Shortly prior to the 1976 presidential election the Wall Street Journal observed that, whatever waffling candidate Carter was guilty of, no one could fault him for being undecided on the issue of abortion. The problem is so complicated, reasoned the WSJ editorial, that Carter's indecision could be the best stance to take.
A short time later, the Journal took up the issue again, this time presenting pro and con essays from a biologist and a representative of the humanities, the former defending, the latter opposing abortion. What is important about these essays is that the author defending abortion openly eschewed any moral issues, while the opponent made what he explicitly construed to be a moral case against interference with pregnancy.
These essays were typical in this respect. Supporters of abortion rights tend, in the main, to insist on various technical issues—the beginning of life, the poverty of the would-be parents, the political right of a woman to her body, etc. In contrast, most antiabortionists make their case in terms of such notions as the sanctity of life, the right to life, or the sacred, divinely bestowed goals of mankind. While proabortionists include some vague references to moral matters, these tend to emphasize such uninspiring factors as the avoidance of suffering, the enhancement of the pleasures of the would-be parents, the decrease of poverty, and population control (so that, a few years ago, Joe Sobran of National Review could plausibly condemn the proabortionists as nothing but crass hedonists, without any moral standing). The antiabortionists, however, appear to carry considerable moral force because in the long tradition of Western morality, self-renunciation, self-sacrifice, and the avoidance of pleasure for the sake of "higher spiritual goals" are very noble and inspiring.
Now, there is a moral case to be made, not for abortion per se, but for the right of women or couples—would-be parents—to obtain abortions. (This has nothing to do with the current controversy over the alleged right of women to have desired abortions provided for them, for example, by government funding if they lack the financial means to obtain this variety of medical care.) So this is a moral case against prohibiting people from obtaining abortions.
It can be seen that the argument for this right depends on a general argument for any human being's right to take those actions which will contribute to his or her happiness, and to determine which are those actions, provided that the actions will not infringe on the comparable right of any other human being. More specifically, at issue is the right of human beings to destroy living entities that are not persons, that are part of them, or that they own. This is the moral case for the right to obtain an abortion, but it clearly depends on other things. At this point, the nonmoral issues most often focused on by so-called proabortionists become important—Is the embryo or the fetus a person, a human being?
To deny that the embryo or the fetus is a person is not to deny that it is a human fetus or a human embryo—contrary to the implication of Dr. Thomas Johnson's antiabortion-rights essay in the August 1972 Freeman. For one can acknowledge that something is a human embryo without admitting that it is a full-fledged human being or person. To identify a human bone—or human hair or a human thumb—is not yet to identify a human being or person.
A human being or person is an animal with at least the latent capacity for rational thought and choice. It is this being that possesses human dignity, the capacity for being/becoming morally excellent or morally evil. It is this being that can, at least at a minimum level of complexity, start to think, form ideas, guide itself by the use of those ideas, and be responsible for having formed ideas badly and having guided itself by the use of bad ideas.
Embryos, and fetuses, until late in their development, are nowhere near capable of anything like this. They have the potential to become capable of it, of course, provided their development is not interrupted. This distinction may be appreciated by thinking of the analogous (but not identical) development of fruit-bearing trees. The seeds have the potential to become things capable of bearing fruit, but the seeds do not themselves possess this capacity. So they are not among the fruit trees that exist in nature. Small plants or saplings are different. They are at the starting point of being fruit-bearing trees. They are no longer just potential fruit-bearing trees; they are young ones of this sort of tree.
The same general story holds for human development. The human embryo is not a human being, although it has the potential to become one. An infant or child is a young human being, beginning to be capable of thought, choice, and moral achievement or failure. A problem indeed arises because, at some point in its development, at some stage of pregnancy, a fetus turns into an infant in the important respects mentioned above. In short, there is a transition or grey area.
Yet this is by no means unique for our issue—it is true about the identity of any class of things, animate or inanimate. Some rocks come close to being sandpiles; some chairs are almost sofas; some asteroids are almost planets; and some stools are almost tables. Moreover, some defective entities are quite properly identified, with the appropriate qualifications, as the entities they would normally be—for example, broken chairs, crucially incapacitated human beings (vegetables), books with missing pages. The difficulties associated with identifying borderline cases are neither unique to the area of human development nor devastating for our general capacity to identify what things are.
The account that appears to make the best sense of the facts of human development is that embryos, and fetuses until late stages of pregnancy, are not human beings. They are potential human beings. Might it not be the case, however, that potential human beings have rights that outweigh the strongest considerations their would-be parents could have for destroying them? To answer, we need to return to the issue of human rights, to consider what sort of moral framework backs them up. If human rights do exist within a moral framework that is sound, then the moralistic stance taken by many antiabortionists can be shown to be far less than secure.
Those who defend a couple's right to obtain an abortion are usually assuming a secularist moral tradition that tends to be utilitarian. The rallying cry here focuses on producing desired consequences and avoiding undesired ones. There is an alternative secular approach, however, which is not utilitarian or hedonistic. It is the morality of rational self interest: human beings should use the means at their disposal—fundamentally, their capacity for thought and choice—to enhance their own lives, to pursue their own happiness.
The idea here is as old and as rich as the Greek tradition. It is suggested already by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, where he describes the person acting in his rational self-interest, the person who is truly a "lover of self," as one who is "always anxious that he himself, above all things, should act justly, temperately, or in accordance with any other of the virtues, and in general [is] always to try to secure for himself the honorable course." Such an ethic does not exclude considerations of well-being, economic advancement, or pleasures but accords them less moral significance than would utilitarian doctrines.
It is in terms of the morality of rational self-interest that the rights to life, liberty, and property can be soundly defended. Human beings have these rights because they should live so as to further their own happiness, and it is the proper function of a legal system to protect and preserve these rights. When the exercise of these rights would conflict with some other value, the legal system of a good human community must give precedence to the exercise of those rights. In our case, a person's right to pursue his or her own life sometimes conflicts with the value of a potential human being developing into a young human being. Then, it is the rights of the actual person that must be protected, not the conditions of such development.
None of the above is an advocacy of abortion—such advocacy in general would be virtually impossible. It would be just as wrong to consider the above a case for abortion as it would be to regard an advocate of First Amendment rights as someone who thus favors avant-garde literature, obscenity, the New York Times' editorials, or the publication of anti-First Amendment essays. People can exercise their rights wrongfully. This point is important because it admits the possibility of moral objections to abortion without granting that anyone, including the government, would be justified in preventing it for others. For it may well be true that a number of couples who obtain abortions should not do so. But in the light of a sound theory of human rights, it would not be proper for others to prevent the sought-after abortion, to interfere with the decision of the couple to prevent the prospective birth of a child.
Finally, something more must be said about the grey area of borderline cases. The best solution to this problem is probably to provide a forum for debate. Given the seriousness of what is at stake, the courts—the judicial system—would seem to be the appropriate forum. When someone believes that a planned abortion could involve the killing of a human being—for example, at a very late stage of pregnancy—it might be appropriate to ask for a hearing on the matter. The various categories of law, such as probable cause, could justify the issuance of injunctions. To wait so long with the decision about sustaining the fetus skirts the danger of having the decision slip out of the couple's rightful sphere of authority. In short, when the abortion is plausibly turned into the killing of a young human being, the law has a proper role in the proceedings. But not before that.
Senior Editor Machan is a frequent contributor to REASON.