This blog doesn’t discuss evil very often because it is not a term appropriately associated with ethics. Evil is a concept related to morality. In an ethics discussion, I would take evil to mean something extremely, irredeemably unethical by any ethical analysis or system. The statement “I think abortion is evil, but it is a necessary evil” appeared parenthetically in a comment by Beth, a frequent commenter on Ethics Alarms who is a mother and a lawyer, regarding the Planned Parenthood videos. Though the news media appears to have successfully distorted that story by focusing only on whether the videos were evidence of illegal “trafficking in body parts” by Planned Parenthood, that was not the reason I posted the essays, and it is not the reason those videos are significant in the ongoing debate over abortion rights. Two high ranking individuals in the organizations casually discussed the crushing and crunching of the heads and torsos of living and helpless individuals with the sensitivity I would associate with stepping on a roach. If this doesn’t disturb you, it should. If it does disturb you, as it did Beth, what does that mean?
Abortion is one of the most important and difficult ethics issues in the culture, indeed in world culture. It involves millions of lives and millions of deaths, law, bioethics, religion, social policy, science, human rights and feminism, as well as society’s ultimate respect for life itself. I have written about the ethics of the abortion debate frequently (you can find most of the relevant posts here), but to summarize the Ethics Alarms views on the topic:
1. Abortion is an ethics conflict, meaning that there are ethical principles in opposition to each other, requiring society to set priorities.
2. The absolutist position on the anti-abortion side is that abortion involves the taking of innocent human life, which begins from conception, and is thus unethical in all cases. It is a strong position if one accepts the underlying assumption.
3. However, no absolute position is really absolute. Every ethics absolute has an exception, or several: there must be some circumstances when abortion is necessary and right. (This is not true of moral absolutes, since moral absolutes are self defining. If the power dictating a moral precept says it is absolute, it is so.)
4. The absolutist position on the abortion side of the argument holds that a woman’s right to have complete dominion over her body, reproductive activity and health justifies abortion in all cases. This is not a strong position, and in fact is one that cannot be honestly argued or sustained. It supports abortion on demand for any purpose or preference, entirely at the mother’s discretion.
5. To make that argument, extreme pro-abortion advocates have had to deny the humanity and human rights of unborn children, even to the point of arguing that they are not individuals at all, but mere “parasites,” or “tumors.” The removal of a second life from the equation that is at the core of the abortion problem makes the abortion decision easy and guilt-free; it also settles the debate by pretending the central issue doesn’t exist. That issue is that there is another life involved, not just the mother’s.
6. The debate over the ethics of abortion has been handicapped by the tactic of both sides to pretend a legitimate interest championed by the other doesn’t exist. A woman’s ability to control her own life, career and what happens to her body is an important societal issue, yet the term “pro-life” ignores it entirely. It is not the only important interest involved in the abortion decision, however, as the term “pro-choice” suggests.
7. Neither absolute position, whatever its theoretical virtues, is practical from a policy perspective. Desperate women who are pregnant will seek abortions, people will help then (or exploit them, or kill them), and public policy cannot pretend otherwise. Society will not tolerate punishing women for aborting their unborn children, whether they deserve to be punished or not. Yet allowing mothers to have unborn children killed on a whim leads to the callous, ugly, dangerous attitude toward innocent life on display in the Planned Parenthood videos. Callousness toward any human life, history has shown us, is a slippery slope with the potential of doing terrible harm to the culture.
8. Roe v. Wade was a premature Supreme Court decision and a badly reasoned one. Until and unless it is overturned, abortion is a right. That does not mean, and never meant, that abortion necessarily is right.
9. Because absolutism fails here, abortion is a problem that demands utilitarian analysis–balancing of interests and values, in the best interests of society, long and short-term, and everyone in it, according to the facts as we understand them.
10. Balancing requires an honest acknowledgement that there is something to balance. The “pro-choice” and “pro-life” dichotomy doesn’t acknowledge that in their most extreme incarnations, and since abortion is currently a right, the pro-choice lobby detects no reason to yield to logic, science and reality.
When Beth wrote her comment, I immediately saw the value of discussing the abortion problem from the perspective of her assessment of it, even though I am not certain I agree with her. I am not certain that abortion is “evil” in all cases, and if it is, I do not agree that it is “necessary,” again, in all cases. The statement however advances the discussion, and the discussion needs advancing. I admire the fact that her statement acknowledges the need for balancing outcomes: the very designation of a “necessary evil” evokes utilitarianism over absolutism, which would hold that an “evil” is never ethical, and thus is never “necessary.” This is a starting point for debate and eventually consensus, because to have a productive debate, the pro-abortion forces have to be willing to accept and admit that there is an objective wrong in this equation—it doesn’t have to be called evil—the taking of innocent human life, however undeveloped, limited, or “potential.”
If abortion is evil, then calling it a necessary evil places the act in the same category as war. War is extreme utilitarianism: so vital is some interest that it justifies thousands if not millions of wrongs. However, not all wars are necessary. Are all abortions necessary? If an abortion is not necessary, is it then just evil, as in horribly unethical, and worthy of criminalization? Is a promiscuous individual using abortion as a primary means of birth control necessary if its is completely irresponsible? If abortion is inherently wrong (“evil”) as Beth holds, then does it not mean that it should be avoided in favor of other alternatives when possible? Isn’t allowing the child to live and allowing other parents to raise him or her preferable to the “evil” in most cases? Is abortion “necessary” or even defensible if, for example, the child is being aborted because it is female, or “not perfect,” or black, or, as may be possible to determine in the near future, it has been determined to have “the gay gene”? Necessary? Like World War II?
Or “necessary” like the Iraq War?
And thanks, Beth.