The Left is losing the abortion battle on all fronts. In politics, once militantly pro-abortion Democrats like Hillary Clinton are toning down their positions for the sake of popular appeal. In the courts, after more than thirty years of relative stability, Roe v. Wade faces serious legal challenges. In the culture at large, more and more Americans support limiting abortion to special cases such as rape, incest, or life-threatening complications in pregnancy. Among women, many polls place that figure at over 50%.
This rise of anti-abortionism is surprising, considering how many people benefit from abortions. According to the most recent statistics, four out of every ten women in the US have an abortion before they turn 50. In the past year alone, well over a million pregnancies-about 1/5th of all pregnancies-were terminated by an abortion.
The basic argument against abortion is: an embryo is a human being, so a woman who gets an abortion is committing murder.
In other words: A woman accidentally gets pregnant. If she terminates that pregnancy, either by taking medication or by having a doctor remove some cell tissue from her uterus, then she murders a human being.
The obvious question is: By what reasoning is a small piece of embryonic tissue a human being? An embryo is a cluster of cells smaller than the tip of a ballpoint pen in the first week, and about the size of an ant after five weeks. How is that the same type of thing as the men, women, and children we observe around us?
It’s not. An embryo may in due course become an independent human being. But the fact that it may become a human being does not mean that it already is one. To say otherwise would commit the error of confusing a potential thing with an actual thing; the fact that an acorn is a potential Oak tree does not make it an actual Oak tree-as demonstrated by the fact you don’t see people trying to build cabinets out of acorns. In exactly the same way, the fact that a human embryo is a potential human being does not make it an actual human being.
There isn’t any reason to be concerned about whether a woman’s decision to abort is fair to the embryo, any more than one would worry about whether a haircut or manicure is fair to the hair cells or fingernails that get discarded.
So why do anti-abortionists insist adamantly that an embryo is a human being? For one reason only: the tiny mass of cells in a woman’s body is human because God makes it human. God plants an eternal soul into the embryo at conception. That act of God, not any secular principle, is what renders the embryo sacred to the anti-abortionists. It is religion, not reason, which compels them to insist that we legally treat a pregnant woman as two human beings, not one.
While faith in Christian doctrine may explain the zeal of anti-abortionists activists, abortion rights are actually anti-religious in a much deeper way: abortion entails an outright rejection of the central religious value of self-sacrifice.
Christianity upholds altruism-the idea that the good consists in sacrificing one’s interests to others-as a moral ideal. Just as Jesus sacrificed his own life to save mankind, so a woman who becomes pregnant ought to give up her own dreams to save the unborn child that she could bear. That is the self-sacrificial thing to do.
A woman who instead gets an abortion rejects this principle of sacrifice. She chooses to abort because she wants to live for herself. Abortion is, as Christian commentators have repeatedly noted, “the selfish choice.”
Abortion is the selfish choice. The sex that makes the abortion necessary is selfish-it was enjoyed for pleasure and not procreation. The choice to pursue an education or career instead of motherhood is selfish-it’s what would make the woman happy. Even the act of choosing to get an abortion is selfish-it involves a woman choosing to do what she wants rather than what her parents, friends, or Church demand.
Abortion is self-interested. Does that make it immoral?
When a student studies hard to get into graduate school, he is not immoral. When a young couple saves money for years to buy their dream house, they are not immoral. When America’s Founders rebelled again the British and enshrined the”the Pursuit of Happiness” as a political ideal, they were not immoral. All of these were self-interested actions, yet they are clearly moral. These individuals are pursuing long-term goals on principle, neither sacrificing themselves to others, nor sacrificing others to themselves. Nothing could be more moral than that.
When a woman goes against her entire culture and gets an abortion-because she doesn’t want a child at this point in her life-her actions are similarly moral. She is choosing to value her own life, rather than to give in to familial or societal pressures to sacrifice her life because of scriptural dogma and raise a child she is not motivated to raise.
The battle for abortion rights does not occur in a vacuum. It is part of a larger cultural battle between the principles of egoism (self-interest) and altruism (self-sacrifice). The Religious Right would have women sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of the unborn. They believe that sacrifice is moral and just. The defenders of abortion must challenge this morality of sacrifice. They must explain why sacrifice is immoral and unjust. To defend abortion, it is the moral principle of egoism that they need to understand and defend.
Unfortunately, the traditional defenders of abortion, the political Left, themselves accept altruism as their moral ideal. Whether it is promoting volunteerism campaigns or attacking corporate greed, the Left makes common cause with religion in preaching altruism and condemning selfish materialism. The left has willingly and repeatedly sacrificed human life to animal life-e.g. in banning drugs such as DDT to protect bird eggs, an act which literally left millions of human beings to die of malaria. Is it any surprise their defense of abortion is so half-hearted?
Defenders of abortion need to challenge the Religious Right at its root. They need to challenge the morality of sacrifice. They need to embrace the fact that abortion is the selfish choice, and then explain that that’s precisely why it is the moral choice.
Ray Girn is a graduate of the University of Toronto, and now teaches math and science at a private elementary school in Orange County, CA.