Magazine article The Human Life Review

Cells, Fetuses, and Logic

Magazine article The Human Life Review

Cells, Fetuses, and Logic

Article excerpt

Who is being sentimental, who rational, in this debate?

Americans' attitudes toward abortion are notoriously muddled. But it is safe to say that they tend to dislike pro-lifers more than pro-choicers, even when they themselves favor curbs on abortion. Pro-lifers have a suspect, a frightening, passion. They are agitators; they are religious zealots. Pro-choicers, on the other hand, are the party of reason. They see all the pitfalls of prohibiting abortion. They understand that abortion raises issues much more complex than sentimental slogans about "protecting unborn babies" can capture.

This is, I think, a widespread view about the combatants in the abortion wars. It is also close to 180 degrees from the truth. Sentiment has been the pro-choicers' ally more often than not. The pro-life position, on the other hand, must ultimately be rooted in rigorous logic. A pro-life position that is merely sentimental is a weak and unsustainable thing-as demonstrated, most recently, in the controversy over embryonic stem-cell research.

Pro-choicers can depend more reliably on sentiment than pro-lifers for the simple reason that distressed pregnant women elicit more sympathy than endangered fetuses. Nobody remembers being a fetus. Nobody has held a fetus's hand. But many women know what it is like to be pregnant under difficult circumstances, or can easily imagine it. All of us, men and women alike, have known or can imagine a woman we care about in that situation: a sister, a friend. The fetus has almost no emotional claim on us. It-we think of the young fetus as an "it," not a "he" or "she," although of course every fetus has a chromosomally determined sex-is an abstraction to us, usually nameless.

Smart people have attempted to found moral theory on natural sentiments: One thinks of no less a figure than Adam Smith. But these attempts are doomed. Untutored sentiment is a poor guide to morality. No profound knowledge of history or psychology is necessary to see that our sympathy often fails to recognize the legitimate moral claims of those we do not know or of those we do not look like. Tender feelings alone cannot lead us to grasp the requirements of decency or justice. It takes abstract reasoning to tell us, first, that the fetus is a living human being, and then to follow that premise to the eventual conclusion that abortion is a violation of human rights.

To say that the pro-life position is rooted in abstract logic is not, of course, to deny that its adherents possess strong emotions about the matter, or even that their emotions are stronger than those of pro-choicers. As Richard Brookhiser has remarked in this connection, thoughts, if they are taken seriously, do not lie idly on the mind's table. They lead to further thoughts, and emotions and sensibilities form around them like crystals.

Nor do I mean to suggest that pro-lifers never make non-rational appeals. Many pro-choicers find the pro-life movement's rhetoric about "babies" manipulative. Fetuses aren't babies, they say. But pro-lifers don't really hold the views they hold because they think fetuses are babies; rather, they know that fetuses are members of the human race. (Fifteen-year-olds, 31-year-olds, and 62-year-olds aren't babies, either, but nobody thinks it's okay to kill them.) The campaign against partial-birth abortion is an attempt by pro-lifers to win support from Americans in the "mushy middle" by stressing the grisliness of some abortions. But pro-lifers took up that campaign as a tactic, not because they really believe one method of abortion is worse than another.

For pro-choicers, however, an appeal to sentiment is frequently not merely a tactic or a bit of loose rhetoric but the entirety of the argument. Katha Pollitt, The Nation's engaging feminist columnist, jeers at pro-lifers for fretting about the fate of clusters of cells smaller than a fingernail. But surely size cannot be our criterion for determining when rights should be protected. …

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