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Essay Is Abortion Intrinsically Evil Notes

Theology Notes > Christian Ethics (focus on Medical ethics) Notes

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Is abortion an intrinsically evil act?
The debate over abortion is one of the most fiercely contested in civic, legal and religious spheres, although this should not surprise us, given that as a debate it brings under its remit issues including the rights of mothers, the rights of disabled children and the influence of religious values in civic or legal arbitration. It is, subsequently, a debate in which all parties, whether approaching the issue from an ethical, legal or theological context must be careful not to allow gut reactions and personal intuitions to inhibit the capacity for clear argument. Concerning specifically the question of abortion as an 'intrinsically evil act', we should look to examine from where this notion derives - both in terms of the secular notion of a 'right to life' and the Christian understanding of God's commandment not to kill human beings, such that we may try to establish under which circumstances 'abortion' and 'killing a human being' might not be the same thing. If this can be done, abortion will not necessarily be an intrinsically evil act. We should begin by examining the basic conservative position that might assert that abortion is intrinsically evil, and assessing whether the argument holds, making the distinction between a human being and a 'potential' human being. We will see that this discussion prompts us to examine the distinction between 'being human' and 'possessing personhood', and we will consider views on abortion that assert this distinction, and that label it irrelevant. I will conclude that whilst from a secular perspective abortion, once we adequately distinguish between continuing biological existence and actual personhood and between the value of actual and potential life, we will be able to conclude that those reasons that give all persons a 'right to life' may not apply to 'pre-personal' foetal life, such a perspective does not sit easily with a Christian perspective born out of a theological, not biological, conception of care for fellow humans. In its simplest form, the debate over the morality of abortion begins with the basic 'conservative position' of those who consider abortion to be morally reprehensible:1

1. It is wrong to kill an innocent human being.

2. A human foetus is an innocent human being. Therefore:

3. It is wrong to kill a human foetus.

The corresponding basic 'liberal' response attacks premise two, asserting that the human foetus is not actually a human being at all. The conservative response is to point to the continuum between foetus and human, and posit that no morally significant dividing line exists at which to distinguish between foetus and human. Thus, it is argued, we cannot distinguish, and we should consider the foetus to have the same rights as a human. The strength of the conservative position lies in this lack of an established dividing line that the liberal requires. One might consider birth to be a candidate, but the possibility that a baby can be born prematurely means it is possible that an infant no longer in the womb may be less well developed in terms of 1 P Singer, Practical Ethics, Cambridge (CUP, 1993), p140


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