This is not a pro-life blog. I am not a pro-life campaigner. And I’m certainly not a lawyer (something you are no doubt as relieved about as myself). But after my previous posts touched on issues of applied ethics without going into them particularly comprehensively, I would just like to clarify some of the other reasons that I’m against euthanasia and abortion.

Firstly, on abortion I only mentioned arguments which I thought may be new to people, rather than the key argument. The two arguments I mentioned were that because abortion is worse than other things you probably think are wrong (e.g. the death penalty) then you should think that it is wrong too, and the argument based on the evidence that the vast majority of women would really not want to have an abortion if they had a fully free choice.

Now, like how my argument against euthanasia parallels my argument against capital punishment, so my key argument against abortion parallels my argument against eating meat (though you may disagree with that conclusions and still think that it works in the case of abortion). Just like it is wrong to eat meat because in doing so you support the unnecessary (and unconsensual) suffering of an innocent creature, so too it is wrong to kill a foetus. This is especially the case given that it would otherwise have become someone just like you, and with the improving medical technologies and general standard of living we have today, would certainly not put you into a painful amount of poverty.

There are two retorts to this. The first is that foetuses probably cannot feel pain until quite some time into the gestation period. But this is not decisive. If I give you a lethal injection in your sleep you will not feel any pain but you will still suffer because in losing your life you have lost everything that had any value to you. The second retort is that killing is always right if it serves the greater good. I certainly don’t think that, but as has been stated in relation to the recent growth in the number of couples unable to conceive:

“A utilitarian calculus would, I’m pretty sure, tell you that the most ethical thing to do with an unwanted pregnancy, what would make most people most happy, is for the reluctant mother to carry an unwanted baby to full term and give it up for adoption. The adopted parents will be thrilled, and their happiness has every chance of lasting a lifetime –longer than the biological mother’s discomfort. And then there’s the child’s happiness to consider. It’s daft to ask which it would prefer– what would you prefer? Anyone would rather be adopted than aborted. To suggest otherwise is to spit in the eye of life.” – The Spectator  (This Guardian article is an expansion of that idea.)

The following is another different argument. In the previous post I gave scientific evidence the foetus is a distinct living human being, but is it a human being that deserves the same human rights as a born infant? If we really can’t know we can only guess, but guessing is not good enough when it comes to choosing whether to kill them. For example, if you were a construction worker about to blow up a building you certainly wouldn’t carry out the demolition if you thought there might be someone inside. So how could you permit an abortion if you thought there might be someone inside the womb? With extreme caution, at the very least.

A point which I believe to be decisive is this modus tollens argument: if abortion is moral, then infanticide is moral, but infanticide is not moral, therefore abortion is not moral. I have never seen a convincing demonstration that infanticide (the killing of a child) is morally distinct from abortion. This is because a child’s dependency on their mother to live is very almost as high in the first years of infancy as it is in the womb, and birth certainly does not mark a decisive distinction. So it is just inconsistent to say that women have the right to reject the one dependency- refusing to incubate the child further but not the former one- waiting on every need of a baby that isn’t even aware it exists.

Thus if abortion is permissible, then infanticide should be too. This is reinforced by the fact that foetuses who are viable (able to survive outside the womb – roughly from 20 weeks) are routinely killed in abortion. But as our intuitions about the wrongness of infanticide are far stronger than are anyone’s intuitions about the goodness of abortion, we thereby reach the conclusion that abortion is wrong.

The one serious objection to this argument is that there is in fact a significant distinction between babies in the womb and out of the womb because out of the womb people other than the mother can contribute to their care. But this completely misses the point of the argument. The argument hinges on the amount of care that is needed not who gives it. After all, it is not as if a pregnant mother has no support whatsoever from her friends, her family, the father of the baby, from charities and from the state, and then all of these suddenly appear when she gives birth!

Yet ‘pro-life’ is a practical attitude towards part of our lives rather than a conclusion from some abstract arguments. It is an attitude centred on care for all human life. It promotes this value as one of the most important things in a human life and as the cornerstone of our society. Yes this is idealistic and often inconvenient, but it is directed towards transforming us into more virtuous people- which is of tremendous benefit to the human community as a whole.

