I had a discussion a few months back in the comment section of another blog about abortion prompted by the Supreme Court's decision to uphold Bush's partial birth abortion ban. I initially asked if the poster (a pro-life Catholic) believed that abortion should be allowed when the mother's health or life would be endangered by the pregnancy. I believe only Brownback says there should be no exception but I could be wrong and it is immaterial to this post besides.
If a response in the affirmative was elicited then what I intended to argue was that pro-lifers are not truly convinced of their oft repeated slogan that life begins at conception. The truth of this, they often say, is demonstrated by science but they show themselves to have quite little grasp of what it means to make a qualitative judgment based on facts and a quantitative one.
But I digress. If a pro-lifer allows that an abortion be permitted in cases where the mother's life is in danger then he has by course of logic admitted that a fetus is not a full human being and that sentience plays a role in the moral status we afford biological organisms. If life truly did begin at conception then the pro-lifer would be obliged to hold that no matter what stage of development and no matter what the risk to the mother, a fetus could never be aborted. I ask a person to contemplate to themselves whether it would be moral to force a woman to carry a fetus for nine months knowing that its development and delivery could mean the end of her life, and were it to come true would it be an acceptable outcome. I cannot rationalize to myself allowing a fully sentient woman undergo pain and death for the sake of an organism which is clearly not as capable of suffering as she is. It is clear that with regard to the fetus we are not talking about something that is fully human if in times when the life of the fetus and the life of the mother are in conflict, we give priority to the mother. Otherwise, as stated before the death of the mother should be a perfectly acceptable risk.
As I am not a doctor I do not know under what circumstances a partial birth abortion would be necessary to save the life of a mother but if it could be demonstrated that they would never be necessary then I would support the ban because the viability of the fetus is sufficient to grant it a moral status that precludes terminating it. This is provided that the decision is left in the hands of experts and not subject to external review where considerations other than medical would be brought to bear on the question. However, as viability is essentially a judgment call on the part of a doctor I would be wary of establishing laws, and punishments, which have as their basis judgments that are never exact. However unless there is a entirely urgent medical concern then I cannot justify granting a fetus which could be easily delivered by C-section the moral status of a turnip, which is what we do if we allow it to be terminated at will for we don't even allow that to happen to most animals.
Another question to be asked of pro-lifers who believe life begins at conception is what penalty should be imposed on a mother who has an illegal abortion if it were illegal? Under the belief that a fetus upon conception is fully human, the only fitting penalty to my mind would be that commensurate with a charge of first degree murder. Again if the organism terminated was a full human life then they would be obliged to pursue such charges. I am not sure who believes this to be a rational policy. I would not be surprised if they existed and I am sure they do but I suspect these people would be afflicted with such a fanatical and fundamentalist way of thinking that they would be incapable of rational discussion. And if the decision regarding the legality abortion were left to the states then I can easily see scenes reminiscent of Dred Scott being replayed with women fleeing states to escape murder charges and being dragged back. Quite fittingly, like Dred Scott, they would probably be fleeing north.
To say that life begins at conception is a useful slogan but one that has little correlation with reality both our intuitive moral sense of humanness and the practical consequences which would follow from legal implementation of such a view.