Concerning Abortion: An Attempt at a Rational View


A volume of the prestigious Library of Living Philosophy featured The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne in 1991. The eminent late philosopher of liberal religion argues “That persons have rights is a universal belief in our society, but that a fetus is already an actual person—about that there is and can be no consensus. Coercion in such matters is tyranny.” This philosopher of freedom affirms that each act of every creature is a deathless contribution to the divine cosmic Life which evermore lives in ever new ways forever and ever.

Quincy Wright, in his monumental lifework,
A Study of War, recommended Hartshorne’s worldview as a workable foundation of world peace.

This article is abridged from Speak Out Against the New Right edited by Herbert F. Vetter (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982)

My onetime colleague T. V. Smith once wrote a book called Beyond Conscience, in which he waxed eloquent in showing "the harm that good men do." To live according to one's conscience may be a fine thing, but what if A's conscience leads A to try to compel B and C to live, not according to B's or C's conscience, but according to A's? That is what many opponents of abortion are trying to do. To propose a constitutional amendment to this effect is one of the most outrageous attempts to tyrannize over others that I can recall in my long lifetime as an American citizen. Proponents of the antiabortion amendment make their case, if possible, even worse when they defend themselves with the contention "It isn't my conscience only—it is a commandment of religion." For now one particular form of religion (certainly not the only form) is being used in an attempt to tyrannize over other forms of religious or philosophical belief. The separation of church and state evidently means little to such people.

In What Sense 'Human'?

Ours is a country that has many diverse religious groups, and many people who cannot find truth in any organized religious body. It is a country that has great difficulty in effectively opposing forms of killing that everyone admits to be wrong. Those who would saddle the legal system with matters about which consciences sincerely and strongly differ show a disregard of the country's primary needs. (The same is to be said about crusades to make things difficult for homosexuals.) There can be little freedom if we lose sight of the vital distinction between moral questions and legal ones. The law compels and coerces, with the implicit threat of violence; morals seek to persuade. It is a poor society that forgets this difference.

What is the moral question regarding abortion? We are told that the fetus is alive and that therefore killing it is wrong. Since mosquitoes, bacteria, apes and whales are also alive, the argument is less than clear.

Even plants are alive. I am not impressed by the rebuttal "But plants, mosquitoes, bacteria and whales are not human, and the fetus is." For the issue now becomes, in what sense is the fetus human? No one denies that its origin is human, as is its possible destiny. But the same is true of every unfertilized egg in the body of a nun. Is it wrong that some such eggs are not made or allowed to become human individuals?

Granted that a fetus is human in origin and possible destiny, in what further sense is it human? The entire problem lies here. If there are pro-life activists who have thrown much light on this question, I do not know their names.

One theologian who writes on the subject—Paul Ramsey—thinks that a human egg cell becomes a human individual with a moral claim to survive if it has been fertilized. Yet this egg cell has none of the qualities that we have in mind when we proclaim our superior worth to the chimpanzees or dolphins. It cannot speak, reason or judge between right and wrong. It cannot have personal relations, without which a person is not functionally a person at all, until months—and not, except minimally, until years—have passed. And even then, it will not be a person in the normal sense unless some who are already fully persons have taken pains to help it become a human being in the full value sense, functioning as such. The antiabortionist is commanding some person or persons to undertake this effort. For without it, the fetus will never be human in the relevant sense. It will be human only in origin, but otherwise a subhuman animal.

The fertilized egg is an individual egg, but not an individual human being. For such a being is, in its body, a multicellular organism, a metozoan—to use the scientific Greek—and the egg is a single cell. The first thing the egg cell does is to begin dividing into many cells. For some weeks the fetus is not a single individual at all, but a colony of cells. During its first weeks there seems to be no ground for regarding the fetus as comparable to an individual animal. Only in possible or probable destiny is it an individual. Otherwise it is an organized society of single-celled individuals.

A possible individual person is one thing; an actual person is another. If this difference is not important, what is? There is in the long run no room in the solar system, or even in the known universe, for all human eggs—even all fertilized eggs, as things now stand—to become human persons. Indeed, it is mathematically demonstrable that the present rate of population growth must be lowered somehow. It is not a moral imperative that all possibilities of human persons become actual persons.

Of course, some may say that the fertilized egg already has a human soul, but on what evidence? The evidence of soul in the relevant sense is the capacity to reason, judge right and wrong, and the like.

The Rights Of Persons

In February 1998 Hartshorne was featured in a U.S. News and World Report article titled "A hundred years of thinking about God: A philosopher soon to be rediscovered.

Paul Ramsey argues (as does William Buckley in a letter to me) that if a fetus is not fully human, then neither is an infant. Of course an infant is not fully human. No one thinks it can, while an infant, be taught to speak, reason or judge right and wrong. But it is much closer to that stage than is a three-month fetus. It is beginning to have primitive social relations not open to a fetus; and since there is no sharp line anywhere between an infant and a child able to speak a few words, or between the latter and a child able to speak very many words, we have to regard the infant as significantly different from a three-month or four-month fetus. Nevertheless, I have little sympathy with the idea that infanticide is just another form of murder. Persons who are already functionally persons in the full sense have more important rights even than infants. Infanticide can be wrong without being fully comparable to the killing of persons in the full sense.

