One of the first things the new Republican majority has done in Congress is to escalate the battle against legal abortion.  Republicans have long been seeking the world’s most restrictive law on abortion. Today, in the midst of what most people would regard as far more pressing issues, Republican leadership is seeking to further restrict women’s access in ways that ultimately alienated even many Republican women members of Congress  The reasons for their fanaticism go deeper than the reasons anti-women’s rights groups give for opposing abortion.  They go to the root of who they are.

My book Faultlines  argues the American culture war, in which the abortion issue plays such a central role, reflects a conflict between an ancient deeply hierarchical agricultural rural civilization and a new industrial urban civilization incorporating far more egalitarian values.  This new world began arising in Western Europe and the US, beginning in the 1700s. It is neatly symbolized by the year 1776, when the American Revolution and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations both appeared.  Every modern culture carries a deep division between these two different ways of life, and in the US it was first exemplified by the Civil War, and now by the culture war.

Central to this culture war are how women, the feminine, and nature are treated.  This is why issues involving women’s rights or a sustainable world are so often linked on both sides. Those hostile to women’s rights are often also hostile to respecting nature.  The reverse is true for those of us supporting women’s freedom. Yes, there are exceptions, but the broad pattern is clear.

This and some columns to follow explore why this is so. To make my case I must show why arguments against legal abortion fail, why we modern Pagans mostly line up on one side of these issues, and illuminate the core reasons why opponents of women’s freedom are so implacable. These reasons have nothing to do with the supposed rights of a fetus.

To begin, I need to show why no argument succeeds in making a rational case for outlawing abortion.  Here I will discuss what I believe to be the strongest argument against it. In one form it shares an insight with those of us who love the other-than-human as well:  “Life is beautiful and sacred, and at its core full of love. Therefore abortion is wrong because it is anti-life.” More generally, many anti-choice people argue that since it is wrong to kill peaceful people and since a fetus is human, it is wrong to kill a fetus.

Life and Death

Let ‘s begin with the issue of life and death, for abortion involves killing a fetus or a fertilized egg.  If life is sacred what are we to make of causing death?

Life’s abundance is intimately connected to the presence of physical death.  Without carnivores initiating a co-evolution of predators and prey into increasingly competent organisms, we would have not evolved beyond the level of blue green algae. From the coming into being of the first multi-celled beings, death has been an inevitable outcome for each, even if we escape predation.  Life is a process of beings going through cycles of birth, growth, maturity, decline, and death, as we recognize and honor through the Sabbats of the Wiccan Wheel of the Year or similar other Pagan practices.

Imagine a world where beings could reproduce but never died. Most beings reproduce far more individuals than are needed or desirable to carry on the species.  In time, and not much time, such a world would become a hell of suffering from starving overpopulation. Most young plants and animals are eaten, but their being eaten enables other beings to flourish. Universal immortality would be no blessing to beings that reproduced.

In this respect I have always liked Gary Snyder’s observation: “‘What a big potlatch we are all members of!’  To acknowledge that each of us at the table will eventually be part of the meal is not just being ‘realistic’  It is allowing the sacred to enter and accepting the sacramental aspect of our shaky temporal personal being.” (p. 19) 

Physical death is a part of life, not an assault on it. Its presence has enriched the forms and beauty life takes.  As such, in its own way death is sacred. What lies beyond is mystery, but those who love life have no reason to regard death as something amiss with the world, something that needs ‘fixing.’

This point sets the broader context for discussing abortion.

Human Life

Anti-choice advocates argue abortion ends a human life. Does it?

We need to be clear about what we mean by “human,” and the anti-choice crowd combines two different aspects of being human in arbitrary and confused ways.

Biologically at least 25 to over 30% of fertilized eggs become natural miscarriages.  But if it survives to birth and after, the embryo will become a caring human being. The embryo is indisputably biologically human. And we agree that killing human beings of no threat to other human beings is wrong. But does biological humanness provide the qualities giving people the moral standing appropriate to human beings?

It does not.

To see why, let’s start with mice. 

Why does a mouse lack human moral standing? Killing a mouse is not murder. When we prepare land for building a home we strive to make sure no human is injured in the process.  We feel no equivalent duty to mice. Why?  Is this difference in attitude simply an unexamined habit?  No.

We cannot enter into human style relationships with mice. So far as we know, mice do not know what it means to promise, they do not dream of their futures and the futures of their young, love others of no utility to themselves, or take responsibility for their actions.  Occasionally, under stress, mice will eat their young. I know of no human equivalent, and a great many human mothers certainly live under stress.

I am not saying mice have no moral standing. They do. But they do not have the same kind as human beings. A good person will not go out of his or her way to injure a mouse, and indeed will go out of their way not to do so.  Up to a point. In my view we have a responsibility to treat other beings with respect

  But this is not the same as treating them as equals.  

If we were to learn mice had the above human qualities, our relationships with them would become very different. We would recognize they were more like us than we have any current reason for thinking.  We could enter into complex meaningful relationships with them. They could arguably become moral equals.

            Now consider a hypothetical intelligent alien. Let us grant that such an alien can make promises, dream of its future and the futures of its offspring, love others for themselves, and take responsibility for its actions. Science fiction is filled with examples of such beings, and perhaps the universe is as well. Such an alien will not have our biology. We are more related biologically to mice, or even to an earthworm, mushroom,  or algae, than to the alien.

