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21st Century Ethics and the New Jus Vitae Necisque?

21st Century Ethics and the New Jus Vitae Necisque?

The debate 

In the United States, an important conversation is taking place, the results of which might set a worldwide precedent for the framework of future ethical debates. While European countries have laws which generally ban abortion after the first trimester, when the baby becomes better formed and (as far as science knows at this point) is able to feel pain, in the US, late term abortions, that is, those which take place after the first trimester, are being celebrated by some as a sign of freedom. In fact, recently, a law was passed in New York which permits abortion after 24 weeks, that is a little after 5 months. Other such laws are being prepared in the country. This has reopened disputes on both sides of the political spectrum. Some call for no restrictions on any type of abortion and gratuity of services related to it. Others call for a complete ban on the practice.

One can only suppose that many do not take into account the fact that once a woman is pregnant, her life will change forever no matter what choice she makes. Moreover, many have come to consider the following as a core premise: “no one can tell a woman what to do with her body and the life growing inside of it”. Many societies over the years have tried to regulate such matters. One example is that of the reported forced abortions in China, where women, at one time, desperately struggled to save their unborn children from death dictated by the state. Another example is Communist Romania, where women went to the village midwives and had abortions performed without state sanction or regulation, since it had banned abortions. No society in history has managed to impose on all women a certain behavior regarding their pregnancies. It has always come down to personal responsibility and one’s own choice according to their guiding moral principles. 

The first step 

However, when it comes to late term abortions, while one might emphasize the same personal responsibility, the current situation seems to border on the absurd. Medically speaking, especially when the mother’s life is in danger, professionals argue that, most of the time, the best option for the mother is to have the child delivered. The claim is that it is faster and easier on her body. A late term abortion takes 2-3 days of preparation for the cervix to be dilated enough to be able to abort the child. During this time, the mother would carry in her womb the deceased child which would have been killed by lethal injection. Apparently, the complications of this type of procedures are numerous and, especially for a mother who is already ill, they can be life threatening. The safest and quickest alternative might in fact to be a C section and delivery of the child. Thus, if the child is old enough, it may have the option to live, and, perhaps, be put up for adoption. As such, one would not have to kill a child that is already formed in order to be physically free of it. The baby could simply be delivered, which it would have to be anyway in a late enough abortion. One has to ask then, if this is indeed an option, and if it is also the safer option for the mother and the child, why would it not be employed more often?

Unfortunately, the story of late term abortions goes on in an increasingly frightful manner. Killing a child who could survive outside the womb, instead of letting it live, is a choice which lacks as much in logic as it does in emotion. Unfortunately, as one researcher noted – “while the occasional politician or news reporter will still indicate that late-term abortions are most often performed in the case of ‘severe fetal anomalies’ or to ‘save the woman’s life,’ the trajectory of the peer-reviewed research literature has been obvious for decades: most late-term abortions are elective, done on healthy women with healthy fetuses, and for the same reasons given by women experiencing first trimester abortions” which are usually centered around the fact that “childbearing would interfere with their education, work, and ability to care for existing dependents; would be a financial burden; and would disrupt partner relationships”. One cannot force people to raise children, but, if it comes down to either delivering a living baby or a dead one, what is there to think about? Should the choice not be obvious?

Many might blame this on the fact that perhaps some women are not well informed about the alternatives. But what can be said about abortions performed a few weeks before birth or at the very moment of birth? There would be no question that an otherwise healthy child might live and be put up for adoption, the woman having already carried close to term. It would make no sense to kill it, and even the most uninformed woman might understand that. 

The point of no return 

Alarmingly, the conversation has turned to an option which might sound unimaginable, “during/post birth abortion”. When it comes to a child in the process of delivery or already born, should not the matter be obvious? The mother could give up the rights to the child and continue to live in the manner she did before the pregnancy. Yet, it is now being discussed that, in some cases (for now), such as severe deformities of the child, for instance, a woman might choose to have (what some would still call) an abortion, even when she is in labor. Virginia Democrat Governor Ralph Northam noted with regard to a late term abortion bill in Virginia: “If a mother is in labor, I can tell you exactly what would happen. The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother”. The governor’s comments were taken by many as referring to infanticide, and, in the context of the question he had been asked in the interview, that might not be an exaggerated interpretation. He then added that “legislators, most of whom are men, should not be telling a woman what she should and shouldn’t be doing with her body”.

Democrat Kathy Tran’s comments about the Virginia third trimester abortion bill were not ambiguous at all, however. The bill reportedly “would not actually change the time limit for receiving an abortion in Virginia… (but would) change the number of physicians required for approval and broaden the health circumstances under which an abortion would be allowed”. Tran stated that the bill would allow a woman to request an abortion up until the moment when she is dilated and ready to deliver the child. So, here, the discussion is no longer about the woman’s body. It is not even about the body of a baby who is living inside of hers. It is now about a baby about to be delivered, who can live outside of the woman’s body.

It seems that the abortion argument has moved from a first trimester “clump of cells that can’t feel pain” to mothers deciding whether or not to keep their children alive, even during or after birth. If a society has come to the point where it cannot see the absence of logic (not to mention the lack of humanity) in killing a child who is about to be or is born breathing and living on its own, with no risk or attachment to the mother’s body, then that society is on the brink of a grim and dystopian future. Logically, as well as morally, we should be able to see that this is inhumane, absurd and unnecessary. 

The stakes 

The speed with which moral leaps have been made from early abortion to late-term abortion and, at present, infanticide begs ominous questions. How long before conditions such as “severe deformities” would be lifted, and, complete freedom would be given to the mother to kill any “type” of child, whether healthy or sick, depending on her needs and desires? The issue here is how the law defines a person, whether one is a person after conception, or receives this legal definition after a certain period in the womb, or after birth. Generally, the abortion debate only referred to children who had not yet been born. Now, the situation is changing. So, one has to ask, if this trajectory of thought is kept, how long before the definition of personhood, with all of its legal protections, is only given to people when they reach the age of self-awareness, perhaps around 3 or 4? How long before personhood is taken from those who are no longer able to use their minds or bodies in the way necessary for society to consider them persons? In other words, how long before this matria potestas causes the world’s ethics debates to overlook or even condone a revived and updated jus vitae necisque? And, how long after such a revival can we still claim to be a moral society?

If some of the above questions seem an exaggeration, one need only look back at times when such freedoms were taken with the ascription of rights and the definition of personhood. Let us remember the “Untermensch” of the Nazi regime, the bourgeoisie and “greedy capitalists” of the communists, the “cockroaches” of Rwanda, the various slavery regimes, including in the US, and so on. And, let it not escape our attention that the political rhetoric around this debate has changed radically in a matter of only a few years, with more extreme views being embraced faster as time goes by.

Nowadays, it does not take most people long to declare certain things outdated and incompatible with modern society and to encourage each other to be “free of such constraints”. However, if we are not mindful of where the future is heading, we might end up living in a world where the list of outdated mentalities includes basic precepts of our moral and ethical frameworks and hard-won advances. What is more tragic is that, if that point is reached, we will already have lost the capacity to know any better.


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