Abortion: A Moral Choice


Ellen Kenner, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Rhode Island and host of the nationally-syndicated radio talk show, “The Rational Basis of Happiness®.” Her specialty is exploring how to apply the rational, pro-happiness philosophy of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism to mental health issues. Visit her websites: drkenner.com and selfishromance.com.

“My daughter is a murderer. She killed my unborn grandchild. I will never forgive her. I refuse to have any contact with her.”

“I hate my son. It’s because of him that I had to get married. I have resented him ever since. He robbed me of my youth.”

“I have never gotten over the  guilt. I had an abortion as a young adult. I carry this guilt with me every day.”

“I grew up in a large family. My parents worked double shifts just to put food on the table. They didn’t have time to enjoy us as children. We were burdens on them. They were bitter and fought when they were together. I had a terrible childhood.”

“My sex life has been dead. I know it is because I lived in terror of getting pregnant. I could never have had an abortion. When I made love, I felt like I was playing Russian roulette with my life. I was too anxious to ever enjoy  sex. I can easily live without that stress.”

“As a family planning counselor for the church, I had to tell many girls that it is immoral to kill their unborn child. You know, I saw the pain on their faces. I saw the life drain from them. Although I acted sure of my point, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was destroying their lives.”

“I was raped, resulting in a pregnancy, when I was 14. My grandmother insisted that I have the child and that she take care of it. I tried to have an abortion but I was seriously scolded for even considering this. When I  look at my daughter, I remember the rape. My life is a nightmare.”

“I have performed abortions and have spoken out publicly for a woman’s right to life. I live in fear of these churchgoers. They picket my home, they hurl accusations and threats at my family. I no longer feel as though I live in a civilized country.”

Individuals who oppose abortion usually do it on the grounds that all life is sacred and you and I have no right to decide whether or not an embryo or fetus should live. Often, such people  have heard this all their lives and it becomes sacrilege to do ones’ own thinking and challenge religious dogma. The word of some authority is final. One spokesperson from Operation Save America and Last Call Ministries said, “We feel we need to honor God’s law first. No man’s law can be worthy unless it first honors God’s law.” To allow themselves to become freethinkers is often terrifying, since that would challenge the whole structure of their authority-based lives. They typically appeal to a higher power or to the value of life as such, any life, under any situation.

Those who oppose a woman’s right to her body reflect a philosophical view that your life is a gift given to you and you have no right to tamper with the desires and choices of a god or of the universe. “You don’t want a child? Well what if your mother said that – where would you be today? A child at this point in your life would mess up your future dreams? Your selfish desires or goals in life are subordinate to the life of the child – especially since this is a precious sacred gift. You don’t want the gift? Well then, you are a murderer. What is the consequence for murder?  To be treated as such.” Some use this point of view to justify going so far as to promote the killing of doctors who perform abortions.

Many women can not answer these “moral” arguments and end up in the tragic situations described at the start of this article – having unwanted children, feeling invisible in a painfully large family, afraid of sex since it can lead to unwanted children. Many of them had abortions and are now drowning in unearned guilt, or are labeled murderers by those close to them.

Those who are pro-choice typically  have a different outlook on life. They focus on the value of the life of the individual woman. Happiness, not suffering, is to be expected in life. Thinking for yourself is healthier than blindly accepting ideas that you’ve heard in your youth. Loving a man of your choice, yet not wanting a child, is healthy, not a selfish sin. From this outlook, a woman’s decision of whether or not to continue or terminate her pregnancy is a private concern and her right alone to determine. A woman’s happiness is not to be sacrificed to something that is now controllable. Just as some religious sects do  not allow their members to seek medical assistance for a dying child since, they claim, it is not “God’s will”, some anti-abortionists do not want women to avail themselves of safe scientific advances which  have expanded our ability to choose the timing of having children.

From this point of view, if you have a passionate, romance-filled evening of sex, and one sperm connects with an egg, this is not the equivalent of a child. You don’t diaper and burp an embryo, which looks more like a salamander than a baby. The removal of an egg and sperm is not the equivalent of murder, just as removing sperm after self-pleasuring is not the equivalent of mass murder. Individuals from this philosophical viewpoint observe a difference between a potential life and an actual child. They observe a difference between a part of a mother (e.g., a wart, a tumor, a toe) and the entity, the mother. A tumor has no “right” to stay in your body and neither does any other mass of cells. Neither has a soul; neither has a life in the human sense.

According to this viewpoint, women are not breeding animals. Mr. St. Lawrence, in a letter to the editor of The Providence Journal(8/28/97), said  “If a woman cannot decide whether or when to have children, she is in a slavery situation…. And debating whether a woman should have the right to terminate a pregnancy, at any time, is like debating whether blacks should have the right not to be slaves. It is as fundamental as that. …Forcing a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy is similar to rape… women are not incubators for boyfriends, judges or preachers.”   In the opposing view, the woman doesn’t own her own body, but a fetus does have rights to her body.

