Let us now turn to hedonism. In so doing we move from an objective to a subjective system of morality. In the definition of the Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (op. cit.), hedonism, or ‘ethical hedonism’, ‘affirms that only pleasure is intrinsically desirable and that displeasure (or pain) is intrinsically undesirable…other philosophers have thought that happiness is the only thing that is intrinsically desirable’. We may thus understand this system to teach that the only good is pleasure or happiness, the only ill is pain or suffering.
In denying objective good, the hedonist denies the existence of that objective good which is God, or that objective good which is the object of rational love, or the will. In so doing he renders himself incapable of any adequate description of reality, morality, and the meaning of life.
To the hedonist, the human being is not good in himself, he has no dignity, no objective or intrinsic dignity, but only a derivative value, or utility (see the beginning of the section on the Dignity of the Person above) according to the pleasure or pain he might give or enjoy. For this reason the human being is to be treated as no more than a body: he is to be treated as an object or thing, like any other. The hedonist does not see that it is morally good to visit an invalid: he sees it as a means to relieve the invalid’s pain or to satisfy himself. He does not see that suffering is a mystery, that it has a meaning which cannot fully be comprehended by the intellect: he sees it simply as something to be ended. The hedonist proposes that the human being should be motivated by pleasure or at best by happiness: he reduces rational love to sensible love, he understands man on the model of the beasts.
The hedonist offers an inadequate description, a severely impoverished and debased conception, of reality, and of morality. The hedonist is shallow. In the first chapter of the book (p. 9) it was stated that this book is not addressed to the shallow man. The reason for this may be seen in its fullness with regard to the hedonist: there is no common ground for discussion between a hedonist and a man of good will. All that a man of good will can do is to show that the hedonist either denies, or is unable to explain, those things, which are the deepest, and the most important in human existence.
According to the criteria given in the first chapter, hedonism is in virtue of its shallowness a severely defective approach to moral reasoning – even more so indeed than humanism. Its deficiency is, moreover, evident in the logical incoherence of much of its argument, including its argument on abortion. The unsettling significance of this logical incoherence is elucidated in chapter thirteen.
Let us look at the hedonistic argument for abortion, which ranges from the weak to the invalid.
Let us distinguish between two types of hedonism: egoism, and utilitarian hedonism. Egoism concerns the individual’s pleasure or happiness, pain or suffering. Utilitarianism concerns the maximisation of goods (under some description) and/or the minimisation of ills (under some description). Utilitarian hedonism in particular concerns the maximisation of pleasure or happiness, and/or the minimisation of pain or suffering.
Let us consider these two types of hedonism, first with regard to an early period of pregnancy, the first two months, then with regard to a later period of pregnancy, the period subsequent to the first two months.
During the early period, the egoist argument for abortion is weak, because it is not clear that abortion does on balance spare the mother pain or suffering, for many women suffer remorse or regret as a result of abortion.
During this same early period, the utilitarian argument for abortion is weaker still, for it is even less clear that abortion minimises the combined pain or suffering of the mother and the unborn: not only is there the possibility that the mother may suffer remorse or regret, but there is also the possibility that the unborn may suffer extreme pain in being destroyed, for as early as the second and third weeks from conception certain of the structures necessary to the perception of pain, such as the brain, spinal cord, and nervous system are in the process of development.
During the later period, the egoist argument is weaker than it was before, and becomes progressively weaker the further the unborn develops, for, as noted above, as early as one month from conception the unborn resembles a born human being rather than any other organism, and the longer the pregnancy continues, the more closely he comes to resemble a born human being. Consequently one might reasonably suppose that the mother is more likely to suffer remorse at two months from conception than before, and that the further the unborn develops, the more likely is she to suffer remorse.
During this later period, the utilitarian argument is simply invalid, for there is no ground for saying that abortion at two months or later minimises the combined suffering of the mother and the unborn: not only is there a substantial possibility that the woman will suffer remorse, and the more developed the child the more substantial the possibility, but it is also an irrefutable fact that all the structures necessary to the perception of pain are in existence from the tenth week from conception, so that we may infer that the unborn is able to experience pain and suffering from the beginning of the tenth week from conception at the latest.
Pain and Suffering
We have compared the pain or suffering of the mother in proceeding with her pregnancy with her pain or suffering in undergoing abortion and with the pain or suffering of the unborn. Let us now consider the nature of these forms of pain and suffering in detail, and consider the pain and suffering that motivates abortion in relation to the other factors that motivate abortion.
