Post-natal abortion and moral ambiguity

I recently changed my Facebook status to read: ‘Gareth Roberts supports the use of post-natal abortion in special cases.’ After a few comments, I added:

There are, I notice, two ways of understanding my post. One is somewhat serious, the other considerably less so! As I think about it though, I notice my feelings are not exacty unambigous about either interpretation.

Perhaps I should explain!

When I wrote the comment, I was simply somewhat irritated by annoying and stupid people (not least the ones who vote for extremist parties as a ‘protest’), and was suggesting that maybe removing these people wasn’t such a bad idea. This was the humorous misanthropic interpretation: I want to kill annoying people, and I refer to this as ‘abortion’. Abortion is, it seems to me, generally performed either to safeguard the health and wellbeing of the potential mother, or to prevent the birth of an individual whose life is likely to be horrible. Similarly, by removing some people from our society, we would undoubtedly give peace to them and improve the wellbeing and health of many other people in society. However, my views are in fact pretty close to unambigious in this regard: however much my gut might like me to, I don’t support killing people because they’re annoying. I don’t even support capital punishment (and see how a humorous topic slides so easily into a serious one?), where we kill people because they’re rather worse than annoying. I can imagine circumstances where it might be the best option, but I don’t think these circumstances hold in any modern country. That is the extent of the ambiguity in my views on this. It was, and remains, a joke.

But there is the other interpretation of my status: perhaps I support abortion in some cases (I do), and extend this even to some special cases where the child has already been born…? Do I support this?

Here, believe it or not, there really is a hint of ambiguity in my opinions. I support the use of abortion (in certain cases) because, contrary to the views of many people, I think it encourages a respect for human dignity and quality of life. But what about a baby who has just been born? Are there cases where humanely ending this baby’s life would be better for the wellbeing and health of the mother and stop a life of misery before it starts? Almost certainly there are, but I still couldn’t say I would support ending the baby’s life in these circumstances. Indeed, this seems to come very close to my feelings about capital punishment.

Does this mean I should change my mind on pre-natal abortion? No, I don’t think it does. I actually do think that the prevention or ending of a life can be the best thing to do in particular circumstances. At one end of the long continuum that is implied here, I believe in judicious use of contraception. At the other end, I believe that euthanasia should sometimes be allowed. And somewhere in the middle, I support abortion in some cases, but capital punishment in almost none.

In all of these cases, I think, are important issues about human dignity and quality of life. At some point I should go into these issues more deeply, but I don’t have time now to do them justice.

But here a few thoughts: first, we should beware of logical conclusions; second, morality involves a lot more muddling through than a lot of people would like to admit; third, sometimes there isn’t actually one right thing to do.

2 Comments

Filed under Thoughts and rants

2 responses to “Post-natal abortion and moral ambiguity

  1. At various times in my life I have had fixed views on abortion and capital punishment – sometimes completely approving of both; at others, completely disapproving. Now, I tend to agree with your conclusions that there is often more muddling than we are prepared to admit, and that one view doesn't necessarily fit all. I suppose, given years of the alleged historical certainty provided by religion, it is not surprising that there is perhaps still a part of some of us that is wanting more certainty and clarity where, perhaps, in fact, none exists.

  2. I think we need to accept that muddling through is the best way. Moral dilemmas are rarely simple (that's what makes them dilemmas). Of course we need principles of some sort (if only on the level of "be prepared to accept that there's not always one right thing to do"), and rules of thumb. But principles do clash and, when taken to extremes, can do enormous harm.This, it's worth adding, is not a vote for moral relativism. That's just adolescent nonsense.

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