Letter: Don’t throw out the baby
Republicans are attempting to use the release of videos showing that Planned Parenthood doctors alter abortion procedures and manipulate prices to accommodate specific fetal-tissue harvesting requests, violating federal law, to generate moral repulsion in order to take away funding from Planned Parenthood and push an anti-abortion agenda. While these videos do generate moral revulsion, the conclusions that abortion is morally corrupt and that we must take away federal funding from Planned Parenthood do not follow automatically from the emotional squeamishness that comes from watching the videos.
First, with respect to taking away federal funding from Planned Parenthood, though Bill O’Reilly called Planned Parenthood an abortion factory that sells the body parts of dead babies or fetuses, the truth is that abortions make up only 3 percent of the services that it provides. Also, while O’Reilly claims that those who support Planned Parenthood’s “abortions on demand” do not care about the “least defenseless in this world,” Planned Parenthood helps 2.7 million people, most of whom are underprivileged and who take advantage of the other services that Planned Parenthood provides, such as giving cancer screenings, distributing birth control and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections and HIV. Of course, if Planned Parenthood is illegally selling fetal tissue, then it should not be immune from prosecution because of its effect on so many people. It is not ethical to keep an unjust institution in business just because it serves a need that could eventually be filled by something else.
With respect to the ethics of abortion, according to American law, a fetus does not have rights as a person until its birth. As such, the right of pregnant women either to refuse treatment at the expense of the fetus or to have an abortion is an autonomous right that does not conflict with the liberty of another. According to Christian theologians who are against abortion, life begins at conception. Therefore, the rights of a pregnant woman cannot take priority over the rights of her unborn child. While each side of this debate is starkly drawn, leaving little room for dialogue, let alone compromise, there is another position that bridges this great moral chasm between the Scylla and Charybdis of the current abortion debate. A normative Jewish position is that a child does not have rights until its birth, yet its life must be respected while in utero. This position is opposed to the unilateral priority of a pregnant woman’s life as dictated by the “right to choose” position, yet it also allows for moral justification for abortion in certain circumstances, especially when the mother’s right to life trumps the respect one must have for the life of the fetus.
The reason that I mention this Jewish position is not that I think American legists or Christian theologians should adopt it. That would be as silly as thinking that either side in the current debate has any efficacy in persuading the other by its political machinations. Rather, I mention the position as a methodological suggestion to show how moral decisions are best made when moral premises inform one’s judgment but the realities of each case — and each person — are taken into consideration in practice.
Instead of using legislation to enforce unilaterally one’s position regarding the ethics of abortion, the debate over abortion should start with respecting the fact that both positions are firmly rooted in a moral and legal tradition. If neither side can convince the other of its conclusions — because they start with different premises — then both sides should be respected as a pragmatic decision so that each side can be legitimated by the law.
In practice, the law should provide a safe means for women to make choices, yet communities should recognize that no person lives without influence by neighbors and friends. Those who want to reduce the number of abortions that occur in this country should look to inform individuals for whom they care and with whom they live rather than attempt to make changes by fiat. The horror of unsafe abortions that occurred in this country before Roe v. Wade and that currently occur in developing countries where abortion is illegal is just one example of what happens when people make law without cultivating social values to support the moral charge. In the multicultural society in which we live, policy choices and legislation should take into account what may work for everyone and not rely on emotional reaction. Each side of the abortion debate holds the value of life to the highest regard, only they understand it differently. Disagreement over the question of life should not be a source of vitriol and dismissal. Neither side is going away.
Ira Bedzow is the director of biomedical ethics and humanities at New York Medical College and senior scholar at the Aspen Center for Social Values.