Life, choice and morality

A recent showing of the documentary, My Foetus, stirred discussion both of the morality of abortion, and also of the propriety of showing an abortion on television.

My Foetus, was made by Julia Black. After an abortion, she came to regret that she and others were ill informed about what happens in an abortion. She later bore another child. In the program, the different fates of the two pregnancies represent the choices that are set before women. Julia Black continues to believe that women should have the right to make that choice.

There are good arguments for and against showing films of an abortion. The argument used by Julia Black, which I find compelling, is that if in our society we engage in practices which raise serious moral issues, then those involved in these practices and in public conversation about them should be pressed to imagine in realistic ways what the practice involves. This is as true of abortion as it is of capital punishment, torture, corporal punishment, going to war, detaining children or restricting asylum seekers to Temporary Protection Visas. The fact that we may turn our eyes away from what is involved in these practices does not prove automatically that they are morally unjustifiable. But arguments used to justify them must confront the reality of what happens in war, detention, abortion and judicial killing. They cannot rest on euphemisms like supporting alliances, border protection, or surgical procedures.

In the case of abortion, the images of the documentary make us recognise that the potential life of the foetus cannot be described like that of a plant seed or of a collection of cells. It must be imagined as the life of a foetus who resembles us in uncanny ways. The image offers imaginative support to the argument against abortion for those who, like myself, insist on the continuity of human life from conception to death. It invites the question whether, in treating living beings—even dependent ones—as means to an end, we risk diminishing respect for life at all its stages. It also asks how questions of choice should be related to questions of morality.

There is also good argument against showing such scenes. They may, for example, make people insensitive to the reality depicted. Many argue on these grounds against showing actual scenes of violence on television, and against depicting violent and brutal actions realistically in films. Instead of being repugnant, the violent action becomes ordinary and unnoticed. This argument is strong, and is supported by the anecdotal evidence of people who have lived in societies where daily violent death becomes normal and unnoticed. The argument, however, loses its force when a society tolerates the practices depicted on film. If insensitivity is at issue, it is not so as a risk. It is at issue because it already exists.

Another reason against showing scenes of an abortion is that they will occasion shame, distress and feelings of guilt to vulnerable people who have had abortions. This argument must be given due weight.  In the discussion of Julia Black’s documentary, however, some participants claim to have suffered grief, distress and feelings of guilt without knowing the physical reality of abortion.
Furthermore, seeing what it involves can be a step in their healing. The argument therefore seems inconclusive.

But the potential distress caused by these images suggests, however, that the public conversation about abortion must have as its goal respect and healing. This is perhaps the great contribution made by Julia Black’s documentary. She shows great intellectual generosity, in that she offers evidence that can be seized on by her opponents in order to discredit abortion. Her generosity should be met with equal generosity and with a care to make proper distinctions. It would be an abuse of debate to use her pictures in order to claim, for example, that abortion is murder or to belabour the wickedness of women who have had abortions.

At the heart of the documentary are two lives: the potentially independent life of the foetus, and the life of the often perplexed, confused, torn and depressed young woman confronting a lonely decision. Both lives merit the sympathy and empathy that form the basis for all moral decisions. The realistic portrayal of abortion encourages empathy. Those of us who are punctilious in our respect for the foetus and its claim to life should respect equally highly the life and humanity of those bearing the foetus and of those with whom we disagree.   



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