Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Pro-choice tension, the moral irrelevance of birth, and three possibilities

Consider the following three stories:
  1. Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell is currently on trial for delivering viable babies and then killing them by severing their spinal cords (he is also charged with the murder of a pregnant woman). 
  2. Last week a Planned Parenthood lobbyist testified against a Florida bill to protect babies born alive after failed abortions. The Planned Parenthood representative said that "any decision that's made [about the fate of the living newborn child] should be left up to the woman, her family and the physician." She objected to transporting the infant to a hospital for possibly-lifesaving care because in "those situations where it is in a rural health care setting, the hospital is 45 minutes or an hour away," so "there's just some logistical issues involved that we have some concerns about." (President Obama, as an Illinois state senator, repeatedly voted against legal protection for already-born abortion survivors because such protection would undermine the logic of "abortion rights.")
  3. Last year two bio-ethicists argued in the Journal of Medical Ethics for the moral permissibility of "after-birth abortion" (the killing of human infants), a position that has been expounded for decades by leading pro-choice philosophers like Michael Tooley and Peter Singer.
These stories point to a tension inherent in the standard "pro-choice" position (that abortion is permissible, but not infanticide): Birth doesn't matter morally. A change in location doesn't change the nature or moral status of the developing human being. If a newborn baby has a right to life, then she had a right to life moments earlier in the womb; and if a full-term fetus has no right to life, then she has none moments later after birth. Because a trip down the birth canal cannot make a moral difference.

So here are three possibilities:
  1. We may deny rights to the voiceless and powerless human beings in utero (and ex utero) according to our own preferences, according to what we think is best or most convenient for us. Might makes right. This seems to be the Planned Parenthood/Kermit Gosnell position. 
  2. Our rights are based on possession of certain acquired properties (usually higher mental functions) that some human beings have and others lack, that can be gained and lost throughout the life of a human being, and that some have to a greater degree than others. Human equality is a myth. And since both unborn and newborn children fail to meet the criteria, both abortion and infanticide are okay. This is the Peter Singer/Michael Tooley/Journal of Medical Ethics position. 
  3. Our rights are based on what (the kind of being) we are. So all human beings by nature—irrespective not only of race, gender and social status, but irrespective also of age, size, location, ability, stage of development and condition of dependency—have an equal fundamental dignity and right to life. This is the pro-life position. 
Which one of the three options is true? And which one will win the day?