Abortion and the Limits of Philosophy


Unlike civil rights advocates of the 1960s, pro-life and pro-choice activists can be ambivalent about their causes because they are torn between their reason and their sentiments.

Though they agree on little else, philosophers on both sides of bioethical controversies ask us to ignore our own sentiments. Peter Singer, for example, acknowledges that while “very good evolutionary reasons” compel us to feel affection for infants (and presumably fetuses that resemble newborns), our evolutionary psychology is an “unreliable guide to what is right.”1 Conservatives agree. Robert George and Patrick Lee, for instance, are untroubled by the fact that humans tend not to sympathize with days-old embryos since “emotional responses are notoriously limited in their capacity to function as sources of moral knowledge."2

This is a sensible consensus. Our natural sympathies are certainly a crude guide to moral understanding. But while philosophers are probably right to dispense with human sentiments, social movements cannot do so. Movements are powerfully shaped by human sentiments. Indeed, they are held together and driven by moral passions, which are at least partially rooted in natural human sympathies.

And our sympathies, as both parties to this dispute acknowledge, can be difficult to control. In The Moral Sense, James Q. Wilson argues that human beings possess psychological traits that compel them to feel an especially powerful attachment to the characteristics of newborns, including their large eyes, rounded features, and cuddly skin. We have even bred such infant-like qualities into millions of household pets. More generally, Wilson suggests that we find it far easier to sympathize with organisms that have anthropomorphic characteristics.3

Surprisingly, both sides of the embryo wars reveal the power and universality of these sentiments. On the one hand, abortion providers are more distressed by abortions after the first trimester, when fetuses develop anthropomorphic characteristics. On the other hand, pro-life activists devote less effort to saving days-old embryos or frozen embryos than more developed unborn humans. These opponents both find themselves troubled by a conflict between their reason and their sentiments, which oddly jeopardizes the basic justice that philosophers behind the pro-life and pro-choice movements seek.

This doesn’t mean that our society could never conform to the rationalistic moral vision articulated by those thinkers. After all, there is nothing deterministic about our natural sentiments. But it does mean that the pro-choice and pro-life movements are quite different from the civil rights movements that preceded them. Activists in these earlier movements were not torn between their natural sentiments and ultimate causes. Nature and justice marched together in these campaigns. This difference matters, especially in a democratic regime in which the people, and not philosophers, rule. As long as even activists in the abortion controversy remain reluctant to either kill beings that resemble newborns or oppose embryonic destruction research with the same zeal that they target late-term providers, the justice philosophers seek may well remain beyond our collective grasp.

Ambivalence in the Pro-Choice Movement

When states began liberalizing their abortion laws, advocates for reproductive rights assumed that the negative reactions of doctors and nurses to second- and third-trimester abortions were caused by a more traditional culture. As one early study of a Denver hospital explained, it “is very difficult in a short period of time to break down the traditions, beliefs, and mores of society and suddenly change the whole attitude in regard to unborn human life.”4

That was a plausible conclusion decades ago, but not anymore. Study after study finds strong emotional reactions to abortion provision even in clinics that cultivate feminist cultures and community. Studies of such clinics consistently find that those who perform second- and third trimester abortions feel powerful and unexpected feelings of sympathy for the fetuses they destroy. Some are even compelled to doubt the justice of abortion itself.

One study of more than 130 abortion workers in the San Francisco Bay area found widespread moral ambivalence, which tended to come in cycles. Though the “first ambivalence was usually longer, more intense and more disturbing than subsequent ambivalences,” the Bay area study concluded, “ambivalence often recurred, sometimes years after an initial episode.” Such episodes often surprised new employees. As one explained: “I never in a million years thought that I’d feel like that because I believe in abortion rights so strongly.”5

Carole Joffe’s ethnography of abortion counselors at a clinic with a strong feminist culture was consistent in every way with the Bay-area study. “Again and again” Joffe found that abortion “counselors would contrast their earlier, ‘simpler’ view with the grimmer, more complex reality.” Moral ambivalence was so common, according to Joffe, that “most of the counselors at certain moments still expressed doubts and confusion about what they were doing.”6

Likewise, Wendy Simmonds’s ethnography of a feminist clinic found that her subjects were troubled by the resemblance of second- and third-trimester fetuses to newborns. Carrie, for instance, reported: “At nine weeks you start seeing fetal parts. And by the second semester it’s, you know, it’s a baby, and by eighteen weeks it’s definitely a baby. . . . And it’s really hard because I always thought of abortion in terms of just the woman. . . . And I never even allowed myself to think, you know, isn’t it a shame that there’s something alive inside her.”

