by Martin L. Cowen III

The Abortion Debate

Emotion—Scratch a Zealot and Find a Sinner

The emotional stakes in the abortion debate are rarely discussed. I believe that these emotional stakes are a major confounding factor in the debates and that identifying The emotional factors will be useful.

I have noticed that some people who argue in favor of abortion are more highly invested in the matter than am I. I have always favored a woman's right to choose, but my level of emotion about this belief is significantly less than some people on my side of the debate, the pro-choice side. Those people who are very emotionally pro-choice seem to have a personal investment in the debate. If I hypothesize that the highly emotional person has had an abortion, her high level of emotion is explained. Some people who have had an abortion cannot allow themselves to consider the idea that abortion is wrong because there is no redemption for murder. (I do not think abortion is murder. I am saying that the pro-choice zealot may secretly think that abortion is murder, though the belief is repressed.) A person who commits murder cannot make it right. A life once taken cannot be restored. Some people who have had an abortion are arguing about, at the root, whether they have committed an unforgivable sin—not exactly a topic of conversation to be taken lightly.

Let me say immediately that a person who has had an abortion can enter into the abortion debate, but, as a matter of intellectual fairness, she should not exhibit a highly emotional state during the debate or allow her high emotions to affect her reasoning. There are two ways she might accomplish this. First, she can have thoroughly and completely analyzed her decision to have a abortion and have arrived at certainty (actual not imagined) that her decision was correct. She can thus engage in the abortion debate as a philosopher and a teacher with no fear of the contrary arguments of her interlocutors. She will know she has all the answers. Second, she may have philosopher-like powers and be capable of setting aside the risks to her psychological well-being posed by engaging in a debate in which she might learn that her decision to have a abortion was, by her own newly informed judgment, morally wrong. The capacity to set aside real threats to one's ego for the sake of the truth requires extraordinary moral courage. Any person who exhibits high emotion during the abortion debate lacks, in my opinion, this capacity. A person is unwise, generally, to engage in a debate with a person who has an obviously high emotional stake in the outcome.

On the pro-life side of the debate there are also those who are highly emotional. I have two theories to explain highly emotional pro-lifers. Consider again a woman who has had an abortion. This time, though, she is highly emotional about her pro-life position. She may have decided that she has committed a sin that may not be redeemed or forgiven. In an effort to seek redemption anyway, she may have become a "zealot for life." It is hard to live with guilt. One way to live with guilt is to live a life of atonement. Proselytizing the pro-life message can be, for some, a life of atonement.

I see many males on the pro-life side of the abortion debate who are highly emotional about their position. In fact male pro-lifers seem to dominate the public debate. The emotional intensity of these men has baffled me. They, after all, can never have had an abortion (though he may have participated by encouraging his partner to have an abortion). In trying to understand highly emotional male pro-lifers, I look to my own emotions about the violation of the rights of adult human beings for clues. I am, for example, able to understand getting highly emotional about the murder of an adult human being. I find it difficult to watch the beginning of movies that contain acts of murder and mayhem to motivate the story. I am able to imagine myself in the place of such a victim. I project how he might feel. I can experience his rage, his sense of loss and his sense of injustice at the evil, early, and violent ending of his life. I can empathize with his suffering. This process of identification with others is at the root of the outrage I feel at the violation of the rights of others.

Now consider an animal rights activists. Such a person engages in the same process of identification with an animal. He puts himself in the position of a dog being sacrificed, for example, in order to train a surgeon and he is horrified. This identification involves, however, an anthropomorphization of the animal and is factually erroneous—an animal is not a human being. Parenthetically, in order to try to understand the use of dogs to train surgeons, the animal rights activist might try to imagine himself or a loved one under the skilled hands of a heart surgeon whose surgical mastery derives from thirty heart operations upon dogs during the surgeon's medical school training.

