Abortion & Cultural Relativism Term Paper

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Morals and Traditions

Liana Raquel Prieto (December 1997)

Abortion is ethically permissible. When we are considering this distant land the abortion debate takes on new dimensions but these in no way alter my original premise. The people of this land are not committing a moral wrong by performing late-term abortions, as they have been for thousands of years, in order to secure the salvation of the entire populace. This culture's tradition, regardless of our own morals, is ethically permissible.

Abortion itself must be proven moral before delving further into the tradition of this distant land. The common anti-abortion argument has many insurmountable faults. Basically, it states that fetuses are people with a right to life and that abortion is immoral because it deprives them of this right. The first problem with this argument is that no consensus has been reached regarding whether or not a fetus is a person. It cannot be proven that a fetus is a person, much less that they have a right to life, and therefore it cannot be said that abortion is unethical because it deprives them of this right. Pro-lifers who base their arguments upon the religious "ensoulment" concept must realize that morality and religion are two separate entities. (Blackmun, 185) Opponents of abortion argue that since the fetus' development into a human being is continuous it is impossible to set a dividing point at which they become a person. Our inability to agree upon a point at which a fetus is officially a person leads them to conclude that the fetus must be considered a person with the right to life from the point of conception. (Elliston, 196) This conclusion however, does not logically follow. (Thomson, 188) It could be just as easily concluded that due to the lack of a defining point, the fetus is not a person until live birth. From this conclusion it follows that the fetuses are not being deprived of their right to life because they do not possess that right. To simply say that the fetus is person and therefore has the right not to be killed is insufficient.

In Brody's criticism of Thomson's argument he questions her assertion that a woman has an unquestionable right to do as she pleases with her body. He argues that the fetus and the woman have an equal right to life and therefore, abortion is impermissible. Brody qualifies abortion as the unjust killing of an innocent. His extreme anti-abortion view morally prohibits all abortions because of the innocence of the fetus. Brody goes as far as to claim that even if a woman's life is endangered she has no right to an abortion because the fetus is not making an attempt on the mother's life. (Brody, 200) If we examine this idea though its ridiculousness becomes clear. It is true that the fetus is not trying to kill the mother, but regardless of its intent, or lack thereof, that is what it is doing. "It cannot seriously be said that she must refrain [from the abortion], that she must sit passively by and wait for her death." (Thomson, 190) It is inconceivable to demand that a woman sacrifice her own life because of the potential of the fetus she is carrying.

Another counter-argument to traditional pro-life reasoning is that though a fetus is genetically human, it is not a member of the moral community. Only the members of the moral community have "full and equal moral rights". (Warren, 206) Warren proposes that at least some of the following characteristics are necessary to be considered a person: (1) consciousness, (2) reasoning, (3) self-motivated activity, (4) the capacity to communicate messages of an indefinite variety of types, (5) self-concept and self-awareness. A fetus has none of these characteristics and therefore do not the moral rights people do. (Warren, 207) The potential of the fetus to become a member of the moral community is not enough for them to be granted the rights of membership. It must be noted that his argument in no way excludes infants from the moral community because infants do possess numbers one and three. Since it is irrational to ascribe moral obligations and responsibilities to a fetus is it then not irrational to grant them full moral rights. (Warren, 208)

Now that it has been established that abortion in itself is morally permissible, the particulars of this case must be addressed. In this culture late-term abortions are regularly performed. Assuming that the proof I have set forward has been enough to convince that there is nothing inherently unethical about abortion, the age of the fetus makes no difference. The extreme pro-life argument that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception has already been disproved. This more extreme view claims that there is no point in the development of the fetus at which it suddenly has a right to life. Since the fetus does not have a right to life at conception and there is no later morally significant point, the fetus never has a right to life. The more moderate view proposes that the fetus gains a right to life at the point of viability. The explanation given for this view is that at this point the fetus is potentially able to live outside of the womb and therefore is entitled to the rights of those who live outside the womb. (Blackmun, 185) This argument is weak because it again relies on potential alone.

The idea of aborting fetuses of seven to eight months is emotionally repulsive to us, but we must remember that morality is not culturally relative in this case. Looking at the situation impartially, there are not many differences between a fetus in the first or second trimesters and the third trimester. At no point in development does a fetus have any of the five necessary traits to be considered a person. The right of the woman to an abortion "will always override whatever right to life it may be appropriate to ascribe to a fetus, even a fully developed one". (Warren, 210) The most obvious difference between early- and late-term fetuses is that the further developed fetus resembles a person more. This alone is not enough to say that the practice is morally impermissible. Imagine that a robot is created that resembles a human in all its physical characteristics but in nothing else. No one would say that due to this likeness it is immoral for us to destroy the robot. Imagine that in two months it is possible that we may have the technology to give this robot the characteristics of personhood it is lacking. Though the robot now has the potential to be a member of the moral community in some time, it is still irrational to argue that he cannot be destroyed. This analogy disproves the argument through potentiality.

Late-term abortions are not sanctioned in our own culture not only because of the debate over the fetuses moral status, but because of the danger they pose to the mother's life. To counter this argument I must assume that in the thousands of years that this culture has been performing such abortions they have developed a painless method that does endanger the life of the mother.

In this culture these occasional late-term abortions are believed to be necessary for the salvation of the populace. Pregnant women being part of the populace, these abortions are performed in to save them to a degree. Some argue against abortions in order to save the woman because her right to life does not outweigh the fetuses. Though I have done my best to disprove this, we will assume now that it is true. The fetus' right to life is equal to the woman's, but is it equal to the entire populace's right to life? Utilitarian principles easily justify these abortions. The utilitarian idea of maximizing the amount of pleasure can be translated to maximizing the amount of life. "Though it is only in a very imperfect state of the world's arrangements that anyone can best serve the happiness of others by the absolute sacrifice of his own" these are the circumstances we are faced with. (Mill, 67) In our imperfect world exists this distant land where potential lives must be sacrificed for the well being of all persons.

The idea of cultural relativism is a difficult one to address. I have tried to impartially justify the traditional practice of this distant land, but even in doing so I have had to rely on some arguments based in our western culture. The validity of our judgements on this culture are questionable.

A Westerner confronted with this situation would at first associate with an undeveloped, barbaric nation. However, the Western idea of human rights does not apply beyond our borders. "The Western notion of human rights lacks concreteness. It ascribes abstract rights to abstract beings." (Ake, 104) In this case, an abstract right to life is assigned to fetus who do not have this right. The Western ideas of individualism are the basis for these abstract rights, but in many places the idea of community is more important in people's lives. The argument that tradition is not enough to justify the practice is also a Western idea that insists on constant change for the betterment of society. "The reluctance to break with age-old practices that symbolize the shared heritage of a particular ethnic group" is only seen as a bad thing from a Western point of view. (Editors, 110) An assumption I am making is that it is not a myth that these abortions are necessary for the salvation of the people, but even if it is a myth it is still justified. I believe that a baseless feeling of superiority is what leads us to criticize the traditions of other lands even when they are morally justified. The traditional occasional aborting of seven to eight month old fetuses for the salvation of the populace is ethically permissible. The fetuses have no right to life and an action, in this case the abortions, cannot be deemed immoral because it violates a non-existent right. Though according to our cultural morals the practice is unethical, we must accept that our morals do not apply to other cultures. An impartial examination of this practice makes it clear that it is moral and ethically permissible.

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