Does this distinction apply to the killing of a hopelessly senile person (or one in a permanent coma)? For me it does. I hope that no one will think that if, God forbid, I ever reach that stage, it must be for my sake that I should be treated with the respect due to normal human beings. Rather, it is for the sake of others that such respect may be imperative. Symbolically, one who has been a person may have to be treated as a person. There are difficulties and hazards in not so treating such individuals.

Religious people (I would so describe myself) may argue that once a fetus starts to develop, it is for God, not human beings, to decide whether the fetus survives and how long it lives. This argument assumes, against all evidence, that human life-spans are independent of human decisions. Our medical hygiene has radically altered the original "balance of nature." Hence the population explosion. Our technology makes pregnancy more and more a matter of human decision; more and more our choices are influencing the weal and woe of the animals on this earth. It is an awesome responsibility, but one that we cannot avoid. And, after all, the book of Genesis essentially predicted our dominion over terrestrial life. In addition, no one is proposing to make abortion compulsory for those morally opposed to it. I add that everyone who smokes is taking a hand in deciding how long he or she will live. Also everyone who, by failing to exercise reasonably, allows his or her heart to lose its vigor. Our destinies are not simply "acts of God."

I may be told that if I value my life I must be glad that I was not aborted in the fetus state. Yes, I am glad, but this expression does not constitute a claim to having already had a "right," against which no other right could prevail, to the life I have enjoyed. I feel no indignation or horror at contemplating the idea the world might have had to do without me. The world could have managed, and as for what I would have missed, there would have been no such "I" to miss it.


With almost everything they say, the fanatics against abortion show that they will not, or cannot, face the known facts of this matter. The inability of a fetus to say "I" is not merely a lack of skill; there is nothing there to which the pronoun could properly refer. A fetus is not a person but a potential person. The "life" to which "pro-life" refers is nonpersonal, by any criterion that makes sense to some of us. It is subpersonal animal life only. The mother, however, is a person.

I resent strongly the way many males tend to dictate to females their behavior, even though many females encourage them in this. Of course, the male parent of a fetus also has certain rights, but it remains true that the female parent is the one most directly and vitally concerned.

I share something of the disgust of hard-core opponents of abortion that contraceptives, combined with the availability of abortion, may deprive sexual intercourse of spiritual meaning. For me the sacramental view of marriage has always had appeal, and my life has been lived accordingly. Abortion is indeed a nasty thing, but unfortunately there are in our society many even nastier things, like the fact that some children are growing up unwanted. This for my conscience is a great deal nastier, and truly horrible. An overcrowded world is also nasty, and could in a few decades become truly catastrophic.

If some who object to abortion work to diminish the number of unwanted, inappropriate pregnancies, or to make bearing a child for adoption by persons able to be its loving foster parents more attractive than it now is, and do this with a minimum of coercion, all honor to them. In view of the population problem, the first of these remedies should have high priority.

Above all, the coercive power of our legal system, already stretched thin, must be used with caution and chiefly against evils about which there is something like universal consensus. That persons have rights is a universal belief in our society, but that a fetus is already an actual person—about that there is and there can be no consensus. Coercion in such matters is tyranny. Alas for our dangerously fragmented and alienated society if we persist in such tyranny.

Not the Average Philosopher


Abridged from Harvard Magazine, May-June 1997

For 20 years my work as a Harvard chaplain was nourished by the new worldview of Charles Hartshorne, the Harvard-educated philosopher and scientist described by Encyclopaedia Britannica as "the most influential proponent of a 'process philosophy' which considers God a participant in cosmic evolution." This is the year to light 100 candles to celebrate his life and thought, for he will observe his centennial on June 5.

Volume 20 of The Library of Living Philosophers is entitled The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne, putting him in the company of Einstein, Russell, Sartre, Buber, and fellow Harvardians Whitehead, Santayana, and Quine. When I congratulated him on being selected for the library's pantheon, he exclaimed with a smile, "The secret of my success is longevity."

A truer secret of his success may be that he is the foremost living exemplar of a great new tradition created by a group I call the Harvard Square philosophers. Peirce, James, Whitehead, William Ernest Hocking, and Hartshorne share a unique vision of reality as social process.

The Harvard Square philosophers have created a new synthesis of knowledge far surpassing the medieval synthesis of Thomism and the modern synthesis of Spinoza. God is viewed not as a supernatural force breaking abruptly into history, but as the cosmic life of which our lives are a part. God is both humanity's endless source of joy and the cosmic sufferer who shares our pain. When we die, there is no endless heaven or hell to which we are consigned: the contribution that our lives have made continues in the ongoing, deathless divine life. In this new cosmology, all creatures have some measure of free choice. The future is always, to some extent, open. Creativity is the very essence of our well-ordered world and our everyday experience.

Hartshorne's contributions to this synthesis include what the Britannica calls "the definitive analysis" of panentheism (literally, "all in God"): "For Hartshorne, God includes the world even as an organism includes its cells, thus including the present moment of each event. The total organism gains from its constituents, even though the cells function with an appropriate degree of autonomy within the larger organism."

I once asked Dorothy Hartshorne, her husband's superb editor over the years, to summarize his philosophy. "Love," she said, "is the guiding principle of all life....all living organisms have at least an infinitesimal amount of freedom and. . . .responsibility. . . . We can consider a human life as being like a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. When we close the book, the story does not disappear. It continues, and likewise our contribution to others becomes a part of God's life that goes on and on."

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