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Abortion and Justice Print E-mail
By Christopher Kaczor   
Thursday, 03 March 2011

Ihad my very first discussion of abortion in fourth grade. My friend, the youngest in a family of six, stumped me as follows: “Do you really think that abortion is wrong all the way through pregnancy? Are you trying to tell me that one tiny cell – the fertilized egg – is a person with the right to live?” “Well, I guess not.” A smile grew on his face, “Well then, why should two cells be so important, or three cells, or four?” 

I didn’t have an answer; his clever fifth-grade mind had outsmarted me. I began to think about the issue – in fits and starts – into adulthood. And I hope that my book The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice now answers my friend’s question, and many other questions raised by abortion defenders.

In any controversy, it is best to begin with what we already know. Let’s start with the obvious. You and I have basic rights and deserve to be respected. When did we gain this moral status as persons? As we move back in time, it is clear that we had basic rights and merited respect as young children. But if we move back just a bit further, we get into disputed territory.

A number of philosophers – including Peter Singer and Michael Tooley – argue that newborn babies, including healthy newborns, do not have a right to live and may be killed if the parents choose. They draw the line between infants it is permissible to kill, and not, at one week and one month respectively. I argue that there is no morally significant difference between infants eight days old and seven days old, or between babies thirty-two days old and one month old. The arguments for infanticide by the likes of Singer and Tooley fail. 

If the right to live does not begin after birth does it begin at the moment of birth? This is the conventional pro-choice position defended by politicians. One difficulty with this view is that there is no “moment” of birth, but rather a process in which more and more of the baby is outside the mother.

When exactly does the right to live kick in? When the first part of the baby is outside? When half is ex utero? When most of the baby is out? Some abortion advocates claim that clamping the umbilical cord is the magic moment. But what if it is unclamped? Does our right to live depend on the whim of the doctor? 

Another difficulty with this view is that it turns out that nearly all arguments used against infanticide apply equally well to late-term abortion; and nearly all the arguments used in favor of late-term abortion apply equally well to infanticide. Location with respect to another person, either entirely or partially within someone else’s body, is not relevant to a person’s rights.

Does the right to live of unborn human beings begin sometime during pregnancy? Many characteristics have been brought forward to make the case: conscious desires, the ability to feel pleasure and pain, and brain development. But none of these characteristics in fact justifies the denial of basic rights to human beings in utero. Such characteristics are over-inclusive (they give the right to live to beings like insects that clearly do not have a right to life), under-inclusive (denying the basic rights to mentally handicapped human beings), and because they are measured by degrees cannot secure the equal basic moral worth of all human persons. 

Does the right to live begin, then, when we begin? In my book, I develop a rational justification for the view that all human beings, including the unborn, should be respected and accorded equal basic rights by virtue of sharing in flourishing-like-ours with other normal adult human beings, because of our genetic orientation to rational agency, and in light of the kind of being that we are rather than simply the sort of activity we are capable of at this time or that. 

Finally, some people say that even if every human being has a right to live, including those in utero, abortion is still morally permissible. If we are permitted to decline to offer our kidney to someone in need, the right to bodily integrity likewise grants a woman the ethical permission to end her pregnancy. 

This argument also fails. If the human being in utero has basic rights, then he or she also has a right to bodily integrity. And the right to bodily integrity minimally means that a person’s body should not be dismembered, poisoned, or otherwise injured for the sake of another person. But this is precisely what happens in abortion, so the kidney analogy, properly understood, is an argument against rather than in favor of abortion. Indeed, surveying the arguments defending abortion, I found that, despite my fourth-grade failures, the case against abortion is stronger than ever.


Christopher Kaczor
, a new contributor to The Catholic Thing, is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University and the author of
The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice as well as editor of O Rare Ralph McInerny: Stories and Reflections on a Legendary Notre Dame Professor.

