I don’t know the cause, perhaps it’s the current political climate in the US with political hopefuls vying to be their party’s candidate for President. But just now it seems the issue of abortion has exploded in my social media feeds, replete with (rather unwelcome) grizzly images of dismembered unborn babies. For what it’s worth, please be considerate of people who might not actually want to see such horrible things when they log in to catch up with friends or discuss other things. Do you want to be bombarded with unexpected and very graphic images of beheading victims, stabbing victims, crash victims and so on? But abortion is so hot right now, it seems.
Abortion is one of those issues where people just seem entrenched (the related issue of stem cell therapy is somewhat similar in this regard). No amount of pleading seems to get people to move – usually, at least. There are people who assume (quite wrongly, I say) that it’s simply a religious issue. You would never oppose abortion unless you were religious, they think. There are those (like presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders) who think (again, very wrongly, I say) opposition to abortion is an attack on women and their reproductive rights. I don’t think any comments like this have any merit, and I think they are evidence that many defenders of abortion rights are not seriously listening, or they don’t really want to know why people oppose abortion (or they do, but they are willing to misrepresent the opponents of abortion, which is a hallmark of partisanship).
In spite of my fear that very few people are really open to listening to the evil “other side” of the abortion issue, I know that some people do, and some people even change their mind about it once they’ve listened. It’s hard to predict what might give someone that little nudge across the line, but if it’s possible that something I say might help do the job then I don’t want to miss the opportunity. There is nothing new here.
Why I oppose abortion
Stated very briefly, here’s why I think abortion is wrong.
Abortion kills one of us
It is not just a slogan that “abortion stops a beating heart.” It is a scientific fact.
There are people walking around out there in the world who can truthfully say “I survived an abortion.” These are not the mothers who had an abortion but lived to tell the tale. Rather they are people whose own mothers attempted to have them destroyed before they were born. Some of these survivors have scars as evidence of their near-death experience. The injuries inflicted on those very small humans before they were born are, in some cases, still present as those same humans go about their business today, grateful that the abortion was not a success and they are still alive. Most, however, do not survive an abortion. It is not just a slogan that “abortion stops a beating heart.” It is a scientific fact.
All very young humans are dependent on somebody, whether they have been born yet or not.
You might think that these deaths don’t really count. In everyday conversation, this is what proponents of abortion rights usually say. You might think these particular humans lack some special feature that makes them worthy of protection. Size. Their current level of awareness. Independence. For one or more of these reasons, we are told that there is some thing called personhood that unborn children lack (I am here reminded of the claim that unborn children do not yet possess what some people call a soul). I think the sorts of reasons people give for making an exception to the rule against killing here are arbitrary. Size is obviously a silly reason, for example. Someone’s current level of awareness, too, seems arbitrary. Suppose you were placed into an induced coma for a week. It seems (to me, at least) obviously false that it would be acceptable to kill you just because you were unaware. Similarly, all very young humans are dependent on somebody, whether they have been born yet or not. If it is acceptable to kill an unborn child because it is dependent on his or her mother, then it would be acceptable to kill any young child for whom nobody wished to care.1
Abortion takes away a particular human future
But suppose you’re not convinced that abortion kills one of us. I think you should be convinced, but what if you’re not? Actually, there’s a good reason to deem abortion morally unacceptable even if you’re agnostic about the status of the unborn. This is spelled out in an article by ethicist Don Marquis called “Why Abortion is Immoral.” Briefly the argument goes like this: What do we think is wrong with killing people generally? Killing is not wrong because it causes pain, because it brutalises the killer or because it makes other people sad (although these are aggravating factors, no doubt). Killing humans in general is wrong because it takes away somebody’s life. But we don’t mean that in every possible sense. Obviously when we murder somebody we aren’t taking away all of their past life. We are taking away their future. This is not just any future (like, say, the future of a work or that of a rock). It is a particular human future – a “future like mine.” Naturally that future won’t be exactly like mine, but it is a human future. Not just the future of a thing that might exist in the future, but a particular human future of a thing that now exists. Taking that away is an action so evidently terrible as a rule that society punishes those who do it. This is the feature of killing that causes us to deem it wrong.
