Tony Woodlief | Author

“Ethics Without Human Beings”

I came across this essay (via Curmudgeonry) by New York Times columnist Bill Keller, explaining the decision he and his wife made two years ago to abort their malformed child. It is thoughtful, and clearly painful for Keller to have written. It is also profoundly wrongheaded.

Keller directs an obligatory slap at pro-life advocates (what he calls the “anti-abortion lobby”, i.e., not real people), calling them shameless exploiters of the “illusion” that “tadpole-sized fetuses” are “full-grown infants.” Of course it wasn’t a tadpole that was extracted — kicking, by his wife’s account — from her womb at 20+ weeks, neither in size or substance. It wasn’t a tadpole they thought of as their son, and whom they named Charlie. But in reducing pro-life activists to hardhearted defenders of miniscule fetal abstractions, Keller can sidestep their claims.

He next attempts to bring God into the matter, in the fashion of those who acknowledge His existence but prefer to treat Him as an inscrutable abstraction. So he explains that his wife, who “clings more firmly to her faith” than he, turned in desperation to the hospital’s Catholic chaplain. The chaplain never returned her calls, so she resorted to a nun of her acquaintance, who advised her to “think about what God would want, not what the church would want.”

What God would want. The God who said “You shall not kill.” The God about whom the psalmist wrote, “You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb.” The God who said “Deliver those who are being taken away to death.” The God who keeps the psalmist’s promise, “My father and my mother have forsaken me, but the LORD will take me up.” The God who said in anger, “You slaughtered My children and offered them up to idols.”

Of course that is the God of the Bible, and perhaps I should no longer be surprised that a nun would be unfamiliar with him. Barring personal revelation or reference to Scripture, her advice amounted to: “follow your conscience,” which Keller freely admits sublimating to his “reason” on this topic, such that he calls himself and his wife sentimental fools for thinking of the fetus as their child.

And so they aborted the baby, after agonizing over their decision, and with the best of intentions: to prevent suffering, to protect the mother’s health. I’ve never faced that choice; I can’t claim greater strength. But I do claim greater clarity, which is precisely what Keller says this experience has made him suspicious of — the moral clarity of those who “seem to offer a kind of ethics without human beings.”

It’s all so fuzzy, you see; it has to be, because clarity raises the horrible possibility that well-meaning people, like the Kellers, like thousands of other families who face similar decisions, may well choose what is evil. We can, after all, do evil without intending it, and harm others without wanting to. I have. So have you.

What’s curious is Keller’s contention that pro-life people who claim moral clarity on this issue practice “ethics without human beings.” This is precisely the point of dispute: abortion rights advocates argue that there is one less human being in the equation than do pro-life advocates. This isn’t ethics without human beings, it is quite the opposite — an ethics that demands we recognize as human what abortion advocates label “fetus”, a clinical term intended to dehumanize, to convince a woman that she is not a mother, and that the heartbeat in her womb is not that of her child.

I suspect what Keller means by “ethics without human beings” is a well-justified feeling that many pro-life advocates don’t sufficiently account for the suffering and fear attending parents who face delivery of a dead or deformed child, or which confronts a single woman who considers raising a child on her own. The same opinion is equally justified, as he implies, of abortion rights advocates who resist evidence that abortion is physically and psychologically harmful to women. Empathy is what’s needed, and it is short supply on both sides of this issue.

In this Keller is strongest; it is encouraging to hear an abortion advocate challenge Planned Parenthood to “live up to its name” by counseling parents who may want to keep their children. Though he doesn’t acknowledge it, pro-life ministries have made great strides in the same direction, offering medical, financial, and spiritual help to women who twenty years ago could not have expected such compassion. The more people on both sides offer loving guidance and assistance to these women in need, the fewer abortions will occur. This is one reason, unfortunately, why I don’t expect Planned Parenthood, or the legions of full-time abortionists with which it is allied, to take up Keller’s challenge.

All told, Keller’s article reflects considerable evolution for an abortion rights advocate, as he indicates: “I’ve often wondered what we’d have done if the decision had been less stark — if the doctor had said 50-50 [chance of survival for the baby], or if the gamble had been on something known, on Down syndrome or one of the severe crippling diseases. Would we have had the strength to ride it out? The fact that I think of this as something to aspire to is itself a change of heart.”

Sadly true, and I would credit Keller with courage for admitting it, if I believed he might confront opprobrium for confessing that at one time he did not see this as worthy of aspiration. I doubt, at least in the circles of Times writers, that such opprobrium is forthcoming. This is a topic about which clever people reason away their instincts. But in Keller’s words: “no amount of reasoning about the status of this creature can quite counteract the portrait that begins to form in your heart with the poetry of the first heartbeats.”

The reasoning can only take effect, it seems, once the heart has stopped beating, and after the sting of what was done has dulled with time. Then one can write an article asserting that there really are no moral absolutes. But in Keller’s article even this facade crumbles. It is demolished in the heartbreaking words of his wife, who wishes that they hadn’t known of their baby’s defect:

“We would have lost that baby, but we would not have killed that baby.”

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