Bradley Butterfield’s column (Thursday’s Tribune) that said the abortion debate should focus on women’s rights reflects flawed thinking and makes false representations of the pro-life view.
Butterfield says asking when life begins is the wrong question. He also says many pro-lifers believe they should be allowed to force their beliefs on others.
There is a reason why the abortion debate centers on when life begins instead of when rights begin because it’s generally agreed that all people have a basic right to life.
If the unborn are people, they deserve our protection. Pro-lifers are not imposing a religious belief on others by taking this view, they are extending a principle that even liberals accept.
Butterfield’s preferred starting point, however, illustrates that “personhood” status is not particularly relevant to him or other liberals.
By way of example, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minverva, paying homage to Peter Singer as Butterfield does, argue in a 2012 Journal of Medical Ethics article that the fact that both fetuses and newborns “are potential persons is morally irrelevant.” They say that “when circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible.”
If we no longer link rights with personhood, what becomes our guiding principle?
According to Butterfield, the highest moral virtue is to avoid cruelty. To suffer requires cognition, which, he says, the human fetus is incapable of. You cannot be cruel to something, he says, that cannot suffer.
Obviously, there is no reason this principle can’t be extended. Indeed, Peter Singer argues that children up to age 2 don’t necessarily have a right to live.
But why stop there? In a June 2010 opinion column, Singer asks how good does life have to be, to make it reasonable to bring a child into the world? He argues that if we could see our lives objectively, we would see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone.
On this view, everyone will suffer to some extent, so we can be sure that some future children will suffer severely. His conclusion: Everyone in the world should sterilize themselves. Why cause unnecessary suffering to future generations?
Or consider bio-ethicist Jacob Appel, who takes issue with parents of children born with birth defects having the choice to kill their child. Why? Because doctors should make that choice, not parents.
In a 2009 journal article, he argues that a child with a birth defect will endure several years or even decades of extreme suffering, which trumps the suffering the family might endure if the state intervened and killed the child. He argues that this is “an inevitable consequence of our progress toward liberal humanism.”
And indeed it is.
Appel, like Singer, is anything if not consistent. In a 2009 Huffington Post article he argues that we ought to allow women to pay their way through college by conceiving babies, aborting them and then selling the body parts.
“If a woman has the fundamental right to terminate a pregnancy, why not the right to use the products of that terminated pregnancy as she sees fit?” Appel asks.
If someone “incapable of basic cognition and of suffering of any kind” does not have an intrinsic right to life, what about someone under general anesthesia? By definition, such people are incapable of suffering.
The liberal argument appears internally inconsistent. If it’s applied consistently, we see outrageous outcomes, seriously suggested the harvesting of fetal organs, euthanizing of already-born children with — and without — parental consent, all the way up to and including the actual elimination of the human race. That would solve Butterfield’s concerns about overpopulation, I think.
I actually agree that the important question is not “when does life begin?” However, the right one is not “when do rights begin?” but rather “where do our rights come from?”
Butterfield believes that society imparts those rights. Therein lies the true difference in our views. We know of societies that have elevated “don’t cause unnecessary suffering” over even the right to live.
Historically, where “when do rights begin?” has been taken as the starting point, only horrors have followed. Choose your starting points carefully; whatever your intentions, your final destination may not be what you had in mind.
Tony Horvath is a past president of Wisconsin Lutherans For Life.