In Pursuit of Moral Clarity

By Guest Contributor

Last week’s op-ed by Kenneth Burchfiel ’13 regarding abortion has (unsurprisingly) already been met with vitriolic attacks on the Campus website, and will no doubt be the subject of even more criticism in this week’s issue. As someone who cares deeply about the issue, I’m glad Kenneth was willing to risk the predictably negative reactions of the college community and state his unpopular opinion. However, I think his article employed polarizing rhetoric at the expense of making the real, substantive arguments that do support his side of the debate. Let me make them here.

First, the pro-choice movement does not support abortion because they hate babies; they just legitimately do not believe that fetuses are human. The typical line of pro-choice advocates is that fetuses are “just a blob of cells,” and mothers have every right to choose whether or not to eliminate said blob. But this argument is simply silly. What are babies, other than slightly bigger, older, blobs of cells? The more substantive argument that the pro-choice movement makes is that at some point, these blobs of cells suddenly become human and have rights. But what should this point be? Conception? Probably too early. When the heart starts beating? That seems arbitrary. When the brain develops fully? That would imply that severely mentally handicapped children could be aborted at any time. At viability? Again, children with severe health impediments are not “viable,” but few people would argue they could therefore be aborted after birth.

The point is, the standard for what makes a fetus “human,” and therefore worthy of moral consideration is (I think inherently) arbitrary and uncertain. There is currently no universal scientific standard that can solve what is, in many ways, a philosophical question. Given this uncertainty, I would argue that we should always default to protecting the rights of the fetus. To do otherwise would be to risk being guilty of what Kenneth terms “evil,” should evidence emerge in the future that puts the standard for being human at an earlier stage than the currently accepted one.

One last argument that I want to preempt is the idea that anti-abortion advocates do not care about women’s rights. As someone who identifies as a feminist, I think this argument is both unproductive and simply false. I think that in cases where a mother’s life is definitely at risk, abortion might be acceptable since her humanity is absolutely certain, whereas the child’s is not. But in cases where the mother’s life is not at stake, if we accept the proposition that fetuses might be human, than the fetus’s right to life clearly outweighs a mother’s freedom of choice. That is not to devalue the latter, but simply to prioritize which rights come first.

But further, I think that pro-choice advocates generally fail to meaningfully engage with the implications of their agenda for the women’s rights movement as a whole. In a number of countries across the globe, abortion is a tool of male oppression, used to systematically select male children over female children. In such societies, the idea of male superiority is so embedded that women might actually choose to abort females until they have a male child. This is the woman’s “choice,” but does it really advance the cause of feminism? I don’t think so.

FRANK WYER ’15 is from Arroyo Grande, Calif.