Abortion: Round 1
To the Editor:
The editors kindly invited me to comment on James Q. Wilson’s discussion of my recent book, Life’s Dominion: An Argument About Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom (Knopf, 1993), in his own article, “On Abortion” [January]. I accepted, because though Mr. Wilson agrees with some of my most important conclusions, he misunderstands their implications, and I believe his conclusions about women’s right to abortion, which are largely negative, might well have been different if he had not.
He apparently accepts my claims, first, that fetuses do not have rights or interests of their own before their nervous sytems are sufficiently developed to sustain such interests (which does not occur before the third trimester of pregnancy); second, that few people, even those who oppose Roe v. Wade, believe that fetuses do have rights and interests before that time; and, third, that the abortion controversy is therefore not about how the interests of a fetus should be protected but about a different issue: whether and how the intrinsic value of human life should be respected even in the absence of such interests. These points are crucial if the United States Constitution supports, as I said it does, the principle of autonomy I described in a passage Mr. Wilson quotes:
A state may not curtail liberty, in order to protect an intrinsic value, when the effect on one group of citizens would be special and grave, when the community is deeply divided about what respect for the value requires, and when people’s opinions about the nature of that value reflect essentially religious convictions that are fundamental to moral personality. [Emphasis now added]
If we accept that principle, then states do not have the power to forbid abortion before the third trimester, which is what Roe v. Wade decided and the Supreme Court’s most recent abortion decision, Casey, confirmed.
Mr. Wilson calls the principle of autonomy “astonishing.” But his only arguments against it ignore the distinction between individual interests and intrinsic value that, he says, he and I agree is crucial. He argues that the autonomy principle must be wrong because governments plainly have the power to forbid the murder of unpopular minorities, or to take a stand about capital punishment, or to go to war, even though citizens may well be divided, on essentially religious grounds, about such issues. But these are all cases in which government acts out of what it takes to be the interests of individual people—of the potential victims of murderers, or of convicted criminals, or of those whom war would protect. They are not cases in which government acts solely “in order to protect an intrinsic value,” and they are therefore not cases in which the principle of autonomy I described has any application. Indeed, I used some of the same examples in explaining why the principle would not incapacitate government from its normal functions: I said that the principle would not prevent government from banning human sacrifice in religious ceremony, for example.
Laws against murder normally serve both kinds of political purpose—they protect the interests of potential victims, and they also protect the intrinsic value of human life. But the two purposes are nevertheless different, and on some occasions they pull in opposite directions. A government might wish to forbid suicide or voluntary euthanasia, for example, because the majority thinks that taking life always shows contempt for life’s intrinsic value, even though it concedes that suicide or euthanasia might be in the best interests of a terminally-ill patient. Then the question arises whether government should have the power to impose a controversial view on an essentially religious issue on people who reject it, even though it is not acting to protect anyone’s interests. The Supreme Court considered one aspect of that question in the Cruzan case, when a majority of the Justices said that states must give effect to formally executed “living wills” requiring doctors to withdraw life support from patients in a persistent vegetative state. It decided, in effect, that a state has no ultimate power to impose on everyone a majority’s views about how best to respect the abstract value of human life.
If a fetus had rights and interests of its own from some early point in pregnancy, then the principle of autonomy would of course not support a right to abortion, any more than it supports a right to religious sacrifice, or the other rights to kill that Mr. Wilson wrongly imagines it entails. But he apparently agrees, as I said, that a fetus does not have such interests of its own, and it is therefore mysterious why he does not accept my conclusions about the right to abortion. Perhaps he thinks that a state should have the power to impose the majority’s view of an essentially religious matter on everyone, even when that protects no one’s interests. If so, he should have explained why.
I said something else to which Mr. Wilson objects: I said we need a better explanation of why a late-stage abortion is morally worse than an early-stage one than just the observation that a late-stage fetus bears a closer physical resemblance to a child. That physical resemblance may account for some people’s visceral reactions, but most people distinguish between immediate reaction and moral reflection, and few would accept physical resemblance as in itself morally significant. Few people would be satisfied with the argument, for example, that cruelty to monkeys is worse than cruelty to pigs or dolphins because monkeys resemble humans more.
In Mr. Wilson’s view, on the contrary, the constitutional law of abortion should depend on immediate reactions about resemblance. He says that (with exceptions for grave and special cases) abortion should be forbidden beyond the point at which most pregnant women, responding to a picture of a fetus at that stage, would classify what they saw as “a baby.” (He says he would be astonished if any pregnant woman would not classify a fetus as a baby at least by the twelfth week, and believes that most would do so much earlier.) But it seems intolerable that an individual woman’s rights should depend on the evidently subjective reactions of others in that way, or that such rights should shift as the “consensus” reaction shifts, as it assuredly would over time, because it is more likely that people’s views about the morality of abortion would fix what they took to be a sufficiently close “resemblance” rather than vice versa.
Mr. Wilson’s odd suggestion is a counsel of despair: he thinks a line after which abortion is impermissible must be drawn somewhere between fertilization and birth, and does not know how else to draw it. But if he had reflected on the importance of the distinction he says he accepts—between fetal interests and intrinsic value—he might have seen a morally more cogent line to draw. He might have thought that the crucial point is that at which a fetus does have interests of its own—the point at which, for example, it can feel pain—because after that point a state can restrict abortion out of concern for those interests, and need not rely only on contested and essentially religious convictions about how best to respect the intrinsic value of human life. Then he would have agreed, at least roughly, with the Supreme Court’s decisions in Roe v. Wade and Casey.
He would also have appreciated the moral importance of the state’s not imposing a collective decision before that point. He twice quotes with approval my endorsement of a “moral environment in which decisions about life and death are taken seriously and treated as matters of moral gravity.” I wish he had also considered my argument that such an environment must be one of personal not collective responsibility when the decisions in question harm no one’s direct interests, because without personal responsibility there can be no moral gravity but only superficial conformity or sullen sham. I doubt Mr. Wilson would approve a society that made the abortion of seriously damaged fetuses mandatory because a majority believed that allowing a painful, frustrating, and short life to begin showed contempt for life’s true value. But once it is agreed that fetuses have no rights or interests of their own, requiring abortion because the majority believes that that is the best way to respect life is no worse than forbidding it for the same reason.
I should correct two other mistakes. Mr. Wilson attributes the following view to me (and apparently accepts it himself): “If [a fetus] is horribly deformed . . . then it is less human and exercises somewhat less claim on our moral respect.” I disagree: a deformed fetus is fully human, and the life it embodies is entitled to the full respect we owe the life of any other human fetus at the same stage of development, even though, as I just suggested, people can and do disagree about whether that respect forbids or demands abortion.
Finally, though I do teach in both Britain and America, my American academic home is not Yale, as Mr. Wilson reported, but New York University Law School.1
To the Editor:
James Q. Wilson provides an original approach to dealing with abortion, but gives inexcusably short shrift to Ronald Dworkin in so doing.
