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Demoting Life to a Moral Instrument by Sven R. Larson

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Demoting Life to a Moral Instrument

On January 18th, Roberta Metsola was elected president of the European Parliament. She is a pro-life member of the parliament for Malta, the only EU member state to maintain a universal ban on abortions. 

The election of Metsola as parliamentary president has caused an uproar from abortion activists, who seem to believe that she represents a threat to European women’s right to kill babies in utero. One of the more widespread attacks on Metsola came from Claire Pierson, a lecturer in “gender studies and feminist politics” at the University of Liverpool. In superlative language, and with direct reference to Metsola’s opposition to abortions, Pierson demands that abortion be “designated as a human right.” To affirm her support of universal abortion rights, she also laments the existence of even mild limitations to abortion on demand: waiting periods, counseling mandates, and conscientious-objection rights for health care professionals.

Pierson’s article echoed through the internet, being picked up in places both odd and even. The attention she got is indicative of how highly charged the abortion issue is. It also shows how essential it is to keep the abortion debate grounded, reasoned and focused on its core: the moral questions about life itself. When does it begin; when does it end; does it have intrinsic value?

Putting the spotlight on abortions

It remains to be seen if Metsola’s tenure as president of the European Parliament will usher in an era of upheaval of abortion laws, as abortion proponents appear to believe. The most likely outlook is that Metsola will have no influence at all on European legislation on abortions. However, the fact that abortion proponents have stirred up the scare gives us reason to revisit the aforementioned moral questions regarding a woman’s right—or lack thereof—to kill her baby in utero.

As if to reinforce the frontpage status of the abortion issue, French President Emmanuel Macron recently expressed a desire “for abortion to be added to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.” France holds the chairmanship of the EU Commission for the first half of 2022, which actually gives pro-life advocates reason to believe that if anything will happen to abortion law in the EU in the near future, it will be to their disappointment and to the cheer and joy of abortion activists. 

Expansion of legal abortion may not even happen at the EU level. There is a bill in the French national legislature, likely to become law, that proposes an extension of the time when women can have an abortion. 

Interestingly, abortion is a hot topic in America as well, though pointing in a different direction. A case before the U.S. Supreme Court could shorten the time window where abortion is legal. The case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, was started by a law in Mississippi banning almost every abortion beyond the 15-week point. If the Supreme Court upholds that the Mississippi law is constitutional, it opens for other states to impose the same 15-week limit.

The debate on both sides of the Atlantic is mostly practical in nature. On the European side, focus is on measures to reinforce legal protection of abortion; equally technical considerations are used in America to modestly limit the window for legal abortion. In both cases, the spotlight is on the text of the law, leaving the moral side of the issue as under-examined.

It is time to change that. The abortion issue is morally existential to the civilized world. It is a matter of life and death, and not only for the unborn child. A society that legally allows the artificial termination of life, especially at its infancy, is a society that permits other values to gain moral supremacy over life. 

The demotion of life itself

As a direct result, human beings are demoted to instruments of public policy. Legal abortions mark the beginning of a society where life is no longer sacrosanct, and where life loses its intrinsic value, freedom is not far behind. The unabridged right to life is the first necessary condition for freedom. Once abortions are permitted,we have a society that can morally compromise away the entire span of life. Abortions open the possibility for euthanasia, and for the moral instrumentalization of life at any point between conception and old age. 

Where life is respected from conception, no such compromise is possible. The reason is easily illustrated, starting with the acknowledgment that God has defined the beginning of life at conception. Every other definition means delaying the beginning of life, which in turn shortens its span: government says that a person is not alive until deep into the pregnancy. The motive is instrumental: when we legally sever the beginning of life from conception, we allow for another moral value to be elevated above life itself. That moral value works as an ulterior motive for the legal definition of life.

God has no ulterior motive, or else he would not define conception as the beginning of life. The contrast is unmistakable between the God-given definition of life and the definition under legal abortion. Where God stands as a bulwark protecting life at every turn, the legal definition of life, stipulated by government, opens the door for an array of deeply immoral practices where life itself is demoted to instrumental status.

This demotion follows two arguments. The first, which says that the mother has the right to terminate a baby’s life due to personal objections to the caring duties, was explained at length in an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics in May 2013 (first published online in 2012). Under the title “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?,” medical ethicists Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva make the case for infanticide as a logical consequence of legal abortion. When the mother of a newborn baby believes parenting to be an “unbearable burden” for her, Giubilini and Minerva argue that infanticide is morally justifiable.

Understandably, their article caused an uproar, spanning everything from reprehensible ad-hominem attacks to eloquent and scholarly responses. However, as argued convincingly by Jeff McMahan under the title “Infanticide and moral consistency” in the same issue of the same journal, advocating for abortions while also opposing infanticide is almost a moral contradiction in terms. 

