ABORTION (Lat. abortio,abortus — miscarriage (including induced miscarriage), from: aborire, abortire — to perish, to vanish) — the deliberate and immediate killing of a human being before birth (abortion must be distinguished from spontaneous miscarriage or a situation where the child in allowed to die without this being intended, where the death is the result of causes not dependent upon the author — abortus indirectus).
This issue is especially important in the 20th century because of the availability of technologies that make it easier to perform abortions and because of the spread of a mentality approving abortion.
The philosophical aspects of abortion concern in particular the moral evaluation of the act. The moral evaluation of abortion depends, on one hand, upon how the ontogical status of the conceived human being is defined, and on the other hand, upon what kind of criteria one assumes for the moral evaluation (the norm of morality).
THE ONTIC STATUS OF THE CONCEIVED HUMAN BEING. In ancient times and in the middle ages there were various positions on the beginning of human life. According to Tertullian, Plato thought that a human being does not acquire a soul until the moment of birth: with the child's first breath the soul is infused from outside of the mother's womb (Tertullian, On the Soul, 25, 2-4). Tertullian writes that Plato also held another conception: "I hardly know [which of Plato's two views I should believe], for here he here shows us that the soul proceeds from human seed (and warns us to be on our guard about it), not, (as he had said before,) from the first breath of the new-born child" (ibid.). Plato commanded that the unborn should be surrounded by special protection (Leg., VII, 789 A - 790 A). Tertullian thought that the Stoics, along with Aenesidemus, shared this opinion. Aristotle's position that the fetus becomes human forty days after conception in the case of a male, and ninety days after conception in the case of a female, had a particularly strong influence until the end of the middle ages (Gen. an., 2,3). It is thought that Aristotle did not treat these times as the moments when the fetus would acquire a soul (when the intellectual soul would appear). The Stagyrite was not certain whether this problem can be solved and he did not say when the human soul enters the body. Philo followed the Book of Exodus (21, 22) and said that the fetus is a human being if it is formed, while Tertullian stated that the embryo has a soul from the moment of conception, since the "substance of both body and soul […] are conceived, and formed, and perfectly simultaneously" (Tertullian, On the Soul, 25, 2; 37, 2). According to Tertullian, if someone thought that the body was conceived earlier than the soul, he would be compelled to distinguish the times of their respective inseminations; furthermore, "if different periods are to be assigned to the seminations then arising out of this difference in time, we shall also have different substances" (ibid., 25, 2; 37, 7). Tertullian regarded the fetus as a potential human person: "That is a man which is going to be one; you have the fruit already in its seed." (Apologeticum, IX, 8). St. Jerome, on the other hand, wrote that embryos are gradually formed in the womb (Letters, 121, 4). Jerome and Augustine both admitted that they did not know then the rational soul is given by God. Augustine truly accepted the Septuagint's distinction between the "fetus formatus" and the "fetus informatus", but this did not made the formation of the fetus the same as its acquisition of a spirit. He allowed that it is possible that unformed fetuses are endowed with a rational soul, but he did not settle the question of whether animation occurred at the moment of conception, when the fetus takes a human shape, or at the moment it makes its first movements.
Thomas Aquinas knew Aristotle's view on later animation and occasionally cited him on account of his scientific authority when he stated that God infuses a rational soul into the body only when the body is prepared (S. th., q. 100, a. 1). According to this theory, the embryo would undergo substantial changes: first it would possess a substantial form which was a vegetative soul, then the sensitive soul would take its place, and finally the rational soul would replace the sensitive soul. However, Thomas' position may be interpreted as follows: "the sequential generationes et corruptiones […] occur in an infinitesimal interval of time or completely outside of time, or to put it more strictly — in a temporal moment in instanti. In such a case, the theory of sequential substantial changes in the embryo could be brought into full agreement with the theory that the soul endowed with a mind was created by God at the moment of conception, and so at the moment of the first formation of the human embryo." (Thomas Aquinas, Traktat o człowieku [Treatise on Man], edited by S. Świeżawski, Pz 1956, 734). However, if we consider the scientific findings of our day we cannot hold the view that any substantial changes occur over the course of the life of the human being during the fetal stage.
Modern philosophical argumentation on the beginning the life of the human being as a person appeals to data from the natural sciences that show that when the sperm cell joins with the ovum the first living cell is produced; this cell possesses the human genetic code that henceforth without interruption directs the entire psycho-physical development of the human being. The identity of the system of man's operation from conception indicates that there is one and the same source for these operations, and this we call the human soul. The position that the human soul first appears at the moment when the body is properly organized must be rejected, since "we see the identity of the system of operation according to the inherited code. The soul is simple in itself and is not capable of successive exchanges; either it is whole or it is not. If it is one and the same source of operation, then it is one and the same soul in this operation as the intellectual soul which prepares for itself […] its own organism distinct from that of its mother and father, the human body which at the right moment allows intellectual cognitive activities and together with this the whole ensemble of man's spiritual activities" (Krąpiec Dzieła [Works] XX 302]. The soul as the being's act of existence cannot be prior to the being itself.
