Pro-Choice Vs. Pro-Life Is a Moral Dilemma, Says Daniel Callahan: We Carry Both Traditions Within Us

updated 08/12/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/12/1985 01:00AM

Daniel Callahan, 55, is the co-founder and director of the Hastings Center, a think tank in Hastings-on-Hudson, N. Y. devoted to examining the ethical issues in medicine and science. He also is the author of Abortion: Law, Choice and Morality, published in 1970, a book that eight years later New York Times critic John Leonard called still "the best book on the subject."

Callahan was born of Catholic parents; his father was an executive in the early days of radio. Raised in Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Boston, Callahan attended a Catholic military school before Yale ('52). He did his graduate work at Georgetown (M.A. '56) and Harvard (Ph.D. '65). Before becoming director of Hastings in 1969, he was an editor of Commonweal magazine (1961-68) and did research for the Population Council (1969-70). Author or editor of 23 books and more than 200 articles, he has been writing about abortion since the mid-'60s. Meanwhile Callahan and his wife, Sidney deShazo Callahan, have raised six children—"Not all of them 'planned,' " he admits. The Callahans co-edited a book, Abortion: Understanding Differences, last year. His wife, an associate professor of psychology at Mercy College and a convert to Catholicism, says, "Marrying an Irish, Roman Catholic philosopher and having many babies in a row while living in poverty was a bracing, vigorous personal statement." Dr. Callahan discussed the dilemmas surrounding abortion with Chicago Correspondent Giovanna Breu.

What is your position on abortion?

I started firmly in the pro-life camp in the mid-'60s, but, as my thinking and research proceeded, I ended up on the pro-choice side. I still think that it's a tough moral issue and the choice is difficult.

Why is it a difficult choice?

I believe women ought to have the right to have an abortion. At the same time I take seriously the notion that fetuses can have rights and that conceiving the fetus is a serious moral act. I've never held that pro-life people are immoral or outrageous. After all, I live with a pro-life person, my wife.

Do you and your wife debate abortion?

We started arguing when I was writing my book and she was looking over my shoulder. She started writing articles on the pro-life side. People would bring my wife's articles to my lectures.

Have you changed each other's positions?

No. We're involved more in a scholarly than in an activist way. My wife is antinuclear war, anticapital punishment; she is part of a group of women who consider themselves feminists but are against abortion.

Isn't abortion a feminist cause?

Yes. The women's rights movement in general has made abortion a central plank, and the two have gone hand-in-hand. I believe the right to abortion has been a fundamental part of a wide range of civil liberties for women.

Why is the abortion debate escalating?

The debate has gotten highly politicized and everybody has started playing certain extreme roles. Off-camera, offstage, both sides are more likely to reveal their uncertainties and their hesitations. An awful lot of people who say one thing in public will frequently admit in private that they have a lot more ambivalence and hesitation.

What is the history of the debate?

Historically in this country there was a small reform group in the '40s and '50s, but it was really during the '60s that these pro-choice groups got well organized and changed state laws. In 1973, when the Supreme Court in Roe vs. Wade made abortion legal, the polemics were fairly high but not so high as they are at present.

Why is the debate so strident now?

The great difference is that in the 70s the pro-life group really got themselves organized. Now there are a number of pro-life groups with a great deal of grass roots support. They have been very dedicated, very zealous and very hysterical. They are uncompromising for the most part. I think they realize that a lot of people are basically half uncertain about abortion. There is a lunatic fringe in every movement and abortion's got its share. The way you get in the media is to be extreme.

What are the basic philosophical roots of the pro-life and pro-choice movements?

Both pro-life and pro-choice factions represent important traditions in our country, the sanctity of life versus freedom of choice. These are not bizarre ways of looking at the world. The problem is that we live in a society that has a range of values, some of which are in conflict with each other.

What is the pro-life position?

The pro-life position believes in the sanctity and uniqueness of life. It believes that people in power ought not to employ that power to oppress others, including fetuses. The pro-life movement deals with abortion as a threat to the family and to the traditional relationship between men and women. It believes in the need to protect the weak and the powerless, the fetus more so than the woman, and that it is all right to write its moral convictions into law. It also holds that one ought to accept the unplanned and the accidental in life. It is important to understand why there are so many responsible people who hold to this position.

Like your wife?

Yes, like my wife.

What is the pro-choice position?

This movement picks up another part of our tradition, which is freedom of choice. It stresses the rights of individuals not to be coerced by government on difficult issues of personal morality such as procreation. Both sides are engaged in a kind of civil rights struggle, one to protect the fetus, the other to protect women.

Is social pressure a big factor?

The discouraging thing about so much of the abortion situation is that, depending on which local culture you're in, you get automatic responses. On Manhattan's Upper West Side, an unmarried woman making her career will probably get an abortion. It is not a moral issue. It is the sensible thing to do. If the woman were in rural Oklahoma, she would keep the child. The social environment can pressure a woman very much in one direction.

What else affects people's views?

