With the recent Dobbs decision, the abortion debate is entering a new phase in the United States, as citizens will have a say in the abortion law of their states. There is thus more at stake now in the effort to convince others of one’s view on abortion. Yet many believe that the abortion debate is at an impasse. Both sides—“pro-life” and “pro-choice”—seem settled in their positions and unlikely to budge, and few are undecided. What argument has not yet been tried that is actually going to move the needle on the debate?
What we need most is not new and improved arguments, but a new and improved way of seeing. In other words, we need a transfigured vision. As Iris Murdoch once observed,
moral differences look less like differences of choice, given the same facts, and more like differences of vision. In other words, a moral concept seems less like a movable and extensible ring laid down to cover a certain area of fact, and more like a total difference of Gestalt. We differ not only because we select different objects out of the same world but because we see different worlds.
I maintain that moral differences over abortion need to be regarded as differences of vision.
In the first part of this essay, I begin with the central pro-life argument: the human equality argument. Despite the compelling nature of this argument, I discuss how some people simply have difficulty seeing early human life as fully amongst us. Neither side of the debate has adequately reckoned with this problem. Those on the pro-life side often just appeal to the need for consistency. On the pro-choice side, one is faced with a dilemma: one needs either to bite the bullet and abandon belief in fundamental human equality or else find a way of coming to see early human life in a new light, which would require abandoning the pro-choice position. I recommend the latter path of transfiguring the unborn.
What we need, I argue, is to develop a sense of awe and reverence before the sheer fact of human existence. While this sense may come more easily for those who see life as a gift from God, non-theists can also share it. The key point, though, is that the proper recognition of fundamental human equality depends upon this sense of awe and reverence before human life.
In the second part of this essay, I identify and respond to common ways of looking away from the full moral reality of abortion, which prevent a proper recognition of the humanity of the unborn. In doing so, I demonstrate the importance of reflecting on the conceptual frameworks we live by and on our personal investments in the issue of abortion, since these can lead us to see different moral worlds.
Seeing Early Human Life as Fully Amongst Us
The pro-life position is rooted in a claim about fundamental human equality: all human beings—despite their manifold differences, including their placement on the life-spectrum from conception to death—possess the same fundamental dignity, which constitutes their full “moral status.” This entails certain basic rights, including a right not to be intentionally killed as an innocent human being. There are other bases for respect-worthiness, such as achieved excellence in some area, but fundamental respect-worthiness is had simply in virtue of being human.
There are many who endorse a pro-choice position who also want to affirm fundamental human equality. However, they typically make a distinction between two conceptions of humanity and claim that such equality only applies to one of these. One conception of humanity is biological humanity, and the other is moral humanity or personhood. Fundamental human equality, it is claimed, only applies to those human beings who are persons. According to such views, in order to be considered a person—as having full moral status—one must cross a certain threshold in some acquired quality (or qualities), such as self-consciousness, rationality, and autonomy.
The central pro-life argument, the human equality argument, contends that such moves undermine belief in fundamental human equality. If we seek to base moral status on some acquired quality that comes in degrees, then moral status for human beings, including after birth, will necessarily come in degrees, and this amounts to a denial of fundamental human equality. Therefore, fundamental human equality has to be possessed simply in virtue of being a human being, that is, a distinct genetically human organism. This means that all cases of an organism being biologically human are cases of being morally human (i.e., having full moral status as persons). What matters is being a member of the human kind, in the biological sense, rather than the degree of achievement of human capacities.
Now, someone may grant the force of the human equality argument—as I think one should—and yet still have difficulty embracing its full implications. In particular, there are some who have difficulty seeing human life at its earliest stages as fully amongst us. Consider Margaret Little:
[For] a great many people, the idea of a 2-week blastocyst, or 6-week embryo, or 12-week fetus counting as an equivalent rights-bearer to more usual persons is just an enormous stretch. It makes puzzles of widely shared intuitions, including the greater sense of loss most feel at later rather than earlier miscarriages, or … the greater priority we place on preventing childhood diseases than on preventing miscarriages. However else we may think such life worthy of regard, an embryo or early fetus is so far removed from our paradigmatic notion of a person that regarding it as such seems an extreme view.
It is strange to call the view that all human beings possess the same moral status “an extreme view.” If upholding fundamental human equality is an extreme view, then one might say that such extremism is no vice. When Little says that “a great many people” find this view “an enormous stretch,” she seems only to be referring to those on her side of the abortion debate.
