An Honest Conversation About Abortion

Photo by chichacha / CC BY

Below is an imaginary conversation between two people: one who represents my beliefs about abortion in America today, and one who represents beliefs I held fifteen years ago. At that time I was in the middle of a political transition from right to left, but my anti-abortion convictions kept me from voting for Democrats.

We are facing a crucial election this November. I think a lot of folks are considering voting for a Democrat for the first time. Many of them may be experiencing the same hesitation I did. So I am writing to explain how I changed my mind, and how think each side of this debate misunderstands the other.

I know it’s not a good look for an upper-middle class man like me to opine about an issue that primarily impacts low-income women. I regret that some of what appears below may be unsympathetic or ignorant. I hope it will still be helpful to folks who come from a background similar to mine. If you have had an abortion, or if removed conversations on this topic upset you, I recommend skipping this discussion.

J: Thanks for being open to discussing this topic with me. I would like to start with this: I know you believe “life begins at conception.” You feel a fetus is an ‘unborn child,’ with all of the rights that you and I have.

S: Yes.

J: I want to you to know I believe you’re sincere. I don’t think you’re using ‘pro-life’ as cover for puritanism. I’m not suspicious that you’re secretly anti-sex or you want to control women’s bodies. I am not going to accuse you of being a hypocrite because of your positions on other complex issues like capital punishment or gun control.

S: Well that is kind of you to say. Growing up, my best friend’s mom and dad went to jail several times for blocking entrances to abortion clinics. Later they took in a teenager who had been disowned by her family for getting pregnant, and helped raise her child. When I was a kid, my grandmother wore one of those “precious feet” pins that are the size of a baby’s feet at ten weeks. She woke up early every day to pray for a long list of friends and family, each by name. She was the most loving person I knew. When I was in the sixth grade, my private, Christian school gave all the students in my class little, plastic, twelve-week fetus models and told us some people wanted to hurt them. We took middle-school field trips to the Right to Life marches in downtown Atlanta. My beliefs on this issue run deep. They’re personal.¹

J: Of course.

S: It offends me when people on the Left accuse pro-life folks like me of only caring about children before they’re born. My father is a grade school principal, and no one loves kids more than he does. He helped start a school in rural Tanzania and works hard to provide them with resources. And he is staunchly pro-life.²

J: I understand. I think those accusations are a mistake. I do think there are members of the pro-life movement who are anti-sex, and oppose birth control as well as abortion. There’s no question that the pill has been a powerful tool in advancing women’s rights, so I think many efforts to limit access to it have deep, sexist undercurrents. But I know that’s not you.

S: Yeah, I have no issue with birth control. I understand some people oppose the pill because they believe it’s an abortifacient, but my understanding is that’s largely incorrect.

J: So let’s get into the issue itself. I want to start by saying that if I thought we could determine objectively — not religiously — that a fertilized human egg has the same moral value as a person, then I would agree with you about everything else. I would say abortion should be illegal in all cases.

S: Alright.

J: The trouble is, “moral worth” is not a scientific concept. It’s philosophical, and religions have different beliefs about when it begins. You believe fetuses have moral worth because you’re a Christian. So to make a law saying “a zygote has the same rights as a person” is imposing a religious belief on everyone — and the Constitution prevents that.

S: I think that viewpoint ignores how people in liberal democracies actually decide issues. I don’t have a ‘religious’ part of my brain that governs how I live in society, and a ‘pluralist’ part of my brain that governs how I vote. God commands “thou shalt not kill,” so I vote for political candidates who criminalize murder. Everyone does this: we all advocate politically for own moral philosophy. And whoever has the philosophy with the most popular support wins. I believe life begins at conception, so I try to get that written into law. You may believe the death penalty should be abolished, so you try to make that law. And so forth.

J: Sure but you’re not a theocrat. You don’t think there should be laws that people must go to church on Sunday, or laws preventing Jewish or Muslim folks from worshiping.

