Abortion: The One Exception

Jason Dulle

Morals are not relative to the individual (subjective morality), but they are relative to the situation. In other words, the situation will determine which objective moral rule we apply (this is not relativism because the same moral rule applies to every person in the same situation). For example, there are some situations in which cutting someone with a knife is morally wrong and others in which it is not. It is morally wrong to cut someone with a knife if you are doing so to harm their life. It is morally good, however, if the cutting is at the hands of a doctor performing a life-saving surgery. It's the same knife and the same flesh in both instances, but the circumstances determine whether or not the action is morally wrong or morally right. The difference between the two acts is that one cuts to take life unnecessarily, whereas the other cuts to necessarily preserve life. That makes the moral difference.

The same principle applies to the abortion issue. In the case where a mother is likely to die due to her pregnancy or delivery, abortion is morally justified. Abortion advocates cry "Inconsistency!" at this point, but they fail to consider the difference in circumstances between this scenario and elective abortion. In elective abortions the life of the mother is not in danger, so the taking of the life of the unborn is simply a selfish act without regard for the life or value of the unborn. In the case where a mother will die due to her pregnancy/delivery, however, to abort the baby is a regrettable act: necessary to preserve life, not take it unnecessarily. In elective abortions the life of the unborn is not valued and can be discarded at will; in life-saving abortions the life of the unborn is valued and can only be ended if the goal is to preserve life. If we know a mother will die from carrying her baby to term and we do nothing to intervene, both mom and baby will die. From the pro-life standpoint this would be the death of two valuable persons. Because our abiding moral principle is the preservation of life we act to save one life rather than lose two. Indeed, it would be immoral to allow both to die when we could have saved at least one. Frank Beckwith wrote, "If…there is a high probability that a woman's pregnancy will result in her death (as in the case of a tubal pregnancy, for example), then abortion is justified. For it is a greater good that one human should live (the mother) rather than two die (the mother and her child). Or, to put it another way, in such cases the intent is not to kill the unborn (though that is an unfortunate effect) but to save the life of the mother." (Frank Beckwith, "Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Part One): The Appeal to Pity")

But how do we go about saving one of the two lives? Arguably we could do so by saving the mother or by saving the baby (if and only if the baby is able to survive outside of the womb at that time, otherwise our only choice is to abort the baby to preserve life). Which one do we save? This is a personal choice without moral consequence. A decision to act in a manner to save the one does not devalue the life of the other. It would be similar to a scenario in which two people were drowning, and I only had the time to save one. If those two people were my wife and some stranger, I would choose my wife. My choice does not speak to the value of the stranger, or declare that he is not a human being. It would be clear that my choice was informed by personal and emotional reasons.

Not only is this analogy useful to show the inconsequential nature of the choice of whom to save, but it also gives a principle that may influence our personal decision to save the mother over the baby. If I was faced with the mother-or-the-baby decision I would personally save the life of my wife since there is more of an emotional attachment between her and I, and because she has an irreplaceable role in the family as my help-mate and the mother to our other children (assuming we had other children). I think it would be wrong to deprive my children of their mother because of the damage this would have on the rest of their lives. Due to these practical and emotional considerations I would argue to save the mother. If someone chose the child, however, I could not argue that they have made an immoral choice.

In summary, the two types of abortions are very different. In the life-saving abortion scenario both the life of the mother and the life of the child are valued equally, and both are considered full human beings. The act of abortion is not an act of disregard for human life, but an act of honoring and preserving life. In elective abortions only the life of the mother is valued as fully human, and the act of abortion is an act of disregard for human life. So when it all boils down to the nitty-gritty, the one exception of the pro-life position is intended to necessarily preserve life, and speaks nothing about the value of the human child. This is entirely consistent with the pro-life ethics of valuing life, and in utter contradiction to the pro-choice treatment of the child as a non-human, non-valuable "thing" that can be discarded at will.


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