John Kerry on Abortion

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The people on Fox and Friends this morning are amazed that John Kerry believes life begins at conception, and they're wondering how he can believe that and then say that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. Many of my students have had the same strange notion that pro-choice people shouldn't believe the scientifically obvious truth that life begins at conception. The main issue has absolutely nothing to do with when life begins. For many people it has to do with when personhood begins (though philosophers have given good reasons to think even that doesn't decide the issue either way, since it's sometimes ok to kill a person, and it's sometimes wrong to kill something that's not a person).

What bothers me about Kerry's stance on abortion isn't some supposed inconsistency between believing life begins at conception and allowing abortion. The problem is that he says he thinks abortion should be rare, and then he does nothing to discourage it and everything to encourage it. That's good reason to think he doesn't really believe very strongly that it should be rare.

Update: Someone from the Washington Post is on now, saying that Kerry has set himself up for some moral dilemma with his recent comments on abortion. He stated it again in terms of life beginning at conception, so apparently he doesn't know any biology either. Tehy're now giving some more information on the quote, and he hasn't just said that life begins at conception, which isn't exactly an informative point as to anyone's views. He actually said he opposes abortion. So maybe he does have a moral dilemma to deal with, and he's just a moral wimp, believing something to be gravely wrong but being absolutely unwilling to do anything to oppose it. That dilemma has nothing to do with when life begins, though.

Update 2: More context: Kerry sees his opposition to abortion as a purely religious matter that he can't force on others. This doesn't change my previous evaluation that this is the position of a moral wimp. It does raise my eyebrow a bit, though, because it reveals two things. First, he doesn't think there are any good arguments for abortion and takes it as an article of faith. He uses that term. Many people who have a more liberal view on this issue believe this to be true of all pro-life people, and it's completely false. I wonder if this is evidence that he doesn't really believe it and is giving what a Democrat might think a Republican believes to try to get more conservative votes. The other possibility is that this is just his way of saying that there isn't any truth of the matter, but he has a feeling about it. It's a bad way of saying that, and it's offensive to people who really have convictions about it, but it's one way of reconciling his claim that he has convictions about it with the obvious evidence that he doesn't.

Second, as I just suggested, this is incredibly offensive to people with deeply seated beliefs that coincide with their religious beliefs but also are held because or real arguments and even careful reasoning. It belittles them, and it ignores how many of our laws really do come from religious viewpoints, even if there are also secular arguments for most of them. Abortion, for many people who happen to have religious beliefs on the matter, is not a religious issue. It's a moral issue. Those who say you can't legislate morality are simply ignorant of how the legal system works. Most laws legislate morality.

10 Comments

I blogged about this, too. My take was on the incompatibility of believing, as a supposed Christian, that life begins at conception, yet being publicly "pro-choice."

I don't see the inconsistency, though. If you add to that a believe that it's always wrong to kill anything or that it's always wrong to take a human life, then there's a problem, but Kerry isn't a pacifist. If you add to it that all human life has moral rights, then it raises questions, but those can even be dealt with if you think sometimes something trumps those moral rights. Those in favor of capital punishment, those who allow just war, and those who think euthanasis is sometimes permissible will all allow exceptions to the right to life. So it's not mere human life that does the trick with abortion. That's why I think finding an inconsistency between that statement and being pro-choice is just a mistake.

I'm referring spefically to murder. Not all killing is unlawful, and I do understand the distinction.

Right. I think you can argue that abortion is almost always the moral equivalent of murder, that's something that needs to be argued. My point is that the mere existence of life isn't enough to show that. You need to say more.

I needed information on abortion,and this did not help me at all what can I go to to learn more about what you think about on abortion

A general presentation of my views is here. I talk about the issue of personhood and God's image here. Abortion comes up a lot on this blog, but a lot of it is looking at other people's views as I did in this post. Searching the blog for the term 'abortion' should pull up a lot of other places that would fill out details not in those two posts.

Abortion is murder and an embryo or fetus is a human life form.

Abortion isn't murder, since 'murder' is a legal term. It may be the moral equivalent of murder, but it's not legally murder.

No one disputes that an embryo or fetus is a human life form. What many people dispute is that it's a person.

how can u possible believe that killing an EMBRYO is the same thing as killing a person. Its the womans choice, who shouldnt she get the right to choose?

You're obviously not very familiar with the moral or metaphysical issues surrounding abortion.

It all depends on whether you use the revisionist definition of 'person' that philosophers now use, according to which being a person requires having all sorts of psychological and intellectual traits or whether being a person is simply being a human being. An embryo is clearly biologically its own human organism with its own DNA. I think the latter definition fits best with how people normally use the word 'person' and thus is a better definition according to what definitions are supposed to do -- explain how people use words.

As for being a woman's choice, it's also a man's choice whether to beat his wife. That doesn't make it right. The fact that someone can make a choice says nothing about whether such a choice is morally ok. The fact that the Supreme Court declared it a right says nothing about whether it should have. Anyway, a large segment of feminist literature has shown that many women would not have chosen abortion were it not for subtle but coercive societal forces that make it less of a consenting choice than most activist feminists would like to admit. This is coming from feminist moral thinkers who themselves endorse abortion as a legitimate moral choice, e.g. Carol Gilligan. They wouldn't put it as I did, but it doesn't take much work to see the social relationships they describe as affecting women's (and especially young girls') freedom in the same way that Bill a professor's authority relationship affects a student's, in which we normally say sex would not be consensual.

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