He begins his article with an illustration of two separate approaches to the abortion issue: rights and morality. One of Dworkin’s arguments that Mr. Wilson cites and subsequently attacks is that since the First Amendment prohibits government from interfering with the establishment of religion, and since the moral argument against abortion hinges on a person’s own spiritual views, then the government is constitutionally bound not to interdict a woman’s power to obtain an abortion.
Mr. Wilson attempts to demonstrate this argument absurd by means of a comparison with less ambiguous issues such as infanticide and homicide. Extrapolating Dworkin’s position to what he feels is its logical conclusion, he asks, “Why do we allow the legislature to pass laws prohibiting [infanticide and homicide]?”
Mr. Wilson’s criticism of Dworkin’s argument is ill-founded in that he ignores his own premise: the distinction between a rights-based approach and a morality-based approach. Aside from the obvious moral aspect, murder is prohibited because it constitutes a transgression of the victim’s rights, namely, the right to life. Dworkin’s argument is coherent precisely because it is made under the assumption that the rights of the fetus are not equally inviolate. Therefore, it is not appropriate to apply Dworkin’s argument to cases in which a transgression of the victim’s legal rights renders moot any question of moral judgment.
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
To the Editor:
. . . James Q. Wilson is persuasive in his premise that the value most Americans attach to a fetus correlates with the degree in which the fetus resembles an infant. This point, however, does not require his particular conclusion.
The rhetoric of the pro-life movement clearly attempts to take full advantage of the human likeness of the fetus. . . . The typical photograph chosen for an anti-abortion billboard predictably depicts a late-term fetus that is clearly human rather than some nebulous embryo that only a doctor could distinguish from that of a dolphin. Nonetheless, Mr. Wilson shows that his purportedly new approach is just an exercise in semantics when he asserts that if his “experiment” were carried out and “there developed a consensus as to when an embryo became a baby,” the law should ban abortions after that period.
Perhaps Mr. Wilson is led astray by his strange contention that a “rights-based” approach is significantly different from a “moral” approach. My Living Webster defines moral as: “Of or concerned with the principles of right and wrong in conduct and character; conforming to the rules of right conduct.” If we recognize a woman’s right to decide whether to terminate her pregnancy (or, alternatively, decide that a fetus has a superior right to life), it is because respecting an individual’s rights is the right or moral thing to do.
While the language of a Supreme Court decision may be sterile, the principles behind the test for “undue burden” are not amoral. Mr. Wilson’s disagreement with the Court’s construction of a right to privacy does not mean that the right does not have a moral basis. Would he also contend that the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not at heart a moral blueprint for the respect of the individual?
Even under a liberal interpretation, Mr. Wilson’s proposal would allow the state to use its coercive power to “persuade” a woman to carry her baby to term. At the extreme, the government could prohibit abortion past the point where it determined most people felt a fetus was sufficiently infant-like. Mr. Wilson’s framing of the issue really does not change the argument of those who would make abortion illegal, nor will it satisfy those who believe that a woman is in the best position to choose between abortion and birth. He merely replaces viability with human appearance as the place to draw the line where the state can act to protect the fetus. Rather than when, the crucial question still remains who should make the choice—the woman or the state?
Christopher M. Schnaubelt
San Luis Obispo, California
To the Editor:
. . . “People treat as human that which appears to be human,” James Q. Wilson declares. (Did Jews appear human to the Nazis? Do criminals see their victims as human—and does it matter?) A “visual encounter” with “what appears to be ‘a baby’” would, he believes, lead a pregnant girl “to make a fully informed moral decision.” Fully: an instant morality pill.
Mr. Wilson reasons: at eight weeks, a fetus looks “like a baby”; I could not kill a baby; therefore, a pregnant fifteen-year-old will feel as I do. Sitting in a comfortable chair as he writes, he does not feel or reason hard enough.
An eight-week-old fetus does not look at all like a baby to me, but like a strange little monster from inner space. My mother kept one, which had miscarried, and we four children saw it floating upright in a bottle every time we opened the medicine cupboard. Perhaps familiarity made it lose the emotional force Mr. Wilson clearly seeks. . . .
I conjecture that thoughts other than what her invisible fetus does or does not look like press more strongly upon the mind of a distraught pregnant girl. Desperate mothers have killed or abandoned live babies, let alone aborted fetuses, and moralists with unwavering principles can help to make them desperate.
A pregnant girl does not usually kill a fetus: a doctor or nurse does and they constantly see, not pictures but the real tiny thing. Would not the decision be more truly informed if the girl had to do the killing? Sufficiently troubled, she might kill both the fetus and herself.
What moral purpose is served by making the painful decision of abortion more painful for girls and women? Does Mr. Wilson want the execution of full-grown men viewed by those who favor capital punishment? . . . Should a video of painful childbirth be shown to women contemplating sex? . . .
Writing of a fetus as a baby is moral propaganda. Propaganda is a type of warfare, not analysis, and warfare is a nasty business. Someone may suggest that Mr. Wilson look at nasty pictures: of diseased babies, of prostitutes with babies, of adolescent corpses riddled with the life he would give them. He should return to his usually trenchant analysis of facts and leave the propaganda and fighting to the combatants outside abortion clinics.
To the Editor:
- Views related to abortion rights or prohibitions are clouded by differing religious views.
- We should never attempt to cause or allow our religious views to prevail in decisions made by others who may not share these views.
- The government should not overregulate people’s lives. . . .
- A woman should have at least as much control over decisions affecting her own body and destiny as some legislator.
- In the view of many people, life begins at birth, or possibly when a fetus could live independently of the womb.
If one can accept the above premises, then abortion becomes a matter of choice by the persons involved. Neither theologians, politicians, zealots, moralists, nor others not involved in the particular situation should burden themselves by determining what is required by other persons.
Unfortunately, we have a bunch of fanatic moralists clouding our collective logic. These moralists are concerned about the sanctity of human life from conception to birth. They are causing a pattern of unwanted children being born in this country, as often as not into single-parent homes where the children have a much lower chance of leading a normal life free of poverty or crime. These moralists have little interest in who supports these children or what future they will have. . . .
Why don’t we get the government out of people’s innermost personal lives and simply allow abortions as a matter of choice to those who want abortion without hindrance by others? We need to move on to many other more important issues in our society such as education, crime, and job opportunities.
If James Q. Wilson does not want to have an abortion, tell him he does not have to have one.
Des Moines, Iowa
To the Editor:
. . . James Q. Wilson . . . fails to consider many important issues which have a bearing on abortion, some of which are:
- What if the fetus or one or both parents have AIDS?
- What if the child will be deformed?
- What if the child will be born into a poor family that already has too many children to support?
- What if the child will be born to a single young teenager?
- What if baptism is or is not applicable?
On a broader scale, why isn’t thought being given to the population explosion and its relationship to natural resources? Also, why do we give so much attention to the unborn fetus and so little attention to the tens of thousands of men, women, and children who are dying each day of starvation? Is the fetus more important than the adult or the child?
