In a discussion of abortion today, one of the members posted the following ethical dilemma:
This is an ethical question put forth by Sr. Teresa Forcades, a Spanish nun.
If a man has a child who is in need of a kidney transplant and the child will die without it, should the man be *legally* required to go through surgery without his consent and donate his kidney to his child? Setting aside any moral argument, should there be a law allowing the government to override the man's autonomy and ability to make decisions about his bodily integrity? And if not, what's the difference between this man's right to make medical decisions that affect his bodily integrity and a woman's?
This isn't a particularly novel dilemma to pose. It's a sort of variation on the "famous violinist dilemma" put forward by Judith Jarvis Thompson. For whatever reason, however, the context struck me, and here's the reason: A lot of the ethical dilemmas that people pose in an attempt to morally justify abortion are attempts to reframe abortion as something other than terminating a pregnancy through direct killing of the unborn child. Almost always, the attempt is simultaneously to reframe the question in a way that could apply equally to men and women. And that, I think, is the key.
Thinking about abortion is wrapped very tightly around the idea that it is not fair for men and women to be different. One of the basic realities that modern thinking seems to have a lot of trouble with is the fact that in the course of natural reproduction a mother ends up with a child within her body for nine months, and the only way to end that situation is to actively kill the child. There quite simply is not an analogous male situation. The sexes are equal in human dignity and worth before God, but this is a fundamental difference in the sorts of moral circumstances which can occur to a man or woman. There is never a point at which a man has another human person inside his body who can only be removed through active killing.
If we're to hold that the moral obligation not to kill the innocent applies both to men and women -- and as Christians I think we must -- this means that this obligation will affect women differently from men. It's not as if men are immune to the temptation to kill. By all means other than abortion, men are responsible for far more of the intentional killing that happens in the world than women are. (And when it comes to abortion, men are often responsible for pressuring or forcing women to have abortions.) But no man will ever be faced with the situation: Either I will kill this person, or else I will have to let this person inhabit my body for a number of months, and then give birth to that person through a difficult and painful process.
This is one of the unfairnesses of life -- if by "fairness" one expects equality. Maybe that's why it's been parents who throughout history have told their children: Life isn't fair.
Now there is a flip side to this that bears thinking on. The fact that women can find themselves in a situation (motherhood) which men never will places certain obligations on them. If there is not equality-as-in-sameness between men and women in this regards, it stands to reason that there may be other areas in which there is not equality-as-in-sameness. Society has obligations to women that it does not have to men because women have obligations that men do not have.
The "male rights advocates" sometimes protest the way in which society puts men under obligations to support their children or ex-wives, asking why men and women should not be equal in this regard. One clear explanation of why men and women are not equal in certain regards is: because men don't bear children and take on the obligations which come with that. This is a topic of contention in out current society because traditional notions of family economy are in flux. A century ago, these societal obligations might mostly have been seen along the lines of supporting women who lacked husbands to care for them, making men take care of children they fathered, etc. Today, a portion of society would see the obvious obligations as being paid maternity leave, subsidized childcare, subsidized schooling, etc. And yet in some ways, when society builds those assumptions into its institutions, it makes it even harder on those families which are trying to follow the old model in which the husband works to support the family and the wife stays home to rear the children.
There are good reasons why people debate these policies, because they represent different models of how society should be organized, and I think that most people would agree that society should be flexible enough to support people wanting to follow both approaches to family economy. However, one argument that would not work is: Why should we have these policies which mostly just help women. Because again, when it comes to family and child bearing, equality-as-in-sameness is simply not how reality works.