PRO-LIFE: A QUALITY-OF-LIFE CASE

Lantern Hollow Press is about producing literature that reflects a biblical world view.  One aspect of that world view is that values human life as something sacred and deserving protection from the law, including in the womb.  I’d like to try a bit of a different spin on that aspect of Christian thinking today.

Christian Pro-Lifers usually reject out of hand “quality-of-life” arguments about abortion, insisting that only a sanctity-of-life understanding gives us a fully valid basis for making such judgments. They are right to do so for many reasons. But I think that even the quality-of-life argument for abortion fails, fails miserably, and can be shown to fail miserably.

Pro-Choice arguments trying to spin abortion as a charitable act often focus on the various trials and hardships in life that a foetus unfortunate enough to be “unwanted” or handicapped is going to be spared. That seems reasonable until you apply it to some actual test cases. Let’s take a seriously handicapped individual who actually lived, Helen Keller. Did she think her life of such a quality as to be not worth living? It doesn’t seem so. Let’s try again. Does Stephen Hawking think his life of such a quality as to be not worth living? Would he, in other words, prefer non-existence to being bound to a wheelchair and having to talk through a computer? Clearly not; if he did prefer non-existence (assuming that is his concept of what death would be), he could surely arrange to have it.

 

Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking

 

O.K., let’s try a different kind of case. I have known a few Down Syndrome victims (a condition whose detection often now leads to elective abortion), and I certainly consider them unfortunate. But not one of them wanted to die. Not one of them, once able to make the choice, would have chosen non-existence over the quality of the life he or she enjoyed. (Never mind the consequences of such a choice for an eternal soul—we are limiting ourselves here to considerations about the quality of the present life only, for the sake of argument.) Maybe some people in these situations would so choose; but it only takes one who would not to raise serious ethical questions about the quality-of-life case for abortion.

What is that ethical dilemma? Well, here’s the next question: Would any of these people appreciate it if you unilaterally made the decision whether their lives were worth living for them without consulting them? Especially if you decided in the negative and proceeded to enact that decision! What would you be guilty of if you did so? Hmmmm.

 

Helen Keller

Helen Keller

 

Another question: What difference does it make if you make that preemptive decision about the value of someone else’s life before he or she can be consulted on the matter? Would this timing make that person’s murder (what else can we call it?) less heinous, or more? That’s a hard question. Here’s an easier one: Would you want to be deprived of the choice to determine for yourself whether your own life was worth living? That’s just the Golden Rule, right? If you would not, how can you justify depriving someone else of the same . . . er . . . right to choose?

One might point out that once we have added the Golden Rule it is no longer a purely quality-of-life ethic. Something other than considerations of quality, the principle of “Do as you would be done by,” is now determining our choices. Exactly. A pure quality-of-life ethic would not really be an ethic at all. And therefore nobody has one. Little deontological bits of what Lewis called the Tao (like the Golden Rule) are always snuck in. The Golden Rule is, after all, pretty hard to argue against.

The Source of the Golden Rule, the Moral Law, and the Sanctity of Life

The Source of the Golden Rule, the Moral Law, and the Sanctity of Life

There are then many problems with a quality-of-life ethic, and I am not advocating one. But it is worth pointing out: Even when one is trying really hard to operate on a quality-of-life basis, once we add so simple and universally accepted a moral principle as The Golden Rule to our consideration of the facts, abortion is still very difficult to distinguish from murder and impossible to justify.

 

Donald T. Williams is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College. He is the author of nine books, including Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams, Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy, and Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd edition, revised and expanded, all from Lantern Hollow Press. To order, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

InklingsofReality5c

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About gandalf30598

Theologian, philosopher, poet, and critic; minister of the Gospel who makes his living by teaching medieval and renaissance literature; dual citizen of Narnia and Middle Earth.

