The misguided 'philosophy' behind public support for abortion

The misguided 'philosophy' behind public support for abortion
© Stefani Reynolds

Many people are puzzled over how politicians, like the Governors of New York and Virginia, could talk themselves into thinking that no restrictions on abortion could be justified, even to the point of killing an intended aborted child after it might survive alive. While I am not privy to the thinking of either of these men or others who agree with them, I do think it possible to sketch out the intellectual background that might lead them to a rationalization to justify their political reasoning and choices.

No one can do anything, good or bad, without some reason that is or appears good to him.

All errors in the political or practical orders of human living originally are found as ideas in the mind of some famous or obscure, recent or past, thinker. The present person using such ideas, still can think for himself. He remains responsible for the consequences of his own thought/action, be the “justification” acquired knowingly or unknowingly from something he studied, read, or heard.


Currently, politicians and others justify a political action — in this case, a “right” to a dead baby. The baby can claim no “counter-right” protecting its life. Where do such politicians discover a “right,” indeed, “their” right to allow the killing a live human child?

Logically, if such a “right” exists for a state or person to kill anyone who has incurred no personal guilt of his own, the same principle can be used to kill anyone, if the need arises.

The classic teaching was simply not to kill anyone but to protect human life in all its forms. On scientific grounds, it seems impossible to think babies born alive or still in the womb are not human, just as each of us was at the same period of our lives.

The answer almost invariably turns to a “rights theory” that does not depend on reason, but on will. In the tradition of Aristotle, will is not itself a “reason.” It is a power to follow what one’s reason judges to be a good in some sense. The person is free to follow or not follow a given reason presented for an action. The will itself is blind, but it can follow or refuse to follow what is conceived as a good.

What this position means is that every action, even the killing of a live baby, can be seen as good if we are able to shift our minds away from the fact that what we are doing is evil. What we do by choosing a secondary reason to justify our action (say “right to choose” or “it’s my body”) is, in effect, to put into our souls a lack of an order that should be there, but isn’t. When we act on the secondary reason, the consequence is that we can “justly” kill the live child. We act on rationale that justifies our action, not on the reality of what is there.

The theory that a “right” is based on will and not reason has many philosophic origins. Usually attributed to Hobbes, its line goes to thinkers like Machiavelli, Duns Scotus, William of Occam, to al-Ghazelli in the Muslim world, to the Roman Law dictum that “Whatever the prince wills is the law,” and finally to post-Aristotelian philosophy, especially Epicurus and Democritus, who withdrew from the city of reason as it was found in Plato and Aristotle. 

Will-based “rights” oppose reason-based rights. Reason itself is based on what is, on what is actually there. “Will-Rights” then come to be considered as “the power to act,” not as the power to act reasonably. If we do not hold that our wills should be or can be ruled by our reason, we are “free,” not only from reason and tradition, but from any limitation to our actions. 

The question then becomes simply: “Who has the power?” In a world where “rights” are understood as will, it becomes possible to claim that we have a “right” to kill a baby born alive, and logically anyone else, usually in the literature, beginning with the handicapped, then, the elderly.


A politician, who finds himself justifying such actions as a “right,” has an argument for his action. He does in his own terms act “reasonably.” He can explain that his understanding of “rights” allows him to do so. He is correct here. “Will-rights” do allow this to him. The trouble is that, in basing himself on “will-rights,” he has chosen not to consider what is actually there that is killed as a result of his policy or action. His will ranks higher than the dignity of the being of this actual child. 

Such is the line of thought that explains how living politicians and others can claim that what they do is “justified,” even noble. The trouble begins when they look first at what they want to do, and not at what they ought to do, based on the reality of what the being is before their very eyes. Whether they understand the path that led to this justification or not, they implicitly follow it or rely on it.

Babies are babies, nothing else. Deliberately choosing not to see this reality — to see what is actually there — only comes about when a politician, contrary to his common sense, relies on the incoherent will theory that a “right” means the “power” to do anything, including the elimination of babies. He denies his reasonable duty to recognize and protect what is there before his eyes.

The Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., author of “A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning & Being Forgiven,” is professor emeritus at Georgetown University. His latest book is “The Universe We Think In,” published by The Catholic University of America Press.