The Catholic Church opposes abortion at any time after fertilization of the egg, even where it is medically necessary to save a woman's life or where pregnancy results from a brutal rape.
Meanwhile, this completely medieval preoccupation with beliefs about what life is obscures any genuine moral concepts that matter in an objective sense. In many respects, the supposed sanctity of anything possessing even the remote potential for developing into a human being is completely at odds with an utter lack of concern for genuine moral issues relating to bettering human life and respecting the rights of non- human animals to be free from unnecessary pain and suffering at our hands.
To most caring, thinking people capable of empathy for the suffering of other living things, it is sufficient that (even) animals feel excruciating physical pain and emotions that are apparently quite similar to human sensations, especially in the case of many "higher" animals. A chimpanzee shares ninety-seven percent of our genetic make-up, yet those who would defend the "rights" of a human embryo that shares more in common with a tadpole remain unconcerned with any suffering the chimpanzee might experience. This is the same principle that allowed early Christian explorers to justify enslaving (and sometimes exterminating) other human beings whose cultures represented different religious beliefs and practices.
Conversely, nobody espousing the pro-choice point-of-view advocates abortion after the point of gestation where, according to medical science, a fetus is capable of perceiving pain and discomfort, except in relatively rare cases where it is necessary by virtue of medically exigent circumstances of the mother.
Judith Jarvis Thompson's essay In Defense of Abortion proposes a hypothetical dilemma (or thought experiment) whereby the reader is to imagine waking up one morning with his circulatory system interconnected to that of an unconscious famous violinist. She explains that the Society of Music Lovers has kidnapped the reader to save the life of the violinist whose fatal illness is only curable by sharing the circulatory system of a suitable candidate for nine months, after which they may both be safely disconnected. The violinist was completely unaware of the situation and remains unconscious, law enforcement authorities prosecute the involved members of the Society of Music Lovers, and the reader still has a civil recourse to pursue a claim for damages from the organization. Thompson asks what if any) obligation the reader has to allow the violinist to remain connected, knowing that disconnecting the (innocent) violinist will kill him.(1)
The purpose of the hypothetical is to illustrate that in a perfectly analogous situation to the relationship between the unwanted (early term) fetus and the mother who wishes to terminate her unwanted pregnancy, no moral imperative requires her to sacrifice nine months of her life to benefit (even) another completely innocent human being. Like the fetus, the violinist in Thompson's hypothetical is completely dependant for his life on the decision of the "host," and both fetus and violinist are equally innocent of creating or causing the situation in which they are involved. The point is simply that justification for imposing hardship on the mother (or, in the case of the violinist, the "host") against her will is equally absent in both cases.
Objective morality requires that we avoid causing unnecessary pain or suffering to any sentient creature capable of suffering in the way that we recognize by virtue of our own experiences. It is an issue of sensitivity and benevolent concern that requires no reference to any supposed "higher being," nor does it hinge upon the characterization of a living consciousness as necessarily being human in order to qualify for a moral concern for its subjective degree of perceived comfort or pain, or emotional trauma.
Indeed, one of the dangers of deriving one's respect for life exclusively from religious teachings of the supposed sanctity of human life as utterly distinguishable from other life living creatures is the resulting insensitivity it breeds toward the latter.
A respect for life whose foundation lies solely in a distinction between human and non-human life leads to unreasonable and morally unjustifiable imposition of hardship on women burdened with unwanted pregnancy. At the same time, it reflects a lack of sensitivity toward the very real suffering of animals slaughtered without regard for the minimization of pain for food and even mere sport. History shows that at its most extreme, this preoccupation with a religious basis for valuing life also allows for similar disregard and devaluing of unequivocally human lives, as well.
Modern science documents rather conclusively that the (admitted) differences between humans and the so-called "higher" mammals are differences in degree rather than differences in kind. Primarily, these differences account for a higher degree of self-awareness, and of thought processes related to future planning and, ironically, to issues of moral consciousness and therefore, moral responsibility.
