Laying the Groundwork for a Discussion of Abortion (Part 2)

Your Thinking Should be Broad and Deep, not Narrow and Shallow

In the first article of this three-part series, I asked whether there were some things, preliminary to a discussion of abortion, that both pro-life and pro-choice people should be able to agree on. I suggested that one such area of agreement could be the need to move beyond ignorance to become educated in what abortion actually involves. In particular, both sides in the abortion debate should know how individual human beings develop in the womb.

I would like to build on that in this article by suggesting another area of potential commonality between pro-life and pro-choice activists. We should all be able to agree on this: our thinking should be broad and deep, not narrow and shallow. Let's unpack this simple principle.

When asked when human life begins, more than one political figure has responded that answering the question was above his or her “pay grade.” This sounds humble, something along the lines of “I don’t know about philosophy; all I know is what I can see.” In fact, it is deceitful. She is saying that the individual human being in the womb can be destroyed because she doesn’t know whether that human being is another one of us. If we don’t know the answer to that question, then the principle “Do no harm” should apply. A hunter cannot fire at anything that moves in the woods. He might hit another person. He has to know that what he shoots is the animal he is hunting. If you don’t know when human life begins, you don’t destroy whatever it is that is in the womb. Let your thinking be deep.

Because abortion is often understood as a simple contest of wills – the woman’s desire or freedom to abort, versus political defenders of the human being in the womb – there is a certain sterility in the debate over abortion. The language of rights encourages an abstract treatment of everything and everyone involved: the human being in the womb is viewed as the holder of a right to life and the woman carrying her offspring is viewed as a having a right to “do what she wants with her body.” (See Judith Jarvis Thomson’s analogy of the woman who is hooked up to a famous violinist for an example of how bizarre the thinking can become.) The assumption that the human being in utero and the mother are in an adversarial relationship is unnatural, of course: for millennia, mothers have nurtured their children before birth and after; both have a natural interest in the other’s well-being.

In an abstract, impersonal, legal framework, no questions are asked about the reasons why women have abortions, about the other persons in their lives, especially the partners, about the social dynamics with parents and partners that often lead to abortion, or about the consequences of abortion for health (physical, psychological, and spiritual), and so forth.

If you want to argue for the “freedom to choose,” realize the irony here: many, many women, who go to pregnancy medical centers for pregnancy testing and ultrasounds, say that they “have no choice” but to get an abortion. Surveys find the same thing. Finances and relationships with partners are the key problems that drive them to the abortionist. As they see it, abortion does not “liberate” them. They are numb; they see abortion, at best, as a necessary evil. Partner coercion is common. Violence and threats are sometimes used. While relief is commonly expressed after abortion, so is regret. Relief will evaporate. Regret may fade with time, but it can return with anniversary grief reactions and with major milestones, like menopause. Arguments both ways are made about how pervasive, serious, and long-lasting the consequences are, but you should know about the claims and the studies, and reflect on their significance.

Experience with abortion tends to convert people one way: from “pro-choice” to “pro-life.” This applies to former abortionists, many women who have had abortions, and those who have looked deeply into the issue. Women will speak of “repenting” of their abortion. The only people who have gone from a public “pro-life” stance to a “pro-choice” one are a few politicians. This one-way “conversion” in itself does not to pre-judge the issue: but it is something in the background that at least should arouse your curiosity, if you are pro-choice.

Both sides of the debate have their slogans, which can be a short-form for thought. Slogans can also be simply thoughtless. It can be argued that the pro-choice side depends to a much greater degree on slogans, and on avoiding in-depth argument. In any public demonstration, the side that shouts the loudest can seem to “win.” Explore the slogans and claims on the pro-choice side. See if they hold up. See what is said in opposition to them, and if these slogans still make sense, or are credible. Be sure to find the best arguments on both sides. It’s cheap and easy to defeat the other side’s claims when they are put badly.

It is time that both sides in the debate move beyond narrow and shallow polemics to embrace thoughtful approaches that are both broad and deep.

is the Co-Founder of Vision for Life, a non-profit that advertises pregnancy medical centers in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Their work has stabilized birth numbers in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) from 2010 to 2019, while elsewhere in PA birth numbers declined by over 6 percent.

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