Abortion Facts and Feelings II
An Exchange

Copyright (c) 1994 First Things 43 (May 1994): 39-42.

In this article, James Q. Wilson responds to Hadley Arkes comments in our previous issue.

James Q. Wilson

In his critique of my essay on abortion ("Abortion Facts and Feelings," April), Hadley Arkes takes me to task, not for my specific proposals, but for my basing these proposals on sentiments rather than principles. Indeed, he seems to regard my suggestion that a pregnant woman contemplating an abortion be required to examine photographs of the fetus corresponding to the estimated age of her fetus as a practical step forward over his proposal that, first, every woman contemplating an abortion be given a pregnancy test and, second, every fetus aborted alive be sustained in that life.

The issue that divides us, then, is not what initial steps one might take to modify the lamentably rights-based language of Roe v. Wade, but the ground for taking those steps. He prefers his much more modest proposals because, unlike me, he is motivated by a commitment to a clear principle. As a result of that commitment, he is prepared to move "in a train of moderate steps" until policy reaches that point where an absolute prohibition on all abortions, beginning at the moment of conception, is in place. I, lacking a "principle" (or perhaps any principles), have no grounds for moving to such an absolute prohibition.

I have two responses to his criticism. First, if he has a principle, he is obliged to state and defend it and show on what grounds it rests. I read his essay carefully, but all I learned is that I lack some principle that he seems to possess but has so far not chosen to reveal. He cannot get that principle from his Jewish religion, since no clear principle barring all abortions under all circumstances can be found in the Old Testament or in the commentaries of most of the rabbinic scholars who have construed that text. He might get it from papal pronouncements, but he would have to acknowledge that these pronouncements going back over several centuries neither rest on a secure scriptural foundation nor are always consistent. There are secular philosophers who have attempted to derive a principled grounding for an absolute ban on abortion, but they are contradicted by other philosophers. Given these facts, I want to know what principle Professor Arkes has found and how he would defend it against the criticisms that he can readily imagine and that others have made.

I do not respond in this way because I am interested in scoring debater's points. I thought long and hard about this matter before I wrote my essay. I searched the writings of the great thinkers for guidance on the issue. I found little. My reliance on natural moral sentiments is not, as I think Professor Arkes knows, an effort to find in public opinion the basis for an accommodation between pro-abortion and anti-abortion advocates. (I found the attempts by others, such as Roger Rosenblatt, Ronald Dworkin, and Laurence Tribe, to design such a reconciliation to be wholly unpersuasive.) I very much doubt that any rapprochement is possible.

And were an accommodation possible it would have to be based on something more secure than public opinion, if by "opinion" we mean merely an inclination or impression that happens to be widely but perhaps transiently held-for example, a taste for frozen yogurt. In lampooning my reference to sentiments, Professor Arkes confuses a moral sentiment with a passing fancy. His mental experiment would be better stated this way: If it could be shown that 95 percent of the people in some country loved their children, should the care of those children be compulsory? The answer would surely be yes. But if 95 percent of the people in that country decided that they enjoyed watching babies being killed, should all babies be killed? The answer would surely be no. The difference between the two cases is that we can easily conceive of humans having the first preference, but it is inconceivable that they should have the second. No such society as the second could ever exist. To be human is to cherish one's young, among other things. By contrast, we can easily imagine people liking or not liking frozen yogurt.

This leads to my second response. Moral sentiments, as I understand them, are neither "pre-rational and pre-articulate" (whatever those phrases may mean) nor mere preferences, such as a liking for frozen yogurt. When one gazes at one's own sleeping child, one does not compare her to different flavors of yogurt, or indeed to anything at all. She is incomparable; desirable beyond limit; the embodiment of beauty, sweetness, and innocence to an inexpressible degree. These sentiments are as natural and as profound as any of which the human breast is capable. Those same feelings are not elicited to nearly the same degree by the sight of a sperm, an egg, or even a zygote. Nonetheless, many women feel so passionately about their pregnancy-which is to say, about their zygotes, even in the first few weeks of their existence-as to reveal by this deep emotion the inclination that nature has imparted in mankind to cherish and nurture the next generation. My proposal was meant to harness those commanding and imperial sentiments to making a decision that so few people make, or can be made to make, on grounds of abstract principle. Those sentiments are the very foundation of moral life, even though they not capable of resolving all of life's moral dilemmas.

In particular, they do not resolve the conflict between two powerful sentiments: a wish to preserve human life from its first moments of existence and a desire not willingly to impose upon a child a short life of pain and misery. The latter sentiment will be aroused, and placed in conflict with the former, when the parents know that an embryo is tragically and hopelessly deformed. I can imagine no greater anguish than making a choice defined by those two sentiments; I am in awe of the many parents that have made it on behalf of life, even knowing the consequences. Our most profound moral sentiments, like most moral principles, are often in conflict. It would be splendid if there were a single, sovereign sentiment-or principle-by which such conflicts can be resolved, but there is not: not even Immanuel Kant could supply one, and I think Professor Arkes knows this.