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written by Bill, March 03, 2011
Some forty years ago I was very active in chess, and through that activity I met a physician and lawyer who were friends. The lawyer would argue for abortion and the doctor argued against it using this argument: At the moment of conception the gender is determined, the color of the eyes, if male, at what age he will begin to grow bald, the probable natural longevity of the person's life,the personality type was largely determined. All these were determined as from that point the foetus-child-adult would grow. All its genetic material was placed at conception. The doctor knew all this and yet, in time, he changed and became a successful abortionist with a practice on Central Park South in New York City.
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written by Michael PS, March 03, 2011
I am constantly astonished by the way in which professed materialists reveal themselves to be thorough-going dualists, when it comes to what constitutes a human being as a bearer of rights and duties. They identify the self with “Mind” or “Consciousness” in a way that really does deserve the taunt of “a ghost in a machine.”

Aristotle, the philosopher of common sense, called human beings “rational animals.” There is no mystery about what a (human) person is: we all understand expressions like, “the person over there,” or “Offences against the Person.” It means a living, human body. The “mind” is not a thing, but an hypostasized abstraction.

Apart from a very academic quibble over monozygotic twins, the person, so defined, comes into being at conception. Even in the case of twinning, one has a living individual whole whose life is—all going well—to be the life of one or lives of more than one human being.

As Tertullian (160-200) says in the Apologeticum (9:8) “To prevent a birth is to hasten homicide; nor does it matter whether you take away a life from one that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth. That is a human being which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed.”

That last remark, “etiam fructus omnis iam in semine,” is particularly prescient in one who knew nothing of genetics.
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written by debby, March 03, 2011
I would ask all of TCT readers and contributors to Please Pray for all the women and men who will be invited and hopefully attend a "Spanish version" of Rachel's Vineyard on March 12th. Within the Hispanic community, a woman who has an abortion suffers a stigma within her sub-culture different from what other women may go through: children are considered a type of wealth, a "notch" on a man's belt (he may be "father" to many children by many women and not be "husband" to any one woman), often traditionally Catholic but not as often catechized or having any understanding behind a "family tradition." All this to say that a Hispanic woman who faces her sin in procuring an abortion, has additional fears, even terror at play. Please my friends, brothers and sisters, pray one Hail Mary for these women and for those of us attempting to serve them and bring the graces of forgiveness and healing that God so longs to bestow. I thank you.
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written by Grump, March 03, 2011
Not there yet, folks, but I love this passage...


Luke 1:41

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
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written by debby, March 03, 2011
to my dear "ole grump,"
i can see you leaping at the sound of His Voice.....i know
you will one day be filled with the Holy Spirit- ALL you long for! for your own Mother is praying for you and She will come out to serve you before it is "too late" - the Holy Scripture says that it has not begun to dawn on our imaginations what God has prepared for those who love Him. i love Him! you leaping has dawned on my imagination, therefore i guess it will be quite a dance! maybe even rival Kind David's dancing for joy.....i for one can't wait to clap and cheer on the sidelines of Glory.
and one prayer from you may mean more than for those of us who so easily offer one up...so, please, pray for my intention. TY
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written by Patrick, March 03, 2011
I sometimes wonder if a lot of the strength of the pro-choice movement derives from insinuating that the pro-life camp is misogynistic. It's always couched in terms of defending a "woman's" right to choose, as if pro-lifers would support abortions if men could get them. I would guess that if both men and women could bear children, then the moral issues at stake would be considered more clearly and dispassionately by the people who now consider themselves pro-choice. Legalized abortion would then not be seen as part of the struggle for women's rights and equality. After all there is no reason why the fact that only women can bear children is relevant to the morality of abortion. Just a thought.
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written by Grump, March 03, 2011
Deb, you gladden my heart, dear. However, I wouldn't get quite ready to do that dance. I have a long way to go but I feel God's not finished with me yet. I was very much taken with the martyrdom of Pakistani Christian minority leader Shabaz Bhatti, who was gunned down this week. A video of his last remarks professing his love for Jesus and taking up the cross is viewable on The American Catholic. It really moved me. A truly brave man.
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written by Bill McCormick, March 03, 2011
Of course the debate could well remain a dead end so long as we are wedded to the Kantian language of natural right.

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