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viewpoint

Tackling abortion

| Thursday, April 2, 2020

I have to be upfront about one thing: I don’t have anything to contribute to the coronavirus conversation. My colleagues and others have done a wonderful job covering the virus, its effects on the tri-campus community and the challenges (and joys!) of living at home amidst the pandemic. 

Instead, I’ve decided to make my column this week something of a conversation-starter; I believe we need more constructive dialogue on campus, especially on the issues and topics which most strongly divide us. In my view, political conversation at Notre Dame usually consists of two sides (the religious center-right and the progressive left) talking past each other and insisting the other is not only wrong but destructive. This is reflected in speakers and events on campus, in social segregation along political lines and in the oft-commented-on phenomenon of dueling Observer Viewpoints. Perhaps this problem could be addressed by clear-headed, intelligent back-and-forth even on the most controversial of topics. 

Why not start with abortion? I’ve tangentially mentioned in previous columns that I am pro-life in that I believe abortion should be illegal; I’ve never opted to give a full explanation as to why. I figure I’ll do that today. 

I consider life to begin at conception. I also consider, crucially, this opinion to be the only reasonable one concerning the beginning of life. If life started at birth, our (assumed) collective repugnance at partial-birth abortion would be unfounded. I don’t see any justification, beyond convenience, for the possibilities of life starting at the onset of brain activity or at the first heartbeat. We don’t consider life to end when the heart stops beating or when the brain becomes inactive; why would we use these standards to demarcate the beginning of life? Another common suggestion for the beginning of life is “fetal viability,” or the point at which the fetus can live outside of the womb. This theory seems to establish independence, or at the least divisibility from others, as a necessary condition for life. By this account, I struggle to see how one of a pair of conjoined twins can be said to be alive independent from the other. 

Let’s assume, then, that life starts at conception, since the other options appear infeasible. I believe the intentional killing of any human is murder, and I believe that murder is morally wrong. Therefore, I believe abortion is morally wrong.

A few clarifications are in order. First off, I don’t know where I precisely stand on who is to blame for abortion, whether abortion should be stigmatized or how legal defense of the unborn should operate. I wouldn’t want my conclusion, “abortion is morally wrong,” to be misinterpreted as my saying that women who seek abortions should be imprisoned. I don’t believe they should be. I believe all people, including people seeking abortions and the people who carry out abortions, are worthy of care and basic respect. The words “abortion is morally wrong” only mean as much as they say. 

Second, and more importantly, I understand this argument to allow for medical considerations of both the life of the mother and the life of the unborn. I think medical professionals have obligations to both of these persons; in cases where it is impossible for both to continue living, difficult decisions must be made. Again, I understand this to be roughly analogous to medical concerns regarding conjoined twins. No one would ever assume the doctor would automatically prioritize the life of one twin over another, even if both lives cannot be saved. Similarly, both living persons need to be taken into account in the case of pregnancy, even if this must result in the demise of one. 

The most common counter-argument goes as follows: It is not my place, as a cisgender man, to opine on the beginning of life or the morality of abortion. A woman’s right to her own bodily autonomy, especially in the medical field, has been historically violated time and again, and these violations continue when anti-abortion persons, especially anti-abortion men, advocate for restricting a woman’s right to choose an abortion. Any person capable of pregnancy has a right to control their own body and a right to define what counts as their body. 

This argument is not a weak one; I am very much sympathetic to the struggle of women for medical autonomy. I disagree, however, in the expansion of this struggle to the case of abortion. Women do maintain a right to the free use of their bodies; if life starts at conception, however, there is not one body present, but two. The line of argument which emphasizes that it is the woman’s choice when to define the beginning of life, that is, how to define the limits of her own body, would be successful if that principle were applicable to moral reasoning in general. I cannot think of another instance of moral discourse in which a certain group is given complete discretion to define their own circumstances. I can think of several in which that kind of thinking has been squarely rejected. In the 19th century, a large group of people rebelled against the United States government because they felt they retained the right to define what counted as their personal property, and the president seemed to disagree. If a Northerner could point out the moral abhorrence of slavery in the South, even as the slave-owner claimed the right to include another person in his definition of property, why mustn’t the pro-life person point out the moral abhorrence of abortion even as some claim the body of another as their own? 

Perhaps this column will go undiscussed, simply another Notre Dame student electing to complain about abortion amidst a global pandemic. However, I hope we can take this opportunity to improve our dialogue and respond to one another’s genuine opinions with well-reasoned thoughts of our own; maybe this will play a role in that process. I look forward to hearing from you.

Vince Mallett is a junior at Notre Dame majoring in philosophy with a minor in constitutional studies. He is proud to hail from Carroll Hall and northern New Jersey. Vince can be reached at [email protected] or @vince_mallett on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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