It is also shown that theories that human existence does not begin until some moment after conception do not respect the elementary principles of being and thought. Since man's life is a continuum and at the same time a uniform and identical process (as is indicated by the natural sciences), and the man is the point at which this process aims, then any attempts to locate the beginning of man's existence at some other time than at the moment of conception are contrary to the principle of sufficient reason, as well as the principle of non-contradiction and identity. Furthermore, all the theories that state that the beginning of human life is later than at the moment of conception (e.g. based on the criterium of the moment of birth, the ability to exist on one's own, the possession of consciousness, the development of nerve tissue, the ability to move, etc.) arbitrarily take some stage of human development as the determining factor in the existence of the human being. This leads to absurd consequences when one is forced not to recognize as human beings those who are certainly are human beings.
Some of the findings of embryology (the fact that until the time of implantation, two or more organisms can arise from one embryo, or that two zygotes can unite into one individual) have influenced some thinkers to accept the theory of successive animation (e.g. K. Rahner, W. Ruff, T. Ślipko). Some thinkers regard this theory as more probable than the theory of simultaneous animation. Some argue that the phenomenon of monozygotic twins does not provide sufficient grounds for rejecting the theory of simultaneous animation (at the moment of conception). Because of the particular epistemological and methodological character of such statements (such statements belong to the experimental sciences and furthermore they can have only a hypothetical character), the ethical conclusions remain the same as when one presupposes simultaneous animation.
THE MORAL EVALUATION OF ABORTION. In ancient Greece and Rome abortion was generally accepted, while the Jews and Christians clearly and constantly condemned it. Seneca noted that abortion was universal and regarded the custom of killing and drowning lame and deformed newborn fetuses and children as fitting. He thought it was the proper decision since "we separate the sick from the healthy", yet he had a negative opinion of abortion. He recalled that despite the prevailing customs his own mother "did not frustrate the hopes of progeny that were conceived with her" (Seneca, Letter of Consolation to his Mother Helvia, XVI).
Plato allows abortion and infanticide for eugenic reasons and to control the number of people in the ideal state: "The proper officers will take the offspring of the good parents to the pen or fold, and there they will deposit them with certain nurses who dwell in a separate quarter; but the offspring of the inferior, or of the better when they chance to be deformed, will be put away in some mysterious, unknown place, as they should be." (Resp., 5, 461 c). In the Laws (5, 740 D), Plato presents colonization, but not abortion and infanticide, as a sufficient means for avoiding overpopulation: if "there be an excess of citizens, owing to the too great love of those who live together, and we are at our wits' end, there is still the old device often mentioned by us of sending out a colony, which will part friends with us, and be composed of suitable persons." Aristotle also justified abortion: "As to the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live, but that on the ground of an excess in the number of children, if the established customs of the state forbid this (for in our state population has a limit), no child is to be exposed, but when couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun; what may or may not be lawfully done in these cases depends on the question of life and sensation." (Polit., 7, 16, 1335 b).
Philo regarded the killing of one's own children as murder in the highest degree, for it is the murder of one's own offspring. Clement of Alexandria states that Christians should not "destroy the genus of men, which is born by divine providence, by shameful and malicious arts: those women who take deadly medicines to induce a miscarriage to hide their fornication lose their own humanity at the same time as they lose their fetus." (Paedagogus, 2, 10, 96). Athenagoras also condemned abortion (Legatio pro christianis, 35, PG 6; 950). Tertullian said that "To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth"(Apologeticum, IX, 8). Jerome and Augustine both admitted that they did not know the moment when the fetus became animated, but they condemned abortion irrespective of the age of the fetus as the homicide of one's own child. Augustine condemned the slaying of children before they are born (De nuptiis et concupiscentiis, I, 18 [xv]). Basil of Cappadocia described abortion as murder irrespective of any distinction between the "formed" and the "unformed" fetus (Letters 188, PG 32, 672).