If such an alien was able to enter into friendly relations with us it would demonstrate a capacity for human style mental qualities far in excess of a mouse. We could relate to it as a peer.   Such an alien would arguably have ethical standing equal to a human being. Killing a peaceful alien of this sort would be committing murder in a way that killing a peaceful mouse is not.

If you can follow me this far then I think it is clear it is the relative capacity to enter into ethical relationships that determines moral standing. The issue is relationships and not biology.

The moral standing of a fetus

A fetus gains in moral standing the more it possesses human capacities, not human biology. It seems obvious a fertilized egg cannot promise, cannot make plans, and has no self awareness. If a fertilized egg fails to implant itself in the womb we do not bewail the death of a human being. We do not even know it happened.

Early term fetuses have these human relational qualities only as distant potentials. Future mothers care for their fetuses because of what they might become, not for what they are.  A fetus is no more a human being than an acorn is an oak tree. In both cases the value here lies in their potentials.

Most of us who love babies, and I am one, love them because of what they are as well as for what they might become. Babies can enter into relationships with us, relationships that deepen daily before our eyes, until they become relationships between equals. But from the very beginning, babies relate. A mother who abandons her baby to die is not analogous to a pregnant woman who has an abortion.

From the fertilized egg to a baby we observe a developing capacity to move from potential human moral characteristics to actual ones. Newborn babies still cannot enter into as many complex mutual relationships as can adults, but they interact with us in ways a fertilized egg never can. We are observing a continuum. There are legitimate grounds for arguing over how the moral standing of a fetus changes as it develops.  But there is no reasonable argument that at least at most stages it enjoys anything approaching moral equality with a human being.

Given this simple fact, it seems to me that over most of the process leading towards giving birth it should be entirely the woman’s choice whether or not to carry a fetus to term.

My argument transforms how we should regard women desiring to give birth.  She should be honored for doing so, and not considered simply a container whose life must now be subordinated to another’s. In other words, treated as a slave.  Rather, a mother should receive credit and honor for one of the most powerful actions a human being is capable: bringing another into the world and taking responsibility for seeing that it is raised to adulthood, either by herself and her family, or by giving it up for adoption.

But the fetus-is-human argument is more than logically incoherent.  It also has a very dark side.

Moral nihilism

Making biological qualities the standard for moral standing ultimately destroys morality. Those using it unwittingly undermine the case for any morality at all.  They begin by turning the mother into a means to achieving “life’s” ends. The well-being of the fetus, an organism far removed from the morally human, has priority over the woman. A pregnant woman is essentially a slave of the fetus.  Her freedom ends when it conflicts with serving it. A woman having a miscarriage can be, and in strongly anti-choice countries, is deemed a murderer and can be incarcerated for decades. [It turns out women have also been jailed in this country, only not yet for so long. added 1/25/15]

 This argument destroys the only powerful case for ethics: that beings such as humans are never properly simply means to others’ ends. They possess intrinsic qualities that forever separate them from objects. Now the mother’s qualities do not matter over simply serving reproduction, and so serving entities that do not come close to any human ethical capacities at all.

The implications arising from this reasoning are as dark as they can be. As my opening comments explained, human life emerged from a long evolutionary process in which successful life forms consumed less successful ones. In purely biological terms a species’ success is defined by the fitness to survive physically over time. Therefore any weakness within a species undermines its long-term viability in a competitive world. From this perspective a successful moral system is much like animal husbandry: it is good for humanity when it does not preserve such weaknesses.

Historically this view led directly to eugenics: the plan to eliminate ‘less fit’ humans to ‘improve the race’.  The US was one of its major centers, and its support here came from across the political spectrum. Some but not all conservatives, liberals, and progressives considered themselves its backers.. They accepted the logic of subordinating morality to biology. America’s eugenics programs were admired by the Nazisbut here gas chambers for eliminating the unfit were only discussed whereas in Germany they were ultimately built and used.

Anti-choice advocates arguing “the fetus is biologically human and so has human rights” thereby turn women into means for ends separate from their well-being denying the reality of human rights.  They legitimize a style of reasoning that works better for eliminating the unfit than for protecting zygotes, thereby incorporating amoral nihilism into the core of Western ethics under the misleading claim of being “pro-life.”

Honoring mothers

Life is sacred and its core is love, but love is relationship and a fully human life is a life deeply embedded in caring relationships.  The love at its core emerges into our world through relationships. We become fully human only through our relations with the world and with other human beings. Even the most advanced fetuses have taken only the first steps along this path. They are not fully human in any way that counts morally.

It is the mother who carries a fetus to term, risking her life and usually committing to many years of service in raising the child to adulthood who merits praise.  Far from being a vehicle or slave, she should be honored. But is it no accident that the most anti-choice people and cultures are also the most dismissive of women’s value beyond being mobile wombs.  As to why this is so, a full explanation requires a few more essays, but this is the beginning. And by eliminating what I think is the strongest argument against abortion, it stands alone as worthwhile as well. 

There is no tension between honoring life and regarding it as sacred and fervently supporting a woman’s decision as to whether or not to participate so intimately in bringing another life into the world.


On Saturday I corrected some minor errors in biology that reflected a man's ignorance of the birth process. I appreciate that error being brought to my attention.