This essay examines the shortcomings and limitations of the rights-based approach to the problem of abortion, and explores Confucianism as an alternative in providing a theoretical framework for handling that problem. It mainly focuses on the downside of the rights-based approach and the upside of the Confucian approach.
I begin by examining the major arguments of the pro-life and pro-choice camps, and argue that they have many things in common. The arguments have similar structures and some common assumptions, and they are both framed predominantly in the language of rights. The arguments lead to extreme positions, either regarding abortion as a wrong comparable to murder or regarding it as a personal matter of the pregnant woman.
I argue that both positions have unpalatable implications. According to the pro-life arguments, abortion would be wrong even in cases where the fetus is the result of rape or incest, as the fetus should not have less right to life than otherwise. According to the pro-choice arguments, it would be right for a woman to become pregnant intentionally, in order to generate fetus’ tissues to be sold for use, say, in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Such a strong claim on the self-determination of one’s body can justify abortion for almost any reason, such as going for a pre-arranged trip or selecting the sex of the child.
The two arguments when put together also have counter-intuitive implications. If we take the arguments of both sides seriously, the ideal solution is to respect the rights of the fetus and the pregnant woman at the same time. If the fetus can be removed from the womb without being killed and supported to grow by artificial means in a hospital after being removed from the womb, then the conflict of rights can be resolved. The fact that this “ideal” solution is far from ideal implies that there is something very wrong with the rights-based approach to abortion.
In contrast, the predominant view in Chinese society on abortion is more moderate and sensible – regarding abortion as definitely a bad thing, but not a very big evil. According to the Confucian view, morality is not something absolute like the commandments of God or some objective universal principles discovered by the use of reason, but something constructed by humans (the sages) on the basis of human nature, human needs, and human sentiments. It agrees neither with the religious view in the West which holds the doctrine of the sanctity of life nor with the secular view in the West which holds that life may have positive or negative value depending on contingent facts.
There are two basic characteristics of the Confucian outlook. First, human life definitely has positive value, but it does not have absolute value, and there may be other more important value that can override it. Second, morality is a human construct on the basis of human nature, human need, and human sentiment. Hence, a morality that is too demanding or too difficult to practice cannot be a reasonable or acceptable morality.
Such an outlook has meaningful implications for the problem of abortion. Abortion is regarded as something to be avoided, but prohibiting, punishing, or censuring abortion is a morally more inferior option than supporting the pregnant woman for opting out of abortion. The Confucian perspective provides a more reasonable framework than the rights-based approach to the problem of abortion. It can strike a better balance (reflective equilibrium) between moral outlook and specific moral judgments (as in the case of abortion). The implied specific judgments are more moderate and reasonable. Using abortion as a test case, the Confucian approach can be considered as a more reasonable and acceptable approach than the rights-based approach.