Tuesday, July 23, 2024

On Abortion – A Genuine Moral Dilemma (I)


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By Deepa Majumdar

This article is dedicated to the aborted fetus.
The Shillong Times (Feb 9, 2024) reported the “spine-chilling” incident of an infant’s cadaver being discovered in a garbage truck. Indeed, it is “spine-chilling” when the unborn and newborn are reified to inconvenient commodities – to be destroyed and disposed of, whimsically. The progressiveness, viability, and humanity of a society lies – not in its GNP, outer space adventures, or ostentatious temples – but in the loving care, it provides for the most vulnerable of its members – whether the unborn, the newborn, and young children – or the elderly, the specially-abled, the destitute, those belonging to the lowest castes – and last (but hardly the least), helpless animals. That nation is prosperous, which cares for and prioritizes the most defenseless of its members.
The natural sciences have brought many benefits. But as an amoral form of intelligence, they cannot guide us morally. Yet, they have endowed us with godlike powers over life and death. One example is the mother’s power to grant or deny life to her unborn child. Indeed, mothers play God when they decide whether or not to abort a fetus. Mother Teresa’s words of wisdom ring in my ears as I write – “If we accept that a mother can kill her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill each other?” Her words also evoke in me the glory of motherhood – a cosmic principle that redeems matter and the body, by infusing the light of unselfishness into amoral biological processes and into the ceaseless antipathy that haunts the slaughter-bench of Nature.
In the realm of embodiment, giving birth and breast feeding are the only acts that are biologically unselfish. Even the most selfish of mothers perform an unintentionally unselfish act, when they give birth. Motherhood may begin with pregnancy. But it does not end there. It continues on to giving birth and nurturing and nourishing the newborn. Moreover, human mothers are often the first teachers of their children, using precept and action to teach wisdom and ethics. We see the glory of motherhood also among animals, who otherwise, are creatures of passions. If despite excruciating labor pain, risks to their lives, and patriarchal prejudices, women still long to have babies, this proves that the miracle of motherhood still prevails – despite patriarchy and feminism. Women should be proud of having unselfish bodies that can give birth and nourish helpless infants. All viable societies therefore worship not only biological mothers, but the cosmic principle of motherhood. In our times, statues should be built to honor the single mother, who has proved her mettle, by raising children single-handedly. As a moral dilemma that allows mothers to play God, by granting or refusing life to the unborn fetus, abortion militates against this cosmic principle of motherhood.
Adding to this, we must remember the sheer helplessness of the fetus, dependent as it is wholly on the body of the mother. To see the fetus only in terms of science can sound grotesque. Far greater than a mere biological blob, the fetus should never be objectified to its body. Science lacks the wherewithal to determine whether or not the fetus is ensouled, or to understand the mother’s bond with her fetus. Going by the doctrine of reincarnation, the fetus is ensouled from the first moment of its embodied life in the womb. Even if one does not believe in reincarnation, one ought to respect the embryo as a symbol of life – at that, the life of a helpless child.
Abortion inflicts two levels of violence upon the fetus – denial of life and the possibility of pain. To deny the fetus, a voiceless being, the right to life, is an act of undeniable violence. From the fetus’ standpoint – if it could speak – abortion is abhorrent. Moreover, whether or not the fetus feels pain during abortion – especially a later-term abortion – should not be determined based on medical evidence alone. Inasmuch as pain is a subjective experience, with thresholds of pain varying among individuals, and insofar as pain is a mental response, the brain alone cannot determine whether or not we feel pain.
On many moral issues, good and evil depend on the empirical context of the action in question. The same action, which, in one context is a vice, in another, can be a virtue. Applied to abortion, this means that despite its abhorrent nature, abortion, which is never a virtue, yet can, in some contexts, be a necessary evil. A selfish abortion of convenience, or patriarchal abortions that abort female fetuses with impunity, are wholly repugnant morally. Regardless of context, they are inexcusable. But abortion in the case of a rape-survivor can be a necessary evil.
Then there is the question of fetal pain, which may be a medical controversy, but remains a moral quandary. If indeed the fetus feels pain, it cannot control its experience of this pain, the way an adult can – through self-control, forbearance, or wisdom. The life of the unborn fetus and that of its mother, whether a young girl or an adult woman, cannot be compared – because each is unique. Prioritizing one over the other is always a problem. To argue that the mother’s life is of greater value than that of her fetus – simply because unlike the fetus, she is already born – is specious, to say the least. But so is the opposite, as when a harsh pro-life law demands that the fetus be saved at the cost of its mother’s life. In some cases, this fatal conflict of interests, which demands one life at the cost of the other, becomes unbearable – as in the case of a later-term abortion. Unless the mother’s life is in danger, a pain-centered ethics should prioritize the agony the fetus might feel when undergoing a later-term abortion, over the mental pain of the mother being coerced to give birth to an unwanted child.
But abortion takes on a whole different meaning in the case of a rape-survivor. Here, an early abortion becomes a necessary evil – while, at the same time, remaining a moral dilemma. I draw inspiration from women rape-survivors from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who retained the glory of motherhood, by refusing to abort the fetuses they conceived through rape, saying, “My child has already been wronged once by being conceived through rape. I cannot wrong it again, by aborting it.” But this noble stance becomes ignoble when imposed on all rape-survivor mothers. Not all are capable of this generosity. No rape-survivor should be condemned for feeling repugnance for her fetus conceived through rape.
Yet this revulsion, although understandable, remains unbearably tragic. For, it is inherently unjust to the fetus. No fetus ever asks to be born through rape. No fetus ever causes rape, but appears as a result of rape. Hence, no fetus deserves revulsion or condemnation from its mother. The light of motherhood sometimes overcomes this repugnance – but not always – because mothers are human. Thus, abortion, which, in essence, is a moral dilemma, becomes all more so in the case of rape. A rape-survivor should never be coerced to bear the child she conceived through rape. Yet, at the same time, the fetus should not be forced to forfeit its life for something that was never its fault – that is, for being conceived through violence. Clearly, there are no easy solutions to this grim moral dilemma.
I wish Mother Teresa had understood better the nuances of abortion – especially the tragedy of the mother who conceives through rape. I wish she had understood that motherhood does not always happen under ideal circumstances. I wish she had reflected on the many betrayals of motherhood, of which, rape, perhaps, is the greatest. But there are many others too. The glory of motherhood is denigrated whenever the womb is objectified, through coerced reproduction, whether by an individual, the community, or the state. For example, when a woman is coerced to give birth until she produces a son, her motherhood is degraded to a mere process, and she is reduced to her womb. Motherhood is betrayed when a pregnant woman is sexually and physically assaulted (especially in front of her children), or even neglected by the father; when due to poverty, she is undernourished; when her husband ignores the risks to her life and the labor pain she undergoes, by dubbing child-bearing merely “natural” – hence unworthy of gratitude; when she is chastised for giving birth to daughters; when she loses daughters through female feticide.
Of what use is it to pay lip service to the Indian cult of mother-worship – when real life mothers are neglected, abused, and coerced, by individuals, society, and even the state?
(To be concluded)


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