I have been teaching the abortion controversy to college students for about fifteen years. Most of my students defend abortion. I disagree with them, but what’s most worrisome is how weak the reasons are that they give for their position and how much of their reasoning, followed consistently, would also justify infanticide.
My students have made up their minds before they have studied the pro-choice side of the debate, let alone the pro-life side. One would have hoped that they would have reflected longer and read more widely before killing anybody.
Below are ten of the worst, yet most popular, “arguments” in defense of abortion that I have encountered. They are not, and are not intended to represent, the best that the scholarly literature has to offer. Rather they reveal the sorry and worrisome state of the layperson’s pro-choice position.
1. The equal right to break the law. My students find it very unprincipled that it is easier for rich women to obtain illegal abortions than poor women. They vehemently denounce any abortion ban that wealthy, educated, and well-connected women will be able to evade while poorer women with less money, schooling, and networking will find harder to circumvent.
I confess that, for my part, I do not recall any defense of an equal right to break the law from my reading of the Magna Carta, the American Bill of Rights, or the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Perhaps no one has recognized the right because there is no such right; an equal right to violate the law would undermine law itself, for what my students cannot do is identify a single law that is not more easily violated by some than others. Surely justice does not demand striking every law from the books. Some inequality in breaking the law is certainly better than the harms of anarchy, whether distributed equally or (more likely) unequally.
2. Pro-lifers only care about the unborn. It is rather common to hear students criticize pro-lifers for not being concerned with the welfare of human beings at other stages of life. Pro-lifers, the slogan goes, are really “pro-birth.”
Again, though, there doesn’t seem to be any plausible general principle that licenses the complaint. American troops on their way to liberate Nazi concentration camps may have passed many kosher soup kitchens and food banks without stopping to volunteer or make a donation. They may not have had time to offer a hand; they may not have had any right to share their army-issued rations. They had more important things to do. That they “only” went so far as breaking up concentration camps doesn’t mean that they weren’t concerned about Jewish life generally.
A more charitable reading of my students is that they believe pro-lifers are hypocrites driven by concerns other than respect for fetal life. Even if this were granted, would it matter? The pro-life position either is, or is not, true—regardless of the supposed hypocrisy of the people making it. By the same token, some of the soldiers liberating the death camps were just following orders or hoped to earn a paycheck. To point this out would not have been any objection to the arguments that the American army ought to try to liberate the death camps.
3. The inability of men to become pregnant. Some students sincerely suggest that since men cannot get pregnant, they shouldn’t enter the abortion debate. Since their bodies won’t be subject to any laws enacted, they have no right to weigh in on the matter.
Of course, as my wife is fond of observing, Roe v. Wade, the decision that made abortion the law of the land, was decided by nine men on the Supreme Court. Will my students, therefore, agree that it was illegitimate?
No, they won’t. What my students generally intend to say is that men can speak out about abortion as long as their doing so serves to allow women to make the choice for themselves. In supposing that this settles the debate, my students tend to forget that there are pro-life women. Their restrictive speech policy will not eliminate their opposition but just create a contest between pro-life women and pro-choice women. Even if they can convince me that they are right, I will neither let them leave class early nor remove the subject from my syllabus; I will just teach about abortion by quoting the many pro-life women I know or have read. (Fortunately, my wife has written a dozen articles on abortion and we have had hundreds of conversations, so I can lecture a long time about the immorality of abortion even if I must preface each remark with “My wife says . . .”)
My students seeking to restrict the abortion debate to those who can bear children seem not to have considered the consequences of the principle here. If debate about a policy can only be pursued by those harmed by the policy, then budding eco-feminists don’t get to speak out about the evils of meat-eating—unless they fear becoming a meal of our factory-farming patriarchy. Further, sterile and postmenopausal women, such as Cecile Richards, Gloria Steinem, and Hillary Clinton, who are, like me, unable to become pregnant, will also have to take their seats on the sidelines. True, earlier in their lives abortion policy might have affected them—but the same is true of every man who is alive today only because his parents did not abort him.
4.The burdens of pregnancy and childrearing are not equally distributed. Men are free from the physical burdens and dangers of pregnancy, not to mention the threats to employment, education, and social standing posed by unwanted pregnancy and childrearing. Since only women can become pregnant, they suffer inequalities on account of biology. If women cannot avoid by choice a pregnancy that men avoid by nature, then they are permanently relegated to second-class citizenship.
Are concerns about equality really decisive in support for abortion, though? I suspect not. I suspect that, if men could also get pregnant and consequently experienced corresponding limitations, egalitarian defenders of abortion would still endorse abortion rights. Similarly, they would not reconsider such rights if our society were one in which motherhood increased a woman’s status or power above that of men, or if men were legally required to take on more child care burdens so women would not lag behind in social and economic opportunities.
The logic behind this inequality argument, if sound, would even justify infanticide. Imagine a woman giving birth in an isolated community where there isn’t any formula, and there are no breast pumps, wet nurses, or other substitutes for her nursing. She must breast-feed around the clock, with attendant social, educational, and professional costs relative to the child’s father. Despite the unequal distribution of burdens, the mother surely can’t bring about the death of the nursing child. Similarly, an unequal distribution of burdens doesn’t justify killing the child prior to birth.
5. The Holy Spirit inspires nearly every secular pro-lifer. I nearly always assign my class Don Marquis’s essay “Why Abortion Is Immoral.” Inevitably, students accuse him—and his sympathizers among their classmates—of having religious motivations. But Marquis is an atheist; in the assigned article, he critiques arguments against abortion premised on the sanctity of life.
When pro-choicers accuse pro-life atheists of having religious motivations, I’m at a loss. Perhaps pro-choicers believe that the Holy Spirit’s influence is pervasive.
