A Thought Experiment on Abortion

A good friend of mine is an ethics professor, and he recently delivered both sides in a debate about whether Christians should push for stricter anti-abortion legislation. Yes, both sides. It’s part of a weekly forum in which a person takes a controversial topic, advocates one side, then walks across the stage to another podium and advocates the other.

Previous topics have included gay marriage is an abomination/gay marriage glorifies God, women should keep silent/women should lead in church and swearing is forbidden/allowed in scripture. Richard Beck has done a couple of them, but this was the first I’d attended, and I wish I had done it sooner.

I think the anti-abortion side would be familiar to most of you; abortion is morally wrong because it deprives an individual – aside from whether or not a fetus is technically a person – the right to a future, and therefore laws should be in place restricting it. But coming back and arguing for the pro-abortion side, my friend began with a thought experiment.

Suppose, he said, a group of people breaks into your house, drugs you and kidnaps you. You wake up in a hospital room, hooked up via machines to an unconscious man next to you. One of the people who kidnapped you comes in and apologizes for the inconvenience but explains the man beside you is a world-famous violinist at death’s door. You are keeping him alive, and they need you to continue to do so for the next nine months, after which he will be well, and you can go on with your life.

The question is: Do you have a moral duty to remain connected to this person?

It’s an ingenious thought experiment because it concedes arguably the pro-life movement’s most powerful argument, that a fetus is a person, a preborn child. Personhood is irrelevant in this experiment because personhood does not guarantee the right to live if doing so infringes on the rights of someone else. Most students in my friend’s class agreed they would not have a moral duty to stay connected to the violinist, although doing so would certainly be the admirable thing to do.

I find the analogy is especially effective when thinking about abortion in cases of rape and incest, where the mother was unable or unwilling to consent to the act that led to the pregnancy. In cases where birth control wasn’t used or didn’t work but the sex was consensual, I have a harder time with drawing a direct line from this experiment to abortion.

But, my friend would argue, the question is not the morality of abortion. He thinks it’s immoral, and I do, too. The true comparison for the argument he’s making would be if, while you’re hooked up to the violinist, someone else came into your room and informed you that even though you find it morally justifiable to disconnect yourself and let the violinist die, others do not, and they will use the power of the state to imprison you for your decision if you do what they find to be morally repugnant.

That, he argues, is not what Christians should be doing.

I certainly agree with him on the general principle – that Christians should use the government to coerce others who do not share their definitions of morality to live by those moral principles anyway. But there is at least one glaring specific exception when the government can – and should – coerce others to do something they would otherwise not find morally acceptable.

That issue is civil rights.

Broadly defined, I mean “civil rights” as the protection of those whom the system is designed, for whatever reason, to marginalize. This means racial minorities, and it means sexual minorities. It means fringe religious groups, and it means children. It means the poor, and it means animals, and it means the unborn.

Over and over in America, we have consciously – and rightly – authorized state coercion to protect those who otherwise have little voice in the affairs of the state. We require integrated schools and lunch counters. We have overturned laws criminalizing sodomy. We have carved out legal exemptions for obscure religious practices. We have authorized the redistribution of income to fund the social safety net. We have protected the rights of animals to be treated humanely. All of these things are coercive, and they have required sometimes even the majority of people in an area to act against their moral preferences to protect the civil rights of a disadvantaged group. Christians generally sometimes have supported, sometimes opposed these measures, even though they all are designed to protect what Christ would call the “least of these.” Some, including me, would argue we have not gone far enough to protect the voiceless in many of these areas.

For me, anti-abortion laws fall into this area. The unborn, whether a person or a fetus, is voiceless and vulnerable – and therefore has rights that require special protection from the government, that is to say from you and me, the society that makes up our government.

I have a long string of caveats to this position – including a significant question about the effectiveness and unintended consequences of such legislation, especially when compared to methods designed to prevent unwanted pregnancy in the first place. Nevertheless, when push comes to shove, I do think Christians have an obligation to protect all of the powerless, voiceless members of our society – and to use the power of the state to do so, when appropriate and necessary.

If anti-abortion legislation is the most effective way to protect the unborn and does not simply lead to more death and suffering by pushing desperate women to unregulated, black-market providers, then we should advocate for it. But we should also advocate for broad protection of gays, lesbians and the transgendered, and we should advocate for a strengthening and protection of the safety net, and we should advocate for the equal treatment of Muslims and atheists, and we should be vocal in our support of animal-rights legislation.

Abortion isn’t the only threat to the powerless in our society; as Christians, we might find our advocacy for the unborn is strengthened the more consistent we make our voice for the other marginalized groups in our midst.


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