If it were possible to reduce the number of abortions by 80%, and
teen-age pregnancies by 90%, would the enthusiastic promoters of "the
right to life" take notice and support these measures?
Don't count on it!
In point of fact, in The Netherlands (where the young are at least
as sexually active, and probably more so, than in the United States),
the rate of abortion is a fifth, and the rate of teen-age births is a
tenth, of those rates in the United States.
The reason for these dramatically contrasting figures is no
mystery: in The Netherlands, as well as the Scandinavian countries,
there are aggressive, government-sponsored programs in sex education,
and contraceptives are readily available. Moreover, it is generally
accepted in our country that sex education and contraception would
significantly reduce the rates and numbers of both abortions and
Why, then, does the "right to life" movement not enthusiastically
support sex education and birth control? The motive is transparent:
both policies would also, in all probability, increase sexual
activity among the young and unmarried. Suppress both policies and in
addition outlaw abortion, and the fear of pregnancy will once again
return as a significant deterrent to pre- and extra-marital sex.
What, then, is the highest priority of "the right to life"
movement? Is it the protection of fetal life, or is it the promotion
of chastity? As the data from the Netherlands and elsewhere clearly
indicate, these goals are in conflict: the promotion of chastity
(through opposition to sex education and birth control)
increases the incidence of unwanted pregnancy and thence of
Few defenders of "the right to life" would ever admit that the
protection of "pre-born babies" is morally subordinate to the
suppression of non-marital sex. Yet their behavior betrays precisely
that sense of priority, with manifest and disturbing
We do not, however, doubt their sincerity. Though the simultaneous
opposition to abortion, sex education and contraception is
contradictory and counter-productive, these complications are
furthest from the mind of the "mandatory motherhood" zealots.
Reasonableness is simply not a conspicuous part of their
rhetorical armory. Indeed, when human beings, of any religious or
political persuasion, have sex on the mind, logic, intellect and
prudence are effectively swept away in the ensuing flood of emotions,
ranging from lust, to envy, resentment and rage. Just ask Bill
Accordingly, the public debate on abortion, birth control and sex
education supplies the teacher of critical thinking an inexhaustible
lode of nuggets for analysis and commentary.
Semantics of Abortion
To begin, consider the language used by opposing sides of the
abortion debate. While their references (denotations) are
the same, the emotional and judgmental connotations of their
language are charged and contentious:
Family Planning Clinic
As is so often the case, the "conservative" side of this debate
has been much more skillful in its crafting of language to convey its
message. For example, their self-selected descriptions of their
position, "pro-life" and "anti-abortion," convey the immediate
suggestion that the opposition is "anti-life" and "pro-abortion."
As a moment's reflection should make clear, a "pro-choice"
position by no means entails "anti-life" or "pro-abortion." Yet it
took a few years after Roe vs. Wade for the liberals to get
their semantic act together and to adopt for themselves the label of
"Pro choice" is, of course, quite consistent with "pro-life," as
it calls for protection of the lives of the women endangered by an
untimely or medically counter-indicated pregnancy. And as we noted at
the outset, the liberal "pro-choice" position encourages sex
education and contraception which have together proven to be very
effective means of reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies and
hence abortions - surely a life-affirming policy.
Furthermore, no one is, strictly speaking, "pro-abortion" - that
is to say, no one seriously contends that abortion is prima
facie a "nice thing" to happen to a woman. Instead, the
pro-choice position regards abortion as "a necessary evil." How
"necessary" and how "evil"? - that moral perception varies with each
individual. At one extreme end of the spectrum, a late-term abortion
may be assigned the disvalue of inconvenience, like an
untimely toothache. At the other extreme are those who say, flat out,
that there is nothing more evil than abortion (or "child-killing" as
they call it) - not the loss of the life of the mother, not the
mandatory pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, not the birth of a
Tay-Sachs child condemned to a very brief life of unremitting
torture, not even the murder of "child-killer" physicians who perform
abortions or the "collateral" injuries to patients and staff caused
by clinic bombings.
