The Abortion Dilemma: Legal Isn’t Always Ethical

America’s bitter and divisive debate over abortion might become more productive if we began to focus on the ethics of the procedure rather than its legality. In order to protect women’s abortion rights from legislative or judicial restrictions, many pro-abortion advocates have embraced the concept that it is a morally neutral act that should never engender criticism, condemnation or shame. As tactically effective as this approach might be, it is also wrong, and arguably deceptive.

Abortion always involves trade-offs and balancing, and these involve values. It is the responsibility of an ethical person to exercise legal rights responsibly. Exercising this legal right involves the elimination of some form of human life. That throws some substantial weight on one side of the scales. If that side does not encounter legitimate counter-weight from the other side…if the values there are minor, or trivial, or easily met with less momentous consequences…then an abortion is still legal, but may also be unethical.

A July article, “When One is Enough,” printed in the New York Times brought this to mind. A woman named Amy Richards related to writer Amy Barrett how she decided to terminate two of the three triplets she discovered she was carrying. Richards says she never really considered having all three children:

Not only would I have to be on bed rest at 20 weeks, I wouldn’t be able to fly after 15. I was already at eight weeks. When I found out about the triplets, I felt like: It’s not the back of a pickup at 16, but now I’m going to have to move to Staten Island. I’ll never leave my house because I’ll have to care for these children. I’ll have to start shopping only at Costco and buying big jars of mayonnaise. 

Instead, she elected to have a “selective reduction,” in which a doctor injected shots of potassium chloride into the hearts of two healthy fetuses, leaving one alive. Did she consider giving up two infants for adoption? The article doesn’t hint that she did. It was her right to choose, and not wanting to buy big jars of mayonnaise, she decided to stop two beating hearts. But ethically, we ought to require that some thought and balancing go into such a decision, and that it be treated as the ethical decision that it is. There need to be ethical guidelines for women like Amy Richards that do not leave the beating hearts out of the equation. And when we read about a decision like the one Richards describes, nobody should hesitate to question its validity.

Abortion is legal, and one doesn’t have to approve of abortion to agree that the specter of government and law enforcement forcing a woman give birth under threat of punishment is antithetical to basic democratic principles. That cannot be the end of the discussion, however. This, I believe, is what Bill Clinton meant when he said that he wanted to make abortion ” safe, legal, and rare,” an often-quoted statement that has been ridiculed by abortion foes who ask “If there is nothing wrong with abortion, why rare?” The answer is that just because an act is legitimately legal doesn’t mean it is always appropriate, responsible or ethical. Abortion must be safe because a woman’s health is at risk, legal because it is a private decision, and, yes, rare, because legal though it is, it is also often wrong.

If both sides can face that fact squarely and honestly, perhaps we can learn to struggle with abortion as the ethical dilemma it is. When ethics are involved, legalization is the beginning of the difficult choices, not the end of them.

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