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Presenting the pro-life case to libertarians, and the libertarian case to pro-lifers

On the Abortion Issue, Technology Works Both Ways

This article appeared in the March 10, 1985 issue of the Washington Post.]
In her article, “Because of Technology, Abortion Is Here to Stay” [Second Opinion, Feb. 27], Beryl Leiff Benderly argues that advances in technology would make ineffective any attempts to ban abortions. However, as she failed to note, there are also technological advances that are having an impact against abortion, for they are helping us in getting to know the preborn.

Interestingly, Ms. Benderly mentioned Dr. Bernard Nathanson, atheist (I am, too), former abortionist and “pioneer in legal abortion.” In the film “The Silent Scream,” he says: “When I was a medical student in 1949, we had no such science as fetology. We were taught that the unborn child, the fetus, was something in the uterus. But it was really an article of faith as to whether or not it was a human being, and whether or not that human being had any unique personal qualities.”

Nowadays Dr. Nathanson is fighting to outlaw abortion. It was the insights he gained from new technology, he says, that led him to change his views.

Today we see movies on television about life before birth. Children can be given pictures of themselves taken months before birth, even at fertilization for those conceived in vitro. Ultrasound imaging enables us to see them in the womb sucking their thumbs — or being dismembered by abortion. The preborn have been operated on in and out of the womb. Doctors can observe and treat them with such techniques as fetoscopy, amniocentesis, hysteroscopy and electronic heart monitoring. Many now acknowledge they have two patients: the mother and her child.

We now know there is a human consciousness in the womb, that we begin to learn and experience emotions there. This isn’t surprising, for the foundation for the brain, spinal cord and entire nervous system is established by 2.5 to 4 weeks. Electrocardiogram (EKG) and electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings can be made by then, and reflexes can be elicited, too.

Researchers are working on embryo transplants and artificial wombs. Women who are uncomfortable with abortion but who don’t want to carry a child to term may one day be able to end their pregnancy but allow the child to grow to term through one of these other methods. They could then treat their preborns like newborns, who, if unwanted, are not usually killed but given to others.

Technology, then, is working both ways. It’s making it easier to abort, but it’s also leading more of us to question whether this is acceptable. To begin with, nobody likes abortion. The inconsistency of struggling to save one preborn but then killing another perhaps older one, as some doctors do, is causing many to reconsider whether abortion is truly a right under justice.

As a libertarian, I took special note of Ms. Benderly’s comments on rights. She talked of “the futility of laws forbidding people to buy what they deeply want.” Yes, government shouldn’t restrict peaceful actions in the marketplace. But wanting to do something does not necessarily mean we have a right to do it. If a killing or any other action is aggression, there is no right to do it, and it should not have the protection of the law.

Moreover, banning abortion is not quite as futile a gesture as she seems to think. Laws, in themselves, don’t prevent any crime, yet they help influence choices. If an action is aggression, a law puts us on notice that it will be condemned rather than permitted. True, outlawing abortion won’t change some minds, but others will be deterred from aborting, especially those with doubts.

She mentioned the “involuntary servitude of undesired motherhood” argument. It would have merit if the preborn were not persons, for it would be like someone is forcing you to keep a pet. But given that the preborn are persons, taking care of them is not servitude. For it’s not servitude to take care of one’s children. It’s not involuntary, either, barring rape, because the parents get into the situation voluntarily. Children don’t impose it upon their parents; it is the children who are in the situation involuntarily.

No technology, old or new, can resolve philosophical and ethical questions. Technology can show, for example, whether the preborn feel pain; but steers feel pain, too, yet we kill them. So pain is not a sufficient test of whether the entity has rights. Technology cannot answer such questions as: Do we have a right to inflict pain and death? Do life and rights coexist, or are there two classes of human beings — those with rights and those without?

Biology says the preborn are human beings, Homo sapiens, but are the preborn persons, and if so, does this matter? If in doubt, should we be free to kill them anyway? Do parents have the obligation to protect their children, born and preborn, from harm? Or do they have a right to harm them?

What is “a person”? Technology can’t give the criteria we need to answer this, but it can give evidence as to whether the preborn fit those criteria. And technology seems to be personalizing them.

So it’s not enough to say, as Ms. Benderly did, that outlawing abortions “would deprive women of a right.” One must also show that either the preborn are not persons, or given that they are, why nevertheless there is a right to kill them.

The Supreme Court, in Roe vs. Wade, never came to grips with the critical question of the person. Far too many articles on abortion don’t even raise the point. Ms. Benderly’s article for example, never even mentioned the preborn. She mentioned “a flexible tube to empty out the womb,” but what is it that is being sucked out?

“The moving finger of technology has written,” she wrote, “and there is no going back to anyone’s fantasy past.” I say treating the preborn as if they are at most only “something” is the fantasy. And technology is helping to give the lie to that.

This article was typed for the website by Michael George.


Doris Gordon (1929-2014)
Doris Gordon, founder and longtime coordinator of Libertarians for Life, died on July 7 at Holy Cross Hospital, Silver Spring, Md., after a struggle with meningitis and other health problems. She was 85. Surviving her are daughter Julie Gordon, son Monte Gordon, and five grandchildren. She lost her husband, Nathan Gordon, in 1987. A Bronx native, Mrs. Gordon graduated from Hunter College and taught elementary-school students in New York City before moving to Maryland. She became active in the libertarian movement, and eventually quite active against abortion. She stressed the concept of parental obligation. “By causing children to be,” she wrote, “parents also cause them to need support; it’s a package deal.”