John Paul II speaks of the innocence of the unborn:
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.[3]
For the Catholic Church, the unborn, even in their silence, being human, deserves respect as 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. The value of human life is not as such because it is what the Church stands for. The basis of such is the reality that something of moral value is developing. It has a life. It is a life brought forth by a kind of relation between two human persons. Whether or not it is a result of an acceptable or an illicit affair, such is not the point. The moral point is that there is a human life inside the womb. 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 [some] 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 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.[4]
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 the Catholic Church, abortion is direct killing or murder.

The legalization of abortion in the United States

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.[5]
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”.[6] 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.[7]
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”.[8] 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”.[9]

Consider for instance Thomson's argument that compares the unborn to a 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”.[10] 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…”[11]

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."[12]

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”.[13]

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, Fr. Romeo Intengan, SJ, enumerates four reasons (moral and non-moral) why people procure an abortion.[14]

Therapeutic Abortion

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.

Eugenic Abortion

The science of eugenics uses the science of genetics in order to create better species. By better, we mean that some species are more desirable because of their improved 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 human 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 only considers the unborn as a mere object without 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.[15]” 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. 

Psycho-Social Abortion

In most poor societies, women are burdened by the mental stigma and the economic difficulty of raising a child as a single mother. Many women also feel the 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.

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 rights 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.”[16]

The reality of extreme poverty and the lack of decent opportunities for human well-being imply 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.”[17] Nevertheless, Pope John Paul II argues strongly that "these reasons and others like them, however serious and tragic, can never justify the deliberate killing of an innocent person.”[18]

Humanitarian Abortion       

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”[19]. 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”.[20] 

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 huge 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. It also happens that the pregnant woman is also a minor. Thus, there exists a huge health risk. In this sense, a careful deliberation should be done with the guidance of medical experts and committed family members. It should be determined whether the life of a minor is endangered by the pregnancy. In such an atypical and 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.




[1] Pope John Paul II, The unspeakable crime of abortion, in Thomas Mappes and Jane Zembaty, Social Ethics (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 11.
[2] Ibid., 12
[3] Ibid., 12
[4] Ibid., 11
[5] Harry Blackmun, Majority Opinion in Roe v Wade, in Daniel Bonevac, ed, Moral Issues Today (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 317.
[6] Mary Anne Warren, The Moral and Legal Status of Abortion, in Daniel Bonevac, Moral Issues Today (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 330.
[7] Ibid., 318
[8] Judith Jarvis Thomson, A defense of abortion, in Daniel Bonevac, Moral Issues Today (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 323
[9] Mary Anne Warren, The Legal and Moral Status of Abortion, 332
[10] Thomson, A defense of abortion, 325
[11] Ibid., 329
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] For an extensive discussion on this matter, see Fr. Romeo Intengan’s Bioethics (no data of publication). Fr. Intengan’s article Bioethics elaborates quite clearly the matter we have at hand.
[15] Don Marquis, Why abortion is immoral, in Daniel Bonevac, ed., Moral Issues Today (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2002), 357
[16] Pope John Paul, The unspeakable crime of abortion, 12
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid., 12
[19] Thomson, A defense of abortion, 325
[20] Ibid.