I was reading an short post by Jessie Golem on the topic of abortion recently. Jessie argued that abortion should not be denied to those who were victims of rape. She had a number of other arguments as well, but I wish to focus on this one. If abortion really is murder, and murder is wrong without exception, then abortion cannot be permitted even in the case of rape.
Before examining this, we must be very careful to avoid confusing this issue with several related ones. This is an examination of the ethics of abortion. It is not an examination of how to counsel rape victims, how to solve the problems of rape or how to solve any kind of political problem. As such, I am limiting myself to this question: what does Jessie’ s argument tell us about the abortion debate?
Jessie makes a central claim in the middle of her post: ” I firmly believe their approach [to ending abortion] by advocating to change legislation and prevent access to abortion clinics is doing more harm than good, and that their ideology to end abortion will only result in more death.” I am not interested in the evidence behind this claim. I am interested in why this claim should be persuasive at all. There are some actions that we evaluate by comparing the good brought about with the harm caused. But we cannot simply assume that all actions are evaluated that way. The belief that all actions are evaluated that way is called consequentialism. The belief that some actions are wrong, regardless of the consequences, is called deontology. Christians have traditionally placed murder the intentionally killing of an innocent person in the category of the deontic. In other words, they have understood the issue using deontology rather than consequentialism.
Behind the debate over whether of not abortion should be legally permitted is another debate on which metaethical framework is correct: consequentialism or deontology. Since each side has a commitment to a different position, this means that the current debaters are talking past each other. This is not to say that Jessie is at fault. Most pro-life writers simply do not know any philosophy and focus more on sharing their ideas and gaining followers than they do on explaining why they believe in any sort of detail.
Having said all of this, this debate is further complicated by the distinction between morals and politics. There are a number of things are morally indifferent but illegal. Which side of the road it is legal to drive on is one example of this. There are also a number of immoral things that are not illegal. Insulting and degrading other people are an example of that. So simply being morally indefensible does not mean that something should be legally forbidden as well. There needs to be an argument for that. The general argument of the pro-life position is that abortion is a morally indefensible practice, therefore, it should be legally forbidden. There are two assumptions behind this claim. The first is that in any legal calculation involving lives, all lives are to be counted equally. So any calculus on abortion must include the deaths caused by abortion the dead babies. The second assumption is that saving lives is the highest priority of any legal framework. Jessie agrees with the second assumption. The first assumption is much harder to prove and generally requires a complete philosophy of government.
There are two philosophies of government that are held by pro-life writers. The first is a natural law position that generally follows Thomas Aquinas. That would be my position as well. The second is a kind of theocratic model. In short, that model claims that the rules of the Bible ought to be applied to government. It is easy to see how the theocratic model makes abortion illegal. The problem is that the theocratic position is unconvincing to anyone who does not already believe the Bible. The natural law position is unpopular, but it relies on knowledge known by everyone. It makes abortion illegal by simply moving immoral acts (by nature) into ones the government is obligated to forbid.
Generally speaking, no pro-choice writer is a believer in natural law theory or theocratic government. But pro-life writers do not generally state these assumptions. On the other side of the fence, pro-choice writers often assume their philosophies of government without comment as well. But no pro-life writer actually believes in Rawlsian political theory (liberalism), Marxism or any of the popular secular theories. So any debate that ignores these issues is unfruitful.
In conclusion, Jessie’ s argument assumes a liberal political theory and a consequentialist moral theory in an argument against those who believe neither. Her pro-life opponents assume a theocratic or natural law theory and deontic moral theory. Since neither discuss the underlying disagreement, the argument either collapses in a fit of emotion or meanders in no particular direction. The abortion debate is unsolvable without discussing these underlying philosophical disagreements.