Editor’s note. The following appears on a blog of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, National Right to Life’s state affiliate.
A pro-lifer confronted Barack Obama at a (probably 2004) campaign event, Obama recounts in his book The Audacity of Hope. He was asked how he could support the killing of innocent human beings by abortion.
“I explained my belief that few women made the decision to terminate a pregnancy casually,” Obama writes; “that any pregnant woman felt the full force of the moral issues involved when making that decision.”
So, the rationale Obama offers for allowing abortion (in part) is that “few women [make] the decision to terminate a pregnancy casually” and that pregnant women “[feel] the full force of the moral issues involved.”
This sort of appeal seems fairly common now. But I think it shows a fundamental confusion. The confusion is between our feeling of understanding for a woman who chooses abortion and our sense of whether she bears much (if any) culpability, on the one hand, and the question of whether abortion is in fact permissible or not, on the other.
Put differently, the confusion is between the motivations of an act and the act itself. The assumption Obama seems to be making is that only the motivations of an act are ethically relevant.
It’s true that motivations are important. For example, we would think much worse of an amoral mother who abandons her baby in the dumpster because she is bored than we would of a teenage mother who abandons her baby out of desperation.
But there is much more to morality than motivations. We would not say that infanticide is justified because “few parents make the decision to kill an infant casually.” Those who commit murder are often tormented by the decision, but obviously that fact doesn’t justify it. Nor does the fact that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both slaveholders, agonized under “the full force of the moral issues involved” thereby mean that slavery should have been kept legal.
So it simply does not work to appeal merely to motivations. If abortion is the unjust killing of an innocent human being (like infanticide), then it should not be permitted, regardless of motivations. (Note that prohibiting abortion does not mean women who choose abortion should be punished; it is widely agreed that they should not be.)