Still, there is a real challenge here. What should be said, for example, about the not uncommon reaction that there is greater loss in later miscarriages and in postnatal childhood death than in earlier miscarriages?
The first thing we should say is that our emotional responses are not necessarily good indicators of moral status. People often feel a greater sense of loss when something tragic happens to someone they know than when it happens to someone they do not know. But this does not mean that the unknown victims do not share the same moral status as human beings; it only means that there is a greater emotional connection with those whom we know. In a similar way, since we form more of an emotional bond with a child as he or she develops, we may feel a greater sense of loss when his or her life is lost at a later stage. Even so, we should affirm that moral status is not determined by our emotional response but by being human.
The same goes for appeals to a common lack of emotional resonance with unborn children at the earliest stages of life because they do not look like us. Of course, early human life does in fact look like us when we were at that stage of development. There is a tendency to be forgetful of our coming into existence as dependent and vulnerable human beings—and remaining so, in varying degrees, throughout our lives. In other words, there is a tendency to think that being independent autonomous agents is what is essential and most important to our human identity. In reality, our human dependency and vulnerability are just as essential and important to who we are. To fail to see and affirm this is to be blind to the terms of our human condition.
In the quoted remarks, Little appeals to “our paradigmatic notion of a person” and suggests that the earliest stages of human life are “so far removed” from this that it is an “extreme view” to hold that such early human life could have a moral status that is equal to paradigmatic persons. Presumably, she has in mind here normal adult human beings who are able to function as autonomous moral agents. But this idea of a paradigmatic person is questionable.
As parents can attest, the experience of the preciousness of an infant or a young child—in all his or her dependency, vulnerability, and lack of autonomous agency—can in fact help one see every human life as precious. The same is also true of an expecting mother’s experience of the preciousness of the child growing within her; this can help her recognize the preciousness of human life as such. The key point I want to make here is that the experience of awe and reverence before the sheer fact of human existence shapes and informs a proper sense of the preciousness or sacredness of human life at all stages. The claim of fundamental human equality needs to be rooted in this experience.
In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton writes: “The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature.” In other words, there is a wondrous preciousness to human life as such, and the “miracle of humanity” is that we should exist at all. The wonder is that there should be a universe and that it should give rise to beings with rational natures—that we should be the part of the universe with the capacity to stand up, look around, reflect upon the world, appreciate it, love others, and act according to reasons, including ethical reasons. This is surely worthy of awe and reverence (a heightened form of respect), and therefore we should seek to cultivate a proper sense of awe and reverence before human life.
It is not hard to draw out the implications of such awe and reverence before the sheer fact of human existence. Cora Diamond writes of a “sense of mystery surrounding our lives, the feeling of solidarity in mysterious origin and uncertain fate,” adding that “this binds us to each other, and the binding meant includes the dead and the unborn, and those who bear on their faces ‘a look of blank idiocy’, those who lack all power of speech, those behind whose vacant eyes there lurks a ‘soul in mute eclipse.’” Such human solidarity is not based merely on one’s capacity for autonomous moral agency. Rather, it is based on a reverential recognition and affirmation of our human condition as including vulnerability and dependency, that is, our “mysterious origin and uncertain fate,” which “binds us to each other.”
Elizabeth Anscombe makes a similar observation. In a passage where she describes a situation in which “a woman of today may find a possibility of becoming pregnant, letting the baby grow to twenty eight weeks (because bigger ones are worth more) and then going somewhere where they will pay her for a late abortion, which yields the foetus for resale, say, as valuable material,” Anscombe remarks:
If you act so, are you not shewing that you do not regard that human being with any reverence? Few will fail to see that. But the same is true of one who has an abortion so that she can play in a tennis championship; or for any reason for which someone might choose to destroy the life of a new human being. This lack of reverence, of respect for [the] dignity of human nature … is a lack of regard for the one impregnable equality of all human beings. Lacking it, you cannot revere the dignity of your own human-ness, that is the dignity of that same human nature in yourself. You may value yourself highly as a tennis player or a natural scientist, but without a change of heart you cannot value yourself as being a human, a Mensch. For you have shewn the value you set on a human life as such. You are willing to extinguish it as suits you or as suits the people who want you to do so.
