In a recent response to my essay, “Lady Edith and Abortion Rights,” my friend and colleague Marguerite Spencer has challenged both my literary character analysis of Lady Edith—from the television show Downton Abbey—and my staunchly pro-life stance against abortions committed for purely social reasons. I leave to fans of Downton the question of whether the Lady Edith character is a self-focused privileged brat or a compassionate tragic heroine (or perhaps some of both). Reasonable people certainly can differ on such matters! I also leave to readers’ judgment whether Spencer has fairly characterized my position.
In this essay, I would like to advance the discussion, first, by pointing out one area of enthusiastic agreement with Spencer, and then by highlighting one point of subtle but important disagreement. I wholeheartedly agree that men are responsible for abortion, every bit as much as—and sometimes more than—the women who abort. Indeed, in this salient observation lies an added critique of our constitutionalized abortion-rights regime. Roe v. Wade encourages male abdication, irresponsibility, and even sexual predation.
But I disagree with a paradigm that focuses chiefly on considerations of blame, guilt, responsibility, or sin with respect to abortion—that looks to the reasons, justifications, and rationalizations for having an abortion that kills an unborn child. Of course, circumstances do matter: some abortions are tragically justified by life-saving necessity, and people of good faith disagree as to how far such necessity reaches. Still, I believe that this should not be the starting point or emphasis of the inquiry.
Rather, I submit that the focus of the pro-life position should always be, insistently, on the life of the unborn living human being killed by abortion. Abortion is not primarily about the morality of men and women’s conduct, with the human fetus the almost incidental object of adults’ moral dilemmas. Quite the reverse: abortion is about the life of the unborn human child being killed. The child is the subject of the story, not the object. That central fact should frame all discussion of abortion.
Men and Abortion
First, the point of common ground: Men are deeply responsible for the tragedy of abortion. I had hoped that this point would come through in my original piece. I remarked that men, symbolized by the nowhere-to-be-found Michael, are often absent in crisis pregnancy situations, leaving women abandoned and alone. But perhaps I made the point too subtly or obliquely.
Let me make it directly and unequivocally. Men, the fathers of unborn children, are, every bit as much as pregnant mothers and often much more so, the responsible—and sometimes quite irresponsible—moral actors in abortion. The accounts are legion of men pressuring, threatening, intimidating, and abusing wives and girlfriends into killing their unborn children. Even more frequently, men are absent, indifferent, or cavalier. Pregnancy is, in the man’s judgment, the woman’s problem, not his.
This stinks. But it may be constructive to think about the reasons for this phenomenon and search for a corrective. In part, male moral detachment is a function of biology. Men do not get pregnant. They are, literally, not attached to the unborn child. Men can physically walk away from the pregnancy. Because they can, they do.
In part, however, male detachment is a function of sociology and moral conditioning, or lack of it. Men—some of them at least—feel as if biological reality frees them of social responsibility. That instinct can be either reinforced or refuted by social conditioning. How society structures men’s social (and legal) responsibilities affects men’s expectations and behavior. If part of being a man, within a society, is the expectation of being a responsible father, that will affect how men act. And the reverse is true: no expectations, no responsibility.
Male detachment from childbearing – attributable in part to biology and in part to sociology – is today reinforced by technology. Contraception and abortion further separate men from pregnancy because they now make it possible to separate women from pregnancy in the first place. Men are less accountable to be fathers because medicine and abortion have made it easier for women not to be mothers.
And finally, men’s detachment from responsibility is now a function of legality. The Supreme Court’s decisions in Roe v. Wade and subsequent cases, by vesting the right to abortion exclusively in the pregnant woman, in the name of furthering “women’s reproductive autonomy,” have accomplished exactly that: they have furthered women’s reproductive autonomy. The right to abort the life of the unborn child is, according to the Court, entirely the pregnant woman’s right. Fathers of unborn children have no right to prevent or interfere with the woman’s decision to have an abortion. Roe has, legally, taken men out of the pregnancy loop almost entirely. The Court’s abortion jurisprudence (if one can use such a lofty term for a series of anti-textual judicial edicts) literally makes men legally irresponsible for the abortion decision.
Roe’s regime buttresses—encourages, even—the inclination of some males to abandonment and indifference. Women are alone in the decision, and so they are alone in the responsibility. A situation permitted by biology, conditioned by sociology, and furthered by technology is thus ratified and endorsed by a regime of legality.
It’s not hard to grasp the Court’s intuition: If abortion is the “privacy” right of the woman— a function of her autonomy, her body, and her life, needed to further her social and economic equality—it makes little sense to give fathers a veto, or even a vote, in the abortion choice. But the unintended consequence of vesting the abortion right entirely in the woman is to absolve the man of all responsibility. If it is exclusively her right, it is exclusively her responsibility. He is free! It’s not his choice at all! He can go on his merry way, leaving the pregnant woman the choice to abort her child.
