One of the classes I teach at the university is a course on Ethics, and I am using a book by Ralph Dolgoff, Donna Harrington and Frank M. Lowenberg entitled "Ethical Decisions for Social Work Practice" as the text. Overall, I think that it is a good Ethics textbook largely because it provides a balanced viewpoint on the need for values in social work. For example, the book makes the argument (without committing to it) that those engaged in social work cannot avoid making value judgments in ethical decisions because trying to do what is right necessarily involves making an value choice. Also, I book notes that some (including me) think it is ethically wrong for a social worker to cover-up her own values when counseling another person because it creates a false (and ultimately unproductive) relationship with the person being counseled.
Still, one of the exemplars in the book gave me pause – not because I thought it raised a deep ethical quandary, but because I wondered how any discerning person could conclude that the answer was anything but clear. The exemplar involved abortion and reads as follows:
Arlene Johnson, 18 years old and single, is nearly six months pregnant. Yesterday, she came to the Women’s Counseling Center to request help in getting an abortion. At the time of the abortion procedure, the fetus was considered viable and was placed in a neonatal intensive care unit as a high-risk premature baby. Arlene was extremely upset when she learned that the “abortion” had resulted in a live infant. She refused to look at the baby or take care of it. Instead, she threated to sue the doctor and the hospital if the infant survived despite her expressed wish for an abortion. Arlene asked Robin Osborn, the hospital social worker, to make sure that the baby not be given intensive care, but rather be left alone so that it would die quickly. In the follow-up material, the book comments on the exemplar: “Arlene Johnson does not want to have the baby, but now that a live infant has been born, her expectations of the obstetrician (and the request she made to the social worker) conflict sharply with the rights of infant and what society expects from the professionals.Now, what troubles me about the exemplar is two-fold: First, Arlene is apparently surprised to find out that the baby inside her was living. That's one of the puzzles about abortion - people somehow accept the lie that the "fetus" is not a living human being. It should be obvious to anyone that the "fetus" is a living human being despite the fact that it has been labeled with a term that dehumanizes it. I suspect that society has adopted the term "fetus" into the general language at the urging of those that favor abortion because it would be harder to justify abortion if we clearly identified the "thing" being aborted as "a baby" (as every mother who would want to keep the child would call it). But notice that she is surprised to find out that the baby has somehow survived the abortion. (And yes, it does happen in real life as the group for abortion survivors demonstrates.) Yet, pro-choice advocates want to deny the existence of these survivors, and even try to deny that such events ever happen (as Planned Parenthood's Cecile Richards did in her testimony to Congress).
It makes one wonder exactly what do people who are seeking abortion imagine about the fetus inside them? Don't they know that the fetus is growing? Don't they know that it has a heartbeat as early as 22 days and brainwaves as early as six weeks, two days? These are changes to the baby that can only occur if the baby is living and growing inside of them. If the baby stops growing, doctors use this lack of growth to tell the mother that the baby has died naturally in the womb.
Does the aborting mother believe that by having the abortion, it is like the growing child was never alive in the first place? Is it like a mulligan in golf?
Make no mistake about it, the pro-choice advocates misrepresent what is happening. They tell expectant mothers that the infant inside of them is not alive and not a human being, but they do so by presenting unpersuasive arguments such as arguing that a fetus is akin to a flake of dandruff -- after all, both are alive and both have human DNA such as this blogpost by some abortion advocate in Canada. But if the baby is no different than a flake of dandruff, then why the abortion? (Responding to all of the myriad of misrepresentations in the link is another post for another day, but for right now, that quick comment will do.)
But once the baby is "born" (in the sense that it survived the abortion), there is no hiding behind clever (or attempts at clever) arguments. The living, breathing baby lying there makes a farce of any such fancies that the baby in the womb is anything but a baby. Certainly, it is a baby that desperately needs medical attention after being ripped prematurely from its mother's womb (in a horrifyingly turn that any good novelist would love) at the direction of the mother who is supposed to love and nurture him, but nonetheless clearly a baby. It is nothing less, and wasn't anything less just because it was inside the womb.
What does Arlene Johnson want to do? This is the second thing that troubles me about the exemplar: Arlene wants to leave the baby to die. Unfortunately, Arlene is not alone. Stories abound of aborted children having to be terminated after a "botched abortion." For some, this is not a problem since the baby was set to be terminated before it left the womb (when we could still pretend it was just a mass of fetal tissue). However, for most people, once it is clear that the baby survived the efforts to kill it and it is clearly a living, breathing baby, it should be entitled to all of the protections to which we all should be entitled just as the result of being human beings, including the right to life (a right actually specifically identified in the U.S. Constitution).
To me, this exemplar would not present an ethical quandary if people would just recognize the "fetus" for what it is - a living human being inside the womb who should be protected in every bit the same way as it should be protected outside the womb. But even accepting that I am not free to ignore the right for a woman to choose to terminate that living human being while it still resides in the womb (a right that we call the "right to an abortion" but which is ethically as wrong of a right as the world has ever witnessed), it is absurd to think that once the baby survives the abortion it can be denied medical care because the woman who carried it demands it. To the best of my knowledge, infanticide is still illegal in all fifty states, and if it isn't, it should be. Killing helpless, living children for the convenience of the mother should be morally repugnant to every person who cares about ethics.