To be sure, certain medical techniques for terminating unwanted pregnancy do pose objective moral issues, precisely because they (likely) cause physical pain to a fetus that is sufficiently developed to experience and suffer pain in the manner that we all recognize. Pro-choice advocates are not insensitive to appropriate guidelines for legislation to prohibit abortions via unnecessarily cruel techniques. Likewise, everybody recognizes an objective moral issue with respect to terminating a pregnancy (regardless of the means) beyond the point where a human fetus is considered viable.
The point is, appropriate moral concern for the abortive method is predicated upon objective criteria that establish the point where a developing fetus is capable of sensing pain, and appropriate moral concern for the stage of gestation where the fetus can reasonably be awarded rights as an individual. In either case, the concern for the fetus arises from purely objective concepts of suffering and viability, and not from an utterly imaginary quality granted by a supposed God that renders even the most undeveloped human cellular tissues fundamentally sacred, owing to a relationship with God.
Current U.S. law recognizes the medical distinction of fetal viability, but scientific progress since 1973 when Roe was decided illustrates the philosophical difficulties inherent in this analysis. Premature infants born in the seventh or eighth month of gestation were absolutely not "viable" throughout all of human history prior to the late twentieth century, yet they are now routinely incubated successfully to full term using modern medical techniques. The late scientist and philosopher Carl Sagan pointed out that the limits of current medical science to sustain a fetus outside the womb is subject to an absolute barrier prior to the development of lung tissue and the ability to breathe air. However, it is conceptually possible to envision pushing the limits of "viability" almost as far back into the human gestation cycle as scientists wish, by developing mechanisms to oxygenate a fetus within an artificial liquid-filled womb.(9)
Ultimately, medical science only establishes what is technically possible, but it remains the responsibility of objective human values and moral concepts to incorporate scientific data into ethical principles and rules governing human conduct.
In the words of the most famous scientific philosopher of all time: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."(2)
On the other hand, what is equally clear is that the laws in this country absolutely may not reflect the religious views of any single religious philosophy, especially when other religions offer differing interpretations, because this is a fundamental violation of separation of church and state as firmly established by the Constitution of the United States. Wholly apart from the separation of church and state argument, the United States Supreme Court recognizes that a woman's right to privacy outweighs all other considerations under the laws of this country.(4)
1. Abrams, Natalie and Buckner, Michael D. Medical Ethics: A Clinical Textbook and Reference for the Health Care Professionals.
Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983
2. Bronowski, Jacob. Science and Human Values.
New York: Harper & Row, 1965
3. Center for Reproductive Rights (Jan 2003) Roe v. Wade: Then and Now Accessed April 3, 2004 at http://www.crlp.org/crt_roe_jbroe.html
4. Dershowitz, Allan. Shouting Fire: Civil Liberties in A Turbulent Age.
Boston: Little Brown, 2002
5. Ladd, John. Ethical Issues Related to Life & Death.
New York: Oxford, 1979
6. Mohr, James C. Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy. New York: Oxford, 1979
7. Rosner, Fred, M.D. Modern Medicine and Jewish Law.
New York: Bloch (Yeshiva University), 1972
8. Ruff, Joseph. Government (Apr 5, 2004) San Francisco Chronicle (SFGate.com) Witnesses Defend 'Partial Birth' Abortion Ban.
Accessed April 5, 2004 at http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/news/archive/2004/04/05/state2010EDT0129.DTL
9. Sagan, Carl and Druyen, Ann. The Question of Abortion: A Search for Answers. Accessed April 2, 2004 at http://www.2think.org/abortion.shtml (2think.org)
10. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (Jun 03, 2003)
Statement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on the Thirtieth Anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Accessed April 1, 2004 at http://www.usccb.org/bishops/heart.htm
11. Wertz, Richard W. And Dorothy C. Lying-In: A History of Childbirth…