Navigating The Abortion Debate: Conversations Based on Values
The Supreme Court has spoken, voting 5-4 to overturn Roe vs. Wade, thereby turning over to the various states the right to enact their own abortion laws.
I fear that this decision will lead to an unprecedented level of vitriolic political discourse, and even to violence, as different states enact laws ranging from banning abortion at any time after conception to providing abortion “on demand” at any time during pregnancy.
It will surprise no one reading this Musing that given this climate of fear, I urge residents of all states to express their beliefs about abortion in public venues, with the hope that it is not too late for each state to provide safe and welcoming spaces for differing views to be shared and respectfully discussed.
Motivated by that hope, I will now present my views on abortion.
My starting point is my observation that much of the current debate assumes that a binary choice needs to be made between being “pro-life” and being “pro-choice.” I believe that is a false choice. I highly value physical life; but there may be situations where that value needs to yield to the priority of another value. I also highly value the “freedom to choose;” but there may be situations where that value needs to yield to the priority of another value.
In that light, any attempt to navigate the current heated abortion debate must include conversations about the “values” that are perceived to be at stake. I intend to elaborate on that procedural suggestion in what follows below. But I must first lay bare a few foundational assumptions.
WE ALL HAVE VALUE COMMITMENTS: Some have argued that people, like me, who have made a commitment to a particular religion (in my case, Christianity) bring our value commitments to public discourse, while “secularists” are “value-free” when they engage in public discourse. That is blatant nonsense. We all bring our value commitments to public discourse and public discourse may prove to be fruitful only if all of us start by acknowledging our value commitments that we view as pertinent to the public policy issue being discussed.
NO SET OF VALUE COMMITMENTS SHOULD BE IMPOSED ON EVERYONE: Thankfully, our founding fathers in America had the wisdom to establish a pluralistic society, where no expression of “faith” (religious or secular) is to be privileged. Therefore, in conversations about abortion, or any other public policy issue, I should be able to express my position on the issue, making clear the values that underly my position. And all my conversation partners should have the same opportunity (on an “even playing field”).
THERE ARE TRAGIC MORAL CHOICES: I should always seek to foster the values to which I am committed. But there may be rare situations of what moral philosophers call “tragic moral choice,” where all the options for my action are destructive of some values that I embrace, and I must choose what I judge to be the “least destructive” action. An example unrelated to abortion is for a person who values human physical life enlisting for combat duty in a war, which will lead to the destruction of human life, because he/she believes that to NOT enlist will foster greater killing and other atrocities perpetrated by an aggressor (such as Hitler in the second world war).
SHOULD DECISIONS ABOUT ABORTION BE MADE BY GOVERNMENT? Dr. Timothy Johnson, former Medical editor for ABC News strongly asserts that, “I do not believe that government at any level should by law make this complicated decision [for or against an abortion] for a woman. Abortion is a matter best made by a woman and her family using whatever counsel they choose – doctors, ministers, close friends – not by a group of strangers operating in an intense political environment.”  As you will soon see, I do not share Dr. Johnson’s view that there should be a total ban on governmental decisions regarding abortion. In what follows, I will allow for the possibility of one particular governmental action.
However, I do strongly agree with Dr. Johnson’s additional assertion that “We are … entitled to our personal moral and religious considerations in making our own decisions [for or against abortion], but we should not impose them by law on others who may think and feel differently.” I would add that if you are included in the cohort of persons from whom a woman who has to make such a decision seeks advice, you should freely express your views that are informed by your particular value commitments (religious or secular); then engaging with other members of the cohort whose value commitments may differ because of commitments to other religious or secular worldviews.
Keeping these four underlying considerations in mind, I will now consider two stages in the development of the fetus from conception to birth.
FROM CONCEPTION TO VIABILITY FOR LIVING OUTSIDE THE WOMB
The time for viability for a fetus to live outside the womb is generally taken by medical experts to be about 20-23 weeks after conception. I believe that during that entire period, “pregnancy involves living cells.” I here express agreement with the following assertion from Dr. Johnson: “The entire chain of pregnancy involves living cells – from the fertilized egg and developing fetus to the stage when life in the womb is capable of existing outside the womb.”
In other words, I believe that the fetus, at any time, from conception to viability, is a rudimentary form of physical life that is to be valued. This is a position shared by those in the pro-life movement.
However, I also embrace the position taken by those in the pro-choice movement that “freedom of choice” is an important value. I therefore believe there is a conflict between these two values (physical life and freedom of choice) during the period from conception and viability. The looming question, then, is how do we navigate that conflict?
I agree with Dr. Johnson’s assertion that government should not make that decision during the period from conception to viability. The woman should make that decision, taking into account her conversation with a cohort of her chosen conversation partners (CPs). In addition to the CPs stating their positions on the abortion option, based on their clearly stated value commitments, this conversation needs to include consideration of the woman’s existential circumstances, including consideration of the following questions: If abortion is not chosen, does the woman have the personal and societal resources needed to lovingly nurture a child? If not, what steps can be taken to provide the needed resources? If abortion is not chosen, is adoption a viable option?