In the Sentences of Peter Lombard (4, 31), he argues that the animation of the fetus takes place only when it has been formed, and to cause an abortion when the fetus has been animated is homicide. The text cannot be taken as a moral approval of the abortion of an "unformed" fetus. In his commentary on the Sentences (In IV Sent., 4, 31, 18), St. Thomas treats the use of abortifacients as a "sin against nature". In the Summa Theologica Thomas comments upon the Book of Exodus (21, 22) and describes the causing of a miscarriage by hitting a pregnant woman as "accidental homicide" ("homicidium casuale") (S. th., II-II, q. 64, a. 8, resp.). Both Thomas and Albert the Great regarded sexual relations in the later period of pregnancy as a serious moral evil (a serious sin) because of the possibility that it could cause a miscarriage. Thomas also rejected the idea that abortion can be allowed for the good of the child (In IV Sent., 1, 1, 3, ad 4). In his opinion, for the eternal good of the child he may not be "split off from his mother" in order to remove him from the womb and baptize him; it is also not permitted to kill a child before birth to save him from some earthly misfortune (e.g. because of mental retardation). Thomas resorts to the principle that the "end does not justify the means", or in other words, that one may not do evil that good may come of it. Aquinas also provided some principles that are indispensable in the moral evaluation of so-called therapeutic abortion, that is, the killing of the child in order to save the life of the mother, and in distinguishing this act from "abortus indirectus". In his opinion, homicide in self-defense is proper if the death of the other person is the unintended result of an action that was aimed at saving one's own life (S. th., II-II, q. 64, a. 7).
The first expression of approval for abortion in European philosophy may be found in the Marquis de Sade's book, La philosophie dans le boudoir (1795), in which he justifies such actions performed to the end of controlling the population. This is also in harmony with the apotheosis of lust and coercion in his writings.
The norm of morality may be subjectivized in various ways (when activity is not brought into agreement with objective reality, but rather with some factors which are ultimately subjective). The subjective approach may allow for a positive evaluation of abortion. In some situations, a "calculus of pleasure" (ethical hedonism) may favor abortion. The decision of the subject (autonomous deontonomism) or what is seen as a morally authoritative instance outside the subject (heteronomous deontonomism) may favor abortion. It is essential to a moral judgment that it should be based upon the perception of the truth about objective reality in which the acting subject finds himself, especially the truth about who the subject of an action and the person addressed in that action are in their ontological and axiological structure. If abortion is the taking of the life of an innocent and defenseless human person, then this act is always and everywhere morally wrong. Life is man's fundamental good and it gives meaning to all the other goods of man. To take someone's life means to disrespect the ontic and axiological status of the human person addressed in our action. The act is always and everywhere wrong because no real conflict is possible between life (and the respecting of life is the necessary condition for affirming the value of the person) and any other higher good (and respect for any such higher good is at the same time a condition for affirming the value of the person).
It is wrong to present abortion as a situation of defense against an unjust aggressor in which it is permitted to apply proportional measures to save oneself from some act of aggression. A child before birth cannot be qualified as an aggressor because he cannot perform rational and free actions.
No possible doubts about the humanity of the fetus can change this moral qualification of abortion, because when someone undertakes an action which may be the killing of a human being, that person in fact is consenting to the possible killing. Aquinas recalls the incident described in the Book of Genesis (4, 23) and writes that "[…] he who does not remove something whence homicide results whereas he ought to remove it, is in a sense guilty of voluntary homicide" (S. Th. II-II, q. 64, a. 8). For these reasons, the moral evaluation of abortion in the middle ages (which is different from the legal evaluation, which required that the punishment should be pronounced for the good of the accused, and this punishment was adapted to the views concerning nature prevalent at the time) was independent of the accepted view concerning the time of animation.
The justification of abortion in terms of the expectation that thereby some good will be achieved (e.g. that the mother's life will be saved, or that she might be spared sufferings resulting from rape or difficult material conditions) implies the impermissible treatment of the person of the child as nothing more than a means to the end of some other person. Meanwhile the human person by reason of his status as being (his rationality and freedom allow him to define and to choose his own ends by himself) and his axiological status — his axiological status does not depend upon the circumstances of his conception or living conditions (the person as a "bonum honestum", as a good in himself) — definitely cannot be treated as a means to an end.
The killing of the child before birth in order to save the life of the mother in cases where these goods are in conflict is also not morally justified. This situation must, however, be distinguished from cases where the obligation to save the life of a woman in immediate danger justifies a medical intervention (abortus indirectus) which has the indirect result — an unintended but unavoidable result — of the death of the child (e.g. the surgical removal of part of the ovary in order to identify a so-called extra-uterine pregnancy which poses an immediate threat to the lives of both mother and child). Cases where the death of an unborn child is merely permitted must be distinguished from cases where the child is directly put to death in order to save the mother's life. In the latter case the child is treated merely as a means to the end of another person, which as such is as morally unjustified as it would be to treat the mother merely as a means for the good of the child. Since persons can never be treated merely as means to an end, they must not be treated as such when a mother's life is in danger.
It is also morally impermissible to kill an unborn child who is mentally retarded (such killing is defended in vitalistic conceptions of man, e.g. F. Nietzsche, P. Singer, Z. Szawarski). The value of the person and the value of life that underlies this first value do not depend upon the person's state of health (no matter how what his illness or how serious it is, the sick person does not cease to be a human person equal in dignity to other persons). For this reason, the human person's state of health does not have any essential influence upon the moral evaluation of the act of putting him to death.
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