A young, idealistic intern was also troubled by the physical resemblance of second-trimester fetuses to newborns: “When he . . . takes the forceps and pulls out a foot, you can see the foot. . . . I was pretty horrified. . . . What I saw really freaked me out.” “I just got to the point where I needed to sit down and cry.” Janice agreed: “It’s just—I mean it looks like a baby. It looks like a baby. . . . And, you know, I saw this one, and it had its fingers in its mouth. . . . It makes me really sad that this had to happen.” Another feminist confessed that “a lot of days it’s really, really hard. . . . And when you’re, you know, putting a fetus’s head in over its feet into a baggie, there’s just that brief moment of ‘this could have been me.’”7

Perhaps some of the strongest evidence that these sentiments may be deeply rooted is the common experience of nightmares and hallucinations, which are consistently reported across a range of studies. Simmonds’s study even found that such experiences are commonly called “fetus dreams.”8

Yet none of the many studies of abortion clinics found that providers are troubled by first-trimester abortions. What troubles abortion workers is the anthropomorphic characteristics of fetuses—heads, toes, fingers, mouths—rather than some other developmental maker that might carry greater philosophical or legal significance, such as sentience, consciousness, or viability.

Given such sharply different reactions to first-trimester abortions, most providers limit their practice to relatively early abortion provision. One study of obstetricians and gynecologists found that the most important factor that influenced their decision to perform an abortion was the age of the fetus.9 Evidence from clinics suggests that these reports are accurate: Only 23 percent of clinics perform abortions at 20 weeks gestation, while 11 percent do so at 24 weeks gestation.10 This is so even though late-term abortion is far more profitable than early abortion provision.

Pro-life critics have correctly stressed the radicalism of American abortion law, which grants something close to abortion on demand. Yet such critics have neglected the relative moderation of most abortionists. These providers have collectively accomplished what the pro-life movement has only dreamed of: They have limited the effective scope of abortion rights. Americans’ reproductive freedom may even contract further since the providers who perform second- and third-trimester abortions tend to be older than other abortionists.

Regardless, the pro-choice movement itself will probably continue to quietly undermine the expansive reproductive justice that has been defended by the Supreme Court and philosophers such as Michael Tooley, Mary Anne Warren, Judith Jarvis Thomson, and Peter Singer.

Ambivalence in the Pro-Life Movement

It may seem odd to accuse the pro-life movement of either moderation or ambivalence. After all, some of its more extreme advocates have killed abortion providers and bombed clinics. Yet, as others have suggested, the rarity of such violence might indicate that right-to-lifers do not fully embrace a strict moral equivalence between unborn human life and newborns. The journalist William Saletan has made this case most forcefully: “If a doctor in Kansas were butchering hundreds of old or disabled people, and legal authorities failed to intervene, I doubt most members of the National Right to Life Committee would stand by waiting for ‘educational and legislative activities’ to stop him. Somebody would use force.”

Conservatives rightly object that Saletan’s case is overdrawn and neglects the many reasons pro-lifers refuse to shed the blood of providers. Both sides, however, apparently agree that ambivalence does not affect the violent fringe itself, which must be full of hardened purists. This view would be persuasive if violent radicals were indiscriminate killers, happy to cut the life of any “baby-killer” short. But this isn’t the case. Violent radicals target late-term abortionists. In fact, the extant evidence shows that every physician murdered by pro-life radicals practiced abortion into the second trimester and some were infamous in the right-to-life movement for performing late-term abortions.11 George Tiller, who performed abortions into the third trimester, was shot more than once and took to wearing a bulletproof vest to work.

Radicals, in other words, don’t simply take up arms against their local provider. In one striking example Shelly Shannon took a bus from her home in Oregon to Oklahoma City in her failed attempt to kill Dr. Tiller. Why would she do so if all abortions were equally wrong? In fact, wouldn’t it be better to target providers who perform a greater volume of abortions, namely those who specialize in early abortion provision? An answer to these questions is suggested by Shannon’s testimony after her arrest. “If there ever was a justifiable homicide,” Shannon confessed, “that would have been it.”12 Apparently even some of those who are committed enough to murder abortionists and spend their lives in prison seem to find it is morally worse to kill more developed fetuses.

While Tiller and other late-term providers continue to act as lightning rods, attracting protesters from across the country, the development of new biotechnologies means that pro-life organizations now have to inspire its activists to defend the lives of days-old embryos. The task can be daunting, as the many flagging campaigns against embryonic destruction research and IVF clinics suggest. Leaders inside the state affiliates of the National Right to Life Committee often tell me that such campaigns generate substantially less interest, donations, and outrage from their rank-and-file activists than abortion does. In fact, some state directors have even become reluctant to use the issue of embryo-destructive research in their direct mailings since it doesn’t excite their rank-and-file.