Men get it. And they like it. As the distinguished legal philosopher Richard Stith put it a few years ago, pregnancy and abortion are “Her Choice, Her Problem.” As Stith points out, this gives predatory males enormous sexual leverage and, perversely, enormous bargaining leverage to press for abortion if pregnancy results. The man can have a relationship with the woman, or not, on such terms as he dictates. He may be on the hook for child support obligations if the woman decides not to kill the child, but that’s it. Men, out of selfishness, indifference, cowardice, and irresponsibility, are the great champions of women’s abortion rights.
Our society—abetted by our legal regime—has constructed the reality that men are, largely, not responsible for the decision to abort the child. This is, absolutely, not as it should be. In part, this is how it has long been. But it is a phenomenon made decidedly worse by the Supreme Court’s decision to create a plenary constitutional abortion right and to vest that right exclusively in the autonomous decision of the woman. It need not, and should not, be that way. I expect that Spencer and I are pretty much on the same page in this respect.
Sin and Salvation
But, in some sense, male irresponsibility is a mere sidelight, just another part of Roe’s collateral damage. The real problem is not that men get a free pass—it is the fact that a baby is killed.
Which brings me to my point of mild disagreement with Marguerite Spencer’s essay. Spencer embraces what she thinks is a better paradigm for thinking about abortion: a paradigm of “sin and redemption” under which the moral culpability of the pregnant woman (and the man) is the chief focus. In this view, the moral propriety of any given abortion varies broadly with the circumstances; women are in the best position to judge their own morality; and society and law, therefore, should leave abortion to the woman’s conscience.
To a very limited extent, I agree. Nearly all pro-life persons accept, as a tragic necessity, abortion in cases of genuine threat to the life of the mother. Some recognize other exceptions that (with varying degrees of cogency) might be analogized to such situations of true self-defense. And nearly everyone, including most reasonable abortion-choice advocates, recognizes that there are some situations of abortion that seem especially morally indefensible: abortion for sex-selection; abortion to spite a boyfriend; abortion for the third, fourth, or fifth time; abortion for pure social convenience. (Lady Edith’s near-abortion struck me, and I suspect many others, as falling into this last category of completely indefensible killings.)
But at another level, I think that this is entirely the wrong focus. The pro-life movement should focus not on the situational morality of the mother’s and the father’s conduct, but on the life of the unborn child. Abortion is not, in the end, about “sin” or “redemption.” It is about human life and its extermination. Abortion is not a theological question but a biological one: abortion, as a matter of undeniable fact, kills a distinct living human being. Obviously, that has moral implications. But we should care far less about the “sinfulness” (or not) of the act of abortion and of those committing it than we do about the life of the victim.
That focus, I submit, changes everything. Especially if the objective is to save lives, the attention should not be on how “moral” or “immoral” the woman’s abortion choice might be in the case at hand—an inquiry in which the life of the human child seems treated as secondary and incidental—but on the life of the baby.
Such a focus necessarily limits the range of circumstances, exceptions, and justifications that can be offered to justify killing by abortion. It also means that abortion cannot be left simply to “conscience” and private moral choice, as if it were a matter solely concerning the personal morality of the aborters, any more than slavery properly could be left to the conscience and private moral choice of the slave-owner.
Furthermore, abortion is emphatically not a matter of sexual ethics, as a focus on situational morality might be taken to imply. To put it bluntly, by the time abortion is contemplated, the sex is ancient history. And it is irrelevant history: the position of the unborn child—his or her right to live—does not depend on any kind of judgment about the parents’ sexual morality. The decision on the table is whether to kill a distinct living human being. Nobody should care about sexual ethics at this point, for purposes of either condemnation or justification of abortion.
Finally, as a practical matter, placing the emphasis on the morality of the parents’ conduct, especially when such morality is cast in terms of “sin” and responsibility, may well undermine the persuasive effort to rescue unborn children from destruction. When a woman is contemplating abortion, the response should neither be “You sinner!” nor “I understand completely; you are totally justified under the circumstances.” It should be, “Let’s see what we can do, together, to save the life of your baby.”
Sin and salvation are important topics of religious faith, and I would never wish to be taken as discounting their importance. But the objective of the pro-life movement should be simply to save lives—neither to condemn nor to excuse, but simply to persuade and rescue. That is, in the here and now, the salvation that matters.
Michael Stokes Paulsen is University Chair and Professor of Law at the University of St. Thomas, in Minneapolis, and co-director of its Pro-Life Advocacy Center (“PLACE”).