The highly emotional male pro-lifer may derive his strong emotional reaction against abortion in the same manner as the animal rights activist—by erroneous anthropomorphization of the human zygote, embryo or fetus. But I am not satisfied by introspection that the emotion experienced by the pro-lifer for an aborted fetus comes from a personal identification with the fetus (as properly happens when we empathize with adult humans whose rights are violated). So then where does a highly emotional commitment to the pro-life position come from?

Children are sacred. In fact, children are, by numerical count of valuers, the most sacred beings on earth. Most parents cannot imagine the non-existence of their children. They cannot even allow their minds to go there. Most parents cannot conceive of themselves surviving the premature death of a child. Spiritually many parents actually could not survive such a death.

Evidence of the status of children as the number one sacred value on earth is to be found everywhere, including politics. Consider the classic image of the politician kissing the baby or the political untouchability of government schools or the title of many legislative proposals in the vain of the "Save the Children Act of 2001" often having very little to do with children or with saving them. If a politician claims his program will "save the children," it cannot be criticized. Outside of politics many, if not most, parents' lives are dedicated to the care and maintenance of their children. People generally experience the surprise of recognition when their children are identified as sacred values. Once stated though, the proposition that children are sacred rarely requires proof. The fact is obvious.

The bloom of the protective zone around our sacred children is almost infinite. As in the case of the "Save the Children Act of 2001," the protection is sometimes ineffectual or even irrational.

I think that most highly emotional male pro-lifers derive the intensity of their emotion against abortion from the infinite value they assign to their own children. They identify the human zygote, the human embryo, and the human fetus within the body of a stranger with their own living child. Like the anthropomorphization of animals by animal rights activists, this identification of a human zygote, embryo, and fetus with a living child is erroneous. Because the identification of an early stage fetus with a living child is, in fact, weak, the abortion debate has recently focused on the so-called "partial birth abortion." This procedure is allegedly the in utero killing of a late term fetus or fully formed human child. At this stage the identification of the very late term fetus with a living child is, in fact, strong.

There is another type of male pro-lifer that comes to mind—the murderous pro-lifer or the "terrorist for life." Some pro-lifers are so fanatical that they kill abortion doctors to enforce their fanatical views. How does a person justify killing grown human children (adults) in defense of unborn human zygotes, embryos, and fetuses? I don't think that identification of the patient's zygote, embryo, or fetus with the zealot's own children is a sufficient explanation. The "identification" explanation is based upon empathy, erroneous empathy, but empathy nonetheless. An abortion clinic bomber is not an empathetic person. This person is a sociopath. Since he is male he is not acting to atone for having had an abortion. More likely he is acting, inappropriately, to atone for some other sin that he has committed or to exact revenge for a sin against him. He is finding proxies (for himself or others) to punish for his own or another's unpardonable sin. This type of person is not really a part of the abortion debate. He is simply a psychopath who has chosen, without rational process, the pro-life cause (because it has clearly identifiable "villains") as the particular statement of his pathology.

In summary then, identification of the source of the excessively high emotions involved in the abortion debate is important to those who are interested in discovering the philosophical truth of the matter. Philosophical truth is to be distinguished from emotional truth. People often bring certain emotional truths or states to the debate. These emotional truths must be identified and set aside while reasoning. A person who for emotional reasons cannot allow her mind to admit the known alternatives to a philosophic question should not engage in a debate about the subject. No reasonable person should engage such a person in the debate since, for private emotional reasons of one of the parties, the outcome is predetermined.

A person who, having had an abortion, defends abortion rights because she cannot tolerate labeling herself a murderer is not interested in truth, but in not labeling herself a murderer. A person who is pro-life because she feels she has committed an unpardonable sin for having had an abortion and must atone for it by being pro-life is not interested in truth, but in seeking redemption. A pro-life person who mentally equates his own sacred children with a human zygote, embryo, or fetus in the body of a stranger is not interested in truth, but in defending the lives of his own children who are not in fact at risk.

