(An examination of the concepts as they relate to the abortion debate)
By Kenneth J Doyle
Before I formed thee in the bowels of thy mother, I knew thee: and before thou camest forth out of the womb, I sanctified thee - Jeremiah 1:5
Historically there are a number of areas we could look at with regard to the nature and definition of humanity and person-hood and the roles these ideas played in the justification of the treatment of particular groups. Two of the more obvious occurrences would likely be the issue of slavery or the treatment of certain groups under tyrannical regimes such as the National Socialist movement in Nazi Germany or similar events in the Soviet Union.
For the purposes of this brief essay however I would like to focus in on the on-going abortion debate as this issue is currently hotly contested in the United States and elsewhere. As of writing, the matter faces a significant legal change in my home country of Ireland where elective abortion is illegal.
So why all the fuss surrounding abortion? First, let us define the term and then we shall look at some of the arguments and definitions used on both sides of this issue to justify the various positions taken.
Abortion is the untimely termination of the developmental process of a human pregnancy before full gestation and birth can occur. This essay will address only voluntary, surgical abortion for non-medical reasons as this is the major battle-ground of debate in terms of justifying the actions of the various concerned groups on both sides of the divide. I think it is fair to say that this is a dichotomous issue as one is generally in favor of elective abortion or not although exceptions can exist. I see no point in including the ignorant or the apathetic as neither of these groups have much to say on the issue.
Abortion, as a matter of conscience and privacy, has been legal in the US for forty years following the Supreme Court decision in the Roe vs Wade case. And yet a fierce war of words rages to this day regarding the ethical, moral, philosophical and social implications for a nation that allows such a practice. Recently the organized March for Life in Washington D.C. brought over half a million protesters calling for a repeal of the Roe vs Wade decision. Historically abortion has always been a controversial issue. The Old Testament Jewish law of compensation in Exodus 21:22 makes a distinction between the penalty for striking a pregnant woman that ends in the loss of the fetus or the death of the mother. Early Christian writings, like the Didache and the Epistle to Barnabas, preach against abortion, widely practiced in the Roman Empire during the period. Several early council records of bishops condemned abortion which they linked to the practice of adultery. This latter example has partial echoes in today’s debate where abortion (chemical or surgical) is often utilized to correct the unwanted outcomes of behavior that might otherwise be avoided if the recourse to abortion were not so readily available.
The point we are trying to illustrate here is that despite the practice of abortion throughout history and despite it's legal status, there is something about the act that bothers the conscience of many people on a level that goes beyond the mere practical and material. The very nature of Man's being and purpose plays a large part in justifying the positions held. One side argues that man is more than the sum of his material parts and is therefore deserving of protection at all stages of life, be he born or unborn, young or old, and the other side tends to a more utilitarian and material view of Man and his place in the Universe, at least at certain points in physical development at either end of the scale of life. It is this clash of worldviews that makes abortion, even to this day, a highly contested issue on several planes of discourse that encompasses both the material and the philosophical.
The full scope of this controversy is enormous and daunting. We will endeavor to contain this essay
within the parameters of the definitions of humanity and person-hood and how they are used and defined. We will ignore for example, the debate surrounding the issue of life as in the question, “Is a fetus truly alive?” And of course even if we accept that a fetus is a living entity, this reality has no bearing on the notion of its humanity or lack thereof. We will also avoid any debate surrounding whether a fetus feels pain or not. There is evidence that they do but it seems like a pretty base idea upon which to justify the ending of life. And the irony is that on the other end of the end-of-life debate we are willing to accept that people should be allowed to die precisely because they do feel pain.
It is unlikely we will settle this issue as the terms in question have been debated for centuries by philosophers and ethicists and yet the debate continues to this day. With that said it seems that how one chooses to view the issues in question ultimately comes down to an act of will with regards to where one decides to plant one's moral or ethical flag. Certainly logic and reason can play a huge part in helping one decide but we cannot discount the fact that the ego is also a powerful determining factor for many people. What I mean by this is that many people will ally themselves with one side or another based on ideas which they feel better suit themselves and their current situation rather than accepting more profound and reasoned objections that might require deep self examination. Agenda also seems to play a role in the definition and use of terms in the abortion debate arena. This last fact is evidenced in the shifting acceptance of terms that has occurred but with no change in the over-all position held.
So, what does it mean to be human or be a human? Materially speaking it can seem quite difficult to put forward a solid and non-objectionable definition of humanity in terms of listing qualities that are both sufficient and necessary. More often than not some objection can be raised based on the effects of illness or injury or any other factor that can damage or distort the qualities offered as part of such a definition. And yet despite these objections, despite the fact that we can all become ill , damaged or broken in some way, most of us still accept the reality of our individual humanity without question. We never look at someone and think they might be a horse or a goat or a boat despite any physical or mental damage that might be evident. The implication then is that perhaps mankind is indeed more than the sum of his physical or mental integrity. There are some who might look at people who are mentally defective and view them as perhaps less human than themselves and of course we have seen this fact played out with terrible consequences in history yet when we talk about simple biological reality even with this latter example there is still a recognition of material humanity as being something evident and obvious. Here again, we would seem to have some manifested form of the idea that man is more than the sum of his parts despite any objections we might have to the resulting consequences of this view.