Setting aside secular pro-lifers, does it matter that many pro-lifers are religiously motivated? A student of mine once claimed that David Oderberg’s lectures (which weren’t on abortion) were motivated by his prior religious belief in God and designed to provide philosophical support for theism. Oderberg memorably quipped that Whitehead and Russell spent the first hundred pages of their book Principia Mathematica proving that one plus one equals two, but they seemed already to have believed that proposition.
6. The Botched Illegal Back-Alley Abortion. With considerable indignation, students frequently protest that if abortion is banned, then women will die in back-alley abortions. These deaths, indeed, are double tragedies, for they take two lives.
How common—and how dangerous—were back-alley abortions before Roe? How common and how dangerous would they be if abortion were made illegal in some states? The cogency of this pro-abortion argument depends on the answers to these empirical questions.
Even before answering them, though, we have to ask whether permitting abortion would be a sensible and ethical response to the occurrence of dangerous back-alley abortions. Fetuses and newborns have comparable metaphysical and moral status, rendering their deaths more or less equally harmful. If parents were accidentally killing themselves in attempts to commit back-alley infanticides, the correct response from society would not be to legalize infanticide and train personnel to kill in a manner that is safer for the parents. If the dangers of self-inflicted wounds would not warrant legalizing infanticide, why would life-endangering back-alley abortions?
7. Killing to avoid burdens. Because children are expensive and time-consuming, abortion is a “social justice” issue; my students frequently defend abortion on the grounds that it spares children from being born into poverty, broken homes, troubled neighborhoods, stigma, handicaps, or some other adversity. Sometimes concerns about adoption, foster care, overpopulation, and exhausting the environment are thrown into the mix.
But if considerations like those are sufficient reasons for some women in some places and times to abort, then they are also sufficient reasons for infanticide in similar situations. Yet I doubt anyone will argue that it would be just if poor or unwed mothers in deprived neighborhoods authorized maternity ward staffers to kill their newborns to save them from hardship, to control the population size, and to ease the strain on the environment.
8. The fetus is literally a part of the pregnant women. Some students (generally graduate students) insist that the fetus is literally a part of the mother and not a distinct substance occupying a cavity within her. If the fetus isn’t a distinct person, they suggest, then it can be killed.
Ironically, the claim that the fetus is literally a part of the mother undermines three well-known abortion defenses. Some say, first, that abortion remedies a fetal violation of the mother’s bodily integrity. But if the fetus is a part of the mother, then it can’t violate her bodily integrity. Only something that isn’t a part of her body can violate her bodily integrity. Second, the fetus is sometimes called a trespasser. But one’s part can’t trespass upon oneself.
The truth is that it doesn’t matter whether the fetus is a part of the mother’s body. Consider conjoined twins who share parts that are essential to the life of each. Neither should be able to control those shared parts and take them with her upon surgical separation. So part-hood as such doesn’t matter morally, since there are limits to what you can do with your own body parts. What matters morally are other factors like the value of the conjoined twins and their capacity to be harmed and benefited.
If killing innocents were permissible only when they are parts, then newborns could be killed prior to the cutting of the umbilical cord, while embryos not yet embedded in the uterine wall could not be terminated. Oddly, abortifacients would be immoral but infanticide would not.
9. Viability. Although few of my students have read Roe v. Wade before taking my class, a good many more are familiar with the viability concept appealed to in that infamous decision. They believe that until a fetus becomes viable and can survive independently from its mother, it is permissible to kill it.
But this consideration, again, would justify infanticide. Above we considered the possibility that breastfeeding is the only available source of nourishment, in which case an infant would depend on its mother’s body for survival. (And there are other dependents whom we don’t think we are at liberty to kill. On the most plausible way of understanding viability, conjoined twins and ICU patients are not viable, depending, as they do, on others’ bodies and on machines for their survival.)
Fortunately for postpartum dependents, most of those who defend abortion by appeal to viability don’t really believe that viability is morally significant. My students can be brought to agree that viability is not what matters, for they do not believe that the permissibility of abortion would change if the facts about the onset of viability were different. They don’t agree that abortion would be permissible up until birth if viability did not occur until late in the ninth month of pregnancy, and they don’t agree that abortion would be impermissible for virtually the entire pregnancy if the embryo were viable from a few days after conception.
10. Awareness of future prospects. All too many of my students point out that the aborted fetus doesn’t know what it is missing out on. The injustice of murder, the thought goes, is that it deprives the victim of his future, but a fetus doesn’t have any idea about its future.
True enough—but this is true of the murdered infant as well. Some reply that the mindless fetus, unlike the infant, doesn’t feel pain. But anesthesia can remove that concern. Some retort that the anxiety of impending death can’t be anesthetized. But in the case of newborns, it doesn’t need to be. (Even college students don’t expect to be painlessly killed while asleep and so wouldn’t experience any waking anxiety about such nocturnal tragedies.)
These are ten of the worst arguments for abortion. The point in identifying them, though, is not to burn a line of straw men; rather, it is to call attention to the prevalence of poor reasoning in holding up the pro-choice side popularly. Most of my students enter my medical ethics class convinced of the justice of abortion without any familiarity with the philosophical literature. Despite having very poor arguments in support of abortion, few pro-choicers leave my class converted. This is particularly worrisome since nearly all abortion defenses, employed consistently, are also defenses of infanticide.
I am reminded of Jonathan Swift’s cynicism that you can’t reason people out of ideas that they weren’t reasoned into. I console myself that my students’ confidence in their position may have been lessened and their respect for the other side may have increased. Perhaps the debate will then become more civil and a real dialogue, a minor reward in itself, but a prerequisite for substantial progress.
David Hershenov is a professor of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.