Abortions may be divided into those that are deliberately intended and those that are not. Typically, the former comprise surgical abortion and late chemical abortion, the latter comprise early chemical abortions (whether by the use of vaccines, implants, or ‘contraceptive’ pills) and abortions resulting from the use of intrauterine devices and from in vitro fertilization.
A certain proportion of those abortions that are intended are undertaken from a consideration of the mother’s suffering. Consider, for example, the woman who has become pregnant unexpectedly and is confused, frightened, unprepared for a child, and who is perhaps not assured of the support of the man, who, by contrast tries to coerce her into abortion; or consider the woman who has conceived as the result of rape, or who is expecting a severely disabled child (in which case the prospective suffering of the child is also relevant).
It is typically on grounds of suffering or the human’s ‘well-being’ (In ‘Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion’ by Beverly Wildung Harrison, Beacon Press Boston, 1983.) that the proponents of abortion defend the practice and charge those who oppose it with a lack of compassion. It is principally on grounds of suffering that the current law permits abortion: risk to the physical or mental health of the mother, risk of a severely handicapped child (chapter 7); it is suffering that gives weight to the slogans ‘Our Body Our Choice’, ‘A Woman’s Right to Choose’, ‘No Return to Backstreet Abortions’ (chapter 9).
It must, however, be most clearly emphasized that suffering, or the expectation of suffering, accounts for the motivation of only a small proportion of abortions: what accounts for the other abortions, which constitute their vast majority, is not in fact suffering but self-interest.
As for the greater proportion of abortions that are intended: pregnancy, childbirth and parenthood are considered intolerably burdensome, particularly in circumstances of financial difficulty, a demanding or rewarding career, or an unstable non-marital relationship. To label such phenomena as intolerably burdensome, to view them simply as occasions of pain and suffering, is possible only on the shallowest, hedonistic attitude towards these phenomena.
As for those abortions that are not deliberately intended, a small proportion would appear to be motivated by considerations of pain and suffering, as when circumstances of dire poverty or the risk of congenital disease motivates the use of abortifacient ‘contraceptives’ or when the suffering of childlessness motivates in vitro fertilization. The majority of unintended abortions would appear by contrast to be motivated by self-interest.
The attitude of parents towards any unintended abortion that they might cause may be categorized more fully as either pure ignorance, total disregard for, or sheer indifference to, the destruction of the unborn. Typical of the first category are abortions resulting from the use of abortifacient ‘contraceptives’ prior to sexual intercourse where the parents are ignorant that the ‘contraceptives’ that they use have the capacity of acting in an abortifacient manner. They do not intend to destroy a human life; they merely intend to prevent a human life coming into existence. Typical of the second and third categories are abortions resulting from the use of abortifacient chemicals at an early stage of pregnancy, from the use of intrauterine devices, or from in vitro fertilization. The motivation for all these forms of abortion is self-interest: in the case of in vitro fertilization it is the desire to ‘have a child at all costs’ (Evangelium Vitae 23), in the other cases it is the desire for what one might term ‘sterile sexual intercourse’.
We have seen then, that only a small proportion of abortions are undergone from a consideration of pain and suffering, but that the vast majority are undergone out of self-interest. We have seen the nature of the pain and suffering that motivates abortion. The pain and suffering that is the actual or potential result of every abortion both for the mother and for the child is, by contrast, of a different order altogether.
A woman who undergoes abortion is prey to the experience of what has been described as ‘post abortion trauma’ whereby she undergoes deep depression and, often unable to reconcile herself to her action, is driven towards despair and even suicide. A vivid account of the trauma is given in the powerful work ‘Will I Cry To-morrow?’ by Susan Stanford; a brief summary of the symptoms, which may persist for many years, is given in ‘The Divine Remedy’ by Madeleine Beard: ‘emotional distancing and numbing, feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, sadness, sorrow, lowered self-esteem, distrust, hostility towards self and others, regret, sleep disorders, recurring distressing dreams, nightmares, anniversary reactions, alcohol and/or drug dependencies and abuse, sexual dysfunction, insecurity, painful unwanted re-experiencing of the abortion, relationship disruption, communication impairment, isolation, self-condemnation, flashbacks, uncontrollable weeping, eating disorders, preoccupation, memory and/or concentration disruption, confused and/or distorted thinking, delusions, bitterness, an enduring sense of loss, survivor guilt with an inability to forgive oneself, psychological distress associated with physical complications.’(Quoted in ‘The Christian Order’ Volume 38. Number 4. See also Nancy Michels: Helping Women Recover from Abortion, Minneapolis, Bethany House 1988, p. 30-1)
What of the suffering of the unborn? We have already noted that the infanticide that follows induced labour and which is deceitfully described as ‘abortion’ is accomplished by means of starvation, poisoning, drowning, or mutilation.
