Liddick: Roe v. Wade and the failure of our moral imagination
January 21, 2013
Two astronauts are far from Earth aboard a terribly damaged spacecraft. Their life support is failing; there is not enough oxygen to reach home. One of them must die, or both will…
This hackneyed scenario appears in hundreds of movies about soldiers, firefighters, longtime friends and the like. It has a predictable ending, because Hollywood loves a noble sacrifice. So let’s change things up a bit: one of our intrepid space travelers has the ability to kill the other in a way her companion cannot counter.
Welcome to one of the wilder shores to which the 40-year-old Roe v. Wade decision delivered us. Consider the introduction a metaphor for the moral dilemmas sometimes encountered by the fact of human biology: for a time, two persons share the same body. And one has the power of life or death over the other.
The origins and history of Roe v. Wade are well-known, as is its impact on our society: by the time you have finished reading this column, 36 abortions will have taken place in the United States. According to statistics from the Guttmacher Institute, this day will see at least 55 elective abortions destroying viable infants in the womb; two of these will involve third-trimester abortions. A more perfect illustration of the perils of poking about in the “Penumbras of the Constitution” is hard to imagine.
The Roe decision is deeply schizophrenic. In producing the court’s decision, Justice Blackmun takes the reader on a torturous tour through the history of thought about when a fetus becomes a human being; he appropriates the Stoics, Aristotle, Hippocrates, St. Thomas Aquinas, Blackstone – and ends where he began: the state is not competent to judge.
This would seem to support the argument that women are free to obtain an abortion without restraint, since limitations imposed by state laws (the point in Roe) would violate one’s “privacy,” which the Justice notes helpfully, “is found nowhere in the Constitution.”
But Blackmun immediately backpedals, stating “with this, we do not agree.” And elaborates that, although there is a “right” to abortion that is beyond the law, “…the right, nonetheless, is not absolute, and is subject to some limitations…” So in the Supreme Court’s view, the law cannot prevent abortions – except when it can.
The justice offers some insight into factors which might render abortion permissible in the court’s eyes. The most damning? A pregnancy that “may force upon the woman a distressful life and future.” Or when “…continuing stigma of unwed motherhood may be involved.”
Distress? Stigma? How quaint. In our more enlightened times, who worries about those things? And we are more direct: if one’s pregnancy is a bother, end it. Personal freedom is more important than anything else. Right?
The problem with Roe v. Wade is, at its base, not a problem of law. It is a problem of moral vision. As an illustration may I present my third grandchild, Emma, who may be born by the time you read this. Many fanatical supporters of abortion argue that, to protect “a woman’s right to choose,” it is perfectly acceptable for a doctor to dismember an unborn child at her stage of development in the womb, extracting the parts with surgical clamps. It happens twice a day in our country.
What is moral about protecting women’s rights through infanticide? How did we get here?
Conversely, those who argue that a fetus, at whatever stage of development, is a person within the definition of the law not only have a very difficult case Constitutionally – as all justices writing in Roe v. Wade noted – but also in terms of anticipated consequences.
A miscarriage causes horrific personal anguish. Should a grief-stricken family have to suffer the additional pain of a police investigation to determine the cause of death? If a fetus is a legal person – and, given the circumstances, a complete invalid in the care of another – how can such a death not be investigated, to determine the caregiver’s degree of culpability? Any drinking involved? Drug use? Smoking? One can only imagine the results…
So, no. Ultimately the problem of when a human becomes human, and consequently of abortion, lies beyond the world of law; those looking at it strictly in those terms are looking in the wrong direction. This is one of the imponderables, involving as it does life, death, and moral judgment. Roe v. Wade may have made abortion in all its forms legal, but it did nothing to address the real question: is it right?
And that is an entirely different matter.
Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.