With its recent ruling on abortion, our conservatively stacked Supreme Court has poured gasoline on the flames of a culture war that began with Roe v. Wade and escalated after Donald Trump became president. Like many people who try to view the question of abortion with a clear lens, one not distorted by religious dogma or the liberal fervor of women’s rights advocates, I feel caught in the great divide between the pro-life and pro-choice sides of the debate. Both arguments have undeniable merit, which is why the abortion issue will never be settled to the satisfaction of one side or the other. Yet I believe that a thoughtful examination of the arguments can yield only one conclusion, painful though it may be.
The Pro-Life Argument
The central tenet of the pro-life argument is that abortion is the taking of human life, and for that reason alone it is immoral and should be as unlawful as any other form of homicide. There is ample precedent for this position, particularly among the clergy. In the Didache, a first-century compilation of teachings ascribed to the twelve apostles, it is written, “The difference between the way of life and the way of death is great. Therefore, do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant.” Two centuries later, Saint Basil the Great, a bishop of Caesarea Mazaca, Cappadocia, from AD 370-379, wrote, “The hairsplitting difference between formed and unformed makes no difference to us. Whoever deliberately commits abortion is subject to the penalty of homicide.”
John Calvin, the Sixteenth Century French theologian and principal architect of Calvinism, wrote, “The fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is ready a human being and it is a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light.” In the modern era, these sentiments are even reflected in the 1959 United Nations’ Declaration of the Rights of the Child: “The child, by reason of higher physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.”
These beliefs, which span more than two millennia, form the core of the pro-life position. They have two central tenets—first, that an unborn child deserves the legal and moral protection accorded to any human being and, second, that the taking of human life is inherently immoral and should be illegal in every instance.
However, when abortion becomes a political platform, as it now has, the pro-life argument loses its moral force in a cloud of contradictions. Texas is a case in point. After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Texas enacted a near-total ban on abortion, allowing the procedure only before a fetal heartbeat is detected, which usually occurs at six weeks of pregnancy. Even in cases of rape or incest, a woman in Texas cannot have an abortion unless she acts before she may even know she is pregnant. Moreover, the Texas Legislature passed a law enabling ordinary citizens to enforce the abortion ban by suing clinics and others who perform or contribute to the procedure, which effectively deputizes one’s neighbors. In Communist East Germany, the practice of citizens informing on their schoolmates, friends, and neighbors created an Orwellian atmosphere of fear and suspicion that dominated East German life.* Surely, that is not what the Texas legislators intended, but they have set a precedent that could rot the social fabric of our communities if this type of law transcends Texas’ borders and becomes commonplace everywhere in our country, particularly if it extends to every type of real or imagined violation.
The moral justification for Texas’ near-total abortion ban was voiced by its Lieutenant Governor, Dan Patrick, an evangelical Christian, who declared that Texas is a pro-life state. “When I served in the Texas Senate,” Patrick wrote, “protecting life was one of my top priorities. I am proud to have passed the landmark sonogram bill which has saved thousands of babies in Texas. Since I have been Lt. Governor, the Texas Senate has passed the strongest pro-life legislation in history.”
Patrick’s pro-life commitment would be more comprehensible and laudable if it applied to all life. However, Texas leads the nation in executions. Since 1976, Texas has executed four times more offenders than Virginia, the state with the second-leading number of executions from 1976 to today, and more than the other Top Ten states combined. Presumably, by “pro-life” Patrick means “pro-innocent-life,” not “pro-all-life,” and he said as much when he spoke about Texas’ recent abortion ban: “Texas is a pro-life state and these bills reflect our commitment to protecting innocent life.”
If protecting innocent life is indeed the goal, then that ought to apply to children before and after birth, but in 2020 Texas also led the nation in the number of unique victims of child abuse. I question whether any law can eliminate child abuse, which is rooted in poverty, drug abuse, and parental neglect, but Texas should do more to protect the innocent lives of those victims. Perhaps their “sue your neighbor” law should apply to child abuse as well. If more Texas citizens sued neighbors who were abusing their children, perhaps the rate of child abuse in Texas would plummet and more innocent lives would be protected. Instead, their citizen vigilante law applies only to abortion, which means it’s a political contrivance rather than a true “protect the innocent” position.
