The Abortion Debate
Kenneth Cauthen

Much of the public debate about abortion is dominated by extremists. Advocates on either side argue as if they had the whole truth. For one side, it is simply murder. For the other side, it is a matter of a woman having control over her reproductive capacities. Some pro-life proponents identify the fetus as an "unborn child." Some pro-choice supporters minimize the moral status of the fetus. The easy division of people into pro-life and pro-choice camps shows how complex issues are reduced to simple labels and slogans.

The emergence of new life is a continuous process that proceeds over a period of nine months. Designating a specific point at which a potential person becomes an actual person is impossible. It is not simply the question as to whether human life is present from conception on. Certainly life processes are taking place, and it is human life we are talking about. The question is when a complete person emerges with the fundamental rights that persons have. No answer is fully satisfactory. The general rule that the further along in the process, the stronger must be the justification for abortion may be correct. But this principle offers little exact guidance. This fact points to the strength of the conservative view that conception itself is the point beyond which no interference is permissible. However, not to recognize the difference between a freshly fertilized egg and a one year-old child is unconvincing.

Several conclusions follow.

(1) It would help if both sides recognized the complexity of the problem. Greatly to be desired is humility along with an recognition that those on the other side are not necessarily lacking in insight or integrity. The whole truth is many-sided and full of ambiguities. It cannot be reduced to a matter of simple right and wrong.

(2) The only completely satisfactory solution to the abortion problem is to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Once an undesired conception occurs, an emergency arises that introduces complexities, difficulties, and compromises one would prefer to avoid but cannot.

(3) Some abortions may be justified, but all abortions are to be regretted and involve a compromise of values.

(4) Justification for abortion must always be serious and never trivial. Its casual or routine use as a backup for contraception is indefensible.

(5) The slogan that abortion should be legal, safe, and rare is probably as good a compromise as the situation allows.

(6) Pro-life advocates ought to promote effective birth control methods. Pro-choice advocates ought to encourage sexually responsible behavior, including abstinence. What if they joined hands in a common crusade against unwanted pregnancies?

Even if we got agreement that abortion ought to be legal, the problems would not end there. Should unmarried teenage girls be compelled to secure parental permission? Regardless of which side the law takes, some good will result, and some harm will be done. Should a compromise be made so that a teenage girl, lacking parental consent, could seek an exception from a judge? That might help, but the applicant is then subject to whatever biases a particular judge may have, as well as to the delay and burden of seeking legal aid.

No easy resolution of the abortion problem exists. A reasonable compromise is made difficult by the zealots on both sides who insist on defining the issue in extremist terms and who insist on all or nothing. In the middle are a large body of citizens who are troubled by abortion but who think that to make it illegal would have even more disastrous consequences. We need to hear more from these more balanced voices that are sensitive to the conflict of values involved. The views of Americans have not changed significantly over the past quarter of a century. Let us resolve this issue since further debate is not likely to change enough minds to shift the balance of political power. It would help if the opposing parties would engage in conversations based on mutual respect to work out a tolerable compromise that neither likes but that is appropriate for such an agonizing dilemma. Alas, in today's "in your face" climate, the prospect for that seems rather dim.

© 1997

About the author...
Kenneth Cauthen is the John Price Crozer Griffith emeritus Professor of Theology at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York. He is the author of twenty books, including The Impact of American Religious Liberalism, which was the standard text in the field for a quarter of a century. Born in Georgia, he was educated at Mercer, Yale, Emory, and Vanderbilt, receiving a BA, BD, MA and PhD. He has served as Baptist pastor, college professor at Mercer University, and as a professor of theology for forty years.

Cauthen is dedicated to defending liberal Christianity. To this end, he runs a web site and a regularly updated blog. He welcomes e-mails responding to his perspective.


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