“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.”


  1. Cis

    Obviously this was a small piece of the whole you discussed, but the nun’s comment and the chaplin’s absence really bothered me. Both of them shirked their duties, their supposed callings to counsel and minister to someone actively seeking guidance. (Who cares whether she sought it before hand or not.)

    It reminds me of a news segment I saw the other day (the way we see things in the background and don’t ever really give them attention until something separate draws them into focus.) An order of nuns has begun accepting part-time sisters. Sort of like joining the army. You just put in your 3 year’s service and then you can leave or re-join up.

    It raised an eyebrow then, but when I read that “follow your conscience bit” it finally struck me how truly dangerous something like that can be. People, even non-believers, put so much respect and faith into priests and nuns because of the discipline and sacrifice they are presumed to have made for the religious life. They hold so much influence over individuals who, as most people do in a time of crisis, lack clarity.

  2. MarcV

    Thanks for the post, Tony. This sad state of affairs occurs when people think they know better than God, or don’t even acknowledge Him. If you’re not worried about a final judgement, then murder is just another decision in life. By killing a “fetus”, the murder can be “justified” as an excision of unwanted tissue.
    Right to abortion may for now be the law of the land, but there will be a judgement, whether it comes from God or those in the community who treasure life and want to see all babies have a chance at life.

  3. Jack

    I am hesitant to wade into this debate, as we are destined to be poles apart. Yes, I am pro-choice, but that does not make me pro-abortion. I believe that a woman should be the ultimate arbiter of her own body- not the state, not pro-life types who seem prone to assuming that everyone is entitled (and required to subscribe to) their point of view, not the Catholic Church.

    I respect the pro-life/anti-choice (call it what you will) viewpoint, but no one- not me, not you- have the right to decide for a woman how she will handle her pregnancy. It is for the woman to decide. In a free country, there will be disagreement over any decision a woman might make regarding the termination or continuation of her pregnancy, but that is as it should be. You may agree, and you may disagree, but you have no right to make that decision for a woman.

    In the end, it’s a simple equation. If you oppose abortion, don’t have one. Work towards reducing abortion by promoting adoption, pre-natal care, and education. Don’t debase yourself and your cause by blockading clinics and screaming at women who simply want to be able to exercise their constitutional right. And, please, don’t pass judgement on those women who would choose to have an abortion. You could just as easily be judged and found wanting….

  4. Sandra

    To Jack:

    Like you, I’m a little reluctant to step into this, but I have to disagree with you about its being solely the pregnant woman’s decision. She didn’t get pregnant by herself.

  5. jim

    A very good piece, Tony. I am also troubled by Keller’s moral reasoning. I also feel that the public display of hand-wringing is intended to buttress a faulty argument. The final comment by his wife obliterates almost every point he makes. Deep in their hearts, they know.

    Your respondent Jack finds it all “a simple equation.” I guess it is when you exclude the nascent human life from the equation. I wonder whether Jack realizes that the woman’s right that he regards as being superior to all other claims does not have a long and established place in Western civilization. Instead, it is the recent product of one of the most incoherent Supreme Court decisions ever rendered.

    Maybe Keller’s anguished meditation is worth something after all, at least when measured against “simple” alternatives.

  6. David Dodenhoff

    “If you oppose abortion, don’t have one.” The logic here is basically this: “If you think a behavior is wrong or destructive, don’t engage in it. But don’t proscribe others from engaging in it if they disagree with you.” If that’s your argument, then why shouldn’t drug use, organ sales, prostitution, and polygamy be legal also? After all, though I think these things are wrong and destructive, others clearly disagree. So why should they not be able to make the choice for themselves?

  7. Toren

    I’ve been meaning to examine this subject on my blog; perhaps I will someday when I’m feeling especially strong–and once I have comments enabled!
    I’ve always found the “woman’s body” argument specious–a fertilized egg/fetus/baby is most certainly something unique, otherwise it would not become a human being, with all that implies. What magical quantum conversion do “pro-choicers” believe takes place when the scissors cut the cord that transforms it from a “clump of cells” that can be extirpated with impunity to a “baby” that must be adequately cared for or you face legal punishment?
    As a motorcycle rider I am barred from riding without a helmet simply because the consequences may hit my fellow citizens in the tax bill for a few dollars–a rather less important effect than the death of a human being in a partial-birth abortion. Yet I am not allowed to use the “my body” argument. Why not?
    While there are moral positions at either end of the spectrum, I feel there is a middle ground, one that I would like to see staked out as at least a starting point.
    The youngest known viable birth was 18 weeks. It can therefore be stated that at that point, the baby CAN possibly survive outside the mother. It can now no longer be realistically argued that the baby is just a part of the mother’s body. However, the chances of survival increase the longer the child remains in the womb, protected, fed, and continuing to develop under the ideal circumstances. In what way does this differ from the mother’s requirement to feed, shelter, and care for her child after birth or face legal sanction for abuse or neglect?
    This argument then extends onward down the gestation period towards the completely unsupportable atrocity of “partial birth abortions.” The facts about these have been almost completely ignored (one might even say “covered up”) by the mainstream media. Even here in San Francisco, I have yet to encounter anyone who would argue in favor of those (except for the dogmatic “my body/abortion on demand” types). In fact, even self-proclaimed “pro-choice” types have been forced to equivocate when I have faced them with the facts on those. (Most have not truly considered what was being done–or did not know.)
    There will still be those that believe for moral or religious reasons that a human being comes into existence at the moment of fertilization; and there will still be those who think the baby is still something like an vermiform appendix even when only the head of a full-term gestation remains in the birth canal. But instead of each side trying to go for “the big score,” maybe we could at least initially offer some legal rights and protections to babies 18 weeks old and up.
    It would be a starting point that could be explained and defended logically, at least, and I have reason to believe from the reaction my suggestion has gotten from acquaintances on both the left and the right that many would find it a relief from the current “black versus white” of the existing situation.
    Anyway, just some thoughts for providing a middle ground.