My point is not that a pro-life political position is inherently contradictory, but that logically it should be applied in every instance to protecting innocent lives at every stage of their lives, not just in the womb, and perhaps to all lives as well. New York, which executed 329 criminals from 1930 to 1976 has had no executions since 1977 when the death penalty was overturned in that state. If Texas banned capital punishment, then its pro-life stance would be morally consistent. Instead, it smacks of a political convenience to garner conservative and, particularly, evangelical votes, as much as a legitimate moral position.
The Pro-Choice Argument
Advocates for pro-choice are equally passionate about protecting the rights of women, particularly the rights of pregnant women who are victims of rape or incest, whose lives may be endangered by the pregnancy, whose unborn children are irreparably deformed or not viable, or whose life circumstances would impose a crushing burden on them and the child if it is born. The central question is whether the state has the right to dictate to women what they can and cannot do with their bodies. As some pro-choice rally posters read: “My body, my choice.”
The question of abortion for rape-related pregnancies seems the most clearcut to me. A woman who is raped has had her body violated and had no intention of becoming pregnant and having a child. Whether or not she knew the rapist, the thought of carrying that child and then caring for it most of her adult life may be so repugnant to her that she wants to abort the pregnancy. It is difficult to comprehend that the state would deny her that right.
Yet fifteen states have either have no exceptions for rape and incest in their laws banning abortions or are moving towards it. Those states are Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas**, Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, West Virginia, Arkansas, Florida, and Ohio. The strong pro-life position in these states is not unexpected. In 2020, the legislatures in these states were on average 75.67 percent male and 80.13 percent white. Nearly 80 percent of these state legislators identify as Christians (Source: National Council of State Legislatures). Of course, some white male Christians may vote pro-choice while some non-white female non-Christians may vote pro-life. Still, the demographics of state legislatures strongly suggests why the abortion bans in these states are so restrictive.
The arguments against rape exceptions are based on two fallacies: first, that rape-related pregnancies are rare, and second, that pregnant rape victims must have enjoyed the act. Estimates of the annual number of pregnancies resulting from rape vary but are alarmingly high. In the 1990s, several studies concluded that the number is around 30,000 annually in the U.S. and that one in twenty women between 12 to 45 years old becomes pregnant from a rape. The CDC reported that 18 million American women are raped in their lifetime and 3 million become pregnant from the assault.
Prior to 1800, a man accused of rape could use the victim’s pregnancy as proof that he did not rape her. Because she became pregnant, authorities in those times assumed that the woman must have enjoyed the act. Their reasoning was clearly preposterous, but misconceptions about rape and pregnancy persist. As recently as 2012, Todd Akin, a conservative Republican from Missouri who opposed abortion declared that rape-related pregnancies are “really rare.” Moreover, he said, “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” A man this profoundly ignorant should never have been a lawmaker, but there are hundreds of other white male Christian conservatives serving in the federal and state governments who are as clueless about sexual assaults on women as they are about human biology.
Whatever else I have concluded from studying this matter is that it is cruel and unusual punishment to force a raped woman to bear the child.
It is also reprehensible to force a woman whose life is endangered by being pregnant to carry the fetus to term if by doing so she risks losing her own life. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, maternal mortality has been steadily increasing: “While US maternal mortality rates increased from 9.8 deaths per 100,000 births in 2000 to 23.8 deaths per 100,000 births in 2020, the rate of women dying in childbirth is decreasing in many other countries. From 1990 to 2015, the maternal mortality rate worldwide decreased by 44%. The US ranks poorly compared to other developed nations, ranking 46th among 181 countries” (Source: USA Facts).