That mankind has not been placed under the direction of an unfailingly reliable and wholly conclusive moral guide is our unhappy lot; indeed, being subject to conflicting sentiments (or principles) is what it means to be human.

I believe that such sentiments, though they are sometimes in conflict, are the grounds on which, ultimately, we defend our fundamental principles. They strike the great majority of people as more compelling grounds than those of abstract reason, even (or especially) ones advanced by Kant. I have explained in The Moral Sense why I believe this (though apparently not to the satisfaction of the reviewer in this magazine). Whether or not he finds my explanation persuasive, I think Professor Arkes is wrong to compare such sentiments to, as he puts it, a "feeling," "perceptions," or the "vagaries of opinions."

If there is a principle that is a surer guide than sentiment to action in this case, abortion, I await Professor Arkes' account of it. He comes close to stating it with his compelling example of how weak the moral sentiments are when confronted by slavery. He asks whether sentiment-or as he would put it, wrongly, "opinion"-might not tolerate slavery? Indeed it can, and has, and still does. In fact matters are much worse than his example suggests, for he refers only to race slavery. But slavery itself long predates race slavery: the very Greeks and Romans whom I suspect both Professor Arkes and I admire owned slaves and defended slavery, even when the slaves were people of their own race. (Aristotle comes to mind.) Slavery was practiced by Jews in ancient Israel and by Christians in many lands. The Bible in various passages urges us to treat slaves humanely, but nowhere does it oblige us to set them free.

The moral sentiments often fail to reach much beyond the family or village. But God's law, as set down in the Old Testament, and Athenian philosophy, as set down by the great teachers, often failed to reach much beyond the family, the polis, and the tribe. It required the heroic efforts of a few people, chiefly in England and America, to compel us to see slaves as human; to look them in the eye and to see, so to speak, our own reflection there.

The effect of that teaching, once we accepted it, was to expand the reach of the moral sentiments by expanding the definition of who is truly human. We cannot turn back; we have seen ourselves in the faces of others. As Lincoln put it, we now know that there is no argument that can justify enslaving blacks (or any "others") that cannot also justify enslaving us. The Fourteenth Amendment accepts that argument and endows it with constitutional protection giving new meaning to the phrase that "all men are created equal."

This enlargement of the sphere to which our moral sentiments are to apply was, perhaps, the most profound achievement of the Enlightenment. That expansion was justified by certain principles that, though they have been available to us at least since the time of the Stoics, acquired persuasive power only in the last two hundred years, and then only for a small fraction of the earth's population. The equal claim of all people to respect and dignity has yet to penetrate Bosnia, or Somalia, or Iraq, or countless other places. I wonder whether it ever will.

But whether it does or not, I doubt that we here, now, can settle or even discuss our differences over abortion by making comparisons between a woman's own fetus and an enslaved stranger. Many people now regard a fertilized egg as sacred life, entitled to all the protection we can afford it. I have no quarrel with them. Other people regard an embryo in the early weeks of pregnancy as not deserving of unqualified protection because, before we feel it to be human, we feel an obligation to spare the human-that-is-to-be unnecessary pain. I have no quarrel with them. My quarrel is with those women who, knowing that they carry within them life by anyone's definition, refuse to confront that fact, insist on pulling the veil of self-regarding ignorance over what they bear, and abort because they are endowed with rights that trump all other rights and interests.

James Q. Wilson is Professor of Management and Public Policy at UCLA. His most recent book is The Moral Sense (Free Press).

Hadley Arkes

I could print portions of James Wilson's response and willingly have them dropped, in leaflets, over Manhattan. As I said in my own piece, people of my persuasion would do handstands if we could enact Wilson's policy today and have the law restrict abortions beyond eight to ten weeks. That the proposal will be rejected summarily by the partisans of abortion goes without saying. But it is worth saying that these same people may affably accept all of Wilson's premises as they proceed to vote down his plan. My concern was that Wilson could not establish the moral ground of his position; that he ran the risk then of fostering confusion among his own allies about the ground of their opposition to abortion; and that the allies who made themselves suggestible to his arguments were risking a serious erosion in the conviction that they summoned to this issue.

For some reason, this estimable man, whose writings have nourished me, seems persistently to miss the point, and to contest me on issues that do not divide us. If he scans my article again, he will not find any place in which I declared for an "absolute prohibition" on abortion. That is language-and a position-that he is pleased to attribute to me, without warrant. I did make the point that life begins at conception, and that there is no ground of principle on which the embryo or fetus could be regarded as anything less than human at any stage of its existence. But from this point, it does not necessarily follow that I would have the law try to protect the embryo at every moment, or seek an "absolute prohibition" on abortion. I do not seek that kind of perfection in politics, and the laws on abortion, before Roe v. Wade, did not seek it either. I was tutored by the same teachers in Chicago who taught James Wilson about Aristotle and Aquinas, and I thought he would be far more cautious before attributing to me such an extravagant leap beyond prudence.