Posted on June 23, 2014, in Christianity, Donald Williams, Philosophy, Theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. eyeontheuniverse

    I think you make a good case that people (at least in the cases listed) can have a high quality life despite some significant hardships. I see a couple of issues, hoever, with extending the conclusions of your argument as far as a claim that the quality of life argument “fails”:

    1. You would need to use a statistical analysis rather than anecdotal stories to make a definitive case, one way or another, for the quality of life position. This is not to say such anecdotes can’t provide useful evidence, but they can not rule the “success” or “failure” of a quality of life argument. This would go for either side of the case.

    2. A person’s desire to live cannot be used as the measure of whether that life has more happiness or misery. Humans have a strong instinct for survival, despite situations of misery (such as years of torture with little hope for escape). Even in such extreme cases suicide is relatively rare, despite overwhelming misery, because the survival drive, important to continuation of the species, is strong.

    3. In a quality of life argument, we must remember that all living entities are to be considered, including the mother, family and extended family, the community, and arguably any sentient beings (will vary depending on your views of sentience).

    • Thanks for your response, Kaziraya. It’s refreshing to have a reasoned discussion on this topic. I think there are a few things to be said in response to your points, though. First, are you seriously going to decide this by statistics? They are irrelevant, because the examples I gave, along with the relative rarity of suicide, are sufficient to destroy any presumption that you are doing the fetus a favor by “saving” it from its presumably dismal circumstances. In the absence of any such presumption, you are being presumptious to decide to kill it. Second, whether a person has 51% happiness versus misery is beside the point. Most people want to live even with what we would consider a large amount of misery. Again, your presuming to make the decision for them without consulting them is deprived of the moral high ground that quality-of-life thinkers try to give it. Third, must all living entities be considered? Seriously? How many of them would have to decide that *your* life wasn’t worth living before they would have the right to terminate it?

  2. eyeontheuniverse

    Thanks for your response. A few notes on your points:

    “First, are you seriously going to decide this by statistics? They are irrelevant, because the examples I gave, along with the relative rarity of suicide, are sufficient to destroy any presumption that you are doing the fetus a favor by “saving” it from its presumably dismal circumstances.”

    I agree that you can not presume, with certainty, that you are doing a favor (at least based on earthly quality of life conditions). However IF you have evidence of the odds that you are doing a favor, I think this is in alignment with already existing ethical practices. For instance, one provides medical treatments on the probability they will help, although in a few cases there will always be an adverse reaction and some will have increased suffering or death.

    “Second, whether a person has 51% happiness versus misery is beside the point.”

    I disagree. I think that is the only point

    “Most people want to live even with what we would consider a large amount of misery.”

    Agreed. Most heroin addicts also want to continue shooting heroin.

    “Again, your presuming to make the decision for them without consulting them is deprived of the moral high ground that quality-of-life thinkers try to give it.”

    Only if you assume self-determination (here of perhaps 16 cell undifferentiated organisms) as an absolute moral requirement. Yes as a society we do not. Me regularly decide life and death of far more complex creatures, from pet dogs to the cows than many people kill to eat.

    “Third, must all living entities be considered? Seriously?”

    Again, we do this all the time. When we decide to fund breast control research over childhood vaccine programs we have made a choice that some will live and others will die. People like to pretend we have not, because for many this is hard to face, but we decide daily that some will die. Every deluxe coffee drink we buy rather than feeding a hungry child in Chad is a decision that causes death.

    “How many of them would have to decide that *your* life wasn’t worth living before they would have the right to terminate it?”

    People do decide these things, as mentioned above, all the time. But here we are talking about a different matter because a society will not function well with citizens living in fear that others can randomly vote on their deaths. This is just one of the differences between a conscious person and, say, a zygote, embryo or chicken.

  3. “Maybe some people in these situations would so choose [death]; but it only takes one who would not to raise serious ethical questions about the quality-of-life case for abortion.”

