A Perilous ‘Compromise’

An attempt to find middle ground on abortion fails for several reasons

Roberto Dell’Oro, a Californian bioethicist at Loyola Marymount University, recently proposed a compromise on abortion law. Since he is a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, his proposal is attracting wide interest in Catholic circles.

Dell’Oro is no friend of the Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs decision. He chiefly objects that the Court fails to honor the full moral agency of women despite the new and welcome societal recognition of their equality and the benefits that it brings. On his view, whatever its appeal to “judicial originalism,” returning abortion legislation to the several states is tantamount to relegating civil rights legislation to the states.

But neither does Dell’Oro support abortion on demand. Such a policy overlooks the humanity of emerging fetal life. It also neglects the relational dimension of the human enterprise. We are rational dependent animals. Each of us, moreover, is “the other” from someone else’s perspective. We need to expand our vision of the human community, and recent progress in our acceptance of the disabled shows that we can do so.

Now comes Dell’Oro’s modest proposal: Given our readiness to recognize and respond to the experience of pain, the law should restrict abortion from the time the fetus comes to experience pain, about 15 to 20 weeks after conception. A first trimester cut-off would, indeed, be preferable. In some states, of course, such a restriction would meet strong opposition. But Dell’Oro is an optimist. He writes that “I would hope that the change of heart entailed by hospitality to the disabled…might bring about, in the long run, a legal landscape for the unborn consistent with the compromise I articulated.”

That compromise, of course, is a legal one. Dell’Oro concludes in a different key. “From a moral point of view” he hopes for the woman’s decision “to be in favor of life and to honor the mystery of a new human emerging in a woman’s body”.

For my part, I think Dell’Oro, in the California context, shows a good will of sorts. His compromise, however, fails and for at least three reasons.

First, talk about the emerging life of the fetus veils the grim reality: abortion is the deliberate destruction of a particular human being. It destroys a “someone” rather than a “something.” From conception, this “someone” is a member of a rational kind, that is, a person.

Second, full moral agency entails full moral responsibility. We are all of us responsible for protecting the life of the most vulnerable among us and especially when we have brought them into existence. This is a matter of justice, not hospitality.

Third, we have increasingly used the abortion license to abort babies diagnosed as having disabilities. A pre-birth diagnosis of Down Syndrome is usually a death sentence. Our hospitality, whether for the preborn or the homeless, is hardly impressive.

Here in California we are now voting on the legislature’s own legal proposal. It is anything but a modest one. Proposition 1 makes abortion on demand, at any point, part of our state constitution. If Proposition 1 passes, as Governor Newsom urges, Prof. Dell’Oro’s compromise becomes unconstitutional.

Like Dell’Oro, I also think that Dobbs is flawed, though my objection is sharply different. The Dobbs decision’s studied neutrality on abortion allows for California’s lethal assault on preborn children. It is an assault that our governor has set aside $200 million dollars to promote.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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