Moral Theory and Practice
December 12, 2003
One of the most controversial court decisions in the history of the United States is Roe v. Wade. It’s a decision that goes much deeper then just a moral dilemma on whether or not a fetus is a person or not. It’s a decision that should make any discerning individual question the ethics of the legislation of morality. But I’ll leave that for another time, this paper’s purpose is make clear my beliefs on abortion. To do this I will lay a groundwork of the history of abortion in our country and how it affects us on a local (state) level, and expand on that with the help of secular philosophers and by drawing from my Christian background.
To fully understand abortion one must look at its place in society throughout human history. Laws against abortion are only as old as the mid 19th century. Documentation dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans lead us to believe that they were practiced frequently with the blessing of most of the people of the day. The only resistance against abortion in ancient Greece was the Pythagorean School of philosophers and their Hippocratic Oath, and later during the height of the Roman Empire the emergence of Christianity. As civilization moved into the present era common law began to reflect that the views on abortion were that it was okay up until the point of “quickening.” Quickening is the point of animation for the fetus, its first recognizable movement or the point where it was believed to have been infused with a soul. The penalty for killing a quickened fetus under common law is unsure reports have it ranging from homicide to a simple misdemeanor depending on the time and region. In 1803 England enacted its first abortion legislation which made the abortion of a quickened fetus a capitol offense and pre-quickening abortion a far less grievous offense. American abortion statutes followed suit in 1821 when Connecticut adopted the same legislature. In 1828 New York also adopted a form of the English legislature with post-quickening abortion being treated as second-degree manslaughter and pre-quickening abortion as only a misdemeanor. Around the time of the Civil War more and more states began enacting abortion legislature starting with laws close to those seen in Connecticut and New York but over time they became more and more strict as to when an abortion could take place up until the point where the only allowed it when it was necessary to save the life of the mother. This brings us up the undeniably the most important case in the abortion debate and possibly in the American governing system. The case Roe v. Wade which not only legalized abortion but set forth a precedent for taking the lawmaking power out of the hands of the people and gave it to nine individuals who need not take into consideration the wishes of the people since they have no power to remove them from office.
In 1973 a pregnant single woman (Roe) brought a class action challenging the constitutionality of the Texas criminal abortion laws. These laws mandated that abortions may only be attempted for the purpose of saving the life of the mother. She claimed that they were unconstitutional in that they abridged her right of personal privacy, protected by the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments. Later she claimed to be suing “on behalf of herself and all other women” who were in similar situations. In this case the Supreme Court determined that the state of Texas’s anti-abortion laws were an unconstitutional infringement on the privacy of a woman during the first trimester of abortion, when the fetus is determined to not be viable. The court allowed the states to continue to legislate on the legality of abortion after the first trimester of pregnancy. In 1976 in the case Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth the Supreme Court overturned a Missouri law that required spousal consent for an abortion because it could not give a spouse a veto power that the state was prohibited from exercising.
In the state of Iowa all abortions are legal except partial birth abortions. Partial birth abortions are classified as abortions in which the fetus is partially delivered before it is killed.
Now we get to the fun part, my beliefs on the morality of abortion. First I will attempt to look at it from a secular nonpartisan standpoint. I believe that it is not moral, but without my religious background I would have a hard time putting my finger on exactly why. I will attempt that now. The first argument I will look at is fairly conservative, it is simply put that fetuses are human beings and it is wrong to kill human beings. Now on the surface this argument looks unbeatable, if you believe that fetuses are in fact humans. In what ways are they human? Their DNA is that of a human but dead peoples DNA is human too. Do they have souls (obviously if you are trying to determine the morality of abortion you must believe that humans have souls or wouldn’t it just be the same as slapping aside a pesky fly), and if they do have souls do they have them from conception or are they conferred upon the unborn sometime during pregnancy or even at first breath? Or do we rate human life on their potential? Is it immoral to abort a baby simply because they may become the next President of the United States, or cure cancer, or bring about world peace, or take part in some other lofty accomplishment? But then again is it any more wrong to destroy a stone that will become a sculpture then one that will just sit around being a stone. So many more questions are raised then are answered by this argument. What about the consent argument. Seems simple enough, through the act of intercourse a women waves the right of the use of her uterus. Again seems simple enough, it’s like waving a no-trade clause in your contract. But look at it from the other direction; does getting in a car and driving down the road wave your rights in favor of those of a drunk driver? That throws an unexpected kink into that argument. Does knowing the risks of pregnancy guard make you responsible for what those risks entail? How about an argument against abortion, the one that states that because a fetus is a part of a womens body she has the sole right over what is done to it. To me it seems like the male portion of the relationship should have some say in whether the pregnancy be terminated, he did have equal part in bringing it around. In every argument listed there are pros and cons both ways, all of which seem plausible. But when you think about it almost every conclusion drawn is based on another unrelated allusion: fetuses to dead bodies; the potential of human life to that of a rock; or the risks of pregnancy to those of driving. For instance if you were to tell me that homosexuality was morally okay I could counter by telling you that putting two male ends of hose together won’t make the hose work and BAM I’ve got a counter argument that would make a philosopher proud. The problem is that everything in life is an exception to something else, so when connections are drawn between two things of unequal importance it is easy to distort reality.
Since I’ve found it impossible to come up with a conclusion of the morality of abortion based on a secular viewpoint I’ll draw from my religious background. The difference between approaching this issue from religious and secular viewpoints is that with a Christian background I can view a situation with a surety of right and wrong based on my belief that there is God and he’s laid out what’s right and wrong, but with a secular viewpoint everything is a little shakier, because without something higher who is to say what really is right? In Psalms 139:15-16 the Bible says “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was made in secret, and skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth; your eyes have seen my unformed substance; and in your book were all written the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them.” Looking at these verses I see two things, design and purpose. Every baby is “skillfully wrought” by God, not something I’d want to mess with, and also they each have a purpose set out before them by an infinite being which is also something I’d rather not mess up. There is also the matter of the 7th commandment, the one about not killing. Looking from a biblical standpoint it does seem like all the fetus as a person bases are covered.
If I were coming from a secular background I would probably agree with abortion, and a womens right to choice. But only because I could not be sure I was right, and I wouldn’t want to force wrong beliefs on others. Instead I have a Christian background and so because of my faith I am able to determine definitively what is right and what is wrong, and in this case I have determined that abortion is immoral.
Wilcox, D. and Wilcox, M Applied Ethics in American Society. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997