In short, without developing a sense of awe and reverence before the sheer fact of human existence, before the wondrousness of being here at all, we cannot properly value humanity as such, and thus we cannot have a sound basis for human equality and human solidarity.
Those who do have such a sense of awe and reverence before human life have a fundamentally different vision of the world than those who do not. They recognize that this reverence-worthiness of human life entails a requirement of inviolability: no innocent human life should ever be intentionally destroyed, even if such destruction suits one’s purposes. Thus, the debate over abortion is ultimately a matter of differences of vision.
A sense of awe and reverence before the sheer fact of human existence may come more easily for those who see life as a gift from God, and this helps to explain why there seems to be a religious versus non-religious divide on the issue of abortion. However, while Anscombe is a theist, Diamond is not, and many non-theists do share this sense of awe and reverence before human life, though we might describe this as being “religious” in a broad sense. Indeed, elsewhere Anscombe writes about a “religious attitude” (or “religious feeling”) of “respect before the mystery of human life,” which she says “is not necessarily connected only with some one particular religious system.” She goes on to remark:
A religious attitude may be merely incipient, prompting a certain fear before the idea of ever destroying a human life, and refusing to make a ‘quality of life’ judgment to terminate a human being. Or it may be more developed, perceiving that [human beings] are made by God in God’s likeness, to know and love God.
Whether we are theists or not, the key issue is whether we can find our way to a well-founded sense of awe and reverence before the sheer fact of human existence. What hangs on this is whether we can have a genuine basis for affirming fundamental human equality.
Looking Away from Abortion (and How to Avoid It)
In addressing the different visions that are operative in the abortion debate, we also need to identify and respond to common ways of looking away from the full moral reality of abortion. Overcoming these ways of looking away is another important aspect of transfiguring the unborn.
(1) Dehumanizing Language about Early Human Life
First of all, there is a common use of dehumanizing language about early human life, especially when such life is unwanted. Unwanted early human life is often described as merely a “cluster of cells,” a “clump of tissue,” “uterine material,” the “product of conception,” etc. Of course, each of us adults is also a “cluster of cells,” a “clump of tissue,” and a “product of conception,” but we do not refer to each other in these terms because they under-describe the reality of what we are as human beings. But the same is also true when these terms are used to describe early human life, and their intent (fully conscious or not) seems precisely to be to occlude the humanity of the unborn.
The scientific language of “blastocyst,” “embryo,” and “fetus” can also be used to the same dehumanizing effect. For the purpose of scientific understanding of the different stages of human development, there is nothing wrong with it. But for the purpose of moral understanding, it is problematic. This scientific language can make it seem that early human life is not fully amongst us, as it is language that is not at home in the ordinary world of human relationship. If, instead, we describe an unborn human being as a “child,” this is as technically correct as describing him or her as an “embryo” or a “fetus,” since “child” is a relational term conveying that one is the progeny of human parents. The difference is that such language is at home in the world of human relationship, and thus it encourages us to see early human life as fully amongst us.
It is noteworthy that when the child is wanted, then humanity-recognizing language is typically used, and one often does feel awe and reverence before the new human life. But if we are right to recognize the humanity of the unborn in such cases, as indeed we are, then we are wrong to use dehumanizing language when the child is unwanted. Fundamental human dignity does not depend on whether a particular human life is wanted or not.
(2) Euphemistic Language about the Act of Abortion
Besides dehumanizing language about the unborn child, there is also a mode of looking away from the full moral reality of abortion through the use of euphemistic language about the act of abortion. For instance, Judith Jarvis Thomson famously describes the act of abortion as a matter of “unplugging,” and Margaret Little describes it as “withdrawing gestational assistance.”
In reality, abortion is a direct act of lethal aggression against another human being, an intentional human killing. As Patrick Lee and Robert P. George put it: “Abortion is the act of extracting the unborn human being from the womb—an extraction that usually rips him or her to pieces or does him or her violence in some other way.” Even the term “abortion” can be regarded as a euphemism, since it can suggest merely giving up on some activity, as in “aborting the mission.”
It is rare to find a defender of abortion who will describe the act of abortion without euphemism and who does not resort to dehumanizing language about unborn human life. This suggests there are strong motivations to look away from the full moral reality of abortion.
(3) Desensitization through Normalization and Private Practice
Since it typically is undertaken privately, we can live as if widespread abortion does not exist; it is out of sight, and so out of mind. However, in the United States, since Roe v. Wade, there have been over sixty million abortions, and around 900,000 annually in recent years. Between 2015-2019, 34 percent of unintended pregnancies ended in abortion. This means that most people probably know many women who have had abortions, and it may be hard to see so many people as engaged in a morally egregious practice.
