August 22, 2008

Can Abortion be a Moral Issue and be a Valid Choice?

I was fortunate enough to be on the right TV channel at the right time and caught the event at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church. What I'm referring to is the Civil Forum on the Presidency in which Warren interviewed both Barack Obama and John McCain in turn. I found it to be a very well done event in that the forum was casual and friendly, the questions were not soft-balls, and each candidate was asked to answer the same set of questions, so relevant comparisons could be made.

It is not my interest here to give a synopsis of the debate and my impression of the candidate's performances. Instead, my intention is to unpack the response given by Obama to one of Warren's questions on the topic of abortion.

Let me begin with the question posed to Obama: "At what point does a baby get human rights in your view?"

Obama's response, interspersed with my commentary, follows.

Well, I think that whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.

So, Obama is basically saying that he doesn't know; it's too complex an issue for him to be certain. It should be noted that he can only be undecided if he believes there are compelling arguments on both sides of the debate. If this were not the case, then the decision would be a no-brainer. However, in his politics he has made a decision: he is pro-choice (see his further response for evidence of that).

In light of his agnosticism about the rights and status of the unborn, it is confounding that he should choose to permit its destruction. He is basically saying: "Oh, I'm not quite sure if it's a full, rights-bearing human. But even in case it is, you can go ahead and kill it if you want." Why is it that those who are neutral on this very important issue never err on the side of caution? In reality, I think Obama is not actually undecided on the status of the fetus. He just knows that most of us voters are not comfortable with a thoroughly pro-choice position, and feigned neutrality plays much better than unequivocal support.

One thing that I'm absolutely convinced of is there is a moral and ethical content to this issue. So I think that anybody who tries to deny the moral difficulties and gravity of the abortion issue I think is not paying attention.

This is a very revealing admission, since there must be something of unique value about the unborn in order to suggest a moral component. Would Obama suggest that the choice to remove a tumor or cut one's nails is a moral issue? I think not, since those things have no intrinsic value. But how about the choice to throw out my TV and get a new one, or to keep it? My TV has value, but it's still not a moral decision. I think we know intuitively that the moral value that the unborn child has is something distinct from anything else with which we might seek parallel. And if it does indeed have this kind of moral value, of which Obama seems "absolutely convinced," then he's got some justification for thinking that human rights should apply here.

I believe in Roe v. Wade and come to that conclusion not because I'm pro abortion, but because ultimately I don't think women make these decisions casually. They wrestle with these things in profound ways. In consultation with their pastors or spouses or their doctors and their family members.

But of course he's pro abortion to some degree! I'm not suggesting that he wants to go on a fetus killing spree, but being "pro-choice" for anything implies that the choices being offered are good, valid, or at least morally neutral options. He must, necessarily, think that aborting a baby is an acceptable solution; he's in favor of women doing this; he's pro those abortions.

In spite of his claim that he doesn't like abortions, he gives his justification here for supporting them anyway. In summary, it seems to go like this: "I'm in favor of abortion rights because women don't take the decision to abort lightly." Sounds vacuous on the face of it, doesn't it? So vacuous that I'm sure he'd come up with some other explanation if he were confronted on this, though I've seen him on many other occasions make his primary appeal similarly, on the basis of this being a tough decision for women. So, let us take him seriously.

The inverse of this would seem to be that if women had abortions cavalierly, then Obama would be against Roe v. Wade. Perhaps, then, he'd like to implement a test of apathy for abortion candidates so as to insure that those going through with it have demonstrated the appropriate degree of agonization for this "moral and ethical" issue. Beyond that, perhaps he'd agree to support other troubling choices people make on the grounds that they, too, wrestle with them in profound ways. Choices like, whether or not to shoot a cheating spouse, whether to take up drug dealing or embezzlement as a much-needed source of income, or whether or not bombing abortion clinics is a tactically effective way to end the practice.

Whether or not one labors over a decision has no bearing on the moral status of the choices. I am quite certain that I have labored more earnestly over my choice of ice cream than many of the Nazi overlords did regarding their choices of which Jews to exterminate.

And so for me, the goal right now should be — and this is where I think we can find common ground, and by the way I have now inserted this into the democrat party platform — is how do we reduce the number of abortions, because the fact is that although we've had a president who is opposed to abortions over the last eight years, abortions have not gone down.

