“Whenever I hear anyone arguing over slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.”—Abraham Lincoln, speech to Fourteenth Indiana Regiment, March 17, 1865
One of the strongest arguments for abortion is the argument that since there are so many problems in the world and so many people suffering, then why focus on this? Why value these lives when there are so many other lives to value? It all comes down to luck. If you’re born into a life that ends sooner rather than later, then join the club. Being aborted is your bad luck. It’s the ideology that says, “Hey fetus, it sucks for you. Life is hard, and there are tons of people around the world who have a bad shake in life. There are people in Africa who go without water. There are people who die every day from malnutrition or disease, and so you, the unborn, have been dealt an unfortunate hand. You got a bad set of cards, and so you have to die. Your situation is no different from anyone else’s who is suffering. You’re not the first. It happens.”
This is a strange argument because we never hear it unless someone is speaking to us quietly and in confidence.
No one makes this kind of argument publicly. The argument is ultimately a private justification for abortion. A lot of the public arguments for abortion aren’t really justifications. They’re rationalizations. A rationalization is a way of supporting something that you believe anyway. You’ve already come to a conclusion, and you’re going to give a reason, any kind of reason, to support it. But it’s not necessarily the real reason you believe what you believe. A justification is why you actually hold a particular position, and with abortion it’s clear that we have two types of arguments: public arguments that are mainly rationalizations and private arguments, what people really think, which are justifications. So, this falls into the category of what people really think, a justification. It’s an unspoken argument, and people don’t like to say it because it sounds really harsh. People will say things like this if they are in familiar company, but the fact that they don’t say it openly doesn’t mean they don’t believe it.
This argument is ultimately based on a certain kind of realpolitik. We all get dealt a certain hand in life, and this is fair in a sense because the wheel of fortune is spun for all of us before we enter the world and it determines our fate. You can be born a rich person. You can be born a poor person. You can be born with a low IQ. You can be born with a high IQ. You can be born with a susceptibility to baldness. And that’s just the way it is. That is, you may say, the natural order of things, and we have no alternative but to accept it. There are people who pretend to care about things. They pretend to be deeply upset about the injustices in the world. They pretend to be deeply moved by the plight of the Thai factory worker or the illegal alien or even the snail darter. These are fashionable causes. People pretend to care about them because it makes them look good to their friends without having to sacrifice anything. (Very few actually stop riding on planes in protest of climate change, and very few stop buying clothes made in sweatshops.)
But they’re not going to even pretend to care about a fetus because it doesn’t help them in any way. This is not a fashionable cause, at least not in contemporary, left-wing culture. Professing your concern for the unborn doesn’t win you brownie points, and so there’s no reason to pretend.
The appeal to luck and to the cards dealt by nature is ultimately an appeal to human selfishness. It rests on the underlying belief that we don’t actually care about people who are in other situations, and we don’t need to care. Our indifference to other people is actually correct. It is an advocacy, one may say, of selfishness, and the strength of the argument is that human nature is selfish.
Adam Smith, the great philosopher of capitalism, gives the example of sitting at your breakfast table, let’s say, somewhere in America or in London, and you hear that there has been a terrible earthquake in China; thousands of people have been killed. What is your reaction? Smith says that your initial reaction is to feel terrible and to make some declamations about how unfortunate and tragic it is, but within a few minutes, he insists, you’re right back to eating your breakfast. You essentially are in the same mood that you were before you found out about the earthquake. In other words, the earthquake doesn’t affect you at all. Your selfishness is so consuming; in fact, to go further one might say that if you had an itch under your foot, that would bother you more than the prospect of thousands of people being wiped out in a natural calamity in some remote part of the world.
Adam Smith uses this example to say that our thinking about the world begins and is rooted in our own interests, our own welfare. Then we begin to care about others only reluctantly, only in lesser degrees, and one may say in concentric circles stretching out from ourselves and then reaching to first our family and then our neighbors and then maybe our larger community or country and only then, and in the slightest way, the rest of humanity.
Now, taking Adam Smith’s argument on its face, we have an added puzzle with the abortion issue where we don’t just have a mother watching with indifference as a child dies, we have a mother actively taking steps to kill her own child. Selfishness normally includes the interests of our children and our family. Abortion goes against what would seem to be the natural order. Normally, parents go out of their way to look out for their children. This is the cord of nature itself, and typically we interpret our own welfare, our own interests, as including the interests of our spouses and our children. And so we have to understand why the cord of nature gets broken in the case of abortion, in which the interest of the mother is seen as set against the interest of the child.
Selfishness has never been understood to be a virtue in two thousand years of Western civilization. The philosopher Ayn Rand is almost unique in the argument she makes in her book The Virtue of Selfishness. Rand argues that selfishness is good. She argues that the two-thousand-year tradition of condemning selfishness is wrong. After all, Rand says, we come into the world by ourselves. We struggle to survive and to flourish, and this is not only what we do but what, in Rand’s view, we ought to do. Therefore, she says altruism is a kind of attack on human self-esteem. People have every right to think about themselves first and perhaps even last and to pay less attention to the wants and needs of others. In other words, we value others only to the degree that they help us.
One could say that even one’s children, for example, become ultimately assets to their parents—and that the parents care about them but only because the children are seen as extensions of themselves. So, the parents in that case are still looking out for their own self-interest. Where their self-interest contradicts the interests of others, Rand sides with the self. Rand says famously, “I swear by life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”
While Rand acknowledges the selfish side of human nature, there is also a side to human nature that is empathetic. Adam Smith, himself, understood this in a book that he wrote before The Wealth of Nations, a book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Adam Smith talked about the other side of human nature, and this is, you may say, the unselfish side, the empathetic side. Adam Smith argued that this, too, is basic to human beings. When we see somebody else in pain, someone who, for example, banged into a table and is buckled over, we cringe. Why? Because we know what it’s like, what it feels like to bang into a table. We have banged into tables ourselves. We have felt the sharp pain, and so even though we’re not feeling it now, we identify with others, and we feel for them. This is empathy, and empathy, Adam Smith argues, is what connects us to our fellow man. This empathy is not a repudiation of selfishness. In fact, it builds upon selfishness. We only know what it feels like for somebody else to feel pain because we have felt pain ourselves. Perhaps not the same pain, but we can relate to pain in our human experience.