S: Well yes, I don’t think all principles of my religion have equal importance. I believe in religious freedom. But we are talking about ending a human life. Basic human rights. We can’t be so pluralist that we allow people to murder one another if their religion allows it.

J: Let me go a little deeper. I know the common Christian belief that human life begins at conception is based on verses like “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” and “I knit you together in your mother’s womb.”

S: Yes, among others.

J: But Exodus 21 says that if a someone injures a pregnant woman and she miscarries, they must pay a fine, which is far less than the penalty for murder. A passage in Numbers decrees that if a woman is suspected of becoming pregnant by a man who is not her husband, she must drink a potion that causes guilty women to miscarry. The writers of these passages don’t seem to think abortion is equal to murder.

S: Well, there are different interpretations, and those verses don’t say a fetus has no moral significance at all.

J: That’s sortof my point. The idea that the Bible doesn’t equate abortion with murder was actually a mainstream evangelical view until pretty recently. Christianity Today published an article by Bruce Waltke in 1968 saying that these verses showed “the destruction of a fetus is not a capital offense.” The Southern Baptist convention passed a resolution saying abortion should be legal soon after, and the Christian Medical Society agreed. It wasn’t until Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority decided to use abortion to unite Christians and Catholics on the political Right in the early ‘80s that evangelicals began to believe scripture teaches abortion is murder.

S: Well, look: even if that is true it’s irrelevant. If unborn children are children who cares about Falwell or Waltke or Christianity Today? Human life is sacred and that’s what matters, not how we got here.

J: Maybe so, but the history is important to me. When I found out the folks who began the Christian pro-life movement had ulterior motives, it made me begin to question their ideas. This interpretation of scripture that I thought was an essential part of being a Christian is actually a pretty recent phenomenon.

Let me take a different tack. I know you think that doctors, not mothers, should be punished when abortions take place. That seems inconsistent to me with the idea of abortion as murder. If it is murder, then mothers are at the very least accomplices.

This was one of the argument made against fetal personhood during Roe v. Wade. States that banned abortions didn’t punish women for having them. In Roe, the pro-choice lawyers argued this was evidence the states didn’t really consider a fetus equal to a human life like they claimed. The same goes for exceptions for rape victims: if a fetus is a child, it’s a child, no matter what the circumstances of its conception were. You can’t have it both ways.

S: I guess I’m not completely against holding mothers responsible in some way. Some kind of fine might be appropriate if there were no conditions like poverty or abuse surrounding an abortion.

J: The punishment for being an accomplice to murder is much more than a fine. It sounds to me like you think circumstances can affect a fetus’s moral value. So the issue isn’t black and white. That was key for me. I realized that letting go of the idea that abortion is murder didn’t mean I had to champion it. I could still think it is tragic—or even morally wrong, like about a third of Democrats do. I could vote for a Democrat without feeling like I was supporting infanticide.

S: Look, even if we didn’t know when life, or “moral worth” begins, shouldn’t we err on the side of life? If there’s a chance it begins before birth, let’s draw the line as early as possible.

J: But if we draw the line too far back, we are erasing the other side of the equation: a woman’s right to decide what happens to her own body. Restricting abortion disproportionally affects low-income women. Two thirds of American women who have abortions do so because they can’t afford to have a child. Half are below the federal poverty level. So unnecessary restrictions on abortion take away women’s right to control their own bodies in often desperate situations. However you decide this issue, you must recognize a fetus is fully two things at once: a potential human life, and a part of a woman’s body that she has the right to make her own decisions about.

Speaking of which, if you’re drawing the line at a fertilized egg, that means every time one doesn’t implant in the uterine wall, a human life is destroyed. Human bodies do this naturally all the time. Over half of all zygotes fail to implant and are passed during the menstrual flow. But pro-life groups don’t seem concerned about those ‘lives.’

S: Well for religious people like myself, that’s under God’s control. But I don’t think pro-life folks are the ones showing a lack of concern. