Reader' s Responses and Comments to Issue #14
(Abortion: Seeking a Sensible Solution)

The first set on comments come mostly from various Dialogos editorial consultants who were asked their opinion about addressing the subject to begin with.

Dr. Jacques Abbatucci, MD, Caen, France

I think this paper is a valuable attempt to reason through the very difficult problem of abortion. I took great interest in reading it, especially the historical basis of the concept of soul and the opinions of the great philosophers and theologians on the subject in the past. The ideas were not always so absolute as some may think at present time.

Personally, I think we have to make a distinction between the principles and the individual cases.

The principles. The touchstone seems to me that faith in God and meaning of all the creation in which man is immersed are closely associated. Are we the product of a divine will and not the result of chances acting aimlessly? Are we elements of a divine plan? Is God interested in each of us? Are we made from a divine model, even the weakest and the poorest of each of us? Is man more than an animal without consciousness? If we think so, interrupting a pregnancy at any time of its development, whatsoever must be considered as an evil. Non-believers in God , but nevertheless humanists, may also find some “categorical imperatives” in the absolute value of human life and the necessity to respect it.

The individual cases. The woman (and the father??) has her own responsibility to decide what she has to do. As believers we have to pray for her. But we cannot leave her without moral and physical support. Is she fully aware of what is all about? What help can we give her at the present and the long time? In that matter much has to be done. If she doesn’t accept the religious viewpoint as stated above and if she is firmly decided to interrupt her pregnancy, then we must apply the law within the accepted limits of time. Your statements may help to guide a public policy in order to define such limits with the help of ethical committees.

Mark Midbon (University of Wisconsin):

Your survey of attitudes in the Hebrew scriptures, Greek philosophy, and medical science is very informative and thought provoking. But it will lead many readers to different conclusions than the conclusions you reached. Your approach was to divide attitudes into two camps based on soul-oriented or not soul-oriented. But isn't this approach rather indirect in a discussion on abortion? The direct issue is the rights of babies. And here we can see similar processes in both Greece and Canaan.

In Greece there was a widespread practice of leaving newborn babies exposed to die if they didn't meet standards. And we can assume there was a practice of abortion. But the Oath of Hippocrates called on physicians to take the side of life against death. One of the specific examples in the Oath is the promise not to perform abortions. I don't see any mention of soul in the Oath.

In Canaan there was a widespread practice of sacrificing babies. And we can assume there was a practice of abortion. But the Jewish religion took a stand against baby sacrifice, even though backsliding into paganism was common. In the prophets we see condemnation of pagan backsliding, and we see a tendency for prophets to describe God as knowing his people in the womb and crafting them in the womb. Again there is no mention of soul, although there is mention of resurrection.

And so -- from two different traditions, Jewish and Greek -- the prophets and the Oath of Hippocrates came together and strengthened each other. I don't think the Hippocratic Oath by itself could have persuaded the early Church if it weren't for the Jewish tradition that preceded the Oath and supported it. This, in brief, is how I find myself reacting to this readable and challenging essay.

Charles Radey, MD (Medical Ethicist and General Practioner)

Your middle course is eminenty reasonable and sensitive to both sides and therefore completely unacceptable to absolutists of both stripes. People like comfortable simplicities in their thinking, not messy nuance and complexity.

Marcia Radey, RN (Visiting Nurse)

I enjoyed this & thought it was thought-provoking. However, since I spend so much time riding around in my car I occasionally listen to talk radio. I know they (the anti-abortion people) base their beliefs on religion but I am not sure it would make any difference to them whether human's had souls or not, or at what point they have those souls. they just feel so strongly that human life is human life.

After listening to "Dr. Laura", I also have to think that much of her opposition to abortion has to do with being a mother & knowing the wonder of her own offspring who she had so much trouble conceiving in the 1st place. I guess I feel this is one debate that can never come to a conclusion in this country.

Taking all this into account then, might it not the common sense solution to the abortion problem be simply, even if reluctantly, to allow the termination of a pregnancy if and when it its deemed necessary, with increasing restrictions (as well as safeguards) the later into pregnancy the procedure is to take place? Certainly any serious reason could be sufficient to terminate a the development of the "pre-embryo" during the first two weeks of its development. At the other end of the fetal development scale -- from twenty weeks on (the period after the appearance of the essentially human characteristics of the neurological system) -- only the most grave danger to the mother's life would seem to justify any procedure that was not designed as much as possible to save the child's life as well -- just the same as if it were born prematurely.