Virtue is a core part of common-sense morality: we praise those who consistently tell the truth and those who are unfailingly loyal to their friends and family, and most fundamentally, those who take responsibility for their actions. This is another reason in favour of pro-life, because abortion is presented as an easy way of escaping responsibility for one’s actions- namely the act of having unprotected sex without being prepared to bring a child to full term. What this means is that society’s condoning of abortion inescapably promotes a trend of irresponsibility, rather than taking the rational route of preventing these so easily-preventable mistakes in the first place. To be part of a moral community requires that we work to help people to learn from their mistakes rather than enabling them to make them more and more.

Pro-life takes a radical stand contrary to the prevailing ideology of our society by showing that there are values more important than brute efficiency and financial wealth. In doing so it becomes highly congruent with other eco-feminist values of stewardship for creation and compassion for all life. And it is wedded to a rejection of moral-pluralism in favour of a communitarian approach, that is to say, the idea that society should take a definitive stand on moral issues. Thus I call this the ‘thick’ concept of pro-life, in contrast to the ‘thin’ notion of merely anti-abortion.

The thick concept of pro-life is deeply sensitive to the fact that the legal status of abortion and euthanasia affects the entire structure of society as it is experienced by its citizens. As Cristina Odone has written of assisted killing:

“The danger is that less-than-perfect citizens will be deemed expendable. Not only will those who require a great deal of care and assistance, including the elderly, feel that in the new hierarchy promoted by euthanasia they stand at the bottom rung; they may feel guilty, seeing themselves reduced to a burden on their families or the state. This will be all the truer of the socially marginalised”.

This also means that penetrating as they do to a visceral level, issues and life and death are likewise highly sensitive to cultural trends and imagery, as this example illustrates:

“It is true that few in Britain today die as they would choose to. The impediment, however, does not lie in our law against assisted suicide, but rather in our culture. Obsessed with health, youth and success, we make assumptions about the poor quality of life that people with disabilities suffer from, and shrink altogether from addressing the issues surrounding death and dying. This culture, found also within our health and social care systems, has allowed fearful myths about the pain and indignities of various disabilities to take hold of the public imagination”.

These ideas are clearly unfortunate, as is the dominant (mis)conception of the pro-life movement as sex-hating fascists. Governance is not value-free. You cannot escape the fact that the government is making choices on moral issues all the time and thus our politics needs to take a stand on what is and isn’t right in order to protect against the wrong moral choices being made. Society (not so much the state) should help us into being well-rounded, good people, in the same way as it has this role when it comes to education and health. There is a large body of quality evidence that moral people are happier, and it is obvious that they are better to live with since they will treat people better, reinforce our community cohesion, and most importantly, make better decisions on critical issues such as climate change and the economy. This form of democracy is a far cry from totalitarianism that relies upon violence.

Because it is centred on care, the thick concept of Pro-Life is intrinsically compassionate, incompatible with the victimisation or even judging of women who choose to have abortions. Indeed the pro-life movement runs many services for, and campaigns to increase welfare provision for: post-abortion counselling, care for the disabled and dying, care for mothers of young children, and of course, care for young children. It clearly would not do this if it did not really care about people but instead wanted to demonise women in these difficult situations.

Rather than being blighted by increased risks, countries where abortion is illegal such as Ireland, Malta, and Chile have very good standards of maternal health. Indeed it is obvious that the more abortions and assisted killings are carried out, the less pressure there would be on society to keep up the standards of care for those who do chose life. Particularly because the availability of abortion means that some parents will feel socially pressured towards abortion against their will so as to avoid the stigma of being an unnecessary drain on the society’s resources. As such, the pro-life movement plays a valuable role by redressing an imbalance in the quality of care.

