The most straightforward argument for banning abortion, and the one that ultimately persuades me that we should do so, is the enormous cruelty and tragedy of violently ending a new human life. As former Vice President Dan Quayle once observed, abortion stops a beating heart. Even more to the point, it stops a human heart. Surely this is enough reason to prefer to stop abortion.
Yet one often hears arguments in favor of abortion. A colleague once asserted that most people are both pro-life and pro-choice. To the extent that he is correct, most people have not thought carefully about abortion. How seriously would we take someone who claimed to be against dumping toxic waste into drinking water, but who opposed legislation to prohibit it? What would we think of a person who thought torture was morally abhorrent, but who supported the “sacred” right of police interrogators to freely choose whether to resort to it? And what of the person opposed to murder, who thought that legislation against it was an undesirable interference in a matter that ought to be left to the consciences of potential killers?
But one takes a similarly absurd stance by proudly displaying compassion for the unfolding human wonder that is a developing fetus while at the same time sanctimoniously asserting that the decision to end that life is a private matter of conscience that should be left to the mother. Curiously, when it is suggested that the state has a duty to intervene, the woman carrying the child is referred to by abortion advocates as the mother, but the developing fetus is described as “it” rather than as “him” or “her” (and feminists take note, it’s usually a “her”: girls are more likely to be aborted than boys). Yet if the woman carrying a fetus is a mother, then isn’t there also a child? Of course there is, and if we are serious about protecting her or him we need to do more than declare our compassion. We must be as ready to restrict the choice of parents to kill their offspring as we are to restrict the choice of an irritated government to kill hostile members of the press, or members of ethnic minorities, or the elderly, or the infirm.
When I argue in favor of life, abortion advocates often ask me, with some astonishment, whether I am Catholic. I am not, though I was raised in that faith. They seem to assume that opposition to abortion can only come from religious faith, and that there are no compelling secular arguments for life. In this they are getting confused about the contrapositive. While it is certainly true that the great religious traditions are united in opposing abortion, so that being pro-abortion places one outside those traditions, religious grounds are not the only ones for opposing abortion.
My principal objection, that abortion ends a human life, is perfectly consistent with my secular point of view. It is a comment on the anti-religious tone one encounters that abortion advocates assume opposition must stem from religion. Curiously, when one argues for the value of human life in other contexts, such as opposing summary execution of political opponents by authoritarian or totalitarian governments, or disapproving of state sponsored racial discrimination, nobody asks about one’s religion—even though the great religious traditions are clearly against such violations of human rights, and religious leaders play prominent roles in opposing political executions and racial discrimination. But in these contexts it is considered natural and obvious that a basic respect for human beings leads one to oppose murder by government, and to deplore racial discrimination. That abortion advocates are not able to make the same connection between opposition to abortion and secular morality bespeaks their loss of moral direction.
During the 1830’s John C. Calhoun was an unapologetic advocate of slavery. He argued that slavery was necessary to sustain a lifestyle of leisure and dignity for “deserving people” such as himself. And indeed the end of slavery did impinge on the lifestyles of people such as Calhoun. He evidently did not understand Abraham Lincoln’s assertion that just as he would not be a slave, so too he would not be a master. Of course, if abortion had been “safe,” legal, and available in the late 18th century, slavery advocates would probably not have had Lincoln to contend with, as his mother was born out of wedlock. If abortion had been as available, and as readily excused, at the end of the eighteenth century as it is at the beginning of the twenty-first, it is very likely that Lincoln’s maternal grandparents would have opted to abort his mother.
In any event, we can imagine what Lincoln would have thought of Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s sorry argument that it would be wrong to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision because so many people had planned their lives and careers around it, by which he meant that abortion facilitates a lifestyle. This is scant progress from Calhoun’s argument in favor of slavery on essentially the same grounds. Yes, it is true that banning abortion would impinge on the lifestyle choices of men and women who are willing neither to become parents, nor to exercise even the modicum of self control needed to eliminate the possibility by means short of abortion. When abortion advocates mawkishly present abortion as the key to emancipation, they essentially argue that sexual indulgence is worth killing one's children for. I suspect that John C. Calhoun would have agreed. Abraham Lincoln, who knew a thing or two about freedom and emancipation, would be outraged.
Abortion Colors Our Views on the Whole Panoply of Human Issues
Discussion of abortion tends to assume that the issue is a static one, with society’s attitudes about the sanctity of life remaining unaffected by decisions about how to deal with abortion. This is a flawed assumption. Four decades ago when the then-governor of California Ronald Reagan signed legislation legalizing abortion, he believed, incorrectly, that doctors would be very reluctant to apply the law, and that in most cases they would refuse to perform abortions. Even if his conjecture had been born out, his decision to sign the law was wrong—and to his credit, Ronald Reagan eventually recognized that his signature had been a mistake.