But abortion too has this feature, because abortion takes away the unborn child’s future – a future like mine. So if killing in general is wrong for this reason then abortion is wrong. Of course, you might think that some human futures are not worth having. What if a human future consists of being so severely disabled that one will not survive? Or maybe you would survive, but you would require a lot of care, so that your existence would be a burden on others. That might give you pause when asking whether or not it’s really wrong to take away a particular human future (namely, one of those apparently unrewarding or difficult futures). Here I would make just a few suggestions as to why this does not overturn the presumption that abortion is wrong. Firstly, if a person is literally not capable of surviving, the question of whether or not it is wrong to kill them does not arise. If a human future involves highly diminished mental development and cannot be sustained without considerable care from other people, this simply invites the question: Is it acceptable then to kill such people long after they are born? If their future is one that you would not want, is it therefore not wrong to take their future away? Is there in fact no moral presumption against killing the severely disabled? Appealing to the fact that they are still very young in the case of abortion does not make any difference here, because this objection to killing is about the fact that killing takes away a particular human future. You might be prepared to bite the bullet and seek legislative change so that the disabled who will always require the care of others in order to live can be killed. But you should be aware that this is the stance you are taking when you say that it should be acceptable to take away that sort of future as a defence of abortion. Lastly, as a real-world defence of abortion, the claim that there are many futures not worth having because of severe disability is largely irrelevant. Anybody who has spent much time investigating the grounds on which abortions are performed (as I have) knows that this is simply not why women seek abortion. Even if we decide that it is permissible to take away the future life of the severely disabled because that future has a very low value, we would not have provided a justification for well over 95% of all abortions.
“Is that it?” Yes, that’s it – or at least, that’s enough. Abortion kills one of us, and even if you can’t quite swallow that (although again, I really think you should), abortion has the feature that makes killing one of us in general wrong – it takes away a particular human being’s future. Because it is wrong to do those things, abortion is wrong.
Having discussed and spoken publicly about this issue for some time, there are some fairly immediate replies that come to mind.
“But what about when a woman has been raped? Are you going to force her to carry a rapist’s baby to term?”
I’ll mention this objection first because in conversation it’s always the first one people bring up.
Killing an unborn child doesn’t mean you were not a mother – it just means you’re a mother who killed your child (who was also the rapist’s child).
No, I’m not forcing a rape victim to be pregnant. The rapist did that. I’m sorry it happened, but it did. Killing an unborn child doesn’t mean you were not a mother – it just means you’re a mother who killed your child (who was also the rapist’s child). That’s a pretty harsh thing to hear perhaps and I’m sorry for that, but it’s the truth. I realise that I don’t know what it’s like to have a baby at all, let alone to have a baby because somebody raped me. But killing an unborn baby because of the circumstances in which he or she was conceived still has all the features that make abortion wrong. You can tell me as much as you like how stressful it might be to give birth to a child conceived in rape (although for what it’s worth, none of the women so far who have used this argument with me have ever conceived a child through rape). That may be true. No doubt it’s appropriate to take that into account when responding to somebody who had an abortion for this reason. It’s a reason to be compassionate. But it’s not a justification for killing. Sometimes it’s tempting to do the wrong thing because it would appear to benefit us personally or get us out of a jam, and this is one of those times. Having an abortion because the child was conceived through rape is someone’s attempt – understandable no doubt – to remove a burden that is perceived as terrible from themselves by making someone else pay for it with their life. It is not the child’s fault that he or she exists because of somebody else’s violent actions, and even rape is not a capital offence (in New Zealand at least), let alone being born because of rape. If it is not acceptable to kill a child at the age of two if his life has become increasingly stressful to the mother because he was conceived in rape, then there is no principled reason why it should be acceptable at an earlier stage, because killing at an earlier stage still has the essential features that make killing wrong at a later stage.
This is to say nothing of the fact that children who were born from rape have just as much potential to be loved and cherished by somebody as any other child. Moreover, given that the vast majority of abortions are not carried out on the grounds of rape, this may be something of a red herring. Even if we do allow for abortion on the grounds of rape and disability, we would still be slashing the abortion rate by at least 90 per cent.
“But what if the woman’s life is in danger? Are you saying that you’d rather the mother and the baby die rather than that she have an abortion?”
No, I’m not saying that. This is a misrepresentation of what most opponents of abortion would say. What I have said is that abortion is wrong in the basic way that killing humans in general is wrong. Once we accept that, we have a reason to oppose abortion.
But – and I realise not everybody shares my view here, what a surprise – I don’t think it’s always wrong to take a course of action knowing that a human will die. Many opponents of abortion (like me) prefer the term “pro-life” to “anti-abortion,” because what we are in favour of is protecting an existing human life. Unfortunately there are extremely rare cases where the very existence of the unborn child is an imminent threat to the life of the mother, the obvious example being that of an ectopic pregnancy (when implantation occurs in the fallopian tube where there’s simply no room for the baby to keep growing). In a scenario like that, we can start to talk about choices, just as we talk about options for self-preservation in other cases (e.g. self-defence). Removing the unborn child from a place where the mother will be killed may mean that the unborn child will die. We don’t want that to happen, but it may simply be unavoidable, a concept called the doctrine of double effect, where a bad effect follows from what we do even though that effect is not our aim.
“Stop trying to control women’s bodies / reproductive choices”
If abortion is wrong because it kills one of us… then it is perfectly appropriate for people to control your body (i.e. restrict what you do with your body) if you are going to use your body to kill an unborn child.
Although this is the kind of response you’re most likely to hear most often in the to-and-fro shouting matches over abortion, it’s the least helpful kind of thing anyone could say. These are not reasons for reconsidering one’s stance on the abortion issue, but rather just instructions to go away and let us do what it is we want to do. If abortion is wrong because it kills one of us or because it takes away a particular human future, then it is perfectly appropriate for people to control your body (i.e. restrict what you do with your body) if you are going to use your body to kill an unborn child.
Similarly, if by “reproductive choice” you mean the choice to kill, then it is right to interfere with that choice. Simply claiming that it is your choice is a way of declaring that you won’t listen to whatever reasons people might offer you for thinking that the choice is unjustifiable. The truth is that abortion is not a reproductive choice at all. You can accept that abortion is wrong and that women should be free to choice when they reproduce. An abortion does not prevent reproduction. Rather abortion takes place after reproduction has already occurred – or there would be nothing to abort. Abortion hides the fact that reproduction has occurred by disposing of the child that was produced, and is no more a “reproductive” choice than the widespread practice in the Roman Empire of “exposing” a newborn, that is, disposing of him / her if he / she was unwanted. Opposition to abortion and support for legal protection of unborn children interferes with your choice (and I’m sorry to put it so directly) to have your child remain alive or to kill your child.
“You’re a man. What would you know?”
This is variously phrased: “Women know best,” “women are the ones who have to make this very hard decision,” and so on. The idea is that men, who are never faced with the prospect of carrying a child to term, are in no position to tell women whether or not they should abort.
This is a variety of the Ad Hominem fallacy, where somebody’s reasons are dismissed, not because there is something wrong with the reasons, but because of who is offering them. Clearly it’s not true that all pro-lifers are men. Women and men who oppose abortion use the same sorts of arguments for doing so. How can the same argument be sound when a woman uses it but unsound when a man uses it, even though the argument doesn’t change? If abortion is wrong for the reasons outlined here, it makes no difference who says so.
It is true, moreover, that abortion is for many women a very difficult decision (although for others it is not). But whether or not it is difficult to decide to do something has no real bearing on whether or not you are morally entitled to do it. I have seen photographs of young suicide bombers in tears before they head off to their final mission. No easy decision, by the looks of it! Abortion should be a hard thing to decide to do. It is unjustifiable killing, something nobody should feel comfortable about doing.
“Until pro-lifers are willing to support these children once they are born, they have no right to rail against abortion.”
The truth is that many pro-life organisations do offer support to mothers who choose not to abort, so it’s likely that this objection is partially born of ignorance. But let’s suppose the critic is right that pro-lifers don’t do as much as they could.
I do not lose the right to stop you from killing your children unless I adopt them, however kind it might be for me to do so.
Of course I want a world in which raising children is easier rather than more difficult (as do people in general across the political spectrum, even though they disagree on how to make that world real). But I do not lose the right to stop you from killing your born children unless I adopt them, however kind it might be for me to do so. You are still in the wrong if you kill them, and you cannot excuse your own actions by pointing the finger at me for not providing you with the option of sending all your children to live with me. The same is true of the unborn. Of course, I want societies where people are less likely to be driven to considering ending the lives of their unborn children out of worry for how they will look after them, but that is no reason for me to consider such killing justified. We are not talking about whether or not you will bring a child into the world. By the time abortion is even an option, we are talking about killing a child who exists.
“Don’t push your religion on me!”
The basic reasons for opposing abortion, or at least the reasons I have given here, are not religious. It’s convenient to assume that something is religious when you’re not, giving you a reason for simply ignoring it.2 As it turns out I don’t accept that you should be able to support laws that reflect your view of the world but I shouldn’t be able to support laws that reflect my view of the world. The fact that my view of the world is religious while yours is not seems irrelevant here. The fact is that I don’t share your view of the world and you don’t share mine, and it is unreasonable for your view to be privileged. But maybe more importantly here, the arguments simply aren’t religious, so this response is a misrepresentation. True, I do believe that there’s a connection between the value of human life in general (as well as with moral obligation in general) and theology. You don’t. But we do agree that killing one of us is wrong, I hope, and I have given a non-religious reason for thinking that abortion has the feature that makes killing in general wrong.
Complaining about religion, then, is a smokescreen that prevents you from actually thinking about and engaging with the reasons why abortion is wrong.
There are other replies as well I know, but in short and with all due respect, the sorts of arguments one tends to hear on a daily basis in conversation and in media from those who support abortion rights are seriously inadequate, and in many cases are scarcely intellectually serious at all, bearing all the hallmarks of just not listening to or caring about the concerns about abortion but simply jumping on a bandwagon or shutting out what we don’t want to hear. If abortion is the kind of thing that its opponents say it is, then they are right to not only consider it immoral, but to seek legal prohibition on abortion and to vote accordingly.
The opponents of abortion cannot in good conscience say “I’m personally opposed but pro-choice” any more than we can be personally opposed to slavery but pro-choice for slave owners, or personally opposed to killing minorities, but pro-choice for those who wish to do so.
The abortion issue is one of the most morally frustrating features of our society, so civilised and yet so barbaric, and increasingly few are willing or able to see it, being prepared to defend it in the most tenuous and even flippant of ways. The frustration is only made worse when serious concerns are dismissed as bigotry or a “war on women” that reflects an “anti-choice” mentality, as though people honestly think this is the way to carry out moral discourse.
- Episode 029: Is Abortion Immoral, and Should it be Illegal?
- Double standards about being pro-choice
- Jill Stanek on Live Birth Abortion
- The Bible, abortion, and extra-biblical knowledge
- Obama, potential, and abortion
- I discuss the argument from dependence in a short article called “A Defence of Just Letting poor People Die” [↩]
- Of course, the fact that an argument presupposes some religious beliefs does not show that there is anything wrong with the argument. Perhaps you should consider the arguments given for those religious beliefs too? But that’s a whole other conversation. [↩]