Arthur H. Bienenstock
New York City
To the Editor:
In his article, James Q. Wilson proposes a better way for women to make the crucial moral decision whether or not to have an abortion. He suggests that the more a woman knows about the development of the life she is carrying by seeing pictures of the child, the more informed will be her decision and, therefore, the more morally responsible. The more the fetus looks like a baby, the more likely will be the mother to choose life rather than abortion. This would undoubtedly be an improvement over current practice, but it does not adequately address the moral issue Mr. Wilson recognizes.
Whether a fetus is a human entitled to moral respect can hardly be decided on the basis of its appearance. The human embryo contains 23 chromosomes from the mother and 23 from the father. At conception, about eight hours after the sperm penetrates the egg, a unique individual comes into existence with 46 chromosomes that will control his or her development and characteristics from then through all the stages of life to death. The fact that the embryo does not look like a baby does not decide the morality of killing it.
One of Mr. Wilson’s own analogies makes the point clear. He notes that we often decide what constitutes a human by appearances:
An elderly man who has been a devoted husband and father but who now lies comatose in a vegetative state barely seems to be alive, . . . yet we experience great moral anguish in deciding whether to withdraw his life support. . . .
But suppose the doctor told us that in eight months the man would recover, be fully human, and live a normal life as a unique individual. Is it even conceivable that we would remove his life-support system on the ground that his existence, like that of the fetus, is highly inconvenient to us and that he does not look human at the moment? There would be no moral anguish but a certainty that such an act would be a grave moral wrong. It is difficult to see that this imagined case is different from the abortion decision.
Mr. Wilson’s claim that appearance makes the fetus human is a form of developmental hominization, the idea that the fetus becomes human at a point in its development and not from the moment of conception. He claims an eight-week-old fetus with human appearance arouses moral sentiment whereas a zygote does not. In resting his argument for humanity on the basis of feelings instead of on scientific and moral truth, he is not on firm footing. Morality based on feelings lacks the component of truth. Without that, moral ambiguity soon sets in.
Nor does the attempt to equate the life in unjoined sperm and egg with the life in the embryo avoid the problem. Mr. Wilson says: “Conception does not summon forth life where none existed before; it permits life to begin developing toward its infant form.” But a zygote is different from the sperm and the egg—it is an individual which has all the potential for what will be a human infant in nine months. If the eight-week-old fetus is human, it was human at the beginning. That being the case, Mr. Wilson’s identification of the zygote with the life of the sperm and the egg should lead him to question contraception. If he does not wish to, he should admit the distinction between separated egg and sperm and zygote.
Mr. Wilson shies away from drawing a bright line at “the moment of conception,” quoting St. Thomas Aquinas who argued for the moment of quickening at about eight weeks. Dr. Diane Irving has shown, however, that St. Thomas’s position is based on the inadequacies of 13th-century biology and that his whole philosophy supports the notion of a complete human being present at the moment of conception. . . . St. Thomas’s mentor, St. Albert the Great, who accepted “human from conception,” argued this point with him at great length.
The use of pictures to help women make a decision in favor of life is a powerful and effective tool. Perhaps that is why abortionists as a rule do not show women sonograms. The child they see within them makes claims on their hearts by its human appearance, but the humanity was there at the moment of conception.
Mary Ellen Bork
Board, Catholic Campaign for America
To the Editor:
I welcome James Q. Wilson’s endeavor to discuss abortion as a moral question without the encumbrance of “rights talk.” His insistence that we create a moral environment in which decisions about life and death are taken seriously and treated as matters of moral gravity deserves high praise. I also agree that the question of whether the fetus is a person is an irrelevant side issue. Even if the fetus is seen as not being a person, this does not provide license to kill it. Our household pets are non-persons, yet we do not approve of destroying them for the sake of personal convenience. Conversely, even if the fetus is regarded as a person, this fact does not solve the problem of whether an abortion is morally justified. Most moralists accept the legitimacy of taking the life of a person in certain special situations such as self-defense or in a just war.
I find myself dissatisfied, however, with the way Mr. Wilson seeks to tackle the moral dilemma of abortion. . . . I do not share his optimism about the impact on pregnant women of visual displays of the fetus, but even if he were to be proven right, I do not see how the procedure he suggests would halt the epidemic of abortions in our society. About 50 percent of all legal abortions in this country take place before the end of nine weeks of gestation. Most of the women wanting an abortion at this early stage of fetal development, according to Mr. Wilson’s own estimate, will not see enough resemblance between their fetus and a live infant to be deterred from having an abortion. Any program that cuts down the number of abortions is to be welcomed, but can we be happy with a solution to this grave problem that leaves us with about 700,000 abortions a year?
Mr. Wilson’s proposal assigns far too much moral significance to the way a fetus appears to a woman seeking an abortion. Yes, after about eight or nine weeks in a pregnancy we are dealing with an entity that indeed looks like a child—“precious, innocent, vulnerable.” At a certain point in a pregnancy abortion begins to resemble infanticide. But should our moral concern be circumscribed by such a visual experience? If human life is precious, why draw an arbitrary line at eight or nine weeks of fetal development? We fault parents who treat their child like a pet—feed it but do not teach it to speak, or fail to attend to its other social needs. Such parents do wrong because they frustrate a human being’s potential. In the same way, I submit, we should censure those who prevent a fetus—whether after or before reaching the age of nine weeks—from attaining its full potentiality. Taking the life of such a potential person, like all killing, should be countenanced only for the most exceptional reasons.
Today our society has laws protecting whales, wolves, even the eggs of certain endangered species of birds, but it has no meaningful protection for unborn human life. We have made great strides in guarding the interests of formerly underprivileged groups such as the aged, handicapped, and mentally retarded. Yet the fate of the unborn is still at the mercy of those who are more powerful. Mr. Wilson’s well-meaning proposal for dealing with the tragedy of abortion in America stops woefully short of what is morally desirable, and indeed necessary.
To the Editor:
James Q. Wilson does all of us a service by elegantly pressing a theory of moral sentiments about as far as it can go in making the argument against America’s present legal regime of abortion on demand; COMMENTARY also deserves great credit for bringing so carefully crafted an argument, on such a deeply troubling issue, to the public debate. Kudos, too, to Mr. Wilson for his convincing demolition of Ronald Dworkin’s bizarre argument that anything other than abortion on demand in America would constitute an infringement of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion.
Moreover, I believe it would be a real step forward if the states were to adopt (the federal judiciary permitting) the kind of regulations on abortion practice that Mr. Wilson proposes. Indeed, there is considerable evidence to suggest that informed-consent statutes, combined with the availability of alternatives to abortion, reduce the incidence of abortion as a means of ex-post-facto birth control: a practice that polling data reveal to be morally repugnant to the majority of the American people.
On the other hand, there are dangers lurking in any theory of morality based on our moral sentiments, dangers which have to do with the temptation to avoid or obscure the essential truth of the moral issue in question. I hope that none of us would be satisfied, today, if, on another issue of great moral contestation in our history—namely, the question of the legal status of Americans of African descent—the issue had been resolved at the level of moral sentiments: at the level of how we feel about things. For we know that some people felt (and felt deeply) that Americans of African descent were not to be considered persons under the meaning of the Constitution’s protections of the rights of persons.