As for abortions proper, it has already been stated above that all the structures necessary to the perception of pain are in existence from the tenth week of conception. Indeed, the extremity of the suffering as the unborn is dragged out of the womb feet first and disgorged of the brain, or poisoned, cut to pieces, crushed to death, or mutilated to death by a vacuum machine may readily be imagined. This suffering is manifest in the victim’s desperate struggle to resist abortion and attempts to scream (as may be witnessed on the ultrasound film ‘The Silent Scream’).
So far we have been considering only the physical suffering of the unborn. It is however evident that they also undergo sufferings of a mental/psychological nature. These sufferings have been attested by psychoanalytical observation of the foetus; their nature may be inferred from the experience of the born infant.
Considering the foetus first, we refer to the acclaimed work: ‘From Foetus to Child: an observational and psychoanalytic study’ By Dr. Allessandra Piontelli, Routledge 1992.. The author presents case studies on some 18 children, showing the deep effects of pre-natal experiences on their psyches. ‘Case no. 18 – Thomas’ describes the deep traumas of a child whom his parents attempted to abort. Let this brief quotation from the case study suffice: ‘He spent most of his sessions in almost complete immobility and silence inside the bin…curled up in the foetal position. The end of each session was almost invariably met with desperate, terrified screams. I tried to pull him out of his hiding-place. Rather frequently, though, Thomas also mimed repeated aggressions with all sorts of potentially sharp objects… penetrating and stirring his secluded space. Such sharp persecutors seemed aimed at starting him from his hiding, bringing him to the open, and reducing him to a bloody pulp.’
Turning now to the born infant, observation reasonably suggests that he experiences an absolute dependence of his life on the life of his mother. (See the work of Donald Winnicott e.g. ‘Home is where we start from’ W.W. Norton and Co. 1986, and the description of his work in The Companion of Psychology, Routledge 1994 vol. II, e.g. p. 1267: ‘The earliest stage in the infant’s experience is one of undifferentiated fusion with, and attachment to, his/her primary object, most likely the mother…’.) One might say in other words that the born infant is unable to dissociate himself from his mother or from his emotions. For these reasons he experiences the forceful or unloving sundering from his mother as a sundering of the inmost being, and as absolute – which is why it leaves life-long wounds.
Let us return to the unborn infant and to the nature of his experience of abortion: The physical relationship is even closer, to the extent that the child is actually connected to the mother and exists within her, so that one would be inclined to say that the born infant’s experience of union was not quite absolute, that his emotions were not quite absolute, but that those of the unborn child in fact are. It would follow that this experience of being sundered from the mother would approximate even more closely to the experience of being sundered in the inmost being, and be all the more terrifying because it is violent and fatal; and that this experience of sundering, and the terror, and the experience of actual destruction would be absolute.
Let us note here that the typical surgical abortion takes place in the third month from conception (it having taken time to verify pregnancy, and procure abortion) and therefore involves all the physical sufferings and arguably all the mental sufferings as well that have been described in the preceding three paragraphs.
During the early stages stage of pregnancy it may be argued that the physical structures necessary for sensation, or for intense sensation, are not yet formed. In reply, as was stated above in the discussion of the nature of the unborn in chapter seven, as early as the second and third weeks from conception certain of the structures necessary to the perception of pain, such as the brain, spinal cord and nervous system are in the process of development. Therefore even at this early stage the possibility of pain cannot be excluded.
Even if the unborn at any stage of pregnancy does not react visibly to stimuli, it does not follow that such stimuli do not cause him pain; it only follows that they do not cause a motor response in him. Finally it should be said that since there is no logical connection between development and (intensity of) sensation, it is reasonable that the embryo be given ‘the benefit of the doubt’. In other words, just as we have said of the destruction of the embryo that even the risk that it constitutes the killing of a person makes it wrong, so too we may say that even the risk that it constitutes the infliction of pain or suffering on a person makes it wrong.
The original author of this blog passed away in July of 2016. RIP Father Carota.