Somewhere between these extremes are the opinions of almost all
the rest of us.
"Pro-Choice," consistent with the Roe decision, holds
that a woman's personal beliefs, somewhere along this spectrum,
should bear significantly upon the decision whether or not to
continue her pregnancy - and that the law and the State should not
impose that decision upon her.
The semantic over-reach of the conservatives is best exemplified
the designation of the product of conception, from the moment of
unicellular fertilization (the "zygote"), as a "baby." Thus abortion,
during even the earliest stages of embryonic and fetal development,
is routinely referred to as "baby-killing."
The absurdity of this word-play was manifested about a decade ago
in a legal case in Tennessee. After a few years of failed attempts to
conceive a child, a couple agreed to try in-vitro fertilization. A
few hours after fertilization, six developing cell-clusters were
frozen in liquid nitrogen, in anticipation of later implantation.
However, soon thereafter the marriage failed. The wife consented to
have the embryos discarded, but the husband sued to have them
preserved "just in case" he later married an infertile woman and
desired to have children. Although (as I recall) nobody asked them, a
"right to life" group then stepped in as a friend of the court (more
accurately, "a friend of the zygotes"). In a half-hour that I vividly
remember, the case was argued on CNN's "Crossfire," wherein the
anti-abortion advocate repeatedly referred to those chilled,
microscopic cell-clusters as "the poor babies."
The pro-life forces discovered early-on that the conjoining of
"killing" and "babies" produces powerful rhetorical ammunition, which
they have since put to persistent and very effective use.
Does Human Life Begin?" -- The Strange Case of Senator
In the Spring of 1981, early in the first Reagan Administration,
the newly-elected Senator from North Carolina, John East, convened a
Judiciary Sub-Committee hearing to examine the question, "when does
human life begin?" Of the initial panel of eight "expert witnesses"
seven were opposed to abortion, leading to an outcry which resulted
in an open-ended hearing. Eventually a small library of testimony
accumulated, as biologists, embryologists, theologians, and lawyers
offered their opinions. The results were, to say the least,
I am not aware that any analytical philosophers were on the
witness list. At least I can report that The Gadfly was not invited.
Had he been, the testimony might have gone like this: When asked the
question, "when does human life begin?," I would have followed the
tradition of the original Gadfly, Socrates, and responded to the
question with another question:
"Tell me, Senator,
just what sort of reply would
constitute an answer to that question?
"Is there some sort of scientific data, fresh from the
laboratory, that would lead you to say, 'That's it! By George,
now we have the answer at last!' If so, please describe it to
me. Yet you have heard most of what the biologists have to say
about the process of human fertilization and gestation, without
any resolution whatever of your question. So it seems that the
facts of science are not in dispute, and indeed appear to be
irrelevant to your question.
"So I ask again, what might anyone say that might answer
your question? And if you can not supply me with an answer to
my question, what then is the point of yours - 'When does human
life begin?' In short, why bother to pose that question when you
are not prepared to recognize an answer?"
My strong suspicion is that Senator East, and his "pro-life"
cohorts, were quite unprepared to recognize an empirical answer to
their question. This is due to the fact that they (and apparently
almost all of the witnesses) failed to recognize the logical status
of that question, "when does human life begin." This was not an issue
of fact, it was a question of semantics, heavily charged with
political and theological ideology. And because scientific
fact and legal codes had nothing to do with it, no testimony
from the scientists or the historical or legal scholars had any
chance of answering Senator East's question.
In fact, the naive gist of the question was this: "knowing what we
do about genetics, fertilization, and fetal development, at what
stage in that development should we decide to apply the term, 'human
life?'" Fertilization? The first detectable heartbeat? The onset
of brain-wave activity? Full-term birth? Take your pick, but
don't count on "the facts" to guide you. For once you have made your
definitional choice, all that you have demonstrated thereby is your
preferential use of the language and, by implication, your personal
moral belief system.