Nor should we seek refuge from the truth of the matter in the complexities of modern biological science. To be sure, there are certainly biomedical complexities involved in conception, implantation, and gestation. But we also have pregnancy tests (the normal prelude to so-called “contraceptive” abortions), and when one of those tests tells us that a woman is pregnant, we are surely not to be permitted to say, well, she’s not really pregnant, are we?
Further, and at the risk of sounding harsh toward a scholar whose work I have long admired, I must confess that I find Mr. Wilson’s “doubt” about the possibility of drawing a “sharp line” on what is and is not a human life rather obscurantist. The truth of the matter here is not all that hard to grasp. It would be unreasonable to argue that a fetus is not life. And because that fetus possesses a distinctive, indeed unique, genetic program, it is a life. And, finally, there can be no reasonable suggestion that this fetus is not a human life. Barring the natural catastrophe of miscarriage, or the lethal attack of abortion, the fetus is not going to turn out to be a golden retriever.
The real issue in the abortion controversy is not, never has been, and never will be whether the fetus is “a human life.” The issue is, what do we, as a society, owe that indisputably human life? Put the other way around, the issue is, what rights does that indisputably human life possess? That is the public-moral issue and the public-policy issue; and it is an issue that cuts to the heart of the American promise of liberty and justice for all. But if the courts would, once again, permit the American people to deliberate on this question democratically, I think that Mr. Wilson, and the rest of us, would find that there are tens of millions of Americans who understand the truth of the matter on this issue of abortion; who recognize the moral obligations that any just society has toward unborn human life; and who are willing to reorder our laws accordingly.
[Congressman] Henry J. Hyde
House of Representatives
To the Editor:
James Q. Wilson places abortion exactly where it belongs: as a moral question that admits of different answers in different circumstances. He wisely observes that “Our inability to draw a line should no more disable us from making moral judgments about a fetus than it prevents us from making such judgments about children or adults.”
There is a Jewish perspective on life, eloquently expressed by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, that avoids line-drawing. To Heschel, “Something sacred is at stake in every event.” Recognition of this sacredness Heschel calls awe. “Awe,” he says,
enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine. The awe that we sense or ought to sense when standing in the presence of a human being is a moment of intuition for the likeness of God which is concealed in [the human] essence.
Is there any event more likely to engender awe than that of the creation of another human being? Is there any experience more intuitively sacred than conception?
Although traditional Judaism sees the fetus only as potential life, in contrast to the full life of its mother, during its entire nine months the fetus contains the sacredness of the Creator. In the event that the fetus threatens the life of the mother, it must be aborted. But once the head appears outside the mother, mother and child are equally important lives.
The question then is not, when does life begin?, but whether there is some critical need to preserve the life of the mother that requires ending the potential life of the fetus.
While what it means to preserve the life of the mother may be subject to broader and narrower definitions within Judaism, the decision to abort should be made with awe, with consciousness of the sacred event of conception. (This does not address the question of what governments should do or how they should decide.)
Twenty years ago no one spoke to me of awe and sacredness, no one showed me the photographs that Mr. Wilson saw of a developing fetus, so I was left to decide that the four children we had planned and given life to were enough and the fifth was dispensable. I will never again have the opportunity to make this decision, but if I did, I would struggle harder today—realizing that the decision is moral, not pragmatic.
Suzanne F. Singer
To the Editor:
The abortion debate cannot proceed from arguments about rights and laws, [but] . . . from arguments about rights and wrongs. James Q. Wilson has reminded us of this central truth in his fine essay. If a woman has a right to an abortion, it means that a fetus does not have a right to be protected from being aborted. Both the woman’s rights and the fetus’s lack of rights require moral arguments to sustain them.
Mr. Wilson is correct in observing that most of the moral arguments seeking to deprive fetuses of a right to protection center on “the point in the development of the fertilized ovum when it has acquired those characteristics that entitle it to moral respect.” However, Mr. Wilson goes on to reject the notion that there is any morally significant point in fetal development. Rather, he sees fetal development as a continuum. He proposes a kind of visually grounded moral intuitionism in which we are asked to trust that once pregnant women see pictures of fetuses at various stages of growth, they will accept and identify one particular stage as morally significant. . . . This intriguing suggestion reminds us that the invisibility of the fetus often unnaturally and unfairly skews the abortion debate against the fetus. But the problem with Mr. Wilson’s proposal is that, first, it is not an argument but a supposition: that women who see pictures will in fact see the fetus as morally significant. Perhaps so; I tend to agree. But from a man who wants moral arguments, we have instead a photo-sociological argument. If women who see pictures of fetuses do not have such moral breakthroughs, should we conclude that the fetus is, by this sociological fact alone, not entitled to protection? Mr. Wilson sees this flaw in Ronald Dworkin, but not in himself. . . .
Is there any way out of this search for the magical moment when the fetus crosses the line into the community of morally significant beings entitled to protection? I think so, and I think it comes from the Jewish legal tradition on abortion.
Jewish legal teachings on abortion . . . make it clear that if the life or health of the mother is at risk, abortion is not only permitted but required. Absent such risk, abortion is proscribed. . . .
What is most interesting about Jewish teachings on abortion, and what is most important to the general abortion debate, is the way these conclusions are reached. Maimonides has given the most coherent account of these reasons (though his treatment is at odds in some respects with certain talmudic statements). Judaism did not come to its position on abortion as a result of arguments about fetal personhood. Some Jewish laws clearly indicate that the fetus is not a person, other laws clearly treat the fetus as if it is a person. The Jewish position on abortion is based, rather, on the nature of the fetal threat. If the fetus poses a real threat to the life or health of the mother, it must be killed to remove the threat. If, on the other hand, the fetus poses no threat to the life or health of the mother, it is innocent and cannot be killed. . . .
Maimonides taught that a fetus which threatens the life of the mother is like a pursuer (Hebrew: rodef) and like all pursuers, it must be stopped from committing its unjustifiable assault on another innocent human being. . . . Judaism thus considers abortion (therapeutic abortion) to be simply another form of self-defense. A woman’s rights are not relevant. Fetal personhood is not relevant. Our reactions to fetal development are not relevant. For Judaism, the only question that is relevant about the fetus is the only question which ought to be relevant in the abortion debate: is the fetus innocent? If the answer is yes, abortion is morally wrong. If the answer is no, abortion is morally required. The truth of abortion is that sometimes the answer is yes and sometimes the answer is no.
Of course, the self-defense claim does not end the abortion debate. It provokes a lively debate about what constitutes a morally significant threat to the life or health of the mother. Some will be more lenient and others more reserved in their conclusions on this point, but the notion put forth by some Jewish thinkers that any unwanted pregnancy is eo ipso a threat to the life or health of the mother is patently absurd. . . .
