I intend these remarks primarily for a specific group of people: those persons of good will who say they are personally opposed to abortion but are prochoice. Though we hold opposed views, my hope is that we can still engage profitably in a rational discussion of the abortion issue, once we come to a better understanding of what we mean by freedom of choice.
I am prepared to acknowledge at the outset that freedom of choice is a fundamental prerequisite for any fully human life. All morality presupposes that normal mature human beings, under normal circumstances, are free to choose what they will and will not do. To say that we are “free to choose” is simply to state a fact about human nature; it is to speak of a distinctively human power, the will, a “piece of standard human equipment,” part of the way we are. (I have chosen freely to write this letter, and you have freely chosen to read it. Both of us could have “freely chosen” to do something else instead, or to do nothing at all.) Having “freedom of choice” does not mean, however, that we are justified in choosing to do whatever we please,—to rob or rape or defraud or to set our neighbor’s house afire. That would be to claim a moral “blank check.” Freedom of choice is not, then, a kind of “unlimited right,” which some claim and others would deny to them.
There are, of course, those who deny that freedom of choice is a fact about human nature, that human beings have this capability; but they do so at the cost of undermining all human moral responsibility. You and I equally regard this position as mistaken, I assume, or we could not meaningfully argue the question of whether a woman ought or ought not to choose to have an abortion, or any other “ought” question, for that matter.
Where does that leave us? If freedom of choice is a fact of human nature, part of what it means to be a human being, then, I suggest, it makes no more sense to be “prochoice” (or “antichoice,” for that matter) than it would to be in favor of, or against, birds being able to fly or fish being able to swim. As human beings, we are able to choose, and that’s that. Facts, whether about people or birds or fish, are not something about which we can meaningfully line up for or against. We do, of course, frequently argue, but on quite other grounds, about whether choosing to perform a specific act is or is not morally justifiable. And that is precisely what the moral argument concerning abortion is all about.
It seems to follow, then, that the mere fact of a woman’s choosing to have an abortion, of exercising her power of free choice, does not make her choice right—any more than if she freely chose to shoplift, or rob a bank, or kidnap another woman’s child. For to acknowledge that men and women have freedom of choice doesn’t settle, but only raises, the question of whether or not the specific acts we choose to perform are morally justifiable.
If we are in agreement thus far, we are now in a position to sort out some of the different aspects of this complicated social issue of abortion, and to focus our attention upon them in due order. We must be quite explicit, to begin with, in recognizing the distinction between questions of morality and those of law. It is one thing to say that something is immoral, quite another to say that there is, or even ought to be, a law against it. Persons who agree on the former may quite possibly disagree on the latter. Whatever the relationship to be found between law and morality, the first requirement is that we recognize that they are two distinct orders.
If I am right in assuming that you take moral questions as seriously as I do, it is quite possible that we are much closer to seeing eye to eye on the morality of abortion than we realize. Much depends upon just what you mean when you say that you are “personally opposed” to abortion. You may mean only that you find it a distasteful, unpleasant business, that the very thought of it makes you feel uncomfortable, that you just don’t like it. Quite possibly, however, you mean much more than that. You may even agree with me that every abortion is a clear case of ending a defenseless human life, a horrible thing to do (if you stop to think about it), an act that is clearly immoral. You may, of course, so regard abortion, morally speaking, and still be convinced that we “have no right to impose” our view upon others, because that would violate their freedom of conscience.
I readily acknowledge that we have no right, in so many words, to “impose” our moral convictions upon others, to compel them to think as we do—granting for the moment that this is even possible. It seems to me, however, that only someone prepared to rule out all moral teaching could logically find fault with a person’s efforts respectfully to call another’s attention to what he or she sees as a serious immorality. Unless I am mistaken, to do what one can to help another recognize a serious evil that might not otherwise be understood to be such is to do that person a great service. This effort to assist others to “see” something of importance that they may have been missing is at least part of what the educational process is all about. When conducted in that spirit, it can in no way be construed as “imposing one’s views” upon or violating our fellow citizens’ freedom of conscience.
To persons convinced that abortion is immoral, it will also be evident then, I should think, that it is right and proper to do one’s best to make that view prevail in our society. No less than the slavery that marred our past history, and the racial and economic injustice, street crime, drug trade, and abuse of the defenseless young and old that plague us today, the spread of the abortion culture must concern all who care about the well-being of our society. To say that one is “personally opposed” to abortion while being indifferent in the face of the militant advocacy with which it is being fostered by many of our intellectual leaders and social institutions, or even to support their efforts, in my judgment, makes no sense.
