Right to life: An argument with two sides

One clear principle which gets almost universal support is that right to life is the entitlement of normal functioning and complete human beings who pose no danger to themselves or others.

Thus for example the article 6.1 of the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was passed by the United Nations General Assembly to state:
“Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his (sic?) life.

This declaration is widely supported with a majority of nations outlawing capital punishment with a typical exception being in time of war or national emergency.
Where however, the issue is understood to be murky in so far as there are many supporters on both sides of the debate, is the question of whether or not dignity of life should take precedence over the general right to life. One typical point of dispute is the question of when termination of life is permissible for those who are no longer able to live with any semblance of dignity. Others argue the wisdom of bringing an unwanted life into total existence and there are further questions relating to how old an unborn child should be before being declared to be fully human.

Both sides of the right to life debate employ rhetoric but that should not distract us from clarifying the issues and motivation behind the debate. While as a non US citizen I am not normally attracted to US lawmaking it seems to me that a helpful starting point is the list of unalienable rights from the United States Declaration of Independence with its attention in particular to: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. It further seems to me that many of the disputes surrounding the Right to Life debate are strongly held precisely because the protagonists are focussing on different parts of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. I also wonder if the grouping within society to which one belongs has the potential to both strengthen particular viewpoints and heighten the sense of frustration when one moves outside the group to face those with a different point of view.

Bible literalists with a strong sense of the absolute priority of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”, and supported in their Church fellowship by those of like mind, perhaps even believing failure in this commandment is to endanger one’s chances for eternal happiness in heaven might find it difficult in the extreme to argue their case before those who had a very different view of the Bible and those who might be more concerned about quality and happiness of life in the here and now. The personal circumstances of the protagonists might also matter. A young mother-to-be facing an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy particularly one in the grip of extreme poverty, is hardly likely to welcome a birth in the same way as a healthy, financially secure middle class woman with the resources to bring up the child without a threat to livelihood. The victim of rape or the mother-to-be facing the grave and total responsibility of carrying a severely damaged but potentially viable foetus to full term pregnancy is likely to view the prospect of the birth to come with mounting concern and probably finds it hard to accept the automatic need to carry the child to full term.

Since conservative Christians are often among those expressing support for the pro-life lobby we might also note in passing in Old Testament times that the foetus was not considered to be fully human and the Jews themselves defined the moment for becoming fully alive as when the child being born was half way out of the birth canal. Killing a foetus was not considered murder in the complex set of rules and commandments accepted by the Jews, whereas killing the mother was. The modern medical understanding is that regardless of problems in understanding when a developing foetus should be regarded as having sufficient development to have true potential as a human, birth before 22 weeks development is not normally expected to be survivable since prior to that date, the natural detergent in the baby’s lungs is insufficiently developed to allow the baby’s lungs to inflate. This then makes the decision to abort a child after the 22nd week more complex in an ethical sense.

Strictly speaking the two opposing poles in the argument are so far apart that even their rhetorical terms for the debate are different, with “Pro-life” the favoured term for those focussing on the anti-abortion case, wishing to support the rights of the unborn child, whereas “Pro-choice” is looking at the consequences particularly for the circumstances of the parent as the one who must deal with the birth and aftermath. As an aside I must say that here in New Zealand I personally have not seen those supporting one side of the debate caring much about the circumstances and feelings of those on the other. For example as one who some years ago who together with my wife, did a very little short term fostering, I remember Social Welfare assured my wife and myself it was very difficult to find suitable foster care for unwanted children. Where are all the Pro-life foster care services? Conversely those in the Pro-choice brigade are not always visible when it comes to supporting the long term trauma experienced by some of the mothers who have undergone abortion and subsequently had psychological difficulty. It may also be that the very high number of abortions actually performed in practice suggests that despite the rhetoric in the debate, many of the children aborted may have actually been terminated for convenience rather than from dire necessity.

Utilitarian ethicists like Peter Singer would argue that the right to life depends on more than simply being human. As he puts it since a right to life depends on the ability to anticipate and plan appropriately for life ahead, there would be circumstances such as extremely disabled infants (or even apes) who might be expected to cause suffering both to themselves and their parents might lead to a situation in which abortion, painless infanticide or euthanasia might be justified.

Because law-making on this issue often depends on the popularity of particular views different nations and states have come to very different conclusions. In places where there is evidence of strong dispute over the matter it is clear that variation of acceptance of the ethical issues is not uniformly accepted by the whole community.
While there is a degree of frustration for those seeking to have those with a different understanding and background shift their position, in reality there is a need for far more listening to those with different views before assuming that the rightness of ones own case is the one that should prevail. The Pro-life protagonists may well be correct that a potential human does have rights and that abortion is murder in one sense, but until the Pro-choice faction can see that the needs of the mother are properly being considered, and that any potential harm from the unwanted birth is minimised to the point it is acceptable, this is one debate which is likely to be with us for some time to come.

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