  8. jim

    There are at least three aspects to this subject: moral, legal, and medical. Keller’s essay and Tony’s response to it deal primarily with the moral, and as such, deal with the more profound, albeit less demonstrable, aspect. What Keller and his wife did is unquestionably legal; nevertheless they have moral qualms. The legal aspect of human behavior is never more than a least common denominator, if that. To confuse the moral with the legal (or worse, to confuse the moral with personal opinion) can only lead to the demonstration of a stunted moral sensibility.

    Toren points out how advancing medical technology will (and should) change the framework for future discussion. On the other hand, I expect the woman’s right absolutists will eventually advance the grounds for infanticide. After all, if you can legally kill a fully developed child right up to the point of birth, why not in the first five minutes, one hour, whatever, after?

    We had a high-profile case here in Cleveland a few years ago in which a high-school whore with several abortions under her belt hid her pregnancy from her wealthy, dysfunctional family and suffocated the newborn child in the basement of the family home moments after it was born. (One might imagine Daddy saying something like this to his pampered little girl: “Audrey, if you make me pay for one more abortion, I’m going to take your Firebird away for two weeks.”) Lawyers and psychobabbling feminists were in no short supply, arguing that our little girl was frightened, our little girl didn’t undertand what childbearing entailed, our little girl suffered from postnatal depression, etc., etc. This, I fear, is the sickening wave of the future.

    Just one more point: the second-rate legal status of the unborn goes back centuries in the common law. There were reasons for it then that do not necessarily hold now. However, given prevailing “intellectual” trends and the simpleminded platitudes that pass for morality, this status is not likely to change in our lifetimes.

  9. Tony

    Many abortionists reached the point of infanticide years ago. I’m not talking about partial birth abortion, but of post-abortive infanticide; the practice after an induced abortion, in the rare event the child emerged breathing, was to leave him exposed on a cold table to die. I remember a nurse I know talking about a doctor in her acquaintance “sweating bullets” because a baby took a long time to die, and all the while her mother was screaming, “you didn’t tell me it would be a baby!”

    This, like the occasional hospitalization or death that results from post-abortion hemorraghing and infection, like the considerable profits incurred by partial birth abortionists, like the actual procedure of partial birth abortion itself, is something we won’t read about in the paper, at least not until a few courageous journalists break the ice.

    Courageous journalists. Is that an oxymoron?

  10. Deoxy

    To Jack:

    The “It’s my body” argument holds no water (except possibly in case opf rape).

    Take this example –

    I know someone with cerebral palsy; he is unable to walk and is confined to a wheelchair. If I saw him drowning in a shallow pool, I would be under no legal requirement to save him – it’s my body, and I don’t have to risk it. This is the rape case. Someone else did it.

    If, on the other hand, I pushed him into the pool, if he drowns, I killed him. I am legally obligated. It’s not my body – it’s his. This is every case of consensual sex that results in pregnancy (well, assuming that the woman knows how pregnancy occurs).

    The “woman as ultimate arbiter of her own body” ends when she *voluntarily* puts someone else in a position of absolute dependence on that body. Even if she did not INTEND to get pregnant, if she intended to have sex, she was voluntarily risking pregnancy – no form of contraception is 100% effective.

    If you were the child conceived, remind me again what choice you had that could have prevented your life depending fully on your mother. Aren’t you glad your mother didn’t abort you? I am – I was born in 1976. There are people I didn’t go to school with because they were aborted.

    Once life begins, you have all the rights of a person – before that, you have no rights. We need to decide when life begins and be consistent. Of course, we don’t like being consistent… we like having out cake and eating it, too.

    I’m not one of those people who goes to clinics and screams, but here’s a question for you: what other group has the protections now afforded to abortion clinics? NO ONE! No one else gets a “buffer zone” where free speech on public property is restricted (that law hasn’t been repealed in the last few years has it? I would sound like a raving idiot if it has… Of crouse, I wouldn’t really mind as long as that messed up law is off the books).

    Oh, and I oppose murder, so I won’t kill anyone. But maybe I shouldn’t pass judgement on those who do… so much for THAT argument.

  11. jim


    Whether it be on the subject of abortion or multiculturalism or government schools, a connective thread in all of what you write is the intellectual and moral rot that is by now deeply entrenched.