So far we have said nothing, however, about the desirability of enacting legislation that would forbid altogether, or impose limits upon, procedures intended to terminate fetal life. More likely than not, this is where our disagreement will become most evident. It may well be that what you really mean when you say that you are “prochoice” is that you oppose the enactment of statutes that would preclude, for those so inclined, a legally permitted choice to have an abortion. My earlier assurance that we, by our very nature, have freedom of choice in the sense of the capability of acting as we choose would matter little, you may say, if the law were to forbid what I want to do.
Legislative proposals to restrict abortion could, of course, be of many different sorts, from laws that would merely prohibit governmental funding or impose certain requirements, to prohibition with or without specific exceptions. Being “prochoice” may mean that you would reject any and all legislation, or only the most severely restrictive.
It seems almost grotesque to hear persons who claim that they are against “trampling on the rights of others” strenuously opposing even laws that would allow persons the freedom not to have any of their tax money subsidize expenditures that seriously violate their conscience, or laws that restore to parents of pregnant adolescent girls the opportunity to exercise their responsibilities to provide them guidance in their immature years. But I would think that a nation such as ours, which proclaims itself to be in the vanguard of the modern world’s struggle to advance human rights, should be prepared to go well beyond those legislative measures, which call for a bare minimum of courage and reasonableness. Nor will the demise of Roe v. Wade, however much to be hoped for, be enough to restore to our culture a decent respect for unborn human life.
Sad to say, our national character has been so eroded that it increasingly shows itself insufficient, without the support of strong legislation, to overcome the carefully contrived opposition to this fundamental human right. Whether by way of a constitutional amendment or legislative statute, the contribution of law, it seems to me, must once again in our history be an integral part of this drive for justice for the defenseless.
Whatever might be your position concerning this latter admittedly personal opinion of my own—and you may well feel the need to give much more thought to these matters—there is room, I admit, for honest disagreement when the question is: What legislation, if any, would best serve the common good under present circumstances? It has quite legitimately been pointed out that sometimes legislation can do more harm than good, especially in situations where the citizenry is deeply divided. Flagrant disregard of a specific law, it has been argued, tends to undermine respect for the law in general. There is no denying the validity of this concern.
But such an objection to abortion legislation has a somewhat hollow ring when one recalls that much of the present confusion on this issue has resulted in large part from the U.S. Supreme Court’s own act of striking down virtually all previous abortion legislation in the Roe decision, and from the massive propaganda campaigns that have been waged since 1973 in support of that decision. It has long been recognized that the presence or absence of a law is itself a potentially effective educational instrument. The virtual abortion-on-demand situation in America today, with which an estimated 80 percent of the people are said even now to disagree, would seem of itself to be an eloquent argument in favor of the need for appropriate legislation. Was it not precisely because of the widespread disagreement, particularly in the southern states, on what constitutes racial justice that the need for further Federal civil rights legislation became evident in the 1960s? The irony should be apparent when many of the same ‘‘liberal” voices who strongly supported civil rights laws in similar circumstances are today raised in opposition to any proposed abortion legislation.
Obviously, the issue in this country as to what, if any, legislative action is required in the area of abortion is far from settled. In the meantime, it would be reassuring if persons “personally opposed” to abortion who are presently also opposed to legislation could be counted upon, as responsible citizens, to do what they can by other means to help eradicate what they claim to regard as a serious blot on our civilization. Here I have in mind particularly those who are or would aspire to be our political leaders in these troubled times. Does it not seem disingenuous for such persons to set aside as a matter of merely personal belief what they themselves recognize as a serious social problem?
Public officials, if they are really sincere in their professed personal abhorrence of abortion, could reasonably be expected, it seems to me, to be doing all in their power, at least by means short of proposing appropriate legislation (if their “political conscience” does not permit that), to help a divided people to recognize abortion as a terrible blemish on our society. Would we have any respect for a civic leader who stood silent and inert in the face of racial bigotry or child molestation or degradation of women, all the while protesting that he also is “personally opposed” to such heinous behavior? What political considerations could conceivably justify such a stance, then, with respect to abortion in today’s America?
Marc F. Griesbach is Professor of Philosophy emeritus at Marquette University.