He is not alone: already in 1972, philosopher Michael Tooley suggested that infanticide was morally justifiable on the same grounds as abortions. Peter Singer made a similar point in his book Practical Ethics (Cambridge University Press 1979), though he was focused primarily on “severely disabled” children.

From abortion to euthanasia

The moral equivalency between abortion and infanticide extends moral arguments for abortion to children both born and unborn, who are under the care of another person. In all instances where abortions are legal, government permits a mother to morally rank her own desire to avoid burdens, unbearable or not, above the life of her child.

When Singer focuses on disabled children, he lays the groundwork for the other moral argument for abortions, namely the interpersonal transplant of moral values. This means, simply, that Person A assigns moral value to Person B’s life independently of what value Person B assigns to his or her own life. Person A can make this evaluation of Person B’s life without considering what Person B has to say about the matter. 

In the case of abortions, the mother who decides to have one makes the decision based on how she views the baby’s life. Whether or not she makes a conscious, deliberate calculation about that value is irrelevant. Even if she makes her decision without explicitly considering the value of the infant’s life, by inevitable consequence her decision ranks her motive for having the abortion—whatever that motive—higher than the life of that baby. 

Implicitly or explicitly, she has taken it upon herself to assign a certain value to the baby’s life. That value was low enough that she could, to herself, morally motivate the abortion. 

From a more general perspective, a law that makes abortion legal thus makes it legal to transplant moral values between persons. This practice is not limited to abortions: in government-run health care systems it is lawful for medical officials to assign instrumental value to the other end of a patient’s life, and to use that value for making life-or-death decisions regarding a patient’s treatment. 

There are many examples of how this can happen. In an article for the Discovery Institute from 2013, Wesley Smith explains how a program for palliative care under the British National Health Service became a “road to backdoor euthanasia.” The line between compassionate caring for terminally ill patients and compassionately killing them was blurred by a health care bureaucracy unable to firmly establish the sacrosanctity of life.

The program, known as the Liverpool Care Pathway, gave government officials in certain capacities the right to make health care decisions that actively led to a patient’s death. Part of the motivation for the program was to keep the budget of the National Health Service within preset fiscal limits. As is common with government programs, the British government determines the appropriations for the NHS prior to every fiscal year; budgets are not always kept, but they do determine the scope as well as the limit of what health care can be provided on the taxpayer’s tab.

In order to predetermine a fiscal cap for health care, government necessarily has to predetermine a multitude of medical decisions. Some of those decisions involve the life or death of patients: the budget allotted for certain procedures is weighed against the value of saving the patient’s life. 

Transplanting moral values

But how does government know how a patient values his or her life? The simple truth is that they cannot take that into consideration. The patient will almost always value his or her continued living at a maximum value, whereas government cannot do the same. When the budget cap forces government to choose between patients, independently of the individual medical evaluation of those patients, government demotes the lives of the individuals under its care to instrumental status. 

A patient’s life is not sacrosanct, but contingent upon the budget allotted to care for the patient’s life. 

When a patient is terminated under government care, as exemplified in Smith’s article, the killing of the patient generally follows the same moral reasoning as that which applies to abortions. The killing is considered benevolent because the evaluating individual—Person A in our example above—does not find enough value in the patient’s or the baby’s life.

A mother places higher value on avoiding discomfort or burdens; a government places higher value on its budget-capped health care monopoly.

When government makes it legal for itself to let patients die under its care, and when it allows abortions, its abbreviation of life in both ends also demotes life at every point in between. The moral premise behind the instrumentalization of life, namely “benevolent killing,” comes with horrendous potentials. 

Georgetown University philosopher Joel Reynolds gives us a glimpse of those potentials. In a carefully executed article, “Killing in the Name of Care” in Levinas Studies from 2018, he analyzes the case of Satoshi Uematsu, who killed 19 disabled patients at a long-term care home in Japan. Uematsu believed that the lives of the patients were unworthy of living, and that he had the moral authority to make that judgment. 

It goes without saying that Uematsu’s actions are universally considered deeply immoral. The problem is that the moral authority that he assigned to himself is difficult to distinguish from that which legal abortion grants a mother, or which a health care administrator is given when making end-of-life decisions for patients. Reynolds, who does not discuss abortions, refutes the idea of such transplants of normative value: in his analysis, Uematsu’s actions were immoral not because they were illegal, but because they transplanted Person A’s normative values onto Person B’s life.

Health care is an obvious playground for such moral transplants. A patient being admitted to a hospital at the prime of his or her life can end up at the receiving end of a normative downgrading by a health care administrator. A procedure that would save the patient’s life, albeit at a high cost to the tax-funded health care system, could be deemed too expensive given the normative value that the health care administration assigns to the patient’s recovery and remaining life. 

The rise of the abortion debate in the wake of Roberta Metsula’s election as president of the European Parliament has become a catalyst for the abortion debate in Europe. Hopefully, this debate will follow more principled lines than it has thus far. After all, what is at stake here is no more, no less, than life itself.

Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.

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