Nearly 24 deaths per 100,000 births may not seem like serious problem, but it is extraordinarily serious for pregnant women at risk of death, as well as for their families. Banning abortion for women at risk is also cruel and unusual punishment, and the risk they are forced to accept is largely imposed by conservative Republicans and religious lawmakers who have decided that the life of a fetus is more worthy than the life of its mother.
You can imagine the heartbreak of an expectant mother when she learns that her fetus is diagnosed with birth defects, is dead in her womb, or is otherwise not viable. Recently, a Louisiana woman 10 weeks into her pregnancy learned that her fetus has Acrania, a condition where the skull does not form inside the womb. She wanted to abort the fetus, but Louisiana doctors would not perform the procedure because of Louisiana’s ban on abortion. “Basically,” she cried, “they said I had to carry my baby to bury my baby.”
The incidence of birth defects is remarkably small. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the probability that an average woman from 16 to 40 years of age will give birth to a child with birth defects is just 0.73%. Further, those children who are born with birth defects may suffer from a cleft palate, abnormal limbs (such as clubfoot), or Downs Syndrome, which are unfortunate but not life-threatening, and those children often become happy adults.
Unfortunately, birth defects are not usually detected by ultrasound and prenatal testing until late in the second trimester or early in the third. By then, a late-term abortion of fetuses with severe birth defects is understandably a difficult and emotionally wrought decision for parents. Those who are permitted to choose abortion often do so to spare the child suffering if it is born and would never be viable outside the womb. Anti-abortionists say it is still murder, but I wonder how many of them have ever had to face that painful decision. Is it morally justified to allow a child to suffer who is only going to die minutes, hours, or even days after birth?
Abortion on Demand
The grayest area in the abortion debate is the morality of abortion on demand, where the procedure is performed not because the pregnant woman’s life is in danger, because she is a victim of rape or incest, or because the fetus is significantly deformed or otherwise not viable. The procedure occurs because the woman feels that she cannot, for a variety of reasons, have a child at this point in her life. She may be indigent and unable to care for a child, or she may have too many children to care for already, or she may suffer from a mental illness and be unable or unprepared to manage parenthood. For whatever reason, she believes that a new baby is beyond her mental, physical, emotional, psychological, or financial capacity, or she lacks a supportive significant other, or she is simply incapable of managing the burden of raising a child.
Anti-abortionists are often unfazed by these excuses for an abortion. They point to alternatives, such as giving the child up for adoption or placing it in foster care. Some chide the woman for becoming pregnant, saying she should have been more careful and now that she’s pregnant, she needs to live with the consequences. Of course, blaming her does not address the fact that she’s carrying an unwanted fetus, and too often it’s easier to ride one’s moral high horse than to see the problem from the distressed woman’s perspective and feel empathy for the horrendous choice she faces.
I suspect that many anti-abortionists, including most serving in state legislatures, have never been poor or indigent or faced having one more mouth to feed when your life circumstances are challenging enough already. Of course, some women who have abortions are not poor or indigent. I have known women in their early twenties who had abortions because having a child that at point in their lives would alter their life’s trajectory in ways they could not accept. Having a baby would have meant raising a child on a young single mother’s salary, having to find and fund childcare, and likely having trouble finding a suitable mate to share their lives and help raise their children. For men, marrying a single mother means sharing the responsibility and cost of raising her child; likewise for women, marrying a single father means becoming at least partially responsible for raising his children. These are burdens many single people are unwilling to accept. Moreover, raising a child is expensive. According to Investopedia, raising a child in 2022 costs an average of $272,000, depending on where you live and the local cost of childcare. That’s more than $15,000/year, not including the expense of a college education later.
Staunch pro-lifers are largely unsympathetic to these concerns, but the concerns are real. Tens of thousands of women face them every year. I doubt that many women who decide to have an abortion take the decision lightly or feel no remorse afterwards. It may be one of the most profound and unsettling decisions any person can make.
When Does Life Begin?
One of the fundamental questions in the abortion debate is when life begins. Does it begin at the moment of conception, as many pro-lifers insist? Or does it begin when the fetal heartbeat is detected? Or as others insist, does it begin only when the fetus is viable outside the womb?