Artist Nan Snyder:

I think it is important to remember that there are "pro-choice" people with very deep and valid feelings regarding human life. I have seen so many instances of true child abuse on all levels from the fundamentalist Christian sector that I still have a huge bias against the pro-lifers. I have found that they discourage true exploration and learning as well as individuality in their children. It seems to me that the goal of parenting is to foster self-reliant individuals who think for themselves and contribute to our society in a meaningful and positive way. I would venture to guess that all the great advances in our scientific knowledge would have been virtually impossible if the Fundamentalist Right controlled our society -- and I believe that is exactly what these folks are into -- control. They really have no regard or respect for the opinions of others and I will say this: If I had to choose between which group would be in control of a society it would be the pro-choice one. I believe that - across the board - quality far exceeds quantity.

This article certainly gives a rational approach to the issue. It seems to me that the crux of the problem is simply human life. In this regard, I give priority to the life of the mother. Abortion is not a simple solution for any woman. Rest assured that any woman who has gone through this experience has her life changed forever and lives with the death of a child always in the background. This has been described as the worst kind of grief.... the guilt factor is kept alive even without the input of extremist views.

I also believe in reincarnation ... therefore, I accept that all death, including abortion, is a transition from one life to another. It certainly makes the whole issue less inflammatory and guilt producing on both sides of the controversy. The immortal soul seeks an opening and enters into life again and again and again. The random universe is ordered by our choice.

Philosopher Eric Sotnak (University of Akron):

Defenders of the permissibility of abortion generally fall into two camps. Those in the first camp point to the developmental character of human life, arguing that the morally relevant properties that make it wrong to kill a human being are not present at the beginning of human life, but are gradually acquired as the human being develops biologically and psychologically. Those in the second camp attempt to justify abortion by appealing to some framework of individual rights, including, especially, reproductive rights and rights to individual liberty.

One of the more common counter-positions to the first, "developmentalist" view is that all human beings possess a soul, present from the "moment of conception", and that possession of a human soul is a sufficient criterion for full status as a moral subject. The author of the foregoing piece provides a splendid discussion of some of the most troubling problems for such a view of moral value as it pertains to abortion, so I will refrain from covering the same territory again. However, the author appears to avoid stating straight-out what would seem to be the appropriate inference to draw from the failure of the ensoulment criterion of moral value, viz., the developmentalist view is correct.

What follows if the developmentalist view is correct? The answer depends on the facts of human development. Specifically, if a human being has not developed the properties which would make it morally wrong to kill it, then it would not be morally wrong to kill it, or at least it would not be wrong, as far as the developing human is concerned, to kill it (this leaves open the question of whether it might be wrong for other reasons, such as parental objection, to kill it). The developmentalist view has, in the minds of many people, considerable plausibility.

There is, however, a troubling byproduct of the developmentalist view, and that is the apparent consequence that human beings can vary in respect of moral worth. This is because the morally significant properties that a human being acquires as it develops do not always develop at the same rate or to the same degree for all individuals. Consider, for instance, the capacity consciously to experience pain. This is a property that depends on a number of very complex features of an individual's nervous system, and some individuals may be more or less sensitive to pain than others. Yet there is something quite troubling about the suggestion that those individuals who are less sensitive to pain than others possess less moral value. The developmentalist may be able to provide satisfactory resolutions of these concerns, but there is certainly a story here that very much stands in need of being told.

The second, rights-based, approach to abortion receives very little attention by the author. The author observes that the pro-choice advocates appear to avoid the question of the beginning of human life. But if that question is not strictly relevant to deciding the question of the permissibility of abortion (as some advocates of the rights-based approach would surely maintain), then it is only appropriate that the question be avoided. In deciding the moral permissibility of killing in self-defense, for example, an attacker may be a fully developed human being, but that is irrelevant to deciding the issue.

One question that has been widely discussed in the literature on the ethics of abortion is whether or not a fetus has a moral right to depend biologically upon its mother, especially if she has not explicitly consented to her pregnancy. If the fetus has no right to depend on its mother, then, perhaps, the mother is within her moral rights to terminate her pregnancy, even though doing so results in the death of the fetus.

Proponents of rights-based approaches to abortion explore numerous scenarios in which it might very well be morally permissible to kill an innocent human being if doing so is necessary to preserve certain important rights. It must be noted, of course, that it is by no means settled whether any rights-based defenses of abortion are ultimately successful, but there are at least some ethicists who have found such defenses compelling.