    Yes, we unavoidably make medical decisions that have the effect of some people living and others dying. But we do not directly decide to kill another human being in most of those decisions–abortion being the exception. And let’s remember what we are discussing here: whether a quality-of-life ethic justifies abortion. It would if and only if we were justified in presuming that the fetus on whose life we are deciding would choose to die rather than face his expected tough situation. Instead, based on evidence from the living who are capable of telling us, the presumption is quite the other way. The vast majority choose life over death. But we only need one exception to those who prefer death to difficult circumstances to throw a big roadblock across the decision to kill. When you perform assisted suicide on someone who does not wish to die, we still call that murder.

    On one thing we do agree: society will not function well when others can randomly vote on the death of its citizens, without due process. Where we differ: I think that is precisely the society we are living in, where a class of citizens is arbitrarily deprived of their right to life because they have not yet passed through a birth canal. The quality-of-life argument tries to disguise the arbitrariness of that decision with its smokescreen of the alleged quality of life the fetus can be expected to enjoy. I think I’ve demonstrated that this attempt fails. We succeed in pretending it is not arbitrary only because the victims cannot speak for themselves. When we attend to those who can (e.g., my examples and almost anyone else you might care to ask), we get a very different result.

  4. eyeontheuniverse

    gandalf: “Yes, we unavoidably make medical decisions that have the effect of some people living and others dying. But we do not directly decide to kill another human being in most of those decisions–abortion being the exception.”

    I think this is a false distinction. You are arguing for a moral difference between directly and indirectly killing someone (accepting abortion as killing a person for the sake of argument here). I would say that you are relying then on a moral judgement based on the subjective level of ignorance. When I buy a new house, or car, or gourmet foods, and i do all of these things, I know and accept that I am killing. Am I more morally culpable than the majority who choose to remain ignorant? Certainly some lack the intellectual capacity for such awareness, but most glimpse the reality at times and quickly beat that awareness back down. I would argue that such willful ignorance of what, by the impact of each choice, amounts to direct killing. To pretend it doesn’t is to live in a fantasyland that presents a morally convenient distortion of reality.

    This said, a whole other argument regarding quality of “life” not touched on here involves the fate of the immortal soul of a foetus/embryo/zygote within the Christian framework. Most of the many I have asked about this fate (and answers vary) believe essentially that this soul gets a free ride to heaven, making this the highest quality of eternal wellness choice anyone could make for their child. Again, I recognize their is great diversity within the religion, but for any woman who does believe aborted souls go straight to heaven risk free, I would argue it is downright immoral and quite cruel not to abort a give. fetus, regardless of conditions.

  5. Who are you killing by buying a house or a car? I’m not sure these claims are even coherent. Buying food kills a plant or an animal, but hardly a human being–unless your dietary preferences are rather more eccentric than I had guessed!

    And I am not making a moral judgment based on ignorance, but on the *knowledge* of the preferences of the living which I have laid out in the original argument–knowledge which the Pro-Choice advocate has perforce to ignore.

    We do not know what happens to the soul of the aborted. My own guess is that it goes to heaven or hell based on God’s knowledge of what it would have chosen had it lived. But that is only a guess. One can hardly make a moral decision to practice evangelism by abortion based on it!

  6. You can’t do this with statistics because there is no calculus by which to make the calculation, and no metric by which to make the measurements — especially before the human beings involved are even born. We cannot assign any objective number of units of pain or of pleasure, or determine how to weigh them against each other in an effort to tip the scale in either direction, especially in advance of their lives actually being lived.

    How many units of misery does it take to outweigh a unit of pleasure (or vice versa?) And how many moments of pleasure and misery, and at what precisely measurable intensity, does it take to produce a unit of either one? And why not include a host of other statistics, as well? How about the units of pleasure and misery they bring to others, or even to the world at large? How about how much love they give and receive? If you say love is not measurable, you are right, and that is my point. None of these things is measurable, period.

    Do recall von Mises’ case in Human Action against the integerization of human beings and human life. When you reduce humans to integers, and then massage those integers via mathematical calculations, you have moved further and further away from actual human beings and their real life existence, not closer to them. Nor have you established anything like the objective, statistical, calculation for life and death.

    Finally, the impossible measurements aside, tell us your formula for life and death.

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