I'm not quite sure what he is arguing here. It seems to be this: Bush is pro-life, but that fact has not reduced the abortion statistics. Even assuming those statistics are correct I'm not sure what follows, since Roe v. Wade still stands either way. We could equally say that permitting abortions has not served to reduce them. It certainly seems reasonable to think that making them unlawful would tend to make them less common. I can't imagine that more women would have them simply because they were suddenly illegal. Is no woman law-abiding? And isn't reducing the numbers what Obama wants? Well, I guess not that badly, though.

What Obama is probably trying to say is that we should not focus on the legality of the procedure; we should just deal with the cause of the unwanted pregnancies, and a guy like Bush has his priorities backward. Unfortunately, knowing that it is a legally and socially acceptable option is not a good first step if prevention is honestly the goal. I might just as well discourage the kids from rough-housing in the living room by padding the walls and removing all the breakables. Unfortunately, much of the reduction that those like Obama seek typically amounts to a focus on pregnancy prevention by way of contraceptives. To his credit, he did later mention the need to encourage alternatives to abortion{1}.

But groups, like Crisis Pregnancy Centers, get a bum rap for trying to do just that. It appears that the more favored Planned Parenthood works very hard to keep the abortion option on equal moral footing. Indeed, it seems to be their preferred option, and as their centers are conveniently equipped to do the dirty deed on-site (for a nominal fee, of course), one can easily understand why they would recommend a quick in-and-out abortion over a personally demanding, expensive, long-term solution, like providing aid and support for a pregnancy and its aftermath.

The last thing I would mention is that the very desire to make this procedure less common is once again testimony that there is a moral component to it. But not just a moral component; it is actually not a good thing, thus the desire to reduce its occurrence. Perhaps one might respond that it's morally neutral in the same way that we'd like to reduce the need for removal of other unwanted tissue masses, like warts and tumors. So, what is Obama saying? Does he think that it's bad to terminate unwanted pregnancies or it's just bad to acquire them?

I get the impression here that he would prefer to focus on the prevention of unwanted pregnancies, since that is less controversial; but his moral language, and the fact that his later comments commend alternative solutions{1}, would imply that he's got a problem with the procedure itself. While we may agree on lifestyle guidelines that will help avoid tumors and cancerous growth, we don't dispute the morality of removing them once they develop. We eagerly embrace that! Even if a tumor were a growing pearl of great "potential" value, we still would not be discussing the "morality" of removing it at any stage of its growth. There is a difference between moral obligation and financial speculation.

Pro-choice advocates should be appalled that Obama would suggest that pregnant women have a moral obligation to consider alternatives to abortion. In doing so, he's saying that there may actually be something wrong with the choice to abort. In spite of the naïve claim that "we can't legislate morality," every law begins with the principle that some behaviors are or are not good for society and/or the individual{2}. And we dare to implement those laws even if they mean hardship for some individuals, and even if some individuals may choose to violate those laws and do injury to themselves in their disobedience.


1. "What I can do is say are there ways that we can work together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies so that we actually are reducing the sense that women are seeking out abortions, and as an example of that, one of the things that I've talked about is how do we provide the resources that allow women to make the choice to keep a child. You know, have we given them the health care that they need? Have we given them the support services that they need? Have we given them the options of adoption that are necessary? That I think can make a genuine difference."

2. I know, there are utilitarian laws, like stop on red, which are amoral (for example, we could have said stop on blue), but there are larger moral principles behind such laws, like the promotion of public safety and order.

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At 8/22/2008 6:29 PM, Blogger Doug P. Baker said...

Hey Paul,

Great commentary on Obama's dancing around the issue. Truly, his answer shows that he knows abortion is very wrong, yet he votes in the Senate as if it were not wrong at all. And then when explaining his position he tries to sound ethical and concerned to pro-lifers while the pro-choicers can bank on his voting record.
In this all he is absolutely consistent; he consistently lives and speaks on both sides of the fence.

In presidential politics, integrity would be a liability.

At 8/23/2008 12:21 AM, Blogger Paul said...

Hi Doug, thanks for posting. I thoroughly agree with you. A point I made in the last post is that the Left must necessarily mask its full agenda, since the majority would probably be horrified to see it lain out in all its glory. Makes it kind of hard to be both candid and electable.

At 8/27/2008 1:59 PM, Blogger A Credible Source said...

Very well said, thanks for the thoughts


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