If you are genuinely confused about this issue, you are not alone. It’s  important not to be swept up in your emotions and the emotions of those around you. Give yourself the advantage of doing your own private thinking. Here are some questions to ask yourself.

  • Is a potential life the same as an actual life? Is a potential walnut tree (e.g., a walnut) the same as the walnut tree?  When we eat walnuts, are we eating trees?
  • Does a part of the woman have rights that supercede the rights of the woman? Does a malignant tumor have a right to live in its host body?
  • Does the woman’s happiness and health matter? Or can her life be sacrificed? Think of actual cases you know of in which a woman did or did not have an abortion. Do you notice whether those who overflow with compassion for the fetus also overflow with compassion for the woman’s happiness?
  • Think of those close to you who express a strong opinion about abortion. What do you think about these individuals? Do they have the happiness and best interest of a woman at  heart? Do they see sex as healthy or as primarily sinful? Are they controlling? Do they preach dogma rather than genuinely think independently about a topic? Do they tow the party line?
  • Do you carry the religious belief that a “soul” is inserted into the egg/sperm mixture upon contact?  Have you ever given yourself the freedom to question this?  Is your  fear of God serving or undermining your happiness? Do you feel guilty even reading this?
  • Do you view morality as requiring that a woman sacrifice to serve others, or does she have a right to pursue her own goals and dreams?

If you allow yourself to think independently, you might discover that you are carrying guilt that you have never earned – unearned guilt. If you allow yourself to think through the abortion  issue, you may discover that you are able to think through many other issues on your own.

You may discover that you disagree with the authorities who have told you that life  involves suffering. You may realize that you don’t agree with the idea that the more you suffer, the more moral you are. This idea is one of the most psychologically damaging ideas that individuals can hold.

Also, think of the tactics used by self-proclaimed “right-to-lifers”. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun was a passionate defender of the right to abortion during his 24 years on the Supreme Court. Since his opinion in the Roe vs. Wade case he received lots of hate mail (e.g., “Murderous madman” “I am praying for your slow torturous death”). Another example of these tactics is the case of Dr. Rodriguez. When he was the medical director of Planned Parenthood of RI in 1998 and a clinical assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Brown University, anti-abortionist groups targeted him. He left his wife and his son in the morning and headed to work wearing a bulletproof vest. He received nasty letters, graphic pictures of dismembered fetuses, packages with dolls inside, subscriptions to gun magazines, advertisements for hunting lodges showing pictures of dead animals hanging by their limbs. The harassment continued, unabated. He found “Wanted” posters with his name on it taped to the front door of the clinic for patients to see. The doors and locks to his clinic were glued several times. Protestors outside his office weren’t arrested. Later when charges were brought against them, fines were minimal and no one received jail sentences. He discovered 45 nails embedded in his tire when he was driving his mother to the bus station – he had been driving over 50 mph. His wife stepped on one nail left in their driveway. He received a bill for an insurance policy on his wife’s life, insurance that someone had fraudulently applied for in her name, he received an identification card for catastrophic health and dismemberment policy. “Pro-life” is a sickening label for the anti-abortionist movement.

Dr. Rodriguez states, “…the solution doesn’t lie only with more protection. It lies with people of good will and good conscience everywhere, who must come forth to condemn the violence. We need to change people’s hearts, not build bigger walls. And that includes those people who are opposed to abortion and who become suspiciously silent or claim wide-eyed innocence when these  tragedies occur (Providence Journal 11/5/98).

On a positive note, Justice Blackmun received wonderful support and favorable mail, “Some of the most beautiful letters I’ve ever received in my life”  (Providence Journal 3/3/99).

If you have had an abortion and are struggling with guilt – I want you to know that there many individuals who would love to help you see that the guilt you are carrying is totally unfounded. If you made a knowledgeable decision, within the context of your own life and values, to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, I view that as a source of pride – if you thought the situation through rationally, with your long-range happiness as your goal. You will need to do your own thinking on this topic. Pause before you rush to condemn yourself by some authority’s decree. You might choose to congratulate yourself instead as a champion of individual rights. In Dr. Andrew Bernstein’s1 words, “Only when achievement, success, self-fulfillment and personal happiness are held to be the proper ends of a person’s life, and when duty, sacrifice, unchosen obligations and slavery are rejected—only then is it possible to uphold an individual’s inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

I support a woman’s right to bear children, to enjoy the delight of nurturing and raising them – when it is by her own choice. Happy moms and wanted and loved children will be the result of such a policy.

1Recommended reading: The Philosophical Basis of a Woman’s Right to Abortion by Dr. Andrew Bernstein. Available through Second Renaissance Books 1-800-729-6149

Ellen Kenner, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Rhode Island and host of the nationally-syndicated radio talk show, “The Rational Basis of Happiness®.” Her specialty is exploring how to apply the rational, pro-happiness philosophy of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism to mental health issues. Visit her websites: drkenner.com and selfishromance.com.

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