The teacher asked a classic moral question to get us thinking: is it right or wrong to kill another human being? I was in high school. It was through discussions like this that I developed a basic understanding of moral decision making.
Indeed, after the question was asked, the discussion became animated. The initial reaction was what one would expect: it’s wrong to kill another human being. “Thou shalt not kill!” But more questions were asked: what about killing in self-defense? What about war? What about protecting a loved one? What about accidentally killing someone? What about capital punishment and the death penalty? It became clear that a rigid stance which claimed that it is always wrong to kill another human being could not be an unwavering moral imperative.
As with the taking the life of another human being, moral decisions must be made in context. There are a variety of factors to consider and weigh. Is it right to steal? Perhaps, if a person without food is taking an apple from someone’s tree. Is it right to lie? Perhaps, when Jewish sympathizers attempted to protect Jews during the Holocaust. Conversely, telling the truth and turning in Jews to the Nazi’s may have been morally wrong.
This week, in the United States, the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision known as Roe versus Wade occurred. This was the landmark decision that opened the door for women to have safe, legal abortions. While many countries allow women the choice to determine whether to carry a fetus full term to birth, in many other countries the procedure remains unlawful.
In the United States, the issue of abortion is framed as an issue of rights: a right to life versus a right to choose and have control over one’s body. It’s my opinion that discussing abortion in terms of “rights” reduces the significance of moral decision making to a political power struggle that serves no one. But it has become a convenient framework.
Much like the question posed to my high school class many years ago, when asked, “Is abortion right or wrong?” I need to contend, “well, that depends.” Abortion is no different from any other moral decision: there are factors that influence the moral decision making process.
Of course, I wish the world were a different place than it is. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every conception led to the birth of a healthy baby that was loved, cherished, and provided for throughout its development? But that’s not the world in which we live. Pregnancies happen for many reasons; some are planned while most are not. Mothers are in a wide variety of circumstances that impact their ability to provide care during pregnancy and after birth. Many children given up for adoption lead difficult lives because of the lack of availability of quality families to raise them. Single women who have children in the US will generally live in poverty and without much support. The truth is that the world in which we live is often a harsh place. It’s in the midst of the often harsh realities of life that difficult moral decisions must be made.
While I value life, I also believe that each person must make her or his own moral decisions based on the reality of that person’s context and abilities. Beyond that, abortion is a medical procedure and should be treated like any other medical procedure. When I meet with my doctor and discuss my health and healthcare, I am the one responsible for making the final decisions. My doctor may assist by providing information; my values inform me; and I may turn to others for counsel. But it is my decision. Similarly, others should be free to make decisions about their own care without the burden of intrusive demands by others.
I have friends who have asked me, “But what about the life of that innocent baby?” Fundamentally, a fetus is not the same as a baby; it’s not a developed individual. Just as no state in the US gives children the same rights as an adult, to give a fetus the rights of a fully formed human being is misguided thinking. Ultimately, I have to agree with Roman Catholic theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, on this issue. It was his position that we cannot determine when a fetus becomes a person. This isn’t clear to us until birth. In addition, Aquinas noted that for a variety of reasons, a woman may miscarry or have a spontaneous abortion. This is sad, but not wrong. Aquinas concluded that an abortion was not the best outcome of pregnancy, but not that it was wrong or in some way evil in and of itself..
In the end, as a man I try to support women in making the best moral decisions they can about pregnancy. I will continue to encourage women to carefully weigh their circumstance and am available to assist in the process. Sometimes, it will be the case that the decision will be to not carry a fetus to full term. In such cases, I want women to have safe, legal options for all their health care needs, including abortion.
Like the old priest who taught my high school class, when asked, “Is it right or is it wrong?” I can only respond by saying, “That depends on many factors.”
© 2013, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.