The Jewish legal tradition on abortion, particularly Maimonides’ codification of this tradition, reminds us of what we already know in the best part of our souls: though we are morally entitled to kill things that threaten our lives, we are morally required to respect things that do not. We all know (though we are often loath to admit it) that there is nothing we can say and nothing we can do to build a morally convincing case for the killing of an innocent living being. We all know deeply that no life ought to be forfeit just because it is an inconvenient, unexpected, or unwanted intrusion into our calm and ordered lives. We do nothing to heal this wounded world by wounding others for the sake of mere privacy.
[Rabbi] Marc Gellman
Dix Hills, New York
To the Editor:
When I began reading James Q. Wilson’s article, I thought I had finally come across a secular conservative I would like to see represent the pro-life position on TV talk and discussion shows. Pro-life spokesmen on Donahue and other shows are generally fundamentalist Christian clergymen who quote the Bible and give nonreligious viewers the impression that the anti-abortion position is held solely by religious zealots and that the issue of abortion is a right-wing religious concern unrelated to morality.
As I read on, however, it became apparent that Mr. Wilson would not fit the bill. His withholding of “moral respect” for a fetus until it resembles a human . . . reminded me of a TV show on abortion I had seen many years ago. The feminist hostess showed, side by side, photographs of human and pig fetuses during the early stages of gestation and pleasantly pointed out that they could not be told apart in the first few weeks. Her point was clear: don’t feel guilty if you abort; pretend it’s a piglet. . . .
Mr. Wilson accepts the feminist/libertarian “blob” concept: what is not recognizable as a human form does not have to be granted moral consideration, responsibility, and compassion. . . .
Anyone with common sense from a high-school dropout to a college professor knows for a certainty that a human baby is gestating in a woman’s womb from conception, whether it is called a fetus, a blob, or a piece of tissue, and the first trimester poses the greatest threat to its life. It is a sad commentary on the moral decay in our society when a baby’s most serious obstacle to continued growth and life may be its pro-choice mother, legally and socially backed by our ascendant feminist/ libertarian culture.
Charles R. Ewy
To the Editor:
James Q. Wilson’s clear and precise discussion of the abortion controversy is in sharp contrast to the abuse and misuse of language engaged in by both sides of the abortion debate; . . . but certainly, pro-abortionists have been especially guilty of brutalizing language to cover up the fact that abortion is the killing of innocent unborn babies.
One glaring example of how pro-abortionists manipulate and misuse language is when they argue, “We simply do not know when human life begins.” Philosophers, theologians, and legal scholars, they point out, disagree on the answer to that question. But the question of when human life begins is not a theological or philosophical or legal question; rather, it is a medical/scientific question, and medical and scientific people generally agree that human life begins at conception. For example, Dr. Eugene Diamond, past chairman of the pediatrics department at Loyola University Medical School (Illinois), observes: “We no longer need to belabor the question of when human life begins; it begins incontrovertibly at the union of sperm and ovum. Surely the recent in-vitro fertilization experiments have proved this beyond a doubt.” And Dr. Jerome Lejeune, the eminent European geneticist, declares: . . . “The fetus is a human being. Genetically, he is complete.”
The popular pro-abortion argument that the fetus is simply a part of the mother’s body also is refuted by scientific evidence which demonstrates that the cells of an unborn baby possess a genetic code different from those of the mother’s body. Thus the fetus is a separate and distinct human being from the moment of conception.
Haven Bradford Gow
Arlington Heights, Illinois
To the Editor:
James Q. Wilson deserves great credit for exposing fuzzy thinking on the issue of abortion and for his effort to narrow the gap between those who would outlaw abortion and those who support Roe v. Wade.
Mr. Wilson proposes the following experiment: there would be arrayed on the walls of a room, in chronological order, exact color photographs of the human embryo from first fertilization until the day before normal delivery. . . . “A variety of people, but perhaps especially women,” would be asked to examine the photographs and tell in which one, or in which small sequence of photographs, they “first see what appears to be ‘a baby.’” Mr. Wilson speculates that most people would choose photographs of fetuses at seven to nine weeks of development. . . .
If his experiment were carried out and resulted in “a consensus as to when an embryo became a baby,” he envisages that it would afford a basis for the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule Roe (whose rationale he implicitly rejects) and ban abortions after the end of the pre-babyhood period identified by such consensus. . . .
Unfortunately, the experiment that Mr. Wilson proposes is unworkable. How will an organization to administer it be chosen? Will the organization’s impartiality be beyond question? Can 266 photographs fairly representing the daily progression in embryonic development be agreed upon? All these questions must be answered to the satisfaction of the general public if the experiment is to have any chance of success.
As for the experiment itself, how will the “variety of people” who are to participate be chosen and how many people will be deemed sufficient? How will there be assurance that the people chosen are fairly representative of the public at large? The answers to these questions are likely to leave many people unsatisfied.
Finally, there is the problem of the objectivity of the persons chosen to express their opinions as to when the embryo (fetus) has achieved babylike status. Committed right-to-lifers can be expected to detect a baby at a very early stage of embryonic development, perhaps as early as the fourth week. By the same token, believers in minimal restrictions on abortion can be expected not to see a baby until long after conception, perhaps as late as the 24th week. Given the biases of persons with strong preconceptions concerning the propriety or impropriety of abortion, it is almost inconceivable that there would be a consensus (let us say, at least 80 percent) agreeing on a two- or three-week period as the time when the fetus appears to be babylike.
Apart from his proposal, Mr. Wilson . . . favors having women considering an abortion shown the photographs to be used in his experiment, or a similar series of photographs. . . . It is unclear whether he thinks that such viewing should be made mandatory by law. Whatever he has in mind, however, it is almost inconceivable that a law mandating such viewing would successfully withstand judicial scrutiny.
Notwithstanding the fact that he is unsuccessful in offering answers to the controversy surrounding abortion, Mr. Wilson performs a public service in correctly identifying abortion as a moral issue rather than a religious or public-policy issue.
Barton P. Jenks III
Charlestown, Rhode Island
To the Editor:
. . . I think James Q. Wilson’s suggestion in his interesting and thought-provoking article (. . . legally imposing an understanding of fetal development on abortion-seeking women) has significant social and political merit. If there is to be any curtailing of the rampant abortion-on-demand psyche of this nation, . . . it must come a step at a time and must seek to change hearts. . . . But Mr. Wilson spends no small part of the article discussing the logical fallacies of the courts’ and others’ views on the subject, while at the same time arguing for his suggestion based on feelings and appeals to emotions. In fact, he seems to be suggesting strongly that our principles regarding human life can be rooted in our instinct and emotions. . . . Does he realize that, just as he chides Ronald Dworkin for a rights-oriented view on abortion (and rightly so), Dworkin would be as justified in chiding him for an emotion-oriented view? Both views are subjective, based on whose view of “rights” or whose “feelings” are used. . . .
Mr. Wilson’s thesis that we can define the point in a pregnancy after which life is clearly human in form (approximately eight weeks), and that “only . . . grave circumstances would lead to abortions much beyond [such a point],” is logically hypocritical when juxtaposed to his apparent abhorrence for late-term abortions: just as life worth protecting at day 266 is worth protecting at day 265, so life worth protecting at day 57 is also worth protecting at day 56, [and] . . . at day one.
