Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Abortion: Maxims for Moral Analysis: Both Sides Need to Put Aside Theologizing Issue. (Viewpoint)

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Abortion: Maxims for Moral Analysis: Both Sides Need to Put Aside Theologizing Issue. (Viewpoint)

Article excerpt

At the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it might help if we could generate some moral conversation on the issues involved. As the debate has progressed, pro-life and pro-choice have staked out theological positions that, like most transcendent claims, are almost impossible to resolve. The ultimate theological character of Catholic pro-life arguments are clearly revealed when one goes beyond slogans like "respect for life" and asks, "Which life?"

A traditional Jewish position has been that when it comes to which life, it is the mother's life that has precedence. The traditional Catholic position has been that if there were a life for life decision, either the mother or the child dies, it is the child's life that has precedence because the mother has already been baptized and been able to work out her salvation; the baby has not. Whatever one may think of that argument, it is clearly one that works only within a set of rather special theological assumptions. It is not a moral argument available to rational assessment.

Decisions about "which life" are by and large hypothetical. Given modern obstetrical technique it almost never comes down to such a crisis. I was debating the abortion question with Joseph Fletcher, the chief proponent of "situation ethics." Fletcher cited a situation where answering which life was compelling. In Nazi concentration camps, he said, women who were pregnant were immediately executed. Because of this policy, Jewish doctors performed hundreds of abortions for women in the camps.

Suppose, then, that a pregnant Jewish mother is cast into the camp along with her two young children. She has the decision to abort or to face execution and thus abandon the living children. The Jewish position would be that the mother as the center of the family takes precedence and in the concentration camp case there would seem to be a powerful moral obligation to protect the born even at the cost of the unborn.

Fletcher cited this example as an utter refutation of my own antiabortion argument. I countered that the trouble was that he was a failure as a situation ethicist. Extreme situations--lifeboat cases as they are sometimes called--do not as such give a rule for morals. We don't think it permissible to eat the corpses of our friends--but in a lifeboat when we are starving? Well.

Moral discussion proceeds from certain general maxims that may fail utterly in extreme situations. Could one really fault a Jewish mother who chose abortion over abandonment of her living children? I doubt it, but the extreme case does not validate abortion in general, in every case.

Which leads to the "theology" of pro-choice. Is a woman's choice a value to be honored? Yes, that is a fixed moral principle. Are all the choices made by women (or men) moral choices? Hardly. Is the choice for abortion moral? It would certainly seem plausible in the concentration camp case cited. Would it be moral if a woman chose abortion as a way of punishing her husband or herself? One could at least have doubts that abortion out of vindictiveness is morally worthy.

For pro-choicers, these latter questions cannot be raised because "choice" has become theological, an action so sanctified that no situation in which that choice is exercised can be subjected to moral question. For pro-lifers the life of the fetus is sanctified in such manner that a situation of genuine moral conflict is impossible. No wonder we have got nowhere in the discussion of abortion in the last 30 years.

I would like to suggest that pro-life/pro-choice advocates reorient themselves to some moral discussion of abortion. …

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