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The Perilous Power of Hidden Assumptions in the Abortion Debate

Selectively choosing to end the life of a fetus out of concern for that baby’s future presumes the very notion that many abortion advocates often deny: that is, that this fetus is, in fact, a person—and someone whose quality of life (and existence itself) matters as much as it does for any of us.

In an 1884 lecture to students of the Harvard Divinity School regarding the seemingly interminable Freewill vs Determinism debate that had animated philosophers, theologians, poets, and plowmen for centuries, the American philosopher Williams James began by noting:

“A common opinion prevails that the juice has ages ago been pressed out of the free-will controversy, and that no new champion can do more than warm up stale arguments which everyone has heard.  This is a radical mistake.  I know of no subject less worn out, or in which inventive genius has a better chance of breaking open new ground—not perhaps, of forcing a conclusion or of coercing assent, but of deepening our sense of what the issue between the two parties really is, of what the ideas of fate and of free will imply.”

James further noted that his aim in discussing the vexing question of human freedom was not of “coercing assent”—since anyone believing in the freedom of the human will must necessarily accept the fact that no matter how persuasive an argument for that freedom one could muster, some will choose not to believe, not to be persuaded. Rather, he stated that his hope was that his remarks might bring about a “deepening of our sense of what the issue between the two parties really is.”

In this, as in so many things, James’s instincts and approach were correct. The question of human agency continues to be a “juicy” topic, even 137 years on from James’s famous lecture.  But the issue of whether human actions and aspirations are the product of human desire and freely chosen purpose, or merely the happenstance product of unreasoning, mechanical forces of nature, whether they be genetic, neurochemical, environmental, or otherwise, is not the only “juicy” issue in our modern world. To borrow from my venerable psychological predecessor, I would say that in our day there has also arisen a common opinion that the juice has ages ago been pressed out of the abortion controversy. Indeed, I get the sense that among many on both major sides of the Pro-abortion vs Pro-life divide, it is assumed that all the pertinent points in support of the respective positions have already been made and that all that is left is to “warm up stale arguments” in the hopes of enticing a few young minds or persons newly acquainted with the issue, and, therefore, presumably not yet committed to one side or another, to pick a point of view. However, like William James, I believe this is a radical mistake. The subject of abortion and human dignity is not yet by any means worn out. And, though I do not in any way claim to be an “inventive genius” on the order of someone like James, I do think that “breaking open new ground” and “deepening our sense” of what is at issue in this important debate is not only much needed but also genuinely possible. Therefore, I will here follow James’s example and forgo any attempt at “forcing a conclusion or of coercing assent,” and opt instead to simply offer some few points that might help to deepen our sense of what is at issue in the debate over abortion.

One doesn’t worry about someone else’s current or future quality of life unless they have first assumed that that someone else is the sort of being for whom quality of life is an important, even central,  issue.

Hidden assumptions behind science. Let me begin by trying to make some things clear that are not always apparent. In a recent essay published here at Public Square Magazine, my co-authors and I made the case that far too many people—even some who should know better—embrace a number of questionable assumptions about the nature of science, how it works and what it is capable of achieving. In particular, we argued that it is often believed that science is at root a value-neutral enterprise in which the data obtained from experimental observation essentially “speaks” for itself, and, thus, ensures that scientific knowledge, indeed the entire scholarly enterprise, is driven forward entirely by objective evidence. Serious researchers, therefore, do all they can to properly follow the prescribed steps and strictures of the scientific method to ensure that none of their personal views, potentially self-serving interpretations, or cultural, religious, or political values are allowed to taint their findings, either in advance or post hoc. Despite the powerful hold this view of the nature of science and scholarship seems to have on so many of us these days, however, it is, unfortunately—and relatively easily demonstrably—untrue.

Why, then, if our commonly embraced conception of science can so easily be shown to be mistaken, do so many people, regardless of how highly educated they may be, take the scientific myth of neutrality so seriously? In short, the answer is that the basic assumptions upon which this view of scholarly inquiry is grounded are for the most part hidden. That is to say, they are almost never adequately recognized as assumptions in the first place, and, thus, they are seldom, if ever, critically interrogated or examined relative as to their plausibility or their implications. In the end, then, our common understanding of the nature of genuine, legitimate scholarly inquiry is founded not upon actual objective scientific evidence, but rather on a number of unexamined and unquestioned philosophical, even moral and political, assumptions. 