A fetal heartbeat is detectable three-to-six weeks after conception, depending on the method used to detect it. A fetus is viable outside the womb at around 24 weeks. Given this broad range of interpretation, it’s not surprising that people on both sides disagree, sometimes violently. But the question suffers from a logical paradox called the argument of the beard, also known as the continuum fallacy. The average man’s beard consists of about 15,000 hairs. If he plucks one hair and now has only 14,999, does he still have a beard? Certainly. What about when he plucks another and has only 14,998? You can see where this is heading. At some point, we’re asking if ten thousand hairs make a beard, or five thousand, or five hundred, and so on. At no point in the debate can we agree that 500 hairs make a beard (albeit a thin one) and 499 hairs does not.
With an embryo that becomes a fetus, could we agree that life began at six weeks, when a heartbeat might be detected, but not at five weeks and six days? Or that a fetus is viable at 24 weeks but not at 23 weeks and six days? Trying to decide when life begins is a futile exercise because of the continuum fallacy.
Should Abortion Be Banned?
For me, the crux of the issue is this: None but the pregnant woman herself and her family can know what leads her to want an abortion. We can’t know her life, her challenges, her hopes, fears, triumphs, and tragedies. We can’t see the future she imagines or dreads. We don’t know her body as she does, nor her medical history as her doctor does. We don’t know what risks the pregnancy poses, or what another child would mean for her and her family. We can’t know if she wanted this pregnancy or if it was forced upon her. And we can’t foresee what bright or dismal future the child will have if it is born.
We know so little about her. Yet others who have no stake in her life—legislators, judges, attorneys, priests, ministers, pro-lifers—presume to know so much. Does the church or the state have the right to ban abortion and force pregnant women to carry their fetuses to term, regardless of her feelings, her judgments about what is best for her, and the consequences to her—including death—if she carries the baby to term?
I think not. I believe that a human life begins its journey at conception and that aborting the fetus is a momentous decision. But it should be the pregnant woman’s decision, not a state legislature consisting principally of males, whites, and Christians. I believe that women wanting an abortion should seek unbiased counseling to help them think through their decision. They should have an abortion only with a full appreciation of the consequences and alternatives. But it should still be their decision alone. Like all human beings, women have the right to decide what happens with their bodies and their lives. To deny them that right is outrageous.
So, as painful as the abortion decision is, I believe that preserving a woman’s right to make her own decision is the correct and sensible path for an enlightened society. Religious beliefs and passionate concerns about the sanctity of life are personal choices people can make, but they should not impose their beliefs on everyone else in a democracy like ours. Freedom means freedom of choice.
In researching this article, I read a fine essay by Caitlin Flanagan that anyone interested in the abortion issue should read. It’s titled, “The Dishonesty of the Abortion Debate: Why we need to face the best arguments from the other side.” Published in the December 2019 issue of The Atlantic, it is available online at https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/12/the-things-we-cant-face/600769/
*For further information on commonplace snitching in East Germany, see “East German Snitching Went Far Beyond the Stasi,” an article by Peter Wensierski in Spiegel International. https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/east-german-domestic-surveillance-went-far-beyond-the-stasi-a-1042883.html
**In September 2022, Texas Governor Abbott signed a bill allowing rape victims to take Plan B, which is a pregnancy-preventing emergency contraceptive. Of course, rape victims must act immediately to receive Plan B, and for whatever reason some rape victims may be reluctant or afraid to report what happened to them. Plan B is a step in the right direction, but this law fails to account for the emotional distress some rape victims experience, so its effectiveness as a pregnancy-preventing legal tool is questionable.
Photo credits: pro-life rally: Photo 28852098 / Abortion © Richard Gunion | Dreamstime.com; Abortion definition: Photo 121248261 / Abortion © Feng Yu | Dreamstime.com; pro-choice rally: Photo 26271054 / Abortion © Joe Sohm | Dreamstime.com; filthy sink: Photo 2909814 / Abortion © Wessel Du Plooy | Dreamstime.com