A person interested in truth must be willing to follow all leads wherever they may go, even if he does not like the results. If his goal is to preserve his pre-debate emotions about the facts, he must forego reason and stick to faith, avoid or repress the issue entirely or, as is most often the case, be irrational. Reason, to be reason, must be impartial. Facts exists independently of our feelings.

The Politics of Abortion

Having identified the intense emotions that accompany the abortion debate and vowed to set them aside for the sake of truth, let us consider the politics of the subject. Considering politics before ethics may seem like putting the cart before the horse, since politics depends upon ethics. However, there are reasons for considering the politics of abortion before the ethics of abortion. First, one can derive a proper politics without first determining the morality of abortion. In other words, the general principles of politics can be made clear without even addressing the particular ethics of abortion. The second reason for considering the politics of abortion first is that the political issue is easier than the moral question. So, what are our political principles?

Our philosophy observes that man is the rational animal and that man's essential means of survival is his rational faculty. This rational faculty exists in individuals. If a human being is to survive, he must use his rational faculty. Stated another way as a normative statement, a human being should use his rational faculty. This principle that man should use his rational faculty applies even when a man is among men, that is, in society. Our philosophy of reason holds that rights are conditions of man's existence in society. In other words, it is of value to a human being to live in society, but only on certain conditions. For life in society to be of value to a human being, he must have the right to life. He must have a moral claim enforceable by government that he be allowed to live. For life in society to be of value to a human being, he must be free to act upon his judgement, that is to use his mind, his means of survival, in the material realm. For life in society to be of value to a human being, he must be free to act upon his judgement in the spiritual realm. If life is to be of value to a human being, he must have the right to keep the product of his labor. These are the rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and property.

The important part of our definition of rights in the context of abortion is "in society." Rights are conditions of man's existence in society. Clearly, a woman and the one-celled zygote within her are not a society and the concept of rights does not apply. Clearly, a woman and her new born baby are a society of two and the concept of rights does apply. Between zygote and new-born baby there is a process of change or becoming during which the woman's ownership rights to her own body give way to the accumulating rights of the developing fetus. A line must be drawn to define these rights. Government must draw this line using reason (not popular vote or public opinion polls).

The United States Supreme Court in its decision in Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), has done a brilliant job of analyzing the biological process of becoming, weighing the interests of state, mother and fetus, and providing a rational solution to the political question. I cannot add to the analysis of that august body and I refer the reader to the Court's most excellent opinion. That Court concludes, generally, that during the first trimester of pregnancy no regulation of abortion is permitted; during the second trimester regulations designed to protect the woman's health are permitted; and during the third trimester, when the fetus is viable, abortion may be prohibited if the life or health of the mother is not at stake.

The Ethics of Abortion

Morality is a personal tool for survival. Morality is necessary because we do not automatically know what is right and because we are not infallible. Because we have volition and because we are not infallible, we need principles to guide our choices and actions. The guiding principle of morality is man's life as a man as opposed to the life of a carrot, a lion, a beggar, a liar or a thief. Thus morality depends upon a view of man. Our view is that man is the rational animal and that he survives by creating things like food, shelter, clothing, and software. The normative "ought" is a conditional "ought" of this form—if man is to survive as a man then he "ought" to be rational and to produce goods.

The penalties for acting immorally are imposed by reality (internal and external) and by other people. The most common penalty imposed upon an immoral person by others is avoidance. The penalties imposed by reality range from unhappiness to death. For example, it is immoral not to support oneself if one is able. The penalty for not having a productive purpose is, at a minimum, unhappiness. This penalty is imposed by the non-productive individual's internal reality. If a non-productive individual does not have others who are willing to insulate him from reality, he will starve to death. This penalty is imposed by external reality. Another example: It is immoral to avoid thinking about problems by remaining drunk all the time. The penalty for being a drunk all the time is unhappiness, illness and, eventually, death.

Note that if one is not merely immoral, but violates the rights of others, the government will impose fines or imprisonment as a consequence.