Indeed, as medical researcher John Peppin noted in his essay Physician Values and Physician-Value Neutrality, failure to acknowledge and critically reflect on the inescapably value-laden nature of scientific inquiry “ignores the reality that the foundations of science, those basic presuppositions that must be assumed to do science, are also without ‘scientific’ basis.” The problem here is not that science is value-laden, or that all of our scholarly endeavors are rooted in basic assumptions about the world rather than incontrovertible and objective facts, but that we so seldom take the time to really think carefully or in any deeply probing way about the values and assumptions that ground our scholarly endeavors. And that is why so many questionable assumptions remain hidden and, in remaining thus hidden, help to sustain a deeply problematic and misleading mythology about the nature of science, research, and legitimate scholarship.

A hidden assumption behind abortion. So, what does all of this have to do with the contemporary abortion debate? Well, it seems to me that there is a hidden assumption undergirding selective abortion, or that procedure in which a child is aborted based on some unwanted characteristic of the child (e.g., the child’s sex, present or potential birth defect, or other such specifically undesired feature) rather than an abortion chosen simply because the child, in general, is undesired (i.e., elective abortion). As I will review below, the hidden assumption beneath selective abortion is one that, I believe, also undercuts a key argument for elective abortion, in particular, because it calls into question the notion that the child in the womb is not a person but instead is merely a clump of fetal cells—a human organism perhaps, but nonetheless something that can be freely terminated without moral consequence.

In the case of selective abortion, as just noted, the unborn child is chosen for abortion by virtue of possessing some characteristics, features, or traits that are unwanted by the mother or father— for example, Down Syndrome, neural tube defects, Anencephaly, or being female. Often the decision to abort a child because of the presence of one or the other of these conditions is driven by matters of convenience. That is, the parent(s) do not wish to be inconvenienced by the burdens that necessarily attend caring for a child with serious disabilities or dysfunctions, or they do not wish to be saddled with a child of a particular sex (again, more frequently female). It is also often the case that the decision to abort is driven by worry that the unborn child if birthed, will not be able to enjoy a reasonably worthwhile quality of life afterward.

It is here that I think the hidden assumption can most easily be found. You see, one doesn’t worry about someone else’s current or future quality of life unless they have first assumed that that someone else is the sort of being for whom quality of life is an important, even central,  issue. That is, the only reason anyone would be concerned about the potentially low quality of life an unborn child might have given the presence of some likely physical or mental disability is that it has already been assumed that unborn children belong to that class of beings who are capable of experiencing a meaningful, purposeful life in the first place—that is, a person (and not simply a genetically human organism). In other words, only because it is already recognized (at some fundamental, perhaps intuitive, level) that an unborn child is in fact a person (and not merely a clump of cells)—though clearly yet to fully come into possession of its intrinsic capabilities— does one even begin to worry about the quality of its subjective, physical, moral, emotional, and relational life at points further along its natural developmental progress.

In short, then, selective abortion, of this sort, is a matter of opting to kill what one already acknowledges (however tacitly) to be a person and doing so out of (twisted) concern for that person’s future welfare. The logic—or, rather, illogic—employed here reminds me of the famous statement by the early 20th-century eugenicist Havelock Ellis, who famously wrote: “The superficially sympathetic man flings a coin to a beggar; the more deeply sympathetic man builds an almshouse for him, so he need no longer beg; the most radically sympathetic of all is the man who arranges that the beggar shall not be born.” Employing much the same reasoning as eugenics-advocates like Ellis, and operating from essentially the same basic presuppositions, those advocating not only for the right to elective abortion but also for the right to selectively abort a child who has been diagnosed with Down Syndrome (or even just two X chromosomes), ironically do so by denying precisely what they have already assumed. The unborn child, it is readily admitted, is unlikely to have a shot at the same quality of life that it otherwise would have were it not afflicted or debilitated in the way it is. In short, the child represents an unborn life unworthy of life. But, to claim that this particular clump of cells is doomed to a lesser quality of life than some other clump of cells is to tacitly admit that both clumps of cells are, in fact, not clumps of cells at all, but persons—and that they are each a person at the most fundamental, most basic metaphysical level.

