The Limitations of this Text

The moral issues underlying the political issue can be stated in many ways. We often ask when, if ever, abortion is morally permissible. But we could also ask when, if ever, the state is justified in requiring a woman to carry a pregnancy to term. The way we phrase the question places emphasis on the rights of a particular party: the right of the fetus to live or the right of a woman to control her body or her capacity to have children.

There is no one correct question. Ariadne spends more time on the moral status of the fetus than on the rights of the mother because no one denies that she has the full rights of a person. Nevertheless, it is the relationship between these parties (and their rights) that must ultimately be decided.

The questions discussed here are phrased mainly in terms of moral rights, but this is not the only available language. Using the language of rights is a convention of American politics and many philosophers. But abortion can also be approached from the viewpoint of constitutional law, from the Bible, from the Koran, from Jewish tradition, from the Catholic tradition of natural law, and from other intellectual traditions. Very complex reasoning is possible in each case.

Ariadne takes a secular approach using the language of rights partly because I am most familiar with it and partly because most of our public argument (on network television, for example) operates that way. For better or for worse, the secular rights-based approach has become a common language in which to debate issues even for those who prefer a different framework.

The Limitations of Words

Many of the words used in the moral debate over abortion are 'loaded' terms. (One of the best known books on the subject has a chapter on which words to use in order to promote the view favored by the authors.) Labels such as "pro-life" and "pro-choice" are chosen to appeal to widely held values. Terms like "fetus" sound detached and amoral while "unborn child" sounds intimate and loving. Even so, a choice must be made.

The arguments here on Ariadne's Thread usually avoid using "pro-life" or "pro-choice" except for brevity. As for the "fetus" or "child", I usually use the medical terms "embryo" and "fetus" but sometimes "unborn child" and always "infant" or "baby" for a newborn. This usage is not meant to prejudge any of the moral issues. There is no ideal language available to use.

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