This week, Democrats finally succumbed to the inescapable logic of abortion. They have admitted, perhaps against their better judgement, that there really is no difference between abortion and infanticide.
Between New York’s expansive new abortion legislation, a bill now before the Virginia General Assembly, and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s infamous comments about making a just-born infant “comfortable” while the mother and a physician discuss whether to snuff its life out, there can be no doubt that Democrats have acceded to the demands of their own ruthless logic on abortion.
What that logic demands is nothing less than unrestricted abortion up to the moment of birth and after. There is almost nothing in these bills to limit late-term abortion. Indeed, they constitute a strenuous effort to free late-term abortion of any kind of medical justification.
The Virginia bill, for example, would change state law to allow third-trimester abortions if the continuation of the pregnancy is likely to “impair the mental or physical health of the woman”—removing the qualifiers “substantially and irremediably.”
In other words, almost any impairment—anxiety, depression, physical discomfort—is enough to justify abortion up to the point of delivery. As my colleague David Harsanyi pointed out on Twitter, is there a difference between aborting a fetus in the third trimester because it’s causing the mother emotional distress, and killing a premature infant in the NICU for the same reason? If there is a difference, what is it? Will any Democrat say?
I wish someone could explain the moral difference between going to a NICU unit and injecting poison into a premature baby that is causing the mother emotional stress & injecting poison into another baby – same age; same reason– that's in the womb?
— David Harsanyi (@davidharsanyi) January 31, 2019
They will not, because there is no difference, and they know it. These bills demonstrate that the debate over abortion was never about when life begins. All that hemming and hawing about a fetus just being a “clump of cells” was disingenuous from the start.
In fact, there has never been any doubt about when human life begins (it begins at conception). The debate was always about whether we would by law make the life of the unborn—or the just-born—subject to the convenience and desire of the mother. Democrats have decided that we should.
Abortion Is a Triumph of Will over Rights
Until recently, abortion advocates refused to acknowledge this. But now they are coming around, in part because the Democratic Party’s leftist base has demanded it. They don’t want any more talk about abortion being “safe, legal, and rare,” they want to proclaim it as a positive good. But to do that, abortion mustn’t hinge on a question of biology or gestation or fetus viability, but on the sheer will of the mother.
It’s now possible to find abortion advocates who will come right out and say this, and even talk about it at length. In an August 2017 episode of Philosophy Time, a YouTube series in which actor James Franco and philosophy professor Eliot Michaelson have conversations with academics about various topics, the interviewee was professor Elizabeth Harman, who teaches philosophy at Princeton University.
Harman attempted to explain why aborted fetuses don’t have “moral status” the way that non-aborted fetuses do. She said that everyone alive has moral status, and that we all had moral status when we were in utero, “in virtue of our futures… We were [the] beginning stages of persons. But some early fetuses will die in early pregnancy due to abortion or miscarriage. And in my view that is a very different kind of entity. That’s something that doesn’t have a future as a person and it doesn’t have moral status.”
The key moment in the interview is when Franco and Michaelson press Harman to clarify what she means. Michaelson asks, “Why would we think that what’s actually going to happen to a fetus in the future is going to make this big difference between having some moral status and not?” A bit later, Franco asks, “If a woman decides to have an abortion with an early fetus, just that act or that intention negates the ‘moral status’ of that early fetus just because if she goes out and has an abortion, it’s pretty certain that it’s not going to become a person?”
Harman’s response is worth quoting at length, because she articulates what has always been the necessary logical position of abortion supporters, although even she struggles to come out and state it plainly:
Right, so it might look like, on my view, abortion is permissible because you had the abortion but that abortion wouldn’t have been permissible if you didn’t have the abortion. That’s not quite the view, for I think two different reasons. So one reason is that, um, even if you have moral status—and in my view back when you were an early fetus you had moral status—but it’s not that aborting you would have been wrong, because if your mother had chosen to abort her pregnancy then it wouldn’t have been the case that you would have had moral status because you would have died as an early fetus, so she would have been aborting something that didn’t have moral status.
So it’s not—my view isn’t that if you do abort, abortion is OK but if you don’t abort, abortion would have been wrong. But what it turns out is that it’s a contingent matter that you have moral status. You actually have moral status but you might not have counted morally at all if you had been aborted. You would have existed but you just would have had this really very short existence in which you wouldn’t have mattered morally.
That’s a tortured way of saying that if a woman desires to bring her fetus to term, she imputes personhood to her child and it gains moral status. That is, nothing but the woman’s will confers moral status on the unborn child. In Harman’s view, there is nothing inherent about a fetus that gives it moral status. The right to life, to personhood, is entirely contingent.
In the actual interview, Harman might sound a bit befuddled, but she’s no fool (she has a PhD in philosophy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a bachelor’s from Harvard, and teaches at Princeton). Harman knows exactly what she’s saying—and why. At least she’s honest. Unlike most abortion advocates, Harman is willing to accept that whether a baby is born or not is an irrelevant milestone, a meaningless observation. What really matters is whether the mother desires it to be born.
Tiny Step From Third-Trimester Abortion to Infanticide
Whether he intended to or not, Northam has now done the same. He has admitted that what really matters—even when an infant has been born alive during a botched third-trimester abortion—is what the woman wants.
In his interview with a Virginia radio station earlier this week, he said, “If the mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen: the infant would be delivered, the infant would be kept comfortable, the infant would be resuscitated if this is what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physician and the mother.”
We used to hear abortion defenders talk about a woman’s body—“my body, my choice”—and how male legislators shouldn’t be telling a woman what to do with her body, as though the fetus were an appendage or an organ. To some extent we still hear that sort of language. But with the Democratic Party’s sharp leftward lurch, and the legislation Democrats are now advancing in blue states, the emphasis has unmistakably shifted from a woman’s body to her will.
At the very least, this is a moment of clarity. Now we can dispense with the Roe v. Wade fiction that we must balance society’s interest in the potentiality for life against a woman’s right to privacy. Abortion advocates obviously never cared about the potentiality of life or the viability of a fetus. The only difference today is that they feel free to say so. We will likely hear no more talk from them about how life begins at some particular point, but rather about how it doesn’t matter when life begins because the desire and convenience of the mother trumps the life of the child—born or unborn.
Now at last the pretense has lifted and we can talk about what we should have been talking about for the past 46 years: whether parents have the right to commit infanticide against their unwanted children.