What you have not done is to "prove" when in fact "human
life" actually begins. You can not prove "it" because there
is no "it" (an objective and empirical fact) to be proven. And so, on
to the close of my hypothetical testimony to the East Committee:
"Senator, I can not answer your question, 'when does
human life begin?,' since it is, strictly speaking, a
non-question. As an analytic philosopher, the best I can do is
point this out to you, and hope that you will not continue to
waste the taxpayers' money on what must be a fruitless quest."
Of course, once an empirical definition of "human life" is
agreed-upon (unlikely on a panel containing Senators who are
unwilling even to accept the truth of evolution), then one might
proceed to address the question of "the beginning of human life." So
let's just stipulate a biological definition of "human life" and see
where it takes us. Now clearly, gametes (spermatozoa and ova), as
biotically functional cells, are "alive." And gametes issuing from
human beings are exclusively "human" - they can result in no other
life form than humans. Gametes issue from sexually mature humans
which in turn issued from gametes, etc. Ergo, given the
stipulation that gametes are "human life," the answer to the
Senator's question is straightforward: Human life does not begin,
it continues! Or, alternatively, human life "begins" some two to
three million years ago, as homo sapiens evolves out of
earlier hominids. (4) (Oops!
Did I say "evolves." Let's not get into that morass again.
Cf. my Editorial, "Creationism and
the Devolution of the Intellect").
Incredible Paradox of Non-Being
Consider next a couple of familiar conundrums which, we submit, do
little to support the pro-life/anti-abortion argument. However, they
do manage to display the extraordinary mystery and paradox which
emerges as we contemplate the ontological status of possible persons
and potential persons. (Cf. "Should We Seek a Better Future," this
The Riddle of the Non-Beethoven. Garrett Hardin
thus presents this "riddle"
Two physicians are talking shop. "Doctor," says one, "I'd
like your professional opinion. The question is, should the
pregnancy have been terminated or not? The father was syphilitic.
The mother was tuberculous. They had already had four children:
the first was blind, the second died, the third was deaf and dumb,
and the fourth was tuberculous. The woman was pregnant for the
fifth time. As the attending physician, what would you have done?"
"I would have terminated the pregnancy."
"Then you would have murdered Beethoven."
Now let's shift the scene a bit. Instead, the doctor describes the
plight of a poor unmarried servant girl who is impregnated by a
neer-do-well lover. Her prospects, and that of her potential child,
are poor indeed. Should she abort? If so, then she would have
"murdered Hitler." Of course, in both cases the prospective parents
had no way of knowing just how extraordinary were the lives that
would result from these pregnancies. And in fact, as Hardin correctly
points out, in the vast majority of cases, the individuals who result
from a decision not to abort turn out to be of no consequence
whatever to human history and progress.
The non-appearance of Beethoven would have been a great loss to
humanity, though we would not have known of this loss. Nor do we know
of the great literature, music and science that might have been
created by the young men who fell at Waterloo or Verdun or Normandy
What, then, are we supposed to make of "the non-Beethoven
quandary." Is it seriously proposed that we increase the birth rate
in the hope of producing more geniuses - this in the face of the
serious global population problem? I have an alternative suggestion:
let us find and nourish the geniuses that we have, and see to it that
they are not lost to poverty and war. And let us also not forget that
there is more to genius than genetics. Beethoven Senior, for all his
faults, was also an accomplished musician who recognized and
nourished his son's talents. Another individual with the equal of
Beethoven's genetic endowments, born at that time in a London slum,
would have lived and died unnoticed to the world. Surely many such
individuals did just that, and still others are now alive in
societies that do not value, seek out, and promote their native
talent. Absent an enlightened social policy and progressive political
order, they too are fated to pass through life and end up, as in
Thomas Gray's "Country Churchyard," as "mute inglorious Miltons."
