In a diary a few weeks ago, I explained why I never use the expression “pro-life,” except, as here, in quotation marks: I am a strong supporter of abortion rights, but I consider myself no less “pro-life” than any opponent of a woman’s right to choose. The controversy over the administration’s stance on insurance coverage of contraception has gotten me thinking more about abortion as well as contraception, and it occurred to me that my formulation of the issue was too defensive, reflecting the general tendency of us abortion rights supporters to be defensive. We need to argue forcefully and consistently that not only should a woman be allowed to choose, but that there is absolutely nothing morally wrong--nothing--with a decision to abort a pregnancy. We need to argue, further, that it is the “pro-life” position that is immoral.
When I say that there is nothing morally wrong with a decision to abort, I don’t mean to suggest that it should be an easy decision to make; it may well be a difficult, perhaps even agonizing decision. But that’s not because abortion is in any way morally questionable; it’s because the decision to forgo having a child is a major life decision for any woman, one not likely to be made lightly.
There is nothing morally wrong with abortion because a fetus is not a person. It’s not a person because it possesses none of the attributes that we associate with a person--it lacks not only intelligence, but even consciousness. In fact, until well into the second trimester--long after most abortions are performed--it isn’t even a sentient being in even the most primitive sense. That means that it literally has no feelings. And by “feelings” I don’t mean just mean emotions--obviously, a fetus has none--but physical sensation. You cannot inflict pain--physical or emotional--on a fetus.
A fetus is less like a person than is a typical household pet, which does have some kind of consciousness, if not intelligence, and certainly can feel pain. It is less like a person than are animals that we routinely kill for food. The only thing a fetus has in common with you and me is a complete set of human chromosomes. (Of course, you may believe that a fetus is like you and me in that it has a soul; but that is a religious belief, which you have no right to impose on anyone in a society that values religious freedom.) It has the potential to eventually be like you and me, but potential is not actual, and there is no reason that mere potentiality should be defended and accorded “rights.” That is, unless you believe that there is a moral imperative that every possibility for increasing the number of human beings on this earth must be preserved.
A woman--unlike a fetus--is an intelligent, conscious, sentient being. Unlike a fetus, she is aware of her existence, she has desires and can feel pain. It follows that it is morally perverse--not to mention absurd--to claim that a fetus has rights that trump the right of a woman to control over her body for a period of 9 months. Compulsory pregnancy is immoral. Abortion is not.