[The following was first posted in September of 2003, at the old Palace of Reason. It appears as it did then, with one correction. Back then the subject of abortion was as contentious as it is today, owing to the election of a sincerely pro-life president. That always upsets the pro-abortion forces. The overturning of Roe v. Wade and Florida’s recent enactment of a sharp limit on abortions has raised the rhetorical temperature to that level once again. — FWP]
One can be the strongest possible adherent to the right to life, yet condone killing, under delimited circumstances, and still be a completely moral man. Conversely, one can disbelieve that any such right exists, yet condemn killing under any circumstances, and still be a completely moral man. One’s moral status depends on what one does and abets others in doing, not on what one believes.
Rights are abstractions: important and useful ones, but abstractions nonetheless. If the assertion of a right reflects an underlying reality, still, context will play a part. No abstraction can capture the whole of reality; there are too many possibilities.
David Friedman once advanced the following poser: A lunatic is ranging freely in a crowd, killing persons who, for whatever reason, can neither resist nor escape. The sole instrument you could use against him is a rifle that does not belong to you. It lies in plain sight, on the property of a curmudgeon — not this Curmudgeon, thank you — who has proclaimed that he will prosecute anyone who trespasses on his domain. What do you do?
Nearly every decent man would snatch up the rifle and act. Virtually no one would be paralyzed, unable to calculate whether the violation of the rifle-owner’s property rights was justified by the carnage he could stop. Few would fear the consequences.
Friedman’s conundrum is an example of lifeboat ethics. Lifeboat ethics apply to situations in which contextual constraints make it impossible to preserve all recognized rights intact. Such situations are always painful — someone’s going to get it in the shorts, no matter what anyone does — but history offers no evidence that reality concerns itself with human suffering.
In the days of wind-powered ships, traders bound for the New World frequently found themselves becalmed in the still waters of the Caribbean. To be unable to move on the open sea, with only limited supplies of food and water, forced them to unpleasant measures. All too often, they had to jettison dozens of horses to drown in the tropical waters, to avert that fate from themselves.
Animal rights advocates would have a theoretical problem with this scenario. But how much of an impediment would it be in practice? Would their belief that a horse has the same right to life as a man keep them from jettisoning the horses? Would they willingly die of thirst to preserve the horses’ lives? Surely they wouldn’t throw men overboard instead?
Even the most dedicated vegan would yield to the demands of human survival. Those who balked might well find themselves classed with the horses.
Survival is the sole unchallengeable imperative. Even the Catholic Church, the strongest pro-life force in the world, will condone an unintentional abortion if it occurs in the course of a procedure undertaken to save the mother’s life. One cannot be pro-life yet demand that others die, if they have the means of saving themselves. He who wants to live and can contrive to do so must be allowed the latitude, other things being equal.
But in non-lifeboat cases, the right to life is the Ace of trumps. Decent men do not condone the killing of innocents. Therefore, in all cases where the use of lethal violence is contemplated, the first question must be: Does the object of that violence have a right to life?
No consideration of convenience is allowed. No room can be made for hypotheticals. Only the rights of the creature to be killed really matter.
That’s why the abortion debate is such a horror. One side has stoutly refused to address the rights-status of the developing baby. Instead, its advocates blather about convenience and hypotheticals. What if the mother cannot afford to raise the child? What if she can’t afford to pay for the delivery, or for the infant’s care while she works? What if the child is abused or neglected?
Shams and evasions, all of it. It’s the greatest disgrace in American political debate since the Dred Scott decision, and for the same reason.
Dred Scott was the Supreme Court case in which Chief Justice Roger Taney, to uphold slavery under American law, ruled that a Negro was not a human being, and thus had no rights a white man was bound to respect. By implication, the pro-abortion forces hold that a baby in the womb — a “fetus” in their preferred terminology — is not human, for it has no rights a born person is bound to respect.
They don’t say so explicitly. It would make the issues too clear. It would raise the rhetorical temperature to the boiling point, perhaps beyond. So they evade the issue, and talk of convenience and hypotheticals instead. Some raise the “rape exception,” as if executing an innocent bystander were an acceptable consequence of a heinous crime.
But were the rights of the baby conceded, the argument would go on. For the other side has stoutly refused to address the cost of banning all abortions — violation of the rights of all potential mothers.
Abortion has become very easy. The cost is not severe. More, several of the most popular methods are identical to treatments for common complaints. Menstrual extraction, for example, is indistinguishable from an early-term induced miscarriage. To act against all abortions, the State would require the latitude of installing pregnancy monitors in the bodies of all fertile women. That would reduce women to brood mares, whose rights were subjugated to their fertility. It would be the vilest tyranny in the history of Man.
A workable law against abortion, that respected the rights of each woman to privacy in her intimate affairs, could only address those cases where there was irrefutable evidence that a pregnant woman had gone to a licensed medical professional to have her pregnancy terminated. In the early term — say, the first thirteen weeks — the law would perforce be mute. The unwilling mother-to-be could inflict unspeakable cruelty on her defenseless dependent without interference from anything but her conscience. Her convenience and hypothetical qualms could be fully served.
And we who treasure innocent human life would have to be satisfied. We would have done all we could do without bringing about still worse. We could weep in silence.