A few days ago a friend left a link on my Facebook wall which stunned me. “So What if Abortion Ends a Life?” writes Mary Elizabeth Williams on the topic of abortion. Reading Williams’ article left me speechless, wondering how it is that we have gotten as a society to a realization that yes, it is a life, to simply asking ‘When is it best to kill a child?’ The notion that we are okay with killing innocent human life and, indeed, celebrate it as an achievement as Obama recently remarked, sickens me in the pit of my stomach. Articles like the one above are especially discouraging as it indicates the level of depravity our culture and morals have come to.
I am not sure whether I would rather have someone who blatantly insisted over and over again that abortion was not the termination of a human life or, instead, someone who would be unnervingly honest about the fact that it is a human life and still argue for abortion. There is something messed up in both frames of mind, the first being a denial of what is scientifically and ontologically real and the second simply betraying the moral conscience which we all possess. It is even more depressing to see how Williams just casually throws in her conclusions with a “So what?” (I’ll be honest, I read this with a sort of snarky valley-girl dialect, but that may just be me).
Williams writes, “When we try to act like a pregnancy doesn’t involve human life, we wind up drawing stupid semantic lines in the sand.”
This statement is honest and this may, in fact, help to clarify some of the misconceptions about what abortion really is. Contrary to those who want to argue that the fetus is something distinctly different, embryology has consistently shown that from the moment of conception it is a human through and through. Development occurs, no doubt, but development does not determine what kind of thing something is. Even in the case of twinning, we are merely left with a distinction between distinct and unique, not a question of kind. And, of course, as Williams points out, the very woman who would get an abortion from a group of cells early on will later on rejoice at the moment of her conception when she does desire to be a mother, insisting that she is carrying for a life and a baby. Desire has no impact on whether someone is categorized as a life or not.
But Williams continues, “Here’s the complicated reality in which we live: All life is not equal…a fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always.”
It’s almost unbelievable that the notion of “created equal” is, once again, being relegated to the zone of archaic beliefs. This statement should terrify you, as it’s traditionally been the belief by those willing to do great injustices to other groups and classes of people throughout the entire scope of history. We’ve always taken another group, whether it be based on race, age, gender, nationality, etc. and subjected them to a lesser arena of worth in the name of another groups ‘equality’. In Williams’ mind, if we’re not created equal then some life can be killed for those who have obtained more value. So, if the fetus may prove to complicate the mother’s economic situation, the mother should by default abort in order to “save” her own life. Or if the mother ends a relationship with the father (or, if he ditches her) it is entirely within the mother’s rights to abort her child. Why? Because the mother’s life is more valuable than the child’s life. The irony is that women’s equality (which is a good thing in itself) has been used as a justification for the denial of value to the unborn.
Williams’ view of things leaves me quite perplexed on a number of levels. As a disclaimer, I want to stress that in any difficult situation it’s extremely important to be sympathetic and to recognize the full rights which women possess. I’ve never understood those who’ve objected to abortion without first realizing the emotional, economic, psychological, and spiritual struggle which certain cases can cause. I am fully convinced that it is in this area that the Church is most called to step in and play a critical role in the redemption of something which is broken.
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…” (Jm 1.27).
But there are several questions which Ms. Williams failed to answer in her article. For example, at what point does the child obtain the same status and equality as the mother? Does it do this at 3 months? Does it do this at 6 months? What about 9 months or even after? When does it become wrong to kill the child? She’s hinted to autonomy as being a distinction, but surely she would not suppose that dependency lowers the equality of an individual since this would imply that infants who are dependent upon their parents for survival are of less value. Would Williams allow that parents who are in tight situations be allowed to terminate the lives of their newborns for convenience or to alleviate their struggle? I doubt it. Location has no real implication on the child’s autonomy and if Williams wants to make this claim I wonder if she would support any woman deciding to go in on their due date and deciding to have an abortion instead. For Ms. Williams, how does location create equality? It doesn’t. It only has implications on the mother’s autonomy.
She also fails to answer who dispenses or assigns this equality? Is equality something which develops overtime? If not, then who gives it? If no one gives it, then how is it acquired? It’s not physical or tangible, so it cannot grow like the brain. It seems to me that the only explanation Ms. Williams can give is that society gives equality and value to people. But if she suggested this I think we would find her quickly going back on it with any suggestion that in the 1930s women possessed less value than men due to what society had assigned them. Indeed, the feminist movement is itself a movement to say “Our value is not decided by men or society. It is intrinsic.” So is the child’s.
Finally, Ms. Williams presumes that the woman’s right to bodily autonomy is absolute. That is, she believes that the child’s right to live is based solely and completely on the mother’s desire of what she wants to do with her body at the given moment. Now, it’s important to first note that the child should not be held responsible for what the mother decided to do in the first place with her body which led to the child’s life in the first place. Too often children are killed because the mother didn’t want to deal with the consequences of having sex. Secondly, while I very much advocate a woman’s right to do what she wants with her body (trust me, I’m not a male chauvinist), the body ceases to become totally and completely hers at that moment. Absolute autonomy only makes sense, as Scott Klusendorf points out in his book The Case for Life, if the mother has a right to do whatever she wants with her body whether it drink, smoke, run 5ks, jump out of airplanes, etc. How is it that we can go from “A mother has no right to harm her child” to “A mother has every right to kill her child.” James Thobaben in his book, Health Care Ethics, notes “the right to liberty cannot be had at the expense of an innocent life, for life takes priority over liberty.” When Williams quotes with approval Emma Manier’s statement about abortion saving lives, it is “life” with quotation marks. Sometimes “life” is not easy, sometimes it bears the consequences of our actions, sometimes terrible things happen to us. The remedy is not to terminate the life of a being which is faultless. It is to be responsible with it.