But he cannot seem to decide whether he wishes to indict me for being rigid and overly principled, or far too accommodating. And so he fastens on my examples of "moderate" positions and glides past the point: namely, that even measures far more modest than his can plant principles, or teachings, far more critical than anything his own, more ambitious plan, would impart. The example of the yogurt was not meant to lampoon. But I fear that Wilson is inclined to treat it as a lampoon for the sake of avoiding the argument it was bearing. The example was meant to bring out even more sharply Immanuel Kant's point that a unanimity of feeling simply cannot supply the ground of a moral judgment. Wilson bristles at the example-and yet it appears that he still hasn't taken hold of the point: the fact that 95 percent of the people in the country "loved their children" would still not establish why the law is justified in protecting those children at the hands of those parents. And it would fail to establish that point for the same reason that the law would not be justified in receding from the protection of the children even if those feelings changed overnight and 95 percent of the public now "despised their children." That, you might say, was Kant's point.

Wilson himself records a telling distinction: A consensus in favor of protecting children may be honored, but a consensus in favor of killing them need not be. That may suggest to some of us that there is-pardon the expression-a principle here, or a standard of judgment, that allows us to consider just which type of consensus we can honor. The critical test, evidently, is not in the consensus of opinion, or the concentration of feeling. And yet Wilson steps away from a moral judgment even here: He tells us merely that the second choice will not be chosen because it is "inconceivable," that no society of this kind, which destroys its young, "could ever exist." But as a matter of logic, infanticide is quite conceivable, and empirically it so happens that infanticide continues to be an intractable part of the human record. That no society could subsist if it killed all of its young may be a neat, tautological point. But a society may persist even while a sizable segment continues to destroy its offspring. For those of us who think that the lives destroyed in abortion are human lives, that seems to be exactly the state of things right now. For the problem of infanticide, we usually have the laws on homicide. And yet, those laws cannot derive simply from the empirical report that "most people out there prefer not to kill their own young." That empirical report in itself would not establish why the killing of the young would be wrong, even for people who do not join the preference for protecting the young.

Wilson says that he "awaits" my account of the principle that would establish the wrong of abortion, for he has "read [Arkes'] essay carefully" without finding it there. He would seem to suggest in these curious passages that I have not written anything on the subject apart from this essay. I cannot blame him if I have read more of his books than he has of mine, and it might have escaped his notice that I have written on this matter at length-in my book, First Things (Princeton, 1986, Chapters XVI-XVII), and in numerous articles before and since, including a monthly column in a magazine in which he has stood now, for some time, as a member of the Publication Committee. I did not think this was the occasion to offer my extended argument again, but even the readers of this one article might have seen enough to know the main lines of that argument: After conception, the embryo does not become more "human" as it advances in age; the being in the womb is nothing less than human at any stage. And that means that its life may be taken only for reasons that stand on the same plane as the reasons we would be obliged to give for taking any other human life. As I reported, most respondents in our surveys do not think that people lose the claim to live when they are blind or disabled, and so they do not think these infirmities justify an abortion at any stage of a pregnancy. I don't think Wilson would suggest that we need less compelling reasons for taking the life of a child eight months in the womb, than a child eight months out of the womb. There are plenty of things to argue about in hard cases, but what is the main mystery about?

Wilson is correct that it truly was an achievement to bring ourselves to the point at which black people were seen as human beings. But as I argued, that accomplishment came precisely because people like Lincoln insisted on testing, with the most stringent, principled reasoning, the claims of many literate people that this dark creature simply didn't look like "one of us." As Roger Wertheimer once put it, the black slave looked to the white master like "some sort of demiperson, a blathering beast of burden." As Lincoln showed, the person who tested that claim severely, with the force of principle, did not fall into abstraction. I would suggest earnestly to my long-time ally that there may be a serious lapse into the most grievous abstraction when a writer uses the term "deformed" to cover anything ranging from spina bifida to Down's syndrome to Tay Sachs disease-and with that convenient abstraction cover all of them with a ready license for abortion. The same tendency may be at work in the willingness to accept abortion for the sake of avoiding "unnecessary pain," when that term may cover the pain of Tay Sachs and the pain of being "unwanted." Even people who claim to be emancipated from the tyranny of principles are not immune to the tyrannies of abstraction.

But that said, as I hope it may be said by an admirer of long standing, I can only record my satisfaction in seeing the pen of James Wilson drawn to this issue. As Paul Henreid says to Humphrey Bogart at the end of Casablanca, "Welcome to the cause." This time, I'm sure we'll win.

Hadley Arkes is the Edward Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College. His books include First Things and Beyond the Constitution.