Mary Elizabeth Williams recently wrote at Salon that
when we try to act like a pregnancy doesn’t involve human life, we wind up drawing stupid semantic lines in the sand: first trimester abortion vs. second trimester vs. late term, dancing around the issue trying to decide if there’s a single magic moment when a fetus becomes a person. Are you human only when you’re born? Only when you’re viable outside of the womb? Are you less of a human life when you look like a tadpole than when you can suck on your thumb? … It seems absurd to suggest that the only thing that makes us fully human is the short ride out of some lady’s vagina. That distinction may apply neatly legally, but philosophically, surely we can do better.
If you are cheering on Ms. Williams as an articulate pro-life apologist, you would be mistaken. She is a card-carrying member in the pro-abortion cause. What makes her rather unique among her peers is that she admits “life begins at conception,” and yet also fully supports a woman’s right to kill that human being because “all life is not equal.”
She reasons that being human does not automatically entitle one to a right to life. After all, we kill human beings in war and execute criminals. Since there are circumstances in which it is morally justifiable to kill other human beings, why think fetuses cannot be killed merely because they are human? According to Williams, “[A] fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always.”
There is much to commend, and much to lament in this article. I commend Williams for pointing out the philosophical absurdities with the claim that the unborn are not human. I also agree with her that being human does not guarantee one’s right to life. There are circumstances in which bona fide human beings can be killed with moral justification. It is morally permissible to kill soldiers in war to defend oneself from being killed or subjected to tyranny, and it is morally permissible to kill murderers because they have unjustly deprived another human being of his life. The question remains, however, as to why we should think that killing the unborn for the reasons pro-abortion advocates offer is morally justified. What has the unborn done to deserve death? We generally agree that human beings have a right to life unless they do something to forfeit that right. What has the unborn done to forfeit his right to life? Nothing. It seems to me that Williams is confusing the innocent (unborn) for the guilty (foreign armies, murderers). We are justified in killing humans who are guilty of great moral crimes, but there is no moral justification for intentionally killing innocent human beings.
Intellectual honesty demands that a pro-abortion advocate take a position similar to Ms. Williams’. There is no getting around the humanity of the unborn. And once you concede that the unborn are full members of the human species, the only way to justify abortion is to argue that some humans are more valuable than others, and have rights that others do not have. Williams’ entire case for abortion rights rests on the flimsy foundation of bodily autonomy. That foundation, however, is not strong enough to hold up the edifice of elective abortion (see here and here).
Williams’ ended her article with these chilling words: “I would put the life of a mother over the life of a fetus every single time — even if I still need to acknowledge my conviction that the fetus is indeed a life. A life worth sacrificing.”
I can understand how those who are ignorant of embryology might fall prey to pro-abortion arguments, but I cannot help to be appalled by those who are fully cognizant of the humanity of the unborn, and yet still think they can be killed nonetheless. This is truly a hard-hearted generation in which personal autonomy and selfish desire are prized above the lives of other human beings. God help us.
Interestingly, she also cites physician assisted suicide and the removal of life support as two other examples. In the case of PAS, the individual himself is determining to take his own life. While I do not think this is a moral act, this is a far cry from making the decision to take someone else’s life. Concerning the removal of life support, this is simply a matter of allowing someone to die naturally of their illness or disease. No one is intentionally bringing about the death of another person in some unnatural way. This is in stark contrast to abortion in which a doctor interferes with the natural development of the baby in order to bring about its death.