The consequences are unsurprising. Currently, no state has passed regulations on IVF clinics that would limit the number of embryos created to the actual number implanted. In fact, the only effort to pass such legislation was in the state of Georgia. Meanwhile, only three states—South Dakota, North Dakota, and Oklahoma—have passed outright bans on embryonic destruction research.13

At least one pro-life intellectual has been publicly forthright about such challenges in the case of embryonic destruction research. Eric Cohen, the cofounder of the pro-life journal The New Atlantis, confessed that treating days-old embryos as persons is an “apparent absurdity.” And although Cohen finds the pro-life case “the most rational,” he doubts that he would ever embrace it “in a moment of trial—such as choosing between the child who is dying and the embryo who might save him.” Thus, Cohen explicitly acknowledges a tension between his moral sentiments and reason. And, if they clashed in a consequential way, Cohen might side with his sentiments.14

Most pro-life activists have not been compelled to work through these tensions as honestly as Cohen, much less abortionists in the pro-choice movement. Nonetheless, some pro-lifers have spent a considerable amount of time pondering the power of graphic images of aborted fetuses. I approached a number of pro-life advocates who vigorously lobby for the use of such images in the public square and asked them a simple question: “If Roe v. Wade had outlawed surgical abortion but permitted the killing of days-old embryos in the laboratory and via the pill, do you think we would have gotten the same pro-life movement? Would it be as large and as passionate as it is today?” They all said no. As Steve Wagner, the director of training at Justice for All, explained, “people are motivated by suffering,” and “because the pictures show suffering, they work."15 This is why the movement nearly always uses images of second- and third-trimester abortions.

Thus common sentiments seem to moderate the pro-choice and pro-life movements and perhaps even public policies. Just as abortionists effectively restrict reproductive freedoms, many pro-life activists do not invest the necessary time and energy to protect days-old embryos.

The Future of Liberalism

Activists on both sides, of course, find ways to avoid these ambivalent sentiments. Most pro-choice activists never set foot inside a clinic or honestly confront the realities of late-term abortion provision, while pro-lifers focus on the horrors of partial-birth abortion. But activists can’t entirely avoid these troubling sentiments so long as women seek abortions and embryos are destroyed in the lab. And insofar as activists do avoid confronting their own ambivalence, that tendency only underscores my thesis. Avoidance is a necessary adaptation that quiets moral dissonance.

Philosophers such as Peter Singer and Robert George have regarded the causes they champion as similar to earlier successful civil rights campaigns. And though they are arguably alike in many respects, it appears that the justice they seek will be far harder to achieve. This is because there is something different about rights-based movements in the post–civil-rights era. As Americans have campaigned for expansive new rights for animals, embryos, and women, they have sometimes collided with deeply rooted human sentiments—or what James Q. Wilson called our “moral sense.” Even those who are most committed to these new freedoms cannot entirely escape it.

Jon A. Shields is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right (Princeton University Press, 2009). This article is adapted from its originally published version in Critical Review, titled “Almost Human: Ambivalence in the Pro-Choice and Pro-Life Movements.”

[1] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 3d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 14, 151-152.
[2] Robert George and Patrick Lee, “Acorns and Embryos,” The New Atlantis 7 (2005): 90-100.
[3] James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 15-26, 29-54, 123-33.
[4] Horace Thompson, David Cowen, and Betty Berris, “Therapeutic Abortion: A Two-Year Experience in One Hospital,” JAMA 213(6) 1970: 991-995.
[5] Kathleen M. Roe, “Private Troubles and Public Issues Providing Abortion Amid Competing Definitions,” Social Science Medicine 29(10) 1989: 1191-1198.
[6] Carole Joffe, The Regulation of Sexuality: Experiences of Family Planning Workers (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), 114-15, 134-40.
[7] Wendy Simmonds, Abortion at Work: Ideology and Practice in a Feminist Clinic (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1996), 69, 84, 95-96.
[8] Simmonds, Abortion at Work, 70-71, 82-84.
[9] Aryan N. Aiyer, George Ruiz, Allegra Steinman, and Gloria Y. F. Ho, “Influence of Physician Attitudes on Willingness to Perform Abortion,” Obstetrics and Gynecology 93(4): 1999: 576-580.
[10] Rachel K. Jones and Kathryn Kooistra, “Abortion Incidence and Access to Services in the United States, 2008,” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 43(1) 2011: 41-50.
[11] Garson Romalis, “Why I am an Abortion Doctor,” February 4, 2008, accessed at http://network.nationalpost.com/np/blogs/fullcomment/archive/2008/02/04/garson-romalis-why-i-am-an-abortion-doctor.aspx; Tom Junod, “The Abortionist,” Gentleman Quarterly, February 1994; James Risen and Judy L. Thomas, Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 321-33; Amanda Robb, “The Doctor, the Niece, and the Killer,” New York Magazine, March 17, 2003.
[12] Risen and Thomas, Wrath of Angels, 355-57.
[13] Americans United for Life, Defending Life 2010.
[14] Eric Cohen, “Tragedy of Equality,” The New Atlantis 7 (2005): 101-109; Eric Cohen, “A Jewish-Catholic Bioethics?” First Things 154 (2005): 7-10.
[15] Steve Wagner, Interview by author, telephone, February 7, 2011.


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