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Abortion and moral discourse

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 30 July 2015

The comments on my last article Foetal Tissue Sting made me scurrying for my copy of Alisdair MacIntyre's "After Virtue". In the first chapter he makes the proposition that we as a civilization have lost the capacity for moral argument.

Those theologians who study modernity will point to the European Enlightenment as the time in which this great loss occurred. While that movement gave us many great things, the language by which moral issues were argued was lost. This is apparent in our time by the way moral arguments, for example about the legality of abortion, are interminable. Such discussions consist of the protagonists simply repeating their position and no progress is made. It is like children arguing in a schoolyard: The foetus is a child! It is not! It is! The pro-choice and pro-life camps remain determinedly opposed without either side conceding that they may be wrong.

McIntyre illustrates his thesis by the following arguments for and against abortion.


(a) Everybody has certain rights over his or her own person, including his or her own body. It follows from the nature of these rights that at the stage when the embryo is essentially part of the mother's body, the mother has a right to make her own uncoerced decision on whether she will have an abortion or not. Therefore abortion is morally permissible and ought to be allowed by law.

(b) I cannot will that my mother should have had an abortion when she was pregnant with me, except perhaps if it had been certain that the embryo was dead or gravely damaged. But if I cannot will this in my own case, how can I consistently deny to others the right to life that I claim for myself? I would break the so-called Golden Rule unless I denied that a mother has in general a right to an abortion. I am not of course thereby committed to the View that abortion ought to be legally prohibited.

(c) Murder is wrong. Murder is the taking of innocent life. An embryo is an identiï¬able individual, differing from a newborn infant only in being at an earlier stage on the long road to adult capacities and, if any life is innocent, that of an embryo is. If infanticide is murder, as it is, abortion is murder. So abortion is not only morally wrong, but ought to be legally   prohibited.

These are all arguments with stated premises and rational outcomes. However, anyone living in our time is at a loss as to explain which argument holds and why. It is clear that something more than rationality is required here.

MacIntyre makes the point that in ancient Greek and Latin, the traditional language of European scholarship, there was no word for our word "moral" (you need to read his explanation if this seems strange p38). The early use of "moral" in English was as a noun that referred to the practical lesson taught by a story. It is close to the meaning of "practical." Later, it's meaning was focused on sexual behaviour.

Here is the kicker: "the history of the word "moral" cannot be told adequately apart from an account of the attempts to provide rational justification for morality ..from say 1630-1850 .." It was during the European Enlightenment that the discussion of the "moral" as rules of conduct are "allowed a cultural space of their own." This move was at one with the general dismissal of the accumulated wisdom of the ages, in this case enshrined in the Christian understanding of the world and the resort to pure reason.


The result is the kind of dilemma that we meet in the abortion debate as well as countless other ethical conundrums that we in late modernity face every day. Should we prepare for war in order to preserve peace? Should tax funds be given to private schools? Should healthcare be a shared resource regardless of income? Should we allow desperate refugees to come to Australia?

We are confronted here with criterionless choices. The choices we make are not founded on rationality but on prejudice, practicality, inheritance or a tribal attachment to a political party. Our precious choices, so much lauded by liberalism, turn out to be arbitrary.

This dilemma represents the "epitaph of the Enlightenment's systematic attempt to discover a rational justification of morality." It is now clear that no such thing exists, never has and never will. It is sobering to read the history of the two World Wars to see that the niceties of civilised behaviour were quickly abandoned by both sides of the conflict in favour of utility.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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