Selective abortion is a matter of opting to kill what one already acknowledges to be a person, and doing so out of concern for that person’s future welfare.

Another hidden abortion assumption. An additional problem, one rooted again in a hidden assumption, is manifest when we confront the inconvenience issue as found in arguments for both selective and elective abortion. This problem is rooted in the hidden assumption that one person (the mother) has the power—essentially by fiat—to withhold from or convey upon what is presumably merely a physical object (i.e., a clump of cells) the moral and metaphysical status of personhood in the first place. In other words, a particular clump of cells gets to be a person if that clump of cells happens to be “wanted” by the mother, but is to be denied its status as a person if it happens to not be “wanted” by the mother. Such definitional, moral status-granting and recognizing power is truly awesome, but also deeply unstable and intrinsically suspect.

For example, let us imagine a (sadly all-too-common) situation in which a given mother, upon learning that she was pregnant, greeted the news with horror and regret, quickly deciding that she does not want to be pregnant and thus wishes to abort the baby. She may have a variety of reasons for this decision, of course, but in the end, these reasons tend to run to the fact that in her current circumstances the child is simply inconvenient to her in some way. However, we can also rather easily imagine that after thinking it over for a time, this woman might come to decide that, in fact, her pregnancy is happy news and that she now wishes to carry the child to term, either to raise the child herself or to put the baby up for adoption to some loving couple somewhere capable of taking over the necessary child-rearing duties. We can also imagine that still later, the woman might begin to reconsider her latest decision and again change her mind, deciding that she just is not financially or emotionally capable of raising a child yet, or that she also simply couldn’t bear putting the child up for adoption after carrying it to term. And, so, she now decides that she no longer wants the baby and quickly schedules an appointment for an abortion the following morning at her local Planned Parenthood clinic.

Now, our imagined (though obviously quite plausible and, perhaps, even common) story does not end here. Such stories seldom do. Before leaving the house the next morning to go to her abortion appointment, the woman again experiences a change of heart and decides that even though the road ahead may be difficult, this is her child and her challenge and she is going to make the best of it by carrying the child to term. Indeed, with the help of family, friends, and community support, as well as a whole lotta love and persistence, what she had previously taken to be a tragedy she now sees as a glorious opportunity for the future. After all, why should her innocent child pay a fatal price for its conception?

It is easy to see in this imagined example that in the course of a matter of a few days, or even a few hours, the moral and metaphysical status of the unborn child changes abruptly from being a clump of cells to be disposed of at will to being a person to be nurtured and loved to again being a mere clump of cells to being a person yet again. All of which occurs entirely at the passing whim of the mother at a particular moment in time. In contemporary debates about the rightness or wrongness, the constitutionality or illegality of abortion, pro-abortion advocates frequently assume that the power to grant the status of personhood or to withhold it is an intrinsic power pregnant mothers possess and do so on the basis of no other apparent reason than that they are pregnant mothers. Further, it seems to be assumed that the only regulative principle upon which the exercise of this stunning power is to be based is the specific, momentary, often purely emotional, desires of the mother, no other consideration being necessary or permitted. What is never adequately explained, or even though necessary to explain, however, seems to be the rationale that grounds or justifies the assumption that pregnant mothers do in fact possess just this incredible power to determine, for their own reason and for their own purposes, based on their own desires, whether another human life is to be regarded as a person or not. Perhaps this is precisely what some are thinking of when they speak of the right to abortion and female empowerment in the same breath.

Whatever the case, the assumption that women, particularly expectant mothers, somehow possess this unique and powerful definitional power is one that deserves not only a further critical reflection as to its rational coherence but also a far more careful justification than it has as yet ever received. In the end, faced as we are with claims about the inherent rights of women to determine not only whether an unborn child warrants birth based on predictions about its likelihood of enjoying a life worth living, as well as the right to decide (based solely on personal desire) whether a child is in fact a person, we must tread far more carefully than we hitherto have. The right place to begin this more careful consideration is at the level of basic assumptions, particularly when those assumptions are so often unacknowledged and hidden.

About the author

Edwin E. Gantt

Edwin E. Gantt is a Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University. He is the author of numerous scholarly articles and books, including Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Psychological Issues and Who is Truth? Reframing Our Questions for a Richer Faith (co-authored with Dr. Jeffrey L. Thayne). He has a Ph.D. from Duquesne University.
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