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Abortion ethics not so simple

Missouri Republican Rep. Todd Akin recently said some morally objectionable things about rape and abortion, but in his attempted apology he included a statement that can't be dismissed lightly by anyone interested in moral or legal justice: "I do not believe that harming another innocent victim is the right course of action." This invites a closer look at the logic behind the rhetoric over abortion and to see whether there is some merit to Mr. Akin's position that deserves a more thoughtful response than the name calling that has ensued.

The anti-abortion activists' best hope for a compelling argument against legalized abortions rests with the possibility that abortion is murder. Such an argument might occur in two parts: 1) If abortion is murder, then it is morally wrong. Abortion is murder; therefore, it is morally wrong; 2) If abortion is murder, then it should be outlawed along with other forms of murder. Abortion is murder; therefore, abortion should be outlawed.

Suppose the anti-abortion activists want to argue that abortion is immoral (Argument 1) and therefore should be illegal. Since many putatively immoral acts are legal, it would be logically insufficient to argue for the illegality of abortion merely on the grounds that it is immoral. For example, some believe that abusing legal intoxicants, such as alcohol, is immoral; yet it would be inappropriate to outlaw such behavior in the privacy of one's home. In short, the United States has made plenty of legal room for immoral acts.

Suppose, on the other hand, the anti-abortion activists want to argue that abortion should be illegal because it is a form of generally illegal behavior (Argument 2). In the absence of the first argument, the opposing side could offer examples of moral behavior that has been or is illegal but shouldn't be. In the Jim Crow South, it was illegal for a black person to use a whites-only public restroom, yet, surely it was not immoral to do so. So illegal behavior is not necessarily immoral, and the fact that an act is illegal doesn't automatically mean that it should be illegal.

The anti-abortion position becomes stronger if activists can show that abortion is immoral — and to such a degree that it should be illegal as well. Hence, the logical value of the premise that abortion is murder: If it is, and if murder is always wrong — morally and legally — then Mr. Akin is on to something when he says "harming another innocent victim" is not the right course of action. If abortion is murder, then it is murder no matter how the unborn was conceived.

Thus, proponents of legalized abortion have two logical options in responding to Mr. Akin: 1) challenge the premise that abortion is murder; or 2) argue that even if abortion is murder, it should be legally available to women who desire it.

If the first challenge is successful, then the second argument is unnecessary. Logically, it is uncertain whether it is possible to murder a cluster of human cells in the early stages of gestation, before the cluster has developed any but the genetic ingredients of a fully formed human being. To step on an acorn is not to fell an oak tree; to fry an egg — even a fertilized one — is not to cook a bird. Once the unborn is a fully formed human being, the question becomes more complicated.

If abortion at any stage in the pregnancy were murder, then it would be difficult to oppose Mr. Akin's claim that the unborn is a victim of murder no matter how it was conceived. Then proponents of legalized abortion would have to make the case that this is an instance of murder that should remain legal — and that would be a tough argument to make generally.

It is logically possible that abortion is murder, in which case Mr. Akin's concern for the "innocent victim" of abortion would be compelling — his callous remarks about the victims of rape notwithstanding. But the status of the unborn, especially in its early stages of development, remains too controversial to grant this premise unchallenged. Nevertheless, it would be good sportsmanship to grant the reasonableness of Mr. Akin's concern for the "innocent victim," if (as he appears to believe) his fundamental premise were correct.

Christopher Dreisbach is director of Applied Ethics and Humanities for the Division of Public Safety Leadership in Johns Hopkins University's School of Education and a transitional deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. His email is cdreisbach@jhu.edu.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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