Background values are important. We live in a scientific, technological society that by and large tends to give us increasing power over our environment, over ourselves. For the pro-choice side it is perfectly correct and acceptable to try to dominate and control nature, including your own reproductive nature. On the other hand the pro-life people believe that you shouldn't try to control everything, that you should accept certain things that happen. We have pro-life people saying, "We had a defective child and it didn't ruin our life and we are happy with this child."

Aren't both sides based on traditional values?

Both the sanctity of life viewpoint and the freedom of choice position are part of Western tradition. The reason so many people feel this to be a difficult moral issue is because they carry within themselves both values.

Can there be a balance between these two traditional viewpoints?

People say it is a tough issue, and if it is a tough issue, then the other side obviously has something going for it. We ought to cool the debate, not get outraged at the other side, because it is an argument in part within ourselves, not just good people versus bad.

Do you see any conflict within the pro-choice movement?

I certainly know many pro-choice people who are upset by a lot of things—the large number of abortions, the repeat abortions, the abortions for mere convenience.

What are the pro-life reservations?

I would expect that a certain number of pro-life people might be willing to accept abortion in case of a threat to the mother's life, rape or incest. There probably are some who would say that the pregnancy of a very young girl, 13 or 14, might fall into that category.

Do you think there can be any agreement between the two camps?

At present it is very hard to see where a consensus might emerge. The pro-choice side has already won. They feel threatened and harassed but not sufficiently endangered that they are prepared to compromise. The pro-life group has a growing sense of self-confidence. They think they can win if they stay at it. I think compromise will come only when either side or both sides begin to feel they may lose.

What might happen if the Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade?

That would force the issue back into state domain. Then you could well imagine any number of possibilities. Pro-choice groups might push for abortions only up to 14 to 16 weeks; pro-life groups might compromise by saying abortions could be allowed for rape, incest, threat to life or in the case of danger to the health of a very young girl. The reason the abortion debate is so polemical now is that we don't have many choices. In abortion you are either for it or against it.

Getting down to basics, do you think there is a fundamental right on the part of women to have an abortion?

I think there is a right on the part of a woman to have an abortion, and that moral right ought to be made part of a legal right. But that does not mean that any reason whatsoever is equally valid. I think there are some moral limits. I don't think a woman has a right to an abortion in order to sell her fetus for research purposes. I don't think abortion for the sake of choosing the sex of a child should be morally acceptable.

Does the fetus have a moral right to life?

My own view is that the right of the fetus to live is not as powerful a moral claim as the right of the woman to have an abortion, provided she has good moral reasons for having it. You have to balance rights. I am sure, for instance, that by 28 weeks a fetus has rights, but I am not sure it has rights at four weeks, much less four days.

But a fetus's heart beats at four weeks.

Sure, the heart beats and there are brain waves at seven or eight weeks. But I am ready to say that the moral rights of the women seem to me to be stronger. It is easier to make the case for the rights of the woman to have an abortion early on than it is to say that this fetus has a kind of absolute right to life, regardless of what it may do to the mother.

When do you think life begins?

I think it is important to distinguish between when human life begins at conception and when there is a person present who has rights. I myself would say personhood begins somewhere between 12 and 24 weeks, when there is a well-developed brain and before a fetus becomes viable, but I would find it hard to draw a precise line.

But don't rights exist when life begins?

Genetically we are what we are at the moment of conception; it's just a matter of unfolding and developing. It doesn't seem to make sense to me to talk about the 'right to life' of a newly fertilized egg.

Do people have the right to bear a perfect child?

No, and I don't think people have a moral right to abort reasonably healthy fetuses in their striving for perfection. People don't even want the kind of a defect that is correctable such as a cleft palate, if it were possible to diagnose. People want as much control over the babies as they do over choosing clothes. There's a moral right to have an abortion for a reasonable reason, but that is not one of them. You are supposed to raise children for their benefit, not for yours.

Aren't physicians in a strange ethical position, if on the one hand they are preserving life and on the other hand they are destroying it?

That is exactly right. It has been noted that in certain hospitals they are doing abortions on perfectly normal fetuses in one section, and in another part of the hospital they are spending $50,000 to $200,000 to keep alive severely handicapped newborns. It is hard to make any sense of that.

Aren't some abortive fetuses bigger in size than premature babies?

At this point Roe vs. Wade seems to allow abortion through at least the second trimester, 24 weeks. But now they're beginning to save children under 24 weeks. That means that fetuses could be saved that might also have been legally aborted. I think that has been a source of some concern among the pro-choice people.

How do men relate to abortions?

I think we ought to find a way to recognize the rights of men. Legally, I don't know how it could be done. Morally, I think there ought to be a felt obligation on the part of women to at least consult with men. It's the man's child as well as the woman's.

What bothers you most about the abortion issue?

I think it would just help if people on both sides were more willing to admit their hesitations, uncertainties and doubts about their own positions. If only they were more honest about the issue in public and not so much whispering of their reservations in private. That's what bothers me.

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