Reason on Abortion


When in the course of human development, is there a human being? No less an authority than Time magazine has declared it an "unresolvable question." And Science recently concluded an article with the lament that the abortion issue "is being debated as though it were rational." To which one can only reply: It had better be debated on rational grounds, no matter how deeply our feelings run. Otherwise the issue will be with us for a long, long time to come.

Prochoice advocates play right into the hands of antiabortionists when they deny that it is possible for thoughtful people to make a determination concerning the issue at hand. It's not enough to say, "We disagree about whether the fetus is a human being; therefore, it must be left to individuals to decide." Antiabortionists do offer an answer to the question. If they are right, it doesn't matter, from the standpoint of justice, that some people have not assented to the truth. The criminal who admits no wrong in murdering is nevertheless bound over to the law. It doesn't even matter if most people have not seen the light; that's why the slaves should have been freed in spite of the wishes of the majority in southern states.

On abortion, as in any other case, skepticism cannot prove anything. To deny knowledge is to leave the answering to those who are willing to take the plunge.

On the other hand, antiabortionists play right into the hands of their opponents when they appeal to religious doctrine. Then, one of the frequent prochoice refrains does become relevant—that the American political system is at its heart pluralistic, that the Founding Fathers explicitly provided for keeping government out of the business of enforcing religious values. If religious teaching is all that can be brought to bear on the question of when existence as a human being begins, then in our political system the fact that people disagree is indeed forceful. Abortion cannot legitimately be brought into the legal/political arena on the shoulders of religious doctrine.

We won't resolve the abortion controversy in this country until there is a meeting of minds on how it is to be resolved. The fundamental issue at hand—at what point in human development there exists a human being—must be acknowledged, not dismissed. And the mode of inquiry accessible to all men and women—reasoned consideration of the issues and the facts—must be applied to the question. This is not an easy task, and it is bound to be made more difficult by certain features of the current debate and trends in our society.

One is the tendency of prochoice advocates to characterize the abortion issue solely as a matter of women's rights. I have read discussions, often by other women, in which antiabortionists are portrayed as people who just want to control women's lives. Their genuine concern for what they believe is, after all, another individual human being is never mentioned.

Antiabortionists, in turn, often do present the issue as part of a package of concerns: the decline of the traditional family, liberalized attitudes toward sexuality, homosexuality, and so on. To the extent that abortion is of a piece with these other issues, the cries of prochoice advocates about regulating private conduct are right on target. If antiabortionists are to be taken seriously when they claim that abortion involves the taking of human life, they need to acknowledge that it is fundamentally different from the other parts of their package. And they will have to be willing to meet their opponents on the neutral territory of rational deliberation.

Beyond the particulars of the abortion debate, certainly the trend toward politicizing more and more areas of our lives works against a sound resolution. Is such a fundamental question really to be settled in the familiar fashion of congressional vote trading? That's what antiabortionists are embracing with the Helms-Hyde bill, which would tie the definition of human life to a mere act of Congress.

As of 1980, polls indicate that only 10 percent of the population supports the strict ban on abortion that would be imposed by the current legislative attempt (abortion would be allowable only if the woman's life is endangered). But suppose it were demonstrable that the fetus is a human being from the moment of conception. Should the inclinations of the majority nevertheless prevail?

It's ironic to find staunch antiabortionist and conservative William F. Buckley jumping on the vote-getting bandwagon. Writing in National Review recently, he noted that the Supreme Court, in its 1973 abortion decision, had declined to comment on when human life begins because physicians, scientists, and theologians disagree. Countered Buckley: "People disagree about how high taxes ought to be, whether a dam should be built here or there, whether we should declare war. The question, in short, is political." So the definition of life is comparable to the placement of a dam!—and subject to the same political log rolling as practically every other matter in our age.

It is unfortunate indeed that the Supreme Court has so far not seen fit to tackle the basic issue. By arguing from disagreement, it has fueled the fires of skepticism and pushed the issue toward a majoritarian resolution. Yet whatever action Congress takes, it is bound to return to the Court.

The plain fact is that this is a vital issue. Does killing a human fetus amount to murder? Either the question must be addressed by the highest court in our land, or it should be put through the excruciating test of the constitutional amendment process. In short, it must be subjected to the most rigorous rational scrutiny available in our legal system.

Meanwhile, citizens themselves would do well to put aside invective and emotionalism and give careful consideration to all thoughtful treatments of the issue. It is in this spirit that we present Roger Bissell's article in this issue. Mr. Bissell is not a physician, scientist, or theologian. He is an ordinary citizen who has taken the time to think through and research the abortion issue. Finding his arguments plausible and his facts intriguing, we offer his article as a contribution to the sorely needed reasoned debate.