The Philosophy of Abortion
The substance of our lives is divided between the subjective and the objective worlds. The objective is the part of our experience which is public. It consists of the things which are available to be discovered by anyone. “The sky is blue” is an objective statement of fact because it is knowable to anyone and does not depend on my acknowledgement of it.
What we call the subjective is the part of our experience which is private and known only to the individual. “I feel sad today” is a statement of fact, but one which is not knowable to anyone else but myself. I can tell people I’m sad and they may believe me, or they may discern it from my facial expression. But no one can actually feel my sadness. It is part of my subjective experience.
Only the most extreme materialist or idealist would deny that both our subjective and objective experiences are real. The controversy begins when we move to questions of values, morality and meaning. Is there such a thing as an objective right and wrong, or are all values merely subjective?
According to one view, when we state that, “murder is wrong” we are making an objective statement of fact, just as we are when we say, “the sky is blue.” This has been the position of most cultures and philosophers throughout human history. Hence, for convenience, I will call this the “traditional view.”
To those who hold the traditional view, things have value in themselves, that is, a real value apart from the operations of the human mind. For example, to a traditional American the American flag has value, not just because of what it represents, but because a certain value is intrinsic to the object itself. You are not supposed to let the flag get wet, soiled, or ragged.
Similarly, the human body has a certain dignity which is worthy of respect. Even after a person dies and the body becomes a corpse, it is still entitled to respectful treatment and burial.
Only recently, and only in western culture, a new view has risen to prominence which for convenience sake I will call the “liberal view.” According to this view, all statements pertaining to value or morality are only subjective statements. For example, when I say, “Murder is wrong,” what I am really saying is “I dislike murder,” or that, “murder is distasteful to me.”
According to liberalism, an object has no intrinsic worth or meaning. All statements regarding morality or value only refer to the subject, and not the object, of the statement. Values and valuation originate in the subject. The objective world is still acknowledged, of course, but its relation to the subjective experience is inverted.
Whereas in the traditional view, the subjective experience was always understood to be subordinate to the objective reality, in the liberal view, the subjective experience can dominate and overrule the objective reality. The objective world is drained of significance, meaning and value. These qualities are henceforth reserved for the subject alone.
An easy illustration of this thinking can be found in the walking reductio ad absurdum argument of Bruce Jenner. Jenner is objectively male in at least three important ways.
First, he is male in the anatomical sense—he has the male parts. Second, he is male in the social sense that people have always responded him and known him as a man, not just because of his appearance but because of how he has introduced himself and interacted with others his entire life. And third, he is male on the genetic level—he has an X and Y chromosome.
Liberal transgender advocates do not deny any of these objective facts. They are not living in a psychotic alternative reality where these things are not true. If they were, there would be no need to acknowledge someone like Jenner as “trans” gender. But for them these facts, which are part of objective reality, are drained of significance and value.
If Bruce Jenner, in his subjective experience, feels like a woman, then his body should be made to comply. His body, as object, has no intrinsic value. To the liberal, things to do not have value because of what they are but because of what they are to us. All qualities originate in the human mind, and no where else. Hence, the subject should be allowed to overrule the object whenever possible.
The extent to which human desires should be allowed to control reality is only limited by wealth, technology, and power. In other words, there are practical, but no theoretical, limits to this overruling.
This liberal view is what is often called moral relativism—the belief that all values are ultimately personal and therefore trivial. Whereas in the traditional view there is such a thing as a true opinion, in the liberal view there is no truth—only opinions.
Hence we arrive at the definition of liberalism handed down to us by Justice Kennedy in the landmark Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision of 1993: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
This dreamy gibberish is typical of Kennedy’s opinions but it makes for a fitting characterization of liberalism. In other words, what Justice Kennedy is saying is that when it comes to questions of value and of right and wrong, the subject cannot be constrained by the object.
Whether one holds the traditional or liberal view will have a profound influence, indeed nearly determine, what position one takes with regard to abortion and other life issues.
By and large, those who follow the traditional view will oppose abortion, while those who follow the liberal view will support “choice.” The reason for this comes down to how each answers the question of what constitutes the value of human life.
To someone who holds the traditional view the answer is simple. A human being is a human being, and, as such, is endowed with certain inalienable rights. To kill a human being is murder. Therefore abortion, which kills a human being, is murder. But to someone who holds the liberal view this is not so simple.
The following analysis does not apply to those I call “fake liberals.” They are the ones who support abortion because they are under the impression that the fetus in utero is not really a human life.
These people should be ridiculed wherever they are found. They have been taken in by the lies of the abortion industry that all that is at stake here are “blobs of tissue,” or, “the products of conception.” These are phrases designed to facilitate the wishful thinking of the mushy-minded.
Anyone who seriously debates this topic avoids such mistakes. As neurosurgeon Michael Egnor writes, “That human life begins at conception is a scientific fact, and has been recognized as such since the early 19th century when fertilization of the ovum by the sperm was first observed in the laboratory. That life begins at conception is as much a scientific fact as heliocentrism, and the fact that the earth is round, and water is H2O.”
But liberal bioethicists have no problem admitting the bare scientific facts. They understand that their job is not to explain why a fetus is not a human life but, rather, why a fetus is a life worth sacrificing.
These people are what I call “true liberals” because their support of abortion is not based on their ignorance of the facts but on an actual philosophical commitment to the liberal view.
Remember that according to the liberal view, things do not have value in themselves but only insofar as they are valued by somebody. This applies to human beings as well.
Liberals can acknowledge the fact that life begins at conception and that a fetus is a human life and still support abortion on-demand because, for them, the objective circumstances are not the decisive factor—just as Bruce Jenner’s male body is not the decisive factor in determining his gender.
Just as liberals create a distinction between “sex” (objective condition) and “gender” (subjective condition) when discussing LGBT politics, so, too, do they create a distinction between being human and being a “person” when discussing bioethics.
Being human is an objective condition; being a “person” is a subjective one. Determining the morality of abortion thus no longer hinges on whether a fetus is a human but whether a fetus is a “person.”
Justice Kennedy defined liberty as the “right to define one’s own concept of existence.” If we flip this definition around we can arrive at what it means to be a possessor of liberty and, therefore, what it means to be a person.
What we find is that, according to this reasoning, personhood is not the objective quality of being a living human, but rather the condition of being able to have subjective experiences.
Specifically, personhood is defined by the ability to attribute value to one’s own existence. An individual who cannot attribute value to his or her own life is not a person, even if they are human.
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