If, after taking into account such existential considerations and the views expressed by the CPs based on their respective value commitments, the woman decides on an abortion, I view this decision as a “tragic moral choice”; choosing a “destructive” option (the destruction of a rudimentary form of life) because that decision is viewed as “less destructive” than the negative consequences that would emerge if a child was born to a woman who did not have, and could not acquire, the resources needed to lovingly nurture a child.
Having said that, however, drawing again from Dr. Johnson, I need to share my view on steps that should be taken prior to any woman having to make a decision for an abortion during the time from conception to viability. In Dr. Johnson’s words, “The answer to preventing most abortions is to make other birth control measures widely and affordably available. To put it another way, if you are anti-abortion, you should be pro-birth control.” Dr. Johnson adds a criticism, with which I agree, of woman who “glibly rely on abortion as simply another method of birth control,” adding the zinger that “They might better be described as ‘pro-self,’ instead of ‘pro-choice’.”
FROM VIABILITY TO BIRTH
While there is room for disagreement about the comparative value of the rudimentary form of life prior to viability and woman’s “right to choose, “I believe it is a game-changer when the fetus has attained the state of viability outside the womb. Such an advanced form of life must be protected, unless “tragic moral choices” are operative (more about that shortly).
And I believe it is appropriate for the government (at the local, state or federal level) to legislate a prohibition of abortion after viability, PROVIDED exceptions are made that take into account the possibility of some tragic moral choices, as follows.
SAVE THE MOTHER OR SAVE THE CHILD
If medical experts conclude that to continue a pregnancy will most likely lead to the death of the mother, then aborting the fetus is the “least destructive” of the two destructive alternatives that are available. That is because the mother has established many important personal relationships that would be destroyed if she died; while the fetus has not yet developed such relationships.
RAPE AND INCEST
If the fetus was conceived as a result of rape or incest, abortion after viability may be called for. But that is not a decision for government to make. Such a decision should emerge from a conversation that the woman has with her chosen cohort of conversation partners, during which consideration should be given to the possibility of finding a non-destructive alternative, such as adoption.
THE WOMAN WHO HAS BEEN FAILED BY SOCIETY.
The above two possible exceptions to legislation prohibiting an abortion after viability are often given consideration in the current debate about abortion. Unfortunately, the question of whether a pregnant woman has the personal or societal resources need to lovingly nurture a child is generally overlooked. Once again, it is not the role of government to answer that question. An answer must emerge from a conversation that the woman has with her chosen cohort of conversation partners; giving special consideration to the possibility of an infusion of societal resources that could assist the woman if she chooses not to abort.
MY POLITICAL PROPOSAL
Given the plethora of radically different legislative bills that will inevitably emerge in various states, I conclude this essay with my proposal for the content of such state bills; making explicit what is implicit in the above narrative. Such a bill should include the following provisions:
#1: During the period from conception to viability, a pregnant women should be able to decide on having an abortion or not, based on her conversations with a cohort of trusted conversation partners.
#2: Abortions should be prohibited after the fetus has become viable (can live outside the womb; taken to be 20-23 weeks after conception); with the following potential exceptions:
- An abortion is the only way to save the life or maintain the health of the mother.
- The baby was conceived as a result of rape or incest.
- The pregnant mother has been failed by society by not having been provided with the resources needed to lovingly nurture a child.
For the first exception above, the decision to abort or not should be made by the pregnant woman based on conversations with trusted conversation partners and appropriate medical professionals.
For the second exception above, the decision to abort or not should be made by the pregnant women based on her conversations with a cohort of trusted conversation partners.
For the third exception above, the decision to abort or not should be made by the pregnant woman based on her conversations with a cohort of trusted conversation partners and a commitment from local, state of federal authorities to provide stipulated resources that will enable the pregnant woman to lovingly nurture a child.
The above proposal is likely to make the majority of Americans unhappy because of the prominence of those who are “pro-life absolutists” and those who are “pro-choice absolutists.” A pro-life absolutist believes that an abortion is NEVER morally justified at any point between conception and birth. A pro-choice absolutist believes that an abortion is ALWAYS morally justified at any point between conception and birth.
My more nuanced proposal fits with my value commitments and rejects both the “never” or “always” false choice. I will be prepared to advocate for my proposal in the political arena in respectful conversations within my state of Iowa and beyond with those who argue for differing legislative actions based on their value commitments.
But my concern is that the vigorous public debate that I see on the horizon will be dominated by absolutists on both sides of the issue and it will get enormously vitriolic because in our increasingly tribalistic American culture, absolutists show little interest in listening to those who disagree with them. In other words, my concern is that voices like mine will be silenced. That will be tragic because one of the most unloving things you can do to those who disagree with you is to silence them.
 Timothy Johnson, “If you are really pro-life, you really need to read this.” Palm Beach Post. April 20, 2022. In the interest of full disclosure, I report that Dr. Tim and I have been good friends for many years; especially during the 14 years when we worshiped together at Covenant Community Church in West Peabody, MA.
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