An Ethical Challenge

Voters in Mississippi on Nov. 8 nixed what would have been the nation’s strictest anti-abortion measure, a state constitutional amendment that would have defined “personhood” to “include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.”

The vote, a victory for the Pro Choice movement in one off the nation’s most conservative states, appeared to hinge on a broad definition of fertilization that could be read as a ban on not only abortion, but also contraception and invitro fertilization. It also would have ended any exemptions for rape and incest victims or to protect the life of the mother in problem pregnancies.

The issue in Mississippi, apparently, was not the abortion ban, but the extreme nature of the ban and the broadness of the amendment.

“(W)e were successful because Mississippi voters ultimately understood that there is no contradiction in being pro-life and standing in opposition to an initiative that threatened the health and very lives of women,” Valencia Robinson, of Mississippians for Healthy Families, said in a written statement to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.

But isn’t there? If we are going to define life as beginning at conception — which the pro-life movement does — aren’t we setting up potential ethical dilemmas?

If the fetus is a person and entitled to the same rights as the mother, on what grounds can we terminate the pregnancy? Should the circumstances of its conception be considered?

Should the life of a child fathered by a rapist — using the pro-life definition — be considered less valuable than the life of its mother? And what about a pregnancy that threatens the life or health of the mother? Are we to argue that the life of the child — again, using the pro-life definition — has less value than the mother’s?

These are not small questions. They go to the heart of the abortion debate, because they raise questions about the basic structure of the debate.

Consider: If life begins at conception, then abortion is murder. If abortion is OK under certain circumstances — for victims of rape and incest, to safeguard the life of the mother - then doesn’t if follow that these exceptions are murder, too? I raise this not as a defense of extreme abortion bans, but rather as a way of showing the ethical inconsistencies that must be tolerated to advance a pro-life agenda — and to explain why my own thinking on abortion has changed over the years and why I think that the traditional liberal position is wrong.

I used to explain my thinking on abortion this way: I believe that life begins at conception, but I also believe that I should not impose my belief system on others. It was, as I’ve come to realize, a terribly inconsistent argument — I was countenancing murder out of respect for others’ views. It was a compromise that allowed me to avoid the issue. The absurdity of my own argument became clear to me following the death of George Tiller in Kansas a few years ago. The assassin accused the abortion doctor of murder because Tiller had taken the “lives” of hundreds of fetuses.

Within the context of his own belief system, Scott Roeder, the killer, viewed his actions as life-saving - eliminating Tiller meant that more fetuses would live. He was taking one life to save many.

The simplicity of his argument laid bare everything that was wrong with the abortion debate on both sides and clarified for me something that needed clarifying. The issue is when life begins.

If it begins at conception, then abortion is murder and the doctors who perform them and the women who choose to have them are murderers and should be subject to the laws governing homicide. The fetus, as living being, would deserve the same protection as anyone else. The fetus, however, is not a person and is not equal to the woman carrying it or any of us walking down the street.

The fetus is not entitled to the rights and protections afforded the rest of us until it leaves the womb, at birth, and becomes a person.

Basically, I came to understand something that Michael Sandel details in Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, his 2009 book — that the “familiar liberal argument for abortion rights” just “does not succeed” and that defenders of a women’s right to choose have to engage the “underlying moral and theological question.”

“It is not enough to say that the law should be neutral on moral and religious questions,” he writes “The case for permitting abortion is no more neutral than the case for banning it.”

Abortion is allowable — and should remain legal and accessible — because the fetus is not a person; life does not begin at conception, but at a much later stage of development. The courts have deemed viability — or the ability of the fetus to survive outside the womb — to be the point legally when abortion is no longer permissible, though it can be argued that the viability question is in itself a flawed compromise.

The Mississippi vote prevented the further erosion of abortion rights and, as such, was a small victory.

But it does little to reframe a debate or make it any less likely that the pro-life side will back off and leave women to control the fate of their own bodies.

Hank Kalet is the Central Jersey regional editor for Email,; blog; Twitter @newspoet41;

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2011

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