Finally, in my previous, more journalistic piece I should have written a section on the arms trade and the role of the British government, like that of the US and other major powers, in supplying deadly technology to politically unstable parts of the world. Particularly to undemocratic regimes in the Middle East which in 2011 killed many of their own citizens as they protested for reform. Yet it is we who are the hypocrites in allowing so much public money to go into these projects and into subsidising weapons development. I have not written such a section because I don’t believe I know enough about it, but it is another area that is equally deserving of our attention. Indeed…

P.S. While I agree very much with the sentiment of these images, readers have pointed out the need for me to make some clarifications. Too much is made of the labels we use in the debate on abortion. The fact is ‘pro-life’ in its normal context means pro the foetus’ life and ‘pro-choice’ means pro the mother’s (and father’s??) choice.  I did not argue that the label ‘pro-life’ logically entails the eco-feminist ethic I briefly  sketched above such that those who are pro-life on the question of abortion but don’t hold something like that ethic are necessarily wrong. I simply argued that it is preferable to hold something like that ethic -which happens to include being pro-life on the question of abortion- because it is more reasonable and more loving. Thank you.

More Thoughts On ‘Pro-Life’


8 responses »

  1. In this post I’ve recounted the most popular argument against euthanasia and eight arguments against abortion (one also being a second against euthanasia). Note that none of them appeal to religion (they are completely secular) and that they are completely gender neutral (it makes no difference whether they are said by women or men). Whether or not you agree with any of them, maybe you’d like to note them down so you can think for yourself about them. Remember of course that if some of these were wrong, it wouldn’t mean that they all were, still less that abortion was permissible.

  2. RE: the poster above : “will you still be prolife after she’s born”

    The answer to the question: “will you apply the same vigor to your work …”
    the obvious answer is “No, I’ll be raising a child to become a force in society for good”

    Until the worlds’ population cares for the most helpless, (the unborn, aged, etc) the violence and disregard for life will continue. How can you explain to a teen, or young adult, “Yes, we murdered your brother because we thought we couldn’t afford him.” – That teen/young adult will “get” that life is NOT precious, valuable. It is this country’s mindset that affirms to the impressionable youth that life is NOT precious, valuable, important, because we allow and promote the killing of millions of babies.
    How can you say you care about ANYONE, if you would murder a child?

    • The poster isn’t pro-choice, if it was I wouldn’t have used it for a pro-life article. The way I interpret it is not as talking about one’s own child but any child, since it is other people’s children I’m concerned about qua pro-life.

      Furthermore, at least twice as many children die annually from starvation, AIDS and malaria in the developing world as die from abortion in the developed world. It is more moral to concentrate on the developing world, not only for this reason but because it is a lot easier to help children in the developing world than it is to help the unborn child of a mother intending abortion in a country where she has full legal right (and cultural approval) to do so.

  3. Very good article Peter. I like you argument that the pro life weltanschuuung is ultimately a compassionate one. Its a shame that judgemental anti-abortion activists often are the loudest and give the pro life movement a bad name. I would disagree with your not eating meat analogy as you can’t compare a human fetus with animals

    • Hi Phil thank you very much. I didn’t compare foetuses to animals; this is a very common misunderstanding of a certain type of philosophical argument. (Although it must be said, obviously foetuses, like all human beings are technically animals.) To give another example if I said the Holocaust was wrong because it is wrong to hurt people -and you agreed (note that doesn’t necessitate that it is the only reason why it was wrong)- then you would also be committed to agreeing that kicking someone in the shin was wrong because of the syllogism:

      1. Hurting people is wrong.
      2. Kicking someone in the shin is an instance of hurting people.
      3. Therefore kicking someone in the shin is wrong.

      Now, this is completely logically distinct from an argument that says:

      1. The Holocaust was wrong.
      2. Kicking someone in the shin is *like* the Holocaust.
      3. Therefore kicking someone in the shin is very probably wrong too.

      (This is called an argument from analogy.)

      Likewise in the case of what I said about abortion, I’m not saying that it is wrong to kill foetuses because they are like animals (the comparison you referred to). Rather, I’m saying that it is wrong to kill foetuses because (premise 1) it is wrong to kill innocent creatures. The reference to animals is only there as inoperative premise to demonstrate to the audience that they are committed to premise 1.

  4. Pingback: Got No Beef With Me? « Vibrant Bliss

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