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The ethics of abortion: Clearing up misunderstandings

Now that Roe v. Wade has been dropped, and the authority to determine abortion policy has finally been devolved to the people and their elected representatives, it matters more than ever that we persuade our fellow citizens that the lives of the unborn are worthy of protection. Unfortunately, however, the public debate about abortion is distorted by numerous misunderstandings and misleading slogans. Identifying and correcting these misunderstandings is crucial if we are to have a reasonable public discussion of this important and sensitive issue. This is precisely what I intend to do in this essay. As my purpose is to give an overview of common misunderstandings and how to respond to them, my argument will be brief. But I will put links to longer arguments, thinking of those who want to explore a particular point in greater depth.

Misunderstanding #1: We don’t know when life begins

Despite the clear scientific consensus that life begins at conception, the degree of spread of this misunderstanding is surprising. Roe referred to the unborn child as “potential life”, and declined to “solve the difficult question of when life begins”, ignoring the already existing medical consensus (which dates back to mid-19th century) according to which human life begins at conception. It is common to hear people say that in the early stages of pregnancy the embryo or fetus is just “a bunch of cells”, or talk of abortion as the removal of “pregnancy tissue”. Yet such rhetoric is ideological, not scientific, designed to blur the undeniable reality that abortion kills a human being. Standard biology textbooks state that human life begins with fertilization (when the sperm and egg fuse), and the underlying science makes it clear that the fusion of sperm and egg results in a new human being that is genetically and functionally distinct from the human being. mother, with all the internal resources necessary to move towards maturity. Embryos and fetuses are not “potential life”, but early human beings, with the potential to mature into adulthood.

Misunderstanding #2: Abortion concerns a woman’s right to do what she wants with her own body

“My body, my rules”, maybe it is the slogan of greater rhetorical power employed by the pro-choice movement. Many even admit that a new human life begins with conception, and yet they argue that abortion should be legal because a woman should not be forced to bear a child. .

The opinion against the decision Dobbs is full of this rhetoric about ensuring that states have the power of “forcing women to give birth”, and reactions to the decision portray her as the creator of a dystopian world like The Handmaid’s Tale.

Still, the unborn child is a distinct human being, not part of the woman’s body. Otherwise, we would say that pregnant women have four legs, four arms and two hearts beating at different speeds. The unborn child has a unique genetic code, different from that of the mother and father, and directs its own development. The mother’s body only provides nutrition, protection and a suitable environment — things we need to survive at any stage of life.

Everyone recognizes that there are moral and legal limits to our bodily autonomy. My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins. My right to smoke is limited by the right of others not to suffer from the harm of smoke.

The primary effects of abortion are not on the woman’s body, but on the unborn child’s body in your uterus. And if the unborn child really is a person with basic rights like you and I, then it’s hard to see how killing a child to escape the burden of pregnancy and motherhood can be more justifiable than killing an unborn child (which is much harder to care than a child inside the womb).

Furthermore, as Erika Bachiochi points out in her excellent book The Rights of Women , early feminists (who were pro-life) understood “voluntary motherhood” not as a right to abortion, but as a woman’s right, even within marriage, to refuse sex. Except in cases of rape (which account for only 1% of all abortions), women have an unlimited right to exercise “reproductive choice” before the conception of a child. Once the child exists, reproduction has already taken place, and the reproductive choice has already been made; abortion is as much a “reproductive choice” as infanticide.

Misunderstanding #3: The unborn child is not a person

The most nuanced arguments in defense of abortion do not attempt to deny that human life begins with fertilization, nor that this new life is distinct from that of the mother, nor that abortion is the intentional act of killing that distinct human life. Instead, philosophers such as Peter Singer, Mary Anne Warren, and Michael Tooley argue that the unborn, while human, are not people with full moral status and moral entitlement, because they lack qualities like self-awareness and rationality, qualities that they believe are the basis of our moral status and subsequent rights.

There are many problems with this perspective, but one of the most obvious is that, if true, babies, young children, the disabled with serious cognitive problems and many human beings born would also not count as people with status morals and rights. In other words, as many proponents of this view frankly argue, it justifies not only abortion but also infanticide and involuntary euthanasia of the severely mentally handicapped. As Warren notes in her famous article in defense of abortion, “Disabled human beings, without appreciable mental capacity, are not, and presumably never will be, people.” Furthermore, Peter Singer, in Practical Ethics, argues that as babies are not self-aware, they “are not people”, and their lives are of “less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee.” Furthermore, the claim that some human beings are not “people”, and therefore lack basic rights, has been used throughout history by defenders of slavery and genocide to justify their gross injustices.

A more defensible perspective is to recognize that all human beings are persons because all human beings (regardless of their stage of development or state of health) has a rational nature, even if they cannot (yet) manifest their rationality because of immaturity or illness. We know that this is the case because all human beings, if not impeded by some external cause such as illness or injury, do begin to manifest rational capacities as soon as they reach a level of maturity. This means that the root of the capacity for rationality must be present at all times. Otherwise, the regular and predictable manifestation of rational capacities in humans at a certain stage of development — but not in cats, dogs, dolphins, or any other animal — would be quite mysterious and inexplicable.

Since the beginning of life, all humans have the genetic and epigenetic beginnings of a brain and other biological structural supports for the exercise of rational capacities. Even before these abilities can manifest, they are already present as a root, just as these abilities are still present when a person is asleep or in a coma. Every human being, regardless of age, illness or disability, has a rational nature and is therefore a person with an innate dignity whose basic rights deserve protection.