Reality includes an internal reality, a psychological reality. The individual's appraisal of himself is part of reality. A person cannot be happy without self-esteem. The reason most of us do not commit fraud or theft or murder is not fear of arrest and punishment, but fear of the judgment of our own minds. A healthy mind cannot live with the guilt of murder, for example.

Because of the potential for self-punishment, it is extremely important to be clear when deciding to terminate a pregnancy.

I said that reasoning about the morality of abortion was more complex than reasoning about the politics of abortion. Part of the reason that political reasoning is easier than moral reasoning is that the Supreme Court of the United States has already done a magnificent job of political reasoning. We can simply read the Court's opinion and evaluate it. However, the most important reason that the ethics of abortion are so much more difficult than the politics of abortion is that the variables are many and in combination the variables result in thousands of different moral problems. Among the categories of the variables are the circumstances of the pregnancy, the values of the pregnant woman, the health of the woman, the duration of the pregnancy, and the health of the fetus. The circumstances of the pregnancy can vary from incest or rape of a child to pregnancy chosen by a mature married couple after years of thought and study. The values of the woman are determined by her age, her life circumstances, her intelligence, her moral training, and the thinking she has done or failed to do. Depending upon the health of the woman, her pregnancy might be likely to kill her or to present no unusual threat to her physical well-being. Depending upon the duration of the pregnancy, the entity to be aborted can vary from a one-celled zygote to a fully formed, though in utero, human child. The health of the entity to be aborted might be such that it has no possibility of coming to term or of surviving birth by more than a few weeks or the entity might be perfect and capable, if allowed to come to term, of living a long , happy and healthy life. These variables can be combined into literally thousands of moral questions.

Here are two relatively simple questions at the extremes: (1) Is it moral for a thirteen-year-old virgin, the victim of a violent rape by her father, to voluntarily ingest a day-after pill to insure that she does not become pregnant by the rapist? My easy answer is, "Yes." (2) Is it moral for a mature married couple who have decided after a long marriage, much thought, and study to terminate their pregnancy in the eighteenth week of pregnancy because they have learned by DNA testing their perfect fetus is a girl and they wanted a boy? My easy answer is, "No."

While these two extreme cases are "obvious" to me, I am aware that they are not obvious to everyone. Therefore, let us do the moral analysis.

Proposition: It is moral for a thirteen-year-old virgin, the victim of a violent rape by her father, to voluntarily ingest a day-after pill to insure that she does not become pregnant by the rapist. My moral analysis begins by identifying the facts of the case, specifically in the categories of variables previously mentioned. These variables are the circumstances of the pregnancy, the values of the pregnant woman, the health of the woman, the duration of the pregnancy, and the health of the fetus.

The circumstances of the pregnancy were deliberately chosen by me to be the worst case imaginable. Perhaps there is a worse case, but it does not come to mind. Not only is the girl violated, but she is violated by the person from whom she has a right to expect the greatest loving concern and protectiveness. She is now likely to be without a father during an important stage in her life, because, among other reasons, he will be in prison for rape. She is physically and psychologically traumatized and will never be psychologically whole, though one hopes she may someday with appropriate therapy be able to achieve some level of happiness. She is unable financially to support a resulting child. She is incapable of forming a bond to the baby because of the circumstances of the conception and because of her own youth and psychological trauma.

The values of our thirteen-year-old incest victim are those of any adolescent—her appearance, her social standing among her friends, achieving independence from her parents, and her school work. As a rape victim she will be attaching a high value to overcoming the psychological trauma of the rape and the most profound betrayal that a child can endure. A potential baby is not among her values.

The health of our thirteen-year-old victim is also threatened by the potential pregnancy. Medically speaking, a young adolescent faces higher health risks due to pregnancy that a mature woman. "Pregnant teens are at much higher risk of having serious medical complications such as toxemia, pregnancy-induced hypertension, significant anemia, premature delivery, and/or placenta previa. The maternal death rate for mothers 15 years old or younger is 60% greater than that of women in their 20's."

The duration of the pregnancy is the shortest possible conceivable. There may be no fertilization at the moment of ingestion of the morning-after pill. There may be only a zygote within her or an embryo of very few cells.

