Viewing Abortion Objectively

Article excerpt

Whether one is a journalist or a judge, a senator or a scientist, a physician or a philosopher, objectivity is not merely an ideal, but a standard. This is the consensus view; the alternatives-bias, prejudice, subjectivity, and partiality-are universally denounced.

Nonetheless, human beings, given as they are to allowing themselves to be swayed by private preferences, often find this standard laudable in theory but rejectable in practice. In this regard, they are only too willing to be champions of the second best (a distant second best, we might add). The urban philosopher, Lewis Mumford, draws attention to this human foible without denying the knowability of the objective world: "What was once called the objective world is a sort of Rorschach ink blot, into which each culture, each system of science and religion, each type of personality, reads a meaning only remotely derived from the shape and color of the blot itself."

If objectivity is an easily rejected standard, in general, how can we hope to be objective about so explosive an issue as abortion? We will take a critical step in the direction of objectivity if we can defuse the present abortion controversy by placing it in a radically different culture, one that is quite remote from the present day-mid-18th-century England. Let us consult a poet known to posterity only as "Anonymous."

Epitaph on a Child Killed by Procured Abortion

O thou, whose eyes were closed in death's pale night,

Ere fate revealed thee to my aching sight;

Ambiguous something, by no standard fixed,

Frail span, of naught and of existence mixed;

Embryo, imperfect as my tort'ring thought,

Sad outcast of existence and of naught;

Thou, who to guilty love first ow'st thy frame,

Whom guilty honour kills to hide its shame;

Dire offspring formed by love's too pleasing pow'r!

Honour's dire victim in luckless hour!

Soften the pangs that still revenge thy doom:

Nor, from the dark abyss of nature's womb,

Where back I cast thee, let revolving time

Call up past scenes to aggravate my crime.

Two adverse tyrants ruled thy wayward fate,

Thyself a helpless victim to their hate;

Love, spite of honour's dictates, gave thee breath;

Honour, in spite of love, pronounced thy death.

The title is mercilessly candid. It does not euphemize the subject of the poem by relating it to an act of "reproductive freedom," a mere "choice" or some other equally evasive phrase. Nor does it cloud the notions of "child" or "killing" by replacing them with "fetus" or "interruption of pregnancy." A good poem must be honest.

The first two lines call our attention to an unwanted child-in-the-womb who is killed by abortion. There is irony here in that the mother would have considered herself a victim had she not aborted her child (whose visible reality would have been an "aching sight" for her).

And what exactly is that unborn child? The following four lines describe it in paradoxical terms: nothing and yet something, imperfect though capable of evoking sharp guilt. The embryo clings to existence as it tries to avoid slipping back into nothingness. It is not yet fully personalized through love. It is nameless and alluded to in metaphysical terms. Yet it cannot be ignored. It is not a metaphysical concept; it is a mother's child.

The next two lines introduce the tension between "love" and "honour." Love is equated with sexual love; honour with respectability. How can such love and such honour coexist? They cannot. One or the other must be sacrificed. Shame may appear to be more unbearable than abortion. There is nothing exactly cold-blooded here. It is like Sophie's Choice (the 1982 motion picture based on William Styron's novel), where only one of two goods can be saved. The woman in the poem chooses her honour and in so doing is unable to save her child from its "luckless hour. …