These are the "non-Beethovens," the "non-Shakespeares" and the
"non-Einsteins" that deserve our attention.
The Riddle of the Non-Gadfly. The puzzle
strikes closer to home, as we are asked, "well then, what if
your mother had decided to have an abortion when she was
To tell the truth, if she had aborted the fetal me, it would not
have bothered me a bit, for the simple reason, per
hypothesis, that there would have been no "me" to be bothered.
Similarly, my parents' decision to "stop at three" doesn't bother my
sister at all - for there is no sister, since both of my siblings are
brothers. From the perspective of time-present, I am grateful that I
was permitted to be born. But that perspective, like time itself, is
asymmetrical. My gratitude "looking back" is not complementary to a
regret "looking ahead." There is no subsistent, forever would-be but
never actual sister-entity, in some sort of Limbo, eternally cursing
my parents for not having just one more go at parenthood.
If, on the other hand, as "pro-lifers" contend in these bizarre
arguments, it would have been wrong for Beethoven, or you, or me, not
to have been conceived, what then are we to conclude from this? That
is it wrong to choose not to procreate - even in this over-crowded
world? Notice that these arguments apply not only to abortion, but to
any and all decisions not to procreate - decisions
enacted through abortion, but also through birth-control, and even
abstinence and celibacy. If it would have been wrong for my parents
to decide not to have their second child (myself), then it was
equally wrong for them to "stop at three," thus "cheating" my
potential-but-never-to-be-actual sister. Likewise, it is wrong (dare
I point out?) for the priest to take the vow of celibacy.
Sorry, but "what if your mother had had an abortion" simply will
not stand as an cogent "pro-life, anti-choice" argument. (For a
devilishly witty response by Garrett Hardin to "the aborted me"
argument, see the Postscript to this Editorial, reprinted with Prof.
Hardin's kind permission).
While these reflections have gone on at considerable length, there
is much more about this difficult and complex issue that we have left
unsaid. We could have written a piece of comparable length about the
proposal to designate the human zygote-embryo-fetus, from the moment
of conception, as "a legal person." (A bill proposing just that was
sponsored, at the time of the East hearings, by Senator Jesse Helms
and Congressman Henry Hyde. The proposal has also appeared in
numerous "Human Life Amendments"). Our dim view of such proposed
stipulations of "fetus-personhood" may be surmised by those familiar
with our position regarding "personhood." (Cf. "In
Search of Sustainable Values," and "On
the Rights of Animals and of Persons" at this site).
In a strict (and very misleading) sense, our position might be
described as "anti-abortion." That is to say, we hold that, all other
things equal, the fewer abortions the better. And yet the readers of
these remarks will correctly conclude that we stand on the "liberal"
side of this issue. While we recognize abortion to be prima
facie "bad," we recognize that there are many worse things that
can befall a woman, a couple, and a society. These include severe
genetic diseases (such as Tay-Sachs syndrome), maternal mortality,
child abuse, poverty, and over-population, and all these evils and
more proliferate when abortion is made illegal and difficult to
obtain. Thus legalized abortion may be the correct "tragic choice" --
the least of several necessary evils. Furthermore, abortion is
all-too often an unnecessary evil, that might have been avoided
through aggressive public programs in sex education and
contraception. The Dutch have proven this to all with minds open to
President Clinton thus had it about right, when he stated that the
objective of enlightened public policy should be to make abortion
"legal and rare."
Finally, despite all our debunking of "the search for the
beginning of human life," and the inflated rhetoric employed by the
"right to life" faction, we are not entirely unmoved by the concerns
of the pro-life movement. While we affirm that the "right to life" of
gametes is zero, and of zygotes very nearly zero, we assign a great
value to a full-term baby. That value accrues on an ever-ascending
curve throughout the approximately 270 days of human gestation. Thus,
if an abortion is necessary, the earlier the better. We can not
accept abortion as just another form of birth control. Thus we
concede to the conservatives that widespread and casual abortion does
indeed degrade our sense of the value of human life.