What actually happened was that the law turned abortion into commerce. Far from being a little used option, abortion became a multi-billion dollar industry, with thousands of people depending upon it for their livelihoods. Today, protests in front of abortion clinics are forbidden by the courts on the ground that they impede commerce! Forty years ago it was unthinkable that euthanasia (also known as murder) might be used by doctors instead of treating moribund patients, let alone those with difficult-to-treat diseases whose prospects were poor. Not so today! In an environment in which third-trimester abortion is legal, and in which there is vocal political advocacy, backed up by the courts, for partial-birth abortion, infanticide and euthanasia are no longer universally considered to be beyond the pale. Over a third of a century of legal support for abortion has desensitized public opinion and left people more brutal.
The 35 years since Roe v. Wade have left millions of men and women with the psychological scars of having aborted their children. This is an additional terrible price to pay for the violence done by abortion. It is also a factor in the public discourse. Millions of people have been co-opted in by the abortion lobby in the most chilling way. By becoming accomplices to abortion they are now caught in a dilemma. If they recognize that abortion stops a human heart, then they are forced to reconcile themselves with the terrible act to which they have been party. Of course, the painful repentance this entails is the first step toward reconciliation. But it is a difficult step, and many people prefer the anesthesia offered by their awkward arguments in favor of abortion to a painful awakening to what abortion has done in their lives. For those of us who seek to protect life, these psychological realities are a challenge. Because abortion is a matter of life and death the debate has taken on a strongly adversarial tone. Yet the strident tone of the debate can itself help to further entrench abortion apologists in their refusal to face up to the cruelty of the killing they advocate. We need to continually remind ourselves to reserve compassion for people who have had abortions, even as we deplore what they have done, and more importantly, what will continue to be done if we fail to change the law.
The atrocity of partial-birth abortion is an extreme at which many people who are otherwise blind to the evil of abortion still balk. One’s instinctive empathy for a small helpless child comes into play when this egregious outrage is described, and abortion advocates seek to minimize the vivid details. Yet some extremists are even willing to treat the child who becomes the target of partial-birth abortion as an object with no feelings to be considered, placing their ideology ahead of the most basic empathy. There is precedent for this. When one reads accounts of Nazi Germany it is the capacity of Nazi fanatics to commit atrocities even against the most helpless people, including children, the disabled, and the elderly that is most disturbing. They placed their twisted ideology that told them that the people they were killing were subhuman ahead of their instinctive sense of protectiveness and empathy toward the weak and the helpless. This is the same suppression of human empathy, decency, and kindness by an ideology that we encounter in the ghoulish fanatics who support partial-birth abortion.
While gazing into crystal balls is always dangerous, the dynamic impact of abortion on society means it is unlikely that the status quo will remain in place. Society might continue on its present course, with an increasingly casual legal attitude towards even partial-birth abortion. It is easy to forget that before the Second World War the eugenics movement had deep roots throughout the world, including the United States. The stark horror of Nazi eugenics conferred an entire generation with a lifetime immunity against the appeal of eugenics. But today’s adults do not have the vivid memory of the Nazis, and like buried toxic waste contaminating an aquifer, eugenics arguments are seeping back into the public discourse.
In the Netherlands, “physician assisted suicide” is legal. While it is still the exception rather than the rule, we can expect that the Dutch government, which pays for medical care, is not completely oblivious to the fact that killing very sick people entails less expenditure than caring for them. Just as doctors responded once abortion became legal commerce, so too the medical establishment is likely to respond to the new financial incentives surrounding euthanasia. Once respect for the dignity of human life has been eroded by abortion becoming a banal everyday evil, resistance to euthanasia will weaken.
In the U.S. it will be insurance companies that will feel the incentives to reduce outlays on care by killing expensive patients. Expect that in the U.S. euthanasia will initially be reserved for the terminally ill, but in the style of former President Clinton, insurance companies and unscrupulous doctors will quickly note that it all depends on what your definition of “terminal” is. The destructive effects on society are potentially very far reaching. By the time the tail end of the baby boom generation become elderly they may discover that old age has become a nightmare. Perhaps we shall see the day when those who fail to commit to euthanasia upon an expensive diagnosis have their insurance discontinued. Whether such a barbaric society could long sustain itself is an open question. What is clear is that we would be ill-served by continuing a sequence of policies that could reach such ends.
A more encouraging possibility is that society will awaken to the destructiveness of abortion, and begin to restrict it. The debates over partial-birth abortion are encouraging in this respect. Most people seem to retain their basic instinct to preserve life when it comes to this barbaric practice. A successful ban—and getting the courts to cooperate will be far from easy—would set the healthy precedent that abortion is not an unqualified right. Just as allowing nearly unlimited abortion tends to desensitize people to killing, so too prohibiting one of the most egregious forms of abortion will restore people’s sensitivities, and more will ask: why, if infanticide and partial-birth abortion are unacceptable, is it tolerable that there are third-trimester abortions? Once the precedent is set for defending the life of the fetus, public opinion, and public morality, may shift more decisively in favor of life, and we may move closer towards a world in which forty million fetuses are not aborted every year.
John Londregan is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. He is a Senior Fellow of the Witherspoon Institute and sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse.