Now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned, and authority to determine abortion policy has finally been returned to the people through their elected representatives, persuading our fellow citizens that the lives of the unborn deserve legal protection is more important than ever. Unfortunately, however, public debates about abortion are distorted by numerous misconceptions and misleading slogans. Identifying and correcting these misconceptions is crucial if we are to have a reasonable public dialogue about this important and sensitive issue. That is precisely what I aim to do in this essay. Because my goal is to provide an overview of common misconceptions and how to respond to them, my arguments will be brief, but links to longer arguments will be provided for those who want to explore a particular point in greater depth.
Misconception #1: We don’t know when life begins.
Despite the clear scientific consensus that life begins at conception, this misconception is surprisingly widespread. Roe referred to the unborn as “potential life,” and declined to “resolve the difficult question of when life begins,” ignoring the already-existing medical consensus (going all the way back to the mid-nineteenth century) that human life begins at conception. It is common to hear people say that in the early stages of pregnancy the embryo or fetus is just a “clump of cells,” or to speak of abortion as the removal of “pregnancy tissue.” Yet such rhetoric is ideological, not scientific, aimed at obscuring the undeniable reality that abortion kills a human being. Standard biology texts affirm that human life begins at fertilization (when sperm and egg fuse), and the underlying science makes it clear that the fusion of sperm and egg results in a new human being that is genetically and functionally distinct from the mother, with all of the internal resources necessary to direct himself or herself to maturity. Embryos and fetuses are not “potential life,” but nascent human beings with the potential to mature into adults.
Misconception #2: Abortion is about a woman’s right to do what she wants with her own body.
“My body, my choice,” is perhaps the most rhetorically powerful slogan employed by the pro-choice movement. Even many who admit that a new human life begins at conception nonetheless argue that abortion should be legal because a woman shouldn’t be forced to carry a child. The dissenting opinion in Dobbs is full of such rhetoric about granting states the power to “force a woman to give birth,” and reactions to the decision portray it as creating the dystopian world of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Yet the unborn child is a distinct human being, not part of the woman’s body. Otherwise we would have to say that a pregnant woman has four legs, four arms, and two hearts beating at different speeds. The unborn child has a unique genetic code, different from the mother’s or father’s, and the unborn child directs his or her own development. The mother’s body only provides nutrition, protection, and a suitable environment—things that we all need to survive at any stage of life.
Everyone recognizes that there are moral and legal limits to our bodily autonomy. My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins. My right to smoke is limited by other people’s right not to be harmed by secondhand smoke. My right to refuse a vaccine, leave my house, or bare my face in public may in some cases be limited by serious public health demands.
Abortion’s primary effects are not on the woman’s body, but on the body of the unborn child within her womb. And if the unborn child really is a person with basic rights like you and me, then it’s hard to see how killing that child to avoid the burdens of pregnancy and parenthood can be justified, any more than killing an infant (who is much harder to take care of than a child in the womb) would be.
Further, as Erika Bachiochi points out in her excellent book The Rights of Women, the early feminists (who were pro-life) understood “voluntary motherhood” not as a right to abortion, but as the right of a woman, even within marriage, to refuse to have sex. Except in cases of rape (which account for only 1 percent of all abortions), women have an unlimited right to exercise “reproductive choice” prior to the creation of a child. Once a child exists, reproduction has already occurred, and the reproductive choice has already been made; abortion is not a “reproductive choice” any more than infanticide is.
Misconception #3: The unborn child is not a person.
The more nuanced arguments in defense of abortion do not attempt to deny that human life begins at fertilization, that this new life is distinct from the mother, or even that abortion is the intentional killing of this distinct human life. Instead, philosophers like Peter Singer, Mary Anne Warren, and Michael Tooley argue that the unborn, while human, are not persons with full moral status and moral rights, because the unborn lack qualities like self-awareness and rationality that they believe to be the basis of our special moral status and accompanying rights.
There are many problems with this view, but one of the most obvious ones is that if it’s true, then infants, toddlers, the severely cognitively disabled, and many other human beings after birth would also not count as persons with moral status and rights. In other words, as many of the advocates of this view forthrightly argue, it justifies not only abortion, but also infanticide and nonvoluntary euthanasia for those with severe mental disabilities. As Warren notes in her famous article in defense of abortion, “defective human beings, with no appreciable mental capacity, are not and presumably never will be people.” Likewise Peter Singer, in Practical Ethics, argues that since babies are not self-aware, they “are not persons” and their lives are of “less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.” Further, the claim that some human beings are not “persons” and therefore lack basic rights has been used throughout history by defenders of slavery and genocide to justify gross injustices.
A more defensible view is to recognize that all human beings are persons because all human beings (regardless of their stage of development or state of health) possess a rational nature, even if they cannot (yet) manifest their rationality due to immaturity or illness. We know that this is the case because all human beings, if not prevented from doing so by some external cause such as illness or injury, do begin to manifest rational capacities once they have reached a certain level of maturity. This means that the root capacity for rationality must have been present all along. Otherwise the regular and predictable manifestation of rational capacities in humans at a certain stage of development—but not in cats, dogs, dolphins, or any other animals—would be quite mysterious and inexplicable.
From the very beginning of their lives, all humans possess the genetic and epigenetic primordia of a brain and other biological support structures necessary for the exercise of rational capacities. Even before those capacities can manifest themselves they are already present in root form, just as these capacities remain present when a person is asleep or comatose. Every human, regardless of age, illness, or disability, possesses a rational nature and is therefore a person with innate dignity whose basic rights deserve protection.
Misconception #4: Abortion is healthcare.