I think here of the Golden Rule stated by Jesus in Matthew 7:12, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is in some ways understood as an appeal to altruism, to helping others, but notice that it helps others according to a standard dictated by selfishness itself. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is based on the idea of how would you like to be treated. And that supplies the standard. Morality, far from denying selfishness, acknowledges it because we can put ourselves in the shoes of another.
John Rawls, the great philosopher of social justice in the 20th century offered a unique way to think about justice in his book A Theory of Justice. Before diving into his theory of justice, I would like to point out that Rawls himself was pro-choice. In a lecture he gave at the University of Chicago, he attributes a majority of the pro-life argument to the religious domain. I will be focusing here on the theory he is most famous for, which is his theory of justice.
Rawls begins by considering luck. We sometimes contrast luck with merit. We contrast, for example, something that happened accidentally, let’s say, winning the lottery, with something that is achieved, such as working hard and getting high grades in a class. But Rawls says, “Wait a minute? How did you get those high grades? You were born with a high IQ or you had a favorable social environment when you were young, and this helped you develop study habits and the work ethic.”
He believes that much of our position in life is due to luck. In fact, Rawls says virtually all of it is: from the position into which we were born, our family, even our DNA and IQ, which allow us to change the position we were born into. Rawls would say that the work ethic you learned was from modeling someone else. So, in other words, what Rawls is saying is that even things that are normally attributed to merit are in some sense the product of luck. And what is the moral status of luck? Rawls says that luck, by itself, is neither just nor unjust. Luck is just luck, but what we do with luck, what we as a society or what we as individuals do with a situation, is what determines whether we are acting justly or unjustly.
Whenever we try to establish a formula for a just society, Rawls says, we are very likely to create a society that benefits us. If you’re an intellectual, you’re going to say intellectuals should design society. If you’re a banker, you may say bankers should run society. So, we have to create a thought experiment, where we don’t know what position we’ll be in, what job we’ll be in in society, in order to think about what justice means.
In fact, to apply Rawls’s experiment to our situation, we don’t know if we’ll be born at all. We don’t know if we’ll be aborted in the womb or left on the hillside to freeze to death, as was a common practice for the Spartans. We don’t know. So, we have to design a society recognizing that we could end up in any of those positions. Now what kind of society, Rawls asks, would we design?
His answer is simple: we would design a society in which our prospects for a terrible outcome would be minimized. This makes sense. We wouldn’t try to set up a society in which there is a reasonable chance that we would be killed or prevented from exercising our life choices. We would try to set up society in such a way that although there may be inequality and although some may have more than others, people have what the Declaration of Independence stated: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We would also want to create a society with freedom and opportunity so that people had the chance to move up. We would want people to be protected from crime.
But even before we discuss how society would look as far as opportunity, merit, success, and all of the things life entails, we would try to design a society in which there is life in the first place. We would try to design a society where one can do the most basic thing there is and that is to live. The starting point would have to be that those in the womb, who are coming into the world, would have a chance to be born. They would at least have a chance to make it into the world and would not be rudely interrupted in the womb by our own hand. This is simply the starting point upon which we could build a just society.
Rawls claims that because we already know our status in life, we are biased toward our position. I think this is true of many, especially when asked to think about abortion. Ronald Reagan wryly observed, “I’ve noticed that everyone who is for abortion has already been born.” And this quip is in a way an appeal to the Rawlsian argument. It is a way of saying, “Gee, now that you’ve been born, it’s very easy to selfishly declare that those who have not been born can be killed at will. It’s easy to take away their freedom.” We must remember that this isn’t simply a thought experiment since every one of us was once a fetus. We all were in that position at one point. So as a former fetus, I oppose abortion. We all should. Barack Obama said, “If my daughters make a mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby.” But what if your daughter was that baby? This argument only works when you know that you’re in the position of the stronger, not the weaker, party.
We sometimes hear of people who have reached the top kicking the ladder out from under them. They’ve already gotten to the top. They don’t care about the ladder anymore. Why? Because they’ve made it, and so goodbye ladder. Let everybody else fend for themselves at this point. Those who argue that being aborted is your bad luck somehow think that by caring about unborn babies you are caring less about a different group of people. But, of course, this is not the case because these things are not mutually exclusive. If we don’t care about this injustice, abortion, one of the biggest injustices in the world in terms of numbers, a genocide beyond measure, why care about other injustices? Why try to solve hunger? Why fight racial discrimination? Why try to cure disease?
I condemn the “shrug your shoulders, throw up your hands” attitude. If we left everything to luck, we would never invent anything new, think anything new, or do anything of consequence. We would live in a society where the strongest people always overpower the weaker ones and civilization would be dramatically set back. To say it’s fair for someone to be aborted, to be tortured, just assumes that you’re not the one being tortured. And you’re not. You will never be in the womb again, it’s true, you’re not the one being aborted. I realize that it’s tempting to shrug your shoulders and feel like “it sucks for you” as long as it’s not you.
This is no way for a decent civilized society to think. This is not the way that we should think. Life does suck in many ways, I am not denying it, but let’s work hard to make it suck less. One way to do that is to reduce the outrageous killing of the innocent, the killing that is abortion.