Mr. Wilson trivializes the concept of protecting life at day one by arguing that, since many fertilized embryos never implant and are then lost, by not protecting life at day one we are no worse than nature itself. He erroneously suggests that, to be morally consistent, a society which values life as human at day one must necessarily endeavor to cause more embryos to be implanted. By making such a statement, Mr. Wilson is subliminally changing the question. The question of abortion in purely physiological or “natural” terms is whether interfering with nature by purposely causing an abortion is right. The quantity and timing of natural abortions are irrelevant—the discussion is about an action humans cause and can control directly, not about what nature does on its own. It is not inconsistent to argue against abortion and also argue for letting nature take its own course.
I would further suggest that Mr. Wilson’s . . . lost-embryo argument appears to be a new version of the viability argument. Arguing in this manner, we could say that since a nontrivial number of natural miscarriages occurs after six to eight weeks, we would be no worse than nature if we were to cause an abortion at six to eight weeks. Only when we arrive at a point in pregnancy where a natural miscarriage becomes a life we can actually save outside the womb (say at 24 weeks), would we then be able to restrict abortion.
In summary, I wholeheartedly endorse Mr. Wilson’s suggestion of appealing to the human heart in order to bring an end to the abortion-on-demand promise in this country . . . , but when viewed objectively, his proposal is also full of moral and logical inconsistencies. Mr. Wilson thereby clarifies (accidently) that formulating a politically and socially acceptable abortion policy in this nation may never be consistent with objective moral and logically-reasoned principles.
Finally, I cannot imagine that God, the Author of life, is not deeply angered at our continued arrogance and lack of respect for His creation in the womb, no matter what the day.
To the Editor:
Through use of the term “morality,” James Q. Wilson has identified what is wrong with our age, and the threats to it. Democracy, our way of life, has existed on the tightrope of the equation between rights and responsibilities. Constitutionally, this may be seen in the tug between the rights of the accused and the necessity for public order. . . . In our social policy, we have seen the iniquitous results of group favoritism, without any requirement of compensating responsibility, and we have seen as well the resentments which this situation has engendered.
Now Mr. Wilson . . . has brought this conflict front and center. Since Roe v. Wade, the issue of who may live and who may not has been seen as the enhancement of “rights” for those bearing another life, regardless of the stage of fetal development. The question of how the “rights” of those bearing another life came to predominate over the responsibility of the life-bearer is a microcosm of the evils of our age. . . .
Abortion constitutes the termination of biological life. . . . This right carries with it the apotheosis of tyranny. . . . As Mr. Wilson makes clear, the live fetus gets forgotten in the inconvenience to the bearer of life, regardless of how the fetus was created. It is a woman’s burden to carry this responsibility, though she may divest herself of it by various means. . . . But in an age where almost any inconvenience is seen as a violation, the inconvenience involved, and the dilemmas posed by this responsibility, are deemed to violate a woman’s rights. . . .
The question that Mr. Wilson is raising in microcosm strikes at the heart of how we shall live. Rights have developed, goiter-like, at the expense of responsibilities to the point that existence depends upon convenience. Is that all that life is worth?
New York City
To the Editor:
James Q. Wilson’s moral approach to the problem of abortion is a wisely balanced one: like our Founding Fathers, he concentrates on the civil realm. . . . This balance leads him to emphasize a middle position between a view of any abortion as murder and one which sees it as a basically trivial act, of no (moral) interest to society and the state. . . .
Also, he balances between opposites by recommending that the tempering laws (delays, consultations) be worked out by legislatures and not by the one-sided procedures of judicial activism led by the likes of Harry Blackmun. . . .
Our Founding Fathers gave us a Supreme Court which was intended to meditate and mediate. It is situated, so to speak, at a nodal point between the vertical of the executive and the horizontal of the legislative. It should have nothing to do (except in a dispute about founding legality) with the active working out, in the various state legislatures, of negotiations among varying local groups, of differing (e.g., religious) persuasions, as they come to reasonable positions more or less like Mr. Wilson’s.
Failing this moderation, we will have ongoing strife between fervent partisans rending the civil order. . . . Wilsonian wisdom seems clearly the better course.
Robert Greer Cohn
To the Editor:
James Q. Wilson’s incisive article is one more example of why I find myself turning to COMMENTARY month after month to find my moral bearings in a world that increasingly seems to have lost them. I would add only one point: that the failure to think about abortion as first of all a moral (and not a medical or legal) issue is rooted in the same moral failings that have made life in society so hellish in recent times. I do not know if I could ever establish this in a court of law or before a panel of Aristotelian syllogists, but I have long been of the opinion that our epidemic of violence is rooted in the same moral climate that made Roe v. Wade possible.
I first came to this conviction when, as a university professor, I would raise some issue of right and wrong, and the students would invariably reply: “Well, it’s that person’s choice.” “Yes,” I would say, “that’s the whole point; but given that it is someone’s choice, which is the right choice?” Their faces would then go blank, and I knew I had encountered a new low point in ethical analysis.
I link this (quite pervasive) attitude with violence because the same “logic” is at work in our culture of violence. Last year, at New York University, that great cultural beacon of light, the rapper Ice-T (he of “Cop Killer” fame) came to lecture at the Student Union. The meeting was well-attended and raucous, of course, but most telling of all was the editorial that appeared the next day in the student newspaper, the most glaring paragraphs of which bear quoting in full:
Ice-T’s greatest contribution, however, cannot be numbered in album sales, platinum records, or concert attendance. What Ice-T has done is open up the doors for other musical artists to pass through. In 1993, topics such as sex, drugs, and murder are being discussed in lyrics that would never have even been thought of five years ago. Ice-T, along with the defunct NWA [Niggas With Attitude] and Public Enemy, are all in part responsible for every message-oriented rap song that hits the market today.
That is progress.
You may not agree with everything that Ice-T has to say, but he has certainly brought it all to the table to be openly discussed. What people fail to understand about Ice-T is that the power of interpretation is in our hands, not his. If you want to go out and commit a crime, that is your prerogative [!]. He has presented the choices for you, and it is up to only you [sic] to decide what is right and wrong.
Sweeping issues under the rug does not help anyone. What’s more, Ice-T is informing the public and making people think [as demonstrated, I suppose, by this editorial]. And that is the most important of all. [Washington Square News, February 18, 1993]
Edward T. Oakes, S. J.
New York City
To the Editor:
I applaud James Q. Wilson’s insistence that abortion is a moral question. That such an insistence requires defense is a sad commentary on the state of contemporary debate on this matter. I recall a case from the 1970′s (I was then in Massachusetts), involving a doctor who had performed an abortion on a 22- to 24-week-pregnant young woman. If memory serves, the infant boy had been born alive, in terrible distress, and had been “permitted” to die. This upset a nurse, who reported the incident. In the trial that followed (the doctor was charged with second-degree manslaughter, I believe, but that is not essential to my story), the lawyers for the doctor pushed the view that what had been “eliminated” during the “procedure” was “the products of conception,” not an entity that could be described in language evocative of “human” or “person.” The jurors, however, decided that photographs of an aborted six-month-old fetus looked quite a bit like a baby to them. They found the doctor guilty. He went on to appeal. I forget the outcome. But the most fascinating moment of this whole sorry episode, for me, was when the lawyer for the doctor stepped before the television cameras and blasted the jurors for their benighted lack of “medical” sophistication in viewing “the products of conception” as an “unborn baby.”