However, one can become awakened or sensitized to the full moral reality of abortion, when made aware of what it actually involves, and therefore one can come to see it as a brutal practice at the heart of a supposedly civilized society. But, as Ross Douthat notes, this is hard to accept: “It’s part of why so many people hover in the conflicted borderlands of the pro-choice side. They don’t like abortion, they think its critics have a point … but to actively join [the pro-life] side would require passing too comprehensive a judgment on their coalition, their country, their friends, their very selves.”
(4) Avoiding Feelings of Guilt
This relates closely to another common way of looking away from the full moral reality of abortion: seeking to avoid feelings of guilt for one’s involvement in the practice, whether because of having had an abortion (or abortions), performed abortion procedures, or supported the practice politically. This can be one motivation for using euphemistic language about the act of abortion and for using dehumanizing language about the unborn. But one should not seek to avoid feelings of guilt if they involve a proper recognition of wrong done; rather, one should seek to make amends (as far as possible) and avoid wrongdoing in the future.
Some pro-choice advocates at least recognize the need to make amends. For instance, Naomi Wolf says that those who are pro-choice need to avoid euphemism about what abortion involves—the intentional killing of an innocent human being—and avoid dehumanizing language and attitudes about the unborn child, which express a “cheapened view of human life.” Wolf wants a pro-choice movement that acts without callous indifference to early human life and with moral accountability for the moral reality of abortion. She thinks that a woman who has chosen abortion needs to be able to “face the realization that she has fallen short of who she should be; and that she needs to ask forgiveness for that, and atone for it,” namely, through improving herself and the world around her.
However, Wolf does not think a proper response to feelings of guilt for having had an abortion should necessarily be a determination not to have one again and to work toward eliminating abortion. Her view is that while abortion is not ideal, it is permissible. Indeed, she thinks it can be a “necessary evil”: “Abortion should be legal; it is sometimes even necessary. Sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die. But it is never right or necessary to minimize the value of the lives involved or the sacrifice incurred in letting them go” (note the euphemistic language of “letting them go” here). It is not clear what acknowledging the “full humanity” of early human life means here; it does not seem to mean acknowledging that early human life has the same moral status as later stages of human life. Wolf does not say, for instance, that killing infants or toddlers, let alone adult human beings, can be regarded as a “necessary evil,” as something permissible but not ideal.
(5) Sexual Liberationist and Egalitarian Feminist Imperatives
Why would someone regard abortion as a necessary evil? The most common reason for doing so, I believe, has to do with the joint acceptance of sexual liberationist and egalitarian feminist imperatives, which also encourage looking away from the full moral reality of abortion. Indeed, they can be key motivators for adopting dehumanizing language about unborn human beings and euphemistic language about the act of abortion, and they may in fact lead one not to regard abortion as bad at all. I do not think we can understand the abortion debate without understanding how these imperatives function for many pro-choice advocates.
The sexual liberationist imperative can be stated as follows: people ought to be able to have consensual sexual relationships without restriction; indeed, it is unreasonable to propose any restrictions on sexual relationships beyond the requirement of consent. However, when women have sex with men, they are unequally vulnerable, since they can become pregnant, and having a child can negatively impact educational, career, and other personal pursuits. Thus, in order for women to participate in the fruits of sexual liberation on equal terms with men, it is necessary that this natural inequality be equalized through abortion rights. In other words, in connection with the sexual liberationist imperative, we have an egalitarian feminist imperative that requires a pro-choice position: since women must be sexually liberated, and since this liberation must be on equal terms with men, therefore abortion rights are required, and the unborn child cannot be thought to have full moral status. It is no coincidence that Roe v. Wade followed shortly after the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
The problem with this argument is that it requires the denial of fundamental human equality, which egalitarian feminism depends upon. Indeed, as the pro-life feminist Sidney Callahan notes, it involves the same sort of dehumanizing attitude that privileges the powerful over the powerless to which feminists have objected when it has been directed towards women:
Pitting women against their own offspring is not only morally offensive, it is psychologically and politically destructive. Women will never climb to equality and social empowerment over mounds of dead fetuses, numbering now in the millions. As long as most women choose to bear children, they stand to gain from the same constellation of attitudes and institutions that will also protect the fetus in the woman’s womb—and they stand to lose from the cultural assumptions that support permissive abortion. … [To] obtain true equality, woman need (1) more social support and changes in the structure of society, and (2) increased self-confidence, self-expectations, and self-esteem.