We only regret that the conservatives' enthusiastic defense of
"the right to life" seems to diminish after birth, as the life of the
"post-born child" faces the threats of poverty, unavailable health
care, pollution, gang and gun violence, and military adventures.
Copyright 1999, by Ernest Partridge
1. In 1990, the rate of abortion per one-thousand
women was 26.4 in the United States, and 5.2 in The Netherlands. The
rate of teen-age births was 64 in the US, 7 in the Netherlands and 10
in Denmark. (According to the United Nations Department of Economic
and Social Analysis. No listing of abortion figures for Denmark).
2. For example, in the 27 November, 1987 issue
of Science (v. 238, p. 1222), Constance Holden writes that
"US Antiabortion Policy May Increase Abortions" (the title). She
continues, "the impending cutoff of funds to [the international
arm of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America] could result
in 310,000 additional births and 69,000 abortions."
3. Constance Holden, "Senate Commences Hearings
on 'Human Life,'" Science, v. 212, 8 May, 1981, p. 648. See
also responsive letters in Science, v. 213, 10 July, 1981,
4. To this, a common rejoinder is that with
conception, a genetically unique individual is formed, and that is
the "beginning" of this individual life. However, because that too is
just another stipulation, no newly-discovered "fact" can "prove" this
to be the "correct meaning" of "human life." Still worse for the
argument, identical twinning occurs after fertilization, as a single
zygote results in multiple births. But no one argues that twins are
"the same individual." If not, then fertilization can not be "the
beginning of (individual) human life."
5. Garrett Hardin, "Semantic Aspects of
Abortion," in Stalking the Wild Taboo, (2nd ed).
San Francisco: Kaufmann, 1978, pp. 13-4. The sub-section title,
"Riddle of the Non-Beethoven," is also from this essay.
BEING AND NON-BEING: A POSTSCRIPT
(Reprinted with the kind permission of the Author. EP)
[I have often been asked], "If you mother had had an
abortion, where would you be today?
I must confess, I don't know. This question ... raises the most
fascinating problems of being and nonbeing. A philosopher would no
doubt discuss the question in the jargon of ontology. As a biologist,
I prefer a different approach. I am reminded f the beginning of
Lawrence Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy wherein the hero is
discussing the circumstances surrounding his conception. As the
critical moment approached Mrs. Shandy said to Mr. Shandy, "Pray, my
Dear, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?" - "Good G-!" replied
Mr. Shandy, "Did ever woman, since the creation of the world,
interrupt a man with such a silly question?" It was, as young
Tristram point out, an "unseasonable question at least."
Whether Mr. Shandy stopped what he was doing and went downstairs
to wind the clock, Tristram does not record. Perhaps Mr. Shandy
merely paused and shifted his position. It does not matter. The
result, we can be sure, was the same; of the three hundred million
spermatozoa Mr. Shandy released somewhat later, a different one led
the pack, a different one reached the egg first, and a different
Tristram was engendered. Put another way, the Tristram (or the Nancy)
who might have been had not Mrs. Shandy asked about the clock - this
Tristram never was, not then or in any subsequent coming together of
Mr. and Mrs. Shandy.
[And so], to reply ..., if my mother had had an abortion I
almost certainly would not be here today. In fact, if my father had
coughed at the crucial moment I wold not be here today . . . .
Perhaps he did cough. . . . Who am I , anyway?
From "The Semantic Aspects of Abortion,"
Stalking the Wild Taboo (2nd Ed.),
(Kauffmann, 1978, pp 13-4). Reprinted in Responsibilities
to Future Generations, ed. E. Partridge, (Prometheus,
1981). The title is by the Gadfly, with the permission
of Dr. Hardin.