It seems to me that one of the strengths of the developmentalist position over the rights-based position is that the developmental character of human life, unlike any proposed framework of moral rights, is absolutely undeniable. The author thus seems to me to be on the right track in looking for a solution to the abortion dilemma along largely developmentalist lines. Surely at least some of the properties that human beings acquire over the course of their biological and cognitive development are morally relevant.

The primary questions that remain, I think, are these: (1) Is a careful and detailed account of biological and cognitive development enough to ground a theory of moral value that can be used to decide cases of abortion? (2) How, exactly, do the properties that human beings develop enter into an assessment of their moral value? (3) How are comparative questions of moral value to be decided? (Do we apply a consequentialist model? A deontological model?) And, finally, (4) Is it possible to embrace developmentalism without being committed to a thoroughgoing moral variablism according to which some (normal adult) individuals are morally more valuable than others (or is this a consequence to be embraced, rather than avoided?).

Astronomer and educator, Pat Stonehouse:

I believe that abortion should only be allowed before it reaches any stage of physicality -- which is to say that life begins with the thought of reproduction. It is only at this stage in the process of reproduction that "abortion" should be allowed. If after careful reflective thought we "abort" the intentions and the will of reproducing life then all is well. But if we willfully and intentionally proceed with the physical process of reproduction and material conception takes place, then there is a real physical life with perhaps a soul. From this point on abortion may be looked upon as murder by definition, i.e.. the unlawful killing of one human being by another.

Before and after reading the article I was and still am ultimately against any abortion. And I suspect because the issue is taken so strongly to heart by most people that the article will probably not change most minds one way or another -- except perhaps for those young people still forming an opinion on this issue.

Perhaps, in the Brave New World to come, the issue will be completely discarded as irrelevent as life is synthetically produced!

Harold Wessell, religious educator and journalist:

The article seems to lack something you discuss as one of the issues: a soul. If anything, it may establish for certain that abortion had better not be decided on philosophical grounds!

I disagree with the characterization of equating "pro-choice" with "pro-abortion" as a lack of civility. The term "Pro-Choice" was created to blur the issue, and it was promoted aggressively by people whose main interest was to sell abortion by "soft-selling" it. It's a matter of honesty, really. If someone who is "pro-choice" is in a mode whose primary objective is the freedom to abort at will... I don't see how they in all honesty can resent it if someone just cuts right to the core and calls them pro-abortion. The pro-life don't people don't mind if the other side taunts them. They take their central focus as a cause for some pride. And nothing that is "worked out" should be done just to avoid the practical problem of lunatic fringe people who occur on both sides...

The piece struck me as kind of getting out the heavy artillery for a matter that will stand or fall by how strong the law of love is. I am not stating outright the what and whens of a soul. My stance is actually as much in the logic of American juridical principles as it is Chrstian faith, oddly enough. There is a basic violation of our American courts' nearly obsessive concern with the "benefit of the doubt" in other matters that is not present in the case of abortion. We say, in that case:

1) Is it human or is it not (which is tied in with does it have a soul or does it not?)

2) We can't say absolutely sure, but let's do away with it anyway, seeing as how a majority of current voters want us to do so - and heck, it sure hasn't had anything to say in its own defense!

Since our age is kind of double standard on length of terminology -- why not get rid of the perhaps oversimplifying prepositional phrases (not just in this case, in others too) and start using words to express meaning in ways answering the need.Why not say ..."those [groups, organizations, individuals] that affirm a free option of abortion or seek to broaden the option" versus "those... who maintain abortion is not an inalienable right." But sooner or later , your language has to, if it's serving truth, recognize that one has to be right and the other wrong.

I think it's unfortunate that we call everyone who supports the free option of abortion murders, because it also contradicts a secular legal system, .... and that, along with its ancestral legal systems, recognizes that not everyone who causes a death is a murderer. So we shouldn't say it in this case either. You can say that wrongful death of a life that had a right to survive did occur, but you can say all sorts of things about the circumstances and motives of the one who caused it or let it happen. We still do guide ourselves in this society by a societally constitutive document of ours that starts off saying not just "self evident" but equally asserts "endowed by their Creator." To make the abortion debate a debate, we have to decide as a society to change that document's very opener. just trying to be logical -- also an area of philosophy.

The other thing on this is that besides the "essentialist challenge" that is, well, essential to the issue, you have inescapable communial and psychological dimensions. Accordingly, you have to invoke other sciences like anthropology, sociology, psychology, perhaps even psychiatry for any "scientific" examination to be well-rounded -- fully human!

The Discussion Continues with Editor's Response

File:Dial14a..htm 12/27/2000