The kind of equality that is sought here is social or relational equality, where we relate as equals, which needs to be understood in terms of our fundamental human equality.
Callahan goes on to say that pro-choice feminists have too often seen the fact that women can get pregnant as an injustice or curse that needs to be corrected in order for women to be more like men, rather than seeing this female life-giving power as a distinctive blessing. Relatedly, she thinks that pro-choice feminism has accepted a distorted understanding of morality that is too focused on individual autonomy and according to which we are only responsible for what we have voluntarily chosen. But, she writes, “morality also consists of the good and worthy acceptance of the unexpected events that life presents. Responsiveness and response-ability to things unchosen are also instances of the highest human moral capacity.”
One of the biggest problems with the autonomy-centered view here is that it undermines paternal and communal responsibility for rearing children, since continuing a pregnancy or not is seen as a woman’s private choice and thus her responsibility. In place of this individualistic, autonomy-centered ethic, we need a communitarian ethic of solidarity that recognizes a responsibility for promoting the common good of our communities and the well-being of each of their members, especially those who are most vulnerable and in need of our assistance. This communitarian ethic is especially important if we hope to live in a world where abortion is minimized as far as possible, since it aims to ease the burdens of pregnancy and parenthood, which lead many women to seek abortions in the first place, while affirming women’s equality in a way that properly honors their distinctive contributions to the common good.
In addition to this communitarian ethic, we also need a more traditional form of sexual ethics. Callahan rightly notes that pro-choice feminists made a crucial mistake in accepting what I have called the sexual liberationist imperative, since it caters to the worst of male inclinations by endorsing “sexual permissiveness without long-term commitment or reproductive focus,” which she thinks is destructive for the average woman. What is best overall for women is a more traditional view that encourages the connection of sex with love and commitment.
Not only is this best for women; it is also best for men. Within the human sexual condition, men and women can only flourish together, rather than at one another’s expense. Furthermore, the goal of the traditional sexual ethic, at its best, is to ennoble and humanize sexual desire by transforming mere lust into committed romantic love, which is distinctively human and therefore important for genuine human fulfillment in the realm of sexuality. The traditional ethic does so through cultivating virtues such as chastity (which is concerned with rightly restraining and directing sexual desire), fidelity, and modesty.
The traditional sexual ethic is also needed to negate the tendency to look away from the full moral reality of abortion that is encouraged by the sexual liberationist imperative. In doing so, it enables us to give proper recognition to our fundamental human equality.
To move the abortion debate forward in our post-Dobbs world, we need more than argument. To be sure, argument has an important role to play. Indeed, I have offered arguments throughout this essay, including the human equality argument, which contends that those who want to affirm human equality while maintaining a pro-choice position are mistaken: human equality has to be possessed simply in virtue of being a human being, rather than in virtue of some acquired quality—e.g., self-consciousness, rationality, or autonomy—that comes in degrees, since this would mean that moral status also comes in degrees, which amounts to a denial of fundamental human equality.
But one can acknowledge the force of this argument and yet still have difficulty seeing early human life as fully amongst us. If this is so, then perhaps one just needs to bite the bullet and abandon belief in human equality, even though that comes with great danger. I have recommended another path: the path of transfiguring the unborn through developing a sense of awe and reverence before the sheer fact of human existence. Additionally, I have sought to identify and respond to common ways of looking away from the full moral reality of abortion, that is, the intentional killing of unborn human life. Overcoming these ways of looking away is another important aspect of transfiguring the unborn.
Moral differences over abortion are indeed differences of vision. But the correct vision, I maintain, is one that can affirm that all human beings are fully amongst us. For those of us who are pro-life, the onus is on us to help others come to see that this is so. For instance, we can help others to imagine what it is like to be an expecting parent cherishing and marveling at a new child in the womb, or to reflect on and wonder at their own coming into existence, or to come to an appreciative awareness of the “miracle of humanity,” that any of us should exist at all. Most importantly, we should live in such a way that we reveal through loving and reverential attitudes and actions that every human being from conception to death is a fitting object of love and reverence and is truly our equal in fundamental dignity.