How the Golden Rule helps us recognize the dignity of unborn children
Why should we care about the fate of unborn children who are at risk of death through abortion? Why do they matter?
Many people don't care. After all, unborn children are small and largely hidden from view. They look (at their earliest stages) different from us. They don't have the sophisticated cognitive functions that we do. They can't speak for themselves.
Worse, many people feel like (or think they could feel like) they have a self-interest in the destruction of unborn children. Abortion, people think, makes life easier. That's why it happens.
This isn't a problem unique to the unborn. Human societies often have trouble giving consideration to individuals or groups who seem very different from us, or whom we have a practical self-interest in exploiting or killing. And that moral blindness has led to great injustice.
The Golden Rule can help us see clearly. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It's a piece of moral wisdom expressed in numerous ethical and religious traditions stretching back to antiquity. "What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others," said Confucius. "Love your neighbor as yourself," Jesus taught.
The Golden Rule reorients our moral thinking by putting ourselves in someone else's shoes. It directs our concern to others who matter just as much as we do. It tests the consistency of our actions to ensure we do not mistreat other people.
Crucially, application of the Golden Rule requires that we imagine ourselves in the place of someone else. In the case of unborn children, however, we only need a basic understanding of human biological development. That's because each of us was once, in fact, an unborn child.
"The truth … that you are the same individual living being as the fetus from which you developed is a matter of observation and scientific data," writes philosopher Christopher Kaczor. "You now, you at ten years old, you at ten days following birth, you ten days after conception and you at all stages of your life in between stand in bodily continuity."
I was once an adolescent, and before that I was a child, and before that an infant, and a fetus, and an embryo. To have killed the embryo I once was, therefore, would have been to kill me.
Here's how the Golden Rule applies to abortion:
Would I want to be killed by abortion? No. So I should not kill others by abortion.
Are social and economic difficulties a good justification for killing me? No. So they are not a good justification for killing unborn children either.
Would I want other people to value and defend my unborn life? Yes. So I should value and defend the lives of others who have not yet been born.
Some people think that we didn't really count when we were unborn children. We didn't yet have the abilities or characteristics that make us valuable and confer on us a right to life.
But this is a false and dangerous understanding of human value. My value is not contingent on how old I am, or how smart I am, or how independent I am, or what I look like. I don't matter less when I become disabled and dependent on caregivers. I'm not worth more when I learn calculus. I don't lose my right to live when I experience dementia and lack self-awareness and rationality.
I have my fundamental worth, rather, simply because I am what I am. That's why I have that value at all times of my life. I had value as an unborn child because that unborn child was me.
The beauty of the Golden Rule is that it takes our own self-interest and extends it to everybody else. Just as I don't want to be valued for my size or appearance, I should not value others for those characteristics. Just as I don't want to be intentionally killed, so I should not intentionally kill anyone else. Just as I deserve the protection of society, so I should work to protect others.
Why, then, should we care about unborn children? Because we care about ourselves. Why do unborn children matter? They matter because we matter.
This article first appeared in the July 2017 issue of NRL News.