Mr. Wilson reminds us of the stake we all have in being thus “unsophisticated,” in refusing to medicalize or legalize the issue of abortion so thoroughly that we fail to see that what is at risk in abortion-rights absolutism is our capacity to respond empathically to the human infant. As well, by thoroughly disentangling the woman’s “well-being” from the life of the fetus, even in the third trimester, the Court (in Roe) strangely and troublingly “desocialized” pregnancy, writing as if all that was going on was the “well-being” of one rather than the relationship of (at least) two, a woman to her unborn child who is, by then, recognizable to her in myriad ways.
One of my own daughters is now six months pregnant and describes the unborn baby’s movement: “She’s doing a lot of kicking. She’s poking me with her elbows,” and the like. It takes really ingenious legalese to ignore this. But rights-based absolutism that presupposes a world of Robinson Crusoes not only promotes such ignorance, it encourages and requires it. That so many feminists have signed on with this dehumanizing of the fetus, and desocializing of human reproduction, at every stage in development is surely one of the saddest stories of the past several decades.
Mr. Wilson is to be thanked for reminding us that the abortion debate is about more, much more, than individual rights narrowly defined. It is also about the human community broadly understood.
Jean Bethke Elshtain
James Q. Wilson writes:
There are two central issues: whether we ought to define abortion as a matter of rights or of morality and, if the latter, on what grounds a moral judgment might reasonably rest. As to the first: I was gratified to discover that most of my critics endorse the view that abortion is a moral issue. Mary Ellen Bork, Guenter Lewy, Henry J. Hyde, Marc Gellman, Haven Bradford Gow, Barton P. Jenks III, and Erland Olson, though they disagree with how I approach the moral issue, agree that it is a moral one, and in that sense are allies, at least on the fundamental matter, of those writers—Jean Bethke Elshtain, Suzanne F. Singer, Edward T. Oakes, Robert Greer Cohn, and Frederic Wile—who have not indicated any disagreement. The most touching words that I have read in these letters were those in Mrs. Singer’s last paragraph and in Mrs. Elshtain’s description of her daughter’s pregnancy; I commend them to everyone.
Jonathan Kay, Christopher M. Schnaubelt, and, on the whole, Ronald Dworkin argue that abortion can only be decided as a matter of right, either because only the pregnant woman has the right to make the decision or because the fetus, at least before brain waves become measurable, has no rights that might limit the woman’s choice. (This may also be the view of Harold Orlans, but his self-description—to him a fetus looks like a “strange little monster from inner space” akin to one his mother kept in her cupboard, and calling it an immature baby is “moral propaganda”—makes me suspect that he is incapable of grasping a moral argument and unwilling to make a rights-based one.)
One part of the rights issue can be disposed of immediately: Mr. Schnaubelt thinks that rights and morality are essentially the same thing because the dictionary defines “moral” as a matter of “right or wrong in conduct.” I hope he ordinarily uses the dictionary with more care than he has in this case: “right” in the sense of right conduct is different from a “right” in the sense of a claim of autonomy. People may have a legal right to withhold help from a drowning person, but it is not morally right to do so, at least if the aid can be given without jeopardizing the rescuer.
Mr. Dworkin understands this difference and makes it the heart of his argument. His distinction between viewing a fetus as a person with rights and as a form of human life entitled to protection is a useful one for some purposes, but not many. We both agree that it helps us criticize the views of those opponents of abortion who would make an exception in the case of rape or incest. If a fetus is a person with rights, then it has those rights however it was conceived and aborting it is equally wrong in every case. Thus, the exception for rape and incest is inconsistent with the pro-life position as it is usually expressed. If, on the other hand, we think the fetus is human life that is entitled to special respect, we will want to afford it that protection and respect as soon as it is human or in proportion to its humanity.
There are several reasons that his distinction does not carry us very far. Mr. Dworkin says (without, so far as I know, adducing any evidence) that “few people” who oppose Roe v. Wade believe that the fetus has rights in the first two trimesters. On the contrary, I think very many, probably most, critics of abortion believe that it has rights and that it is sacred. That opponents of Roe have several justifications for their position does not make their position incoherent, it makes it all too human and even more compelling. Professor Stephen L. Carter, in his review of Mr. Dworkin’s book, made much the same point when he wrote that “leading figures in the pro-life movement speak eloquently and forcefully” that a fetus is a human clothed with rights and interests. As Carter observes and as I agree, people who march about carrying signs saying that abortion is murder mean exactly what they say. Mr. Dworkin thinks that they cannot really mean this because the early fetus lacks the “neural substrate” necessary to equip it with rights, including the right not to be murdered. As Carter concludes, what we find in reading Mr. Dworkin is not the rebuttal of a false premise but an inability to take the premise seriously.
Mr. Dworkin wants us to believe that a state may not curtail liberty in order to protect the intrinsic value of human life if the effect of doing so would be to affront the sentiments of people who deny that human life is at stake or who feel that, even if it is, it is not worthy of protection. The reason he urges that view is that such protection must rest on a religious conviction, and the Constitution forbids the state from imposing a religious conviction on nonbelievers (or on anyone).
In my essay I criticized that view, suggesting that it would prevent us from banning genocide, infanticide, or the death penalty so long as the community was, in his words, “deeply divided about what respect for [the value of human life] requires.” His rejoinder to me is that bans on genocide, infanticide, or capital punishment are justified by the government’s authority to protect the “interests of individual people.” In short, he seems committed to the view that only rights and interests can support or define the limits of state action. But then, in the very next paragraph, he pulls back a bit. Laws against murder both protect the rights of potential victims and protect the intrinsic value of human life. This is a very important concession because, if he means it, it supports the pro-life position: a ban on abortion ought to exist because it both protects the rights of the unborn and defends sacred human life.
Let me return to the case of infanticide. There is no argument justifying abortion that cannot also justify infanticide. The difference between a fetus and an infant is, in the extreme case, a matter of but a few hours or even a few minutes. In Mr. Dworkin’s position, the difference is a few weeks—a fetus has no rights in the first two trimesters, has some (but not many) in the third, and a whole lot just after it is born. What has happened to equip one creature with rights denied to the other? In his view, the mother has made enough of an “investment” in the baby so that by the third trimester it has acquired some rights, and at birth all rights. This means, he says, that perhaps some restrictions on abortion might exist in the third trimester (he never defends very enthusiastically any particular restriction, even though by this time the baby is viable) and that just after birth it has the “right” not to be murdered. I disagree; people do not oppose infanticide because babies have “rights or interests,” but because they are babies and as such embody the essence of all that we cherish in human life.