    We’ve arrived at the point where killing innocent babies is regarded as moral, merciful, socially-conscious (and, undoubtedly, environmental), depending on which fatuous posture one wishes to take. The Final Solution, once something staggeringly incomprehensible to me, becomes less and less so the older I get.

    I’m not certain that “brave journalists” reporting on post-birth murder would arouse that many of our fellow citizens at this point. Half of them are submissive (myself included, since I haven’t launched any revolutions lately), the other half are hellbent on embracing barbarism and calling it liberation.

  12. Craig Schamp

    Very thoughtful, well-written piece, Tony. It’s another reminder, too seldom heard, that morality can’t exist without God, and that those who say (quoting another blogger) “I didn’t need a god to explain why we were here or why things happened the way they did, and use of Him as a source of moral teachings seemed contrived” have wrought more damage on society (and in Keller’s case, themselves) than they will ever admit.

    Love the photos at the bottom of the page, too. Perfect.

  13. Christine

    When I was younger I was very pro-choice. When I was 20 I was pregnant … and a I had a massive ovarian cyst that could have killed me. Due to the medical condition and the need to operate on me – I chose again to have an abortion at about 10 weeks in to the pregnancy, although I originally was *very* much against it. After the surgery the clinical findings supported my choice, proving I probably would have miscarried, but that didn’t really make it any easier on me.

    When I was 23, I got pregnant with my son. It wasn’t really the best of times for me to be pregnant, but after losing an ovary to a cyst as I had, I knew that it might be my only chance. More importantly, I was an adult, and there was no way that I could end an innocent’s life.

    Now I get frustrated when I read about people talking about abortion like the author of this article. You can’t kill an infant AFTER they are born because they are inconvenient. Or their life might not be of the best quality. I don’t mean to sound like a hypocrite, I know that *I* made the same choice based on a medical issue. Matter of fact, that’s WHY I’m speaking up about it – I’ve walked in their shoes. I know what the decision is like. I was fortunate, my problems were discovered earlier then 20 weeks in to the pregnancy. But as an older, wiser adult … I wonder …

    Why is ok to terminate a life before the birth because of a number of different issues when it isn’t ok to terminate it after the birth? Why is a life “less” of a life to some if the child is still in the womb? You have a child, you know what I mean. A baby is still a baby – even at 2 weeks in to a pregnancy. It may be a fetus in scientific terms, but a fetus IS a human being.

    Sorry about my long ranting here… I hope you don’t mind. Thank you for another thought-provoking post.

  14. jim

    I came back to this posting and read Christine’s comments above. I think she is wrong in calling herself a hypocrite. She made her second decision as a more mature person, a person who had begun perhaps to grapple with the deeper moral implications of her decision in addition to the practical ones. The birth of her son apparently sealed the deal.

    No one should feel hypocritical about jettisoning immature, self-centered ways of thinking. I should say, however, that I am not an absolutist over this issue, even though I may be giving that impression here.

    Sexual freedom demands acceptance of the pro-choice position. The pro-choice position leads too easily to a denigration of conception (a raw biological fact, no different than sweating or defecating) and the fetus (a mass of cells). Medical abortion becomes, for all intents and purposes, the same as spontaneous abortion; willful human agency is an irrelevance.

    Sexual freedom is very attractive, especially when we are young. Thus, it is hard to take a contrary position on abortion. It means sacrificing a good bit of fun and pleasure. Or being very, very careful. And lucky.

    I went on one disastrous date with a woman who was introduced to me during my college years. During dinner she launched into the standard-issue feminist rant of the day, reducing men and women to abstractions, and history to one big exercise of men abusing women. Fetuses seemingly were made for killing, just so modern woman could fuck her brains out (“just like you men have been doing for centuries”) and assert her rights over her body. I told her I had some moral reservations about abortion, which I did (even though I still wouldn’t have minded getting her in the sack — she was an attractive woman and I was so much younger then).

    But in the end, she told me she wouldn’t sleep with me because of my views on abortion. I guess I just wasn’t man enough to help her kill her child if the need arose. I hope she grew up somewhere along the line.

  15. Francis W. Porretto

    Thank you for keeping this piece available, Mr. Woodlief.

    Abortion is one of the hardest of all issues for a free people to settle. I hate to raise God, Biblical injunctions, or any other disputable source of authority against it, no matter whom I’m arguing with. Ultimately these are all authorities one can choose not to accept — and many will condemn you for offering them as if your own vision of spiritual reality were somehow guaranteed to be valid.

    But I have noticed that people can be swayed by the sound of a beating heart, by the image of a distinctively manlike form in the womb. Now that inexpensive ultrasound imaging is available, perhaps we’ll see fewer prenatal infanticides. It will be far clearer that that’s what abortion is.

    It will remain important for pro-life advocates to render all conceivable, non-coercive assistance to women contemplating an abortion. We must become counselors and assets — particularly emotional assets — to women in such awful straits. Often there’s no one else who cares about them enough to deal with them truthfully.

    Happy New Year.

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