Misunderstanding #4: Abortion is a matter of health

Many claim that abortion is a woman’s private decision regarding health, which should be made in consultation with the doctor, free from legal restrictions. Yet, aside from the fact that there are numerous legal limitations to the interventions that doctors can offer their patients, abortion (except when a woman’s life is seriously threatened by pregnancy) is not intended for healing or health. Pregnancy is not a disease. A woman’s body is made to be able to reproduce and gestate offspring. Pregnancy is, rather, a sign of health, not a disease that needs to be “cured” by abortion. It is possible to say that treating the female capacity for pregnancy, as if it were a disease rather than a sign of health, has distorted the practice of medicine to the detriment of women, ignoring the importance of the menstrual cycle as the “fifth vital sign”, and relying instead on the birth control pill (with its many side effects) to mask a woman’s health problems rather than treating the causes.

The vast majority of abortions — more than 95%, by the Florida data—involves a healthy mother and a healthy baby. In cases involving a threat to the health of the mother, the procedures necessary to save the mother can be justified by the principle of double effect, even if the unborn child dies as an unintended side effect (and all laws restricting abortion must have an exception for such cases).

In addition, studies clearly show that legalizing abortion does not reduce overall mortality of mothers. A study compares maternal mortality in Chile during the period when abortion was legal (1959–1989) to maternal mortality during the period when abortion was illegal (1989–2007). The study showed that maternal mortality was more than three times lower in the period when abortion was illegal (

, 7 deaths by 1959, , against 41, 3 deaths by 100,000 when abortion was legal), continuing the trend that began with the discovery of penicillin and other medical advances. Other studies confirm that the availability of abortion does not reduce the decline in maternal mortality, and highlight the significant physical and psychological risks of abortion, which are often underreported. It is also important to note that the claims of thousands of deaths caused by poor abortions before Roe are false, as even the fact-checkers from Washington Post’s showed.

Misunderstanding #5: Abortion is necessary for the equality of women

The frequent references to The Handmaid’s Tale in the reactions to the decision Dobbs

promote the misunderstanding that restrictions on abortion will somehow undo all the political, social and economic gains that women have made in the last century. Such reactions assume, against the evidence, that these gains (which began well before Roe legalized abortion across the country) depended on the availability of abortion. Yet the first feminists to fight for political and social equality did not believe that abortion was necessary or even good for the cause. Alice Paul, author of the original Equal Rights Amendment [Emenda dos Direitos Iguais], said that “abortion is the ultimate exploitation of women.” Indeed, as Bachiochi and other pro-life feminists have said, abortion actually undermines women’s equality by nurturing a culture that takes “the male body, without a uterus, as the norm”, devalues ​​the important work of caring for children, and says to women that, to succeed professionally, socially and educationally, they need to make their bodies look like men’s, through artificial birth control and abortion. True equality would value and support a woman’s unique ability to bear children—with reasonable maternity leave policies and flexible options for work—rather than requiring women to look like men in order to compete.

Misunderstanding #6: Abortion can “solve” an unwanted pregnancy

This misunderstanding is not usually be stated explicitly, but it is implicit in the common assumption that abortion can “fix” an unwanted pregnancy, letting life go on as if nothing had happened. Bad Abortion is not an easy or simple solution, and pregnancy is not something that can be “undone”, because nothing can “undo” the existence of a new human life. Reflecting on her own experience of an unwanted pregnancy and her struggle to decide whether to have an abortion, Mariel Lindsay writes, “I once thought that an unwanted pregnancy could be resolved easily. body) that I realized it was far from being easy or having an easy solution.” She continues and explains, “The choice to have a baby as a single young woman is often seen as a colossal, life-changing decision that alters perspectives forever. But rarely have I heard anything remotely similar to the experience I actually had. : a clear sense that the alternative doesn’t change life any less, nor does it generate less regret.” Lindsay recognized, in other words, that her life was forever altered by the conception of a child, and that nothing she did could change or undo it. Abortion may seem an “easy way out,” but as experts who have offered postabortion counseling to thousands of women attest, and as studies show, trauma post-abortion is real and has lasting effects, yet many resources for support and healing are available.

Misunderstanding #7: Abortion is an issue religious.

“Keep your rosaries out of my ovaries” has long been a favorite slogan of the abortion movement, implying that pro-lifers try to impose their religious values ​​on others. Many pro-abortion politicians, including President Biden, have also represented views on abortion as a matter of private religious faith, such as the Catholic recommendation to go to Mass on Sundays that it would be improper for the government to impose on all citizens. But abortion is primarily a matter of human rights, not a matter of religious faith. And if abortion is a “religious issue,” so is racial justice, immigration reform, environmental protection, or poverty alleviation. No one needs to be religious to understand that it is wrong to kill innocent human beings. In fact, none of the arguments presented in this article is based on a religious claim.

And while it is true that many pro-lifers are committed to protecting the unborn because of the faith, this is no reason to ignore their voices. The great advocate of civil rights Martin Luther King Jr. he was a Christian pastor whose belief in the equal dignity of all human beings, and his commitment to the cause of racial justice, was grounded in his Christian faith. Yet no one would argue that by lobbying for civil rights legislation, he was seeking to impose his faith on others illegitimately. The Ten Commandments forbid killing and stealing, but it does not follow that laws against murder and theft are religious impositions.

All the arguments presented above can be expanded on in detail, and no doubt there are other misunderstandings about abortion that I haven’t mentioned. Nevertheless, I hope that by articulating and responding to these common misunderstandings, it will be easier to clarify and advance the debate, leaving behind misleading slogans and moving on to a dialogue open and respectful public at the beginning of Dobbs, and seeking to build a genuine culture of life that supports the needs of women and children.

Melissa Moschella is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America and author of ‘To Whom Do Children Belong? Parental Rights, Civic Education and Children’s Autonomy’ (Cambridge University Press).

©2022 The Public Discourse. Published with permission. Original in English.
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