Many argue that abortion is a private healthcare decision that a woman should make in consultation with her doctor, free from legal constraints. Yet apart from the fact that there are numerous legal limitations on the interventions that doctors can offer their patients, abortion (except when the woman’s life is seriously threatened by the pregnancy) is not aimed at healing or health. Pregnancy is not a disease. Women’s bodies are designed to be able to reproduce and gestate their offspring. Pregnancy is actually a sign of health, not an illness that needs to be “cured” through abortion. Treating women’s capacity for pregnancy as if it were a disease rather than a sign of health has arguably distorted the practice of medicine to the detriment of women, ignoring the importance of the menstrual cycle as a “fifth vital sign,” and relying instead on the birth control pill (with its many side effects) to mask women’s health problems rather than identifying and addressing their causes.
The vast majority of abortions—over 95 percent according to recent data from Florida—involve a healthy mother and healthy child. In cases involving a threat to the mother’s life, procedures necessary to save the mother can be justified under the principle of double effect, even if the unborn child will die as an unintended side effect (and all laws restricting abortion should have exceptions for such cases).
Further, studies make it clear that legalizing abortion does not lower overall maternal mortality. One study compares the maternal mortality ratio in Chile during the period when abortion was legal (1959–1989) to the maternal mortality ratio during the period when abortion was illegal (1989–2007). The study showed that maternal mortality was actually more than three times lower during the period when abortion was illegal (12.7 deaths per 100,000, versus 41.3 deaths per 100,000 when abortion was legal), continuing the downward trend that began with the discovery of penicillin and other medical advances. Other studies confirm that the availability of abortion does not reduce maternal mortality rates, and highlight the significant physical and psychological health risks of abortion, which are often underreported. It is also important to note that claims about thousands of deaths due to “back-alley” abortions prior to Roe were false, as even The Washington Post’s fact-checkers have pointed out.
Misconception #5: Abortion is necessary for women’s equality.
The frequent references to The Handmaid’s Tale in reactions the Dobbs decision advance the misconception that restrictions on abortion will somehow undo all of the political, social, and economic gains that women have made over the past century. These reactions presume, contrary to the evidence, that these gains (which began long before Roe legalized abortion throughout the country) were dependent on the availability of abortion. Yet the early feminists who fought for women’s political and social equality did not believe that abortion was necessary or even helpful for this cause. Alice Paul, author of the original Equal Rights Amendment, said that “abortion is the ultimate exploitation of women.” Indeed, as Bachiochi and other pro-life feminists have argued, abortion actually undermines women’s equality by fostering a culture that views “the wombless male body as normative,” devalues the important work of caring for children, and tells women that in order to succeed professionally, socially and educationally, they have to make their bodies like those of men through artificial birth control and abortion. True equality would value and support women’s unique capacity to bear children—with reasonable maternity leave policies and flexible work options—rather than requiring women to become like men in order to compete.
Misconception #6: Abortion can “fix” an unwanted pregnancy.
This misconception is not often stated explicitly, but is implicit in the common presumption that having an abortion can “take care of” an unwanted pregnancy, enabling one to go on with life as if the whole thing had never happened. But an abortion is not an easy or simple solution, and pregnancy is not something that can be “undone,” because nothing can “undo” the existence of a new human life. Reflecting on her own experience of an unwanted pregnancy and her struggle to decide whether or not to abort, Mariel Lindsay writes: “I once thought an unwanted pregnancy could easily be fixed. But it wasn’t until I carried the weight of the decision (quite literally in my body) that I realized this was far from easy or fixable.” She goes on to explain: “Choosing to have a baby as an unmarried young woman is often viewed as a huge, life-altering decision that will change her prospects forever. But rarely had I heard anything remotely close to what I actually experienced—a distinct sense that the alternative is no less life-altering or regrettable.” Lindsay recognized, in other words, that her life had been permanently altered by the conception of a child, and that nothing she did could change or undo that. Abortion might seem like the “easy way out,” but as experts who have offered post-abortion counseling to thousands of women attest, and as studies show, post-abortion trauma is real and has lasting effects, though many resources for support and healing are available.
Misconception #7: Abortion is a religious issue.
“Keep your rosaries off my ovaries” has long been a favorite slogan of the pro-choice movement, implying that pro-lifers are attempting to impose their religious values on others. Many pro-choice politicians, including President Biden, have likewise portrayed views about abortion as matters of private religious faith, like the Catholic requirement to attend Mass on Sundays, which it would be improper for the government to impose on all citizens. But abortion is ultimately a human rights issue, not a matter of religious faith. And if abortion is a “religious issue,” it is no more or less so than racial justice, immigration reform, environmental protection, or poverty relief. One need not be a religious believer to understand that it is wrong to kill innocent human beings. Indeed, not one of the arguments presented in this article has been based on a religious claim.
And while it is true that many pro-lifers are committed to the protection of the unborn in part because of their faith, that is no reason to discount their voices. The great civil rights advocate Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Christian preacher whose belief in the equal dignity of all human beings and his commitment to the cause of racial justice were grounded in his Christian faith. Yet no one would argue that in lobbying for civil rights legislation, he was illegitimately seeking to impose his faith on others. The Ten Commandments forbid killing and stealing, but that doesn’t make laws against homicide or theft an imposition of religion.
All of the arguments presented above could be expanded at length, and there are undoubtedly other misconceptions about abortion that I have not addressed. Nonetheless, my hope is that articulating and responding to these common misconceptions will help to clarify and advance the debate, moving past misleading slogans to engage in a forthright and respectful public dialogue in the wake of Dobbs, and seeking to build a genuine culture of life that supports the needs of both women and children.