My view is that our opposition to abortion, like our opposition to infanticide, homicide, and genocide, rests chiefly though not entirely on moral grounds. But what are those moral grounds? At this point Mr. Dworkin makes common cause with my critics from the pro-life movement by saying, as they say, that one cannot let the matter rest on the visually informed moral sentiments of the parents, especially the mother.
My critics offer two reasons for their objection. First, there is the test of appearance. Mr. Dworkin says that “few people would accept physical resemblance as morally significant,” in part because one’s reaction to appearance is “subjective” and liable to change. Mr. Lewy seems to agree, suggesting that our moral concern cannot be “circumscribed by such a visual experience.” This is also the view of Mrs. Bork and Charles R. Ewy; Mr. Olson adds the argument that a visual test is defective for being “emotion-oriented.” Rabbi Gellman thinks that he, too, would recognize a seven-week-old fetus as human, but worries that some, perhaps many, people would not.
I think otherwise. Contrary to Mr. Dworkin, I do not believe that many people, other than professors when they write about morality, engage in moral reflection; ordinary people (and professors when they are not writing) respond to moral problems with immediate emotional reactions. We immediately and instinctively are drawn to tender infants, especially our own; to our pets and to their cries of distress; to the plight of an elderly woman who has fallen and cannot rise; to a neighbor whose house has burst into flames. As I write, countless acts of routine heroism and compassion are occurring in my city, Los Angeles, as a consequence of a destructive earthquake; I doubt that any are the product of extended reflection. As we are drawn to the plight of others, so also do we recoil in horror at the brutality of callous muggers and drive-by shooters and in anger at the unfair behavior of biased officials, greedy politicians, and corrupt judges.
These reactions are distinctively human and, insofar as I can tell, nearly universal. They are vastly more common than is agreement with any particular religious or philosophical tenet, for they can be found, I think, among people innocent of philosophy and committed to the most animistic religions. The world’s great religious traditions elevate these sentiments to the status of teachings and commandments; that is, indeed, why we call them “great.” The ghastly rituals of the Aztecs, the shallow superstitions of the Yanamamo, the indulgent hedonism of certain Parisian intellectuals—all of these beliefs and more had a chance at becoming a widely accepted ethical teaching, but none did because they did not comport, in the long run, with the disinterested moral sentiments of many generations of people.
Congressman Hyde would reply to this argument, as he says in his letter, that moral sentiments are inadequate to settle such great moral issues as black slavery. He is, of course, quite right. But I hope he does not think that any religious tradition, were its followers faithful to its literal teaching, was adequate to settle the matter. The Hebrew Bible can be, and was, quoted in defense of slavery; the Anglican Church for decades depicted slaves as bearers of the mark of Cain and as the children of Ham, cursed by Noah as the “servants of servants.” Islam recognized slavery, as did Aristotelian Greece, Confucian China, and Hindu India. A principled attack on slavery had to wait until the late 18th and early 19th centuries and the application of Enlightenment teachings about individualism to scriptural interpretation, an application that pitted one Protestant sect against another and that deeply divided the Catholic Church. In The Moral Sense I suggest why the attack on slavery prevailed in the West (and nowhere else!); without repeating the argument here, let me suggest that certain social conditions encouraged the extension of the natural moral sentiments of the family to the unhappy circumstances of strangers.
The arguments of contemporary pro-life and pro-abortion groups have, I think, changed very few minds. Congressman Hyde and Mr. Dworkin have provided their followers with thoughtful defenses of their existing views, but neither, I venture to say, has won many converts from the other side. I do not expect to win many, either. But I think that the general public can reach a reasonable moral settlement provided only that the courts let them do it and that when they do it they confront, in the most direct way possible, the reality of what they are deciding. If I am wrong about this, then I am wrong about the moral sentiments that men and women naturally bring to the evaluation of the humanity of infants. I tremble to think what that might mean.
The second problem with my way of resolving the moral issue, it is said, is that it avoids defining human life as beginning at the moment of conception and thus that it declines to draw a bright line where it is most easily drawn. Mrs. Bork makes this point eloquently, and Mr. Lewy reinforces it by pointing out that by limiting abortions to embryos and banning them for fetuses—that is, by drawing the line at roughly the eighth or ninth week of pregnancy—we would still be aborting about 700,000 bits of life each year.
I have no satisfactory answer to that objection. Beyond repeating what I said in my essay, let me turn the question around: if we grant that the moment of conception marks the beginning of human life (as Congressman Hyde points out, pregnant women do not give birth to golden retrievers), why do we owe the life at that moment the full protection of the law? If you say, “because it is life,” I respond that it is genetically the beginning of human life, but it is not yet human in any sense in which the word is used in ordinary human discourse; that is, it does not manifest the form, nature, or qualities characteristic of men and women.
And if this human life in its earliest stages of development is entitled to the same protection as a live infant, one must ask why. There can only be two answers: one is that our moral sentiments are engaged by and moved to defend the most elementary forms of human life, even at a time when they consist of but four or eight cells. I share this sentiment; I believe that tens of millions of men and women share it; but it is a sentiment, and one, presumably, subject to all the arguments that Mrs. Bork and Messrs. Dworkin, Hyde, Lewy, Olson, and others would make against moral intuitions generally.
The other answer is that some external authority commands that life, as soon as it exists, must be protected. If that external authority is religious or philosophical, those who rely on it ought to explain and defend it. I warn you that it is not as easy to do this as it is to stencil a sign saying that abortion is murder. Very few great religious or philosophical texts mention, much less condemn, abortion; the Bible is silent on the matter. One can, of course, derive an argument against abortion from the biblical injunction against murder, but the derivation does not come easily, as is evident from the biblical approval of warfare, capital punishment, and (in the first book of Kings) the slaughter of rival prophets.
And as Rabbi Gellman reminds us, the Jewish tradition not only permits but requires abortion when the life or health of the mother is at risk. A fetus that threatens its mother must be killed; if it does not threaten it, it must be saved. To Maimonides and Rabbi Gellman, a fetus is not a person, yet it can be judged innocent or guilty as if it were. Though he does not discuss the matter, I wonder how Jewish teaching defines the “health” of a mother? That health is surely threatened by septicemia, but is it also threatened, sufficiently to justify a therapeutic abortion, by extreme pain? Lasting mental depression? Chronic fatigue?
Those who are prepared to work their way through these complexities may emerge with a newfound respect for ordinary moral sentiments. The virtue (if I may use that word) of an appeal to the sentiments of awe, wonder, and affection that we feel when we see our own kind begin to take form before our eyes is that they move billions of people; if they did not, the human race would long since have perished from the pain, cost, and annoyances of child-rearing. I suggest that it is a profound error not to enlist so powerful an emotion in the cause of extend-ing the sphere of protected life, and it is a tragic error to reject that emotion because it does not meet the requirements of philosophical exactitude or religious certainty that the modern educated mind has erected for its own bafflement.
Letters on Mr. Wilson’s article are still coming in, and we expect to publish them in the months to come.—Eds.
1 Our error, not Mr. Wilson's.—Eds.