Human Beings are Moral Actors

Kathleen Reeves

Personal choices always involve morality.

Frank Schaeffer, who credits himself with being an architect of the pro-life movement, has since rejected the far right. He sees Obama’s Notre Dame speech as an articulation of the kind of moderate stance on abortion that he holds and that most Americans can understand.

While Schaeffer’s most serious grievances are with the religious right, whom he calls “anti-American,” he takes “absolutist pro-choicers” to task as well:

Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice groups have not won the public opinion battle on abortion. …most Americans believe abortions early in pregnancy should be legal but that abortion is usually not the best choice, that late-term abortions is tantamount to murder, that abortion for the life or health of the mother or for severe fetal deformity should always be available, but that abortion is never merely a matter of personal choice in some amoral way. Most Americans believe that abortion has moral implications which gives society a stake in trying to compassionately reduce the number of abortions.

Schaeffer hasn’t quite shed the antipathy he had for his former nemesis, the original pro-choice movement:

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This is a long way from the type of propaganda put out by the pro-choice groups in the 1970s in which aborted fetuses simply became "tissue" and abortion at any age of fetal development for any reason was just a matter of "personal choice." A combination of factors including sophisticated ultrasound methods, fetal surgery, genetic science, premature birth survivability rates at younger ages have combined to change the landscape from a time when pro-choice advocates pitched abortion as no more morally significant than the removal of an appendix.

I appreciate Schaeffer’s moderation, particularly given his origins, and I want to like his piece. But in trying to define a middle ground between the unworkable “extremes,” he’s unwittingly reinforced a false dichotomy in the debate:

…but that abortion is never merely a matter of personal choice in some amoral way.

It makes no sense to separate personal choice from morality. Personal choices always involve morality. But historically, in the abortion debate, pro-lifers used the term to refer to their own, specific, intolerant beliefs. They held morality hostage. It’s no surprise that defenders of abortion rights recoiled from this type of “morality” and created a rhetoric around choice. It’s time for the pro-choice movement to reclaim morality, which, in defending the individual choices of moral beings, it has possessed all along. To suggest that the choice a woman makes about her embryo or fetus is not moral is to make some very insulting, and unlikely, assumptions about that woman. And that’s what Schaeffer misses in this post. When he says,

most Americans believe abortions early in pregnancy should be legal but that abortion is usually not the best choice

he’s lost me. Abortion is usually not the best choice for whom? For the people who took a survey on abortion? For society at large? For the woman considering the abortion?

Perhaps he’s driving at the need for feasible alternatives to abortion. The government does need to support pregnant women. Many have made this point—pro-choicers, compassionate pro-lifers—but it’s not enough to say that the government should do this, just as it’s not enough for opponents of affirmative action to say that our world should be color-blind. Regardless of Obama’s (possibly revolutionary) interest in solving our healthcare crisis, it will take some time to ease the economic burden of pregnancy and child-rearing. Until motherhood and fatherhood are heavily, heavily subsidized for those who need it, opponents of abortion may continue to advocate for government support, but they cannot lean on this when arguing against the abortions happening now.

Schaeffer writes, “Abortion as a moral non-partisan issue has become mainstream.” I’m happy to hear it. Maybe now we can start talking about, and honoring, the morality of all Americans, a topic formerly repressed by a well-organized, tyrannical, bigoted minority.

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