The health of the zygote of this adolescent mother is at greater risk. Because a conception in this case is the result of incest, the risk of birth defects is higher than normal. The mother's young age is a factor that increases risk of health problems for this zygote.

Infants born to teens are 2 to 6 times more likely to have low birth weight than those born to mothers 20 years old or older. Prematurity plays the greatest role in this, but intrauterine growth retardation (inadequate growth of the fetus during pregnancy) is also a factor. Teenage mothers are more likely to demonstrate behaviors such as smoking, alcohol use, or drug abuse; poor and inconsistent nutrition; or multiple sexual partners. This may place the infant at greater risk for inadequate growth, infection, or chemical dependence. The risk of an infant dying during the first year of life increases as the age of the mother decreases below 20 years.

The consideration of all five categories of variables leads me to conclude that there is every reason to abort in this case and no reason to endure the pregnancy. The reader should not be tempted to change my facts. Do not be tempted, for example, to hypothesize that the child victim wants to have her own father's child. That, I admit, is a possible case, but it is not the case I am analyzing here. It is another one of the thousands of moral questions that might be presented to a pregnant woman. I am only trying to give what I admit is an extreme case and to show my process of reasoning about it.

Proposition: It is immoral for a mature married couple who have decided after a long marriage, much thought and, study to terminate their pregnancy in the eighteenth week of pregnancy because they have learned by DNA testing their perfect fetus is a girl and they wanted a boy. Again I begin my moral analysis by considering the five categories of variables.

The circumstances of the pregnancy in this case are ideal. The parents are by marriage legally committed to one another. They have chosen this moment in their lives to have a child. They are ready, willing, and able to have a child.

The values of the parents are, with one exception, ideal. The parents have chosen parenthood for this time in their lives. The exception is their choice of boy rather than girl.

The health of a fully grown, mature woman in her prime child-bearing years is not abnormally threaten by pregnancy 

The length of the pregnancy is 18 weeks, in the second trimester. Pregnancy normally lasts 38 weeks. While incapable of living outside the mother's womb, this fetus is well on her way to life.

The health of the fetus as determined by DNA testing is perfect.

The consideration of all five categories of variables leads me to conclude that there is every reason to give birth to this girl fetus and no reason to abort. The preference for a boy is not sufficient to outweigh all the other factors in favor of life for the fetus. Many medical professionals would be unwilling to perform an abortion for this couple. If she does get an abortion in these circumstances and if the facts were to become known, she would be shunned by moral human beings. If the facts were not discovered, she would, should she ever experience moral growth, experience a life-time of guilt for her terrible act.

A reader might be tempted to ask, is it wrong to want a boy or a girl baby? Of course not. What is wrong about the couple in my extreme example is the place in their hierarchy of values that they assign to this preference. A fetus is not like an automobile that might be purchased or not depending upon its color. Unlike car ownership, parenthood is a sacred human activity, that is to say, parenthood is factually, not intrinsically, sacred to most parents who experience it. Parenthood is valuable on many levels. It is a human being's only opportunity to experience him or herself as a god—as a creator of life and as an object of worship. The love that parents experience for their children is inexpressible to non-parents. Parenthood alone can provide meaning to life. In the full context of the value that is parenthood, the sex of the child is of no importance. To forego the greatest human adventure for reason of the sex of the fetus is unthinkable. A person who would undergo an abortion for such a reason has a terribly distorted value system.

Between these admittedly extreme and hypothetical cases of abortion are thousands of hard questions. Within the parameters of Roe v. Wade, the pregnant woman must make the decision to abort or not. The moral decision is hers alone. If she makes a moral error, the only penalty (assuming her error is not made public) will be the judgment she imposes upon herself. Because this penalty can be severe (a life-time of guilt), utmost caution and reflection is called for in the decision to have sex at all, in the choice of sexual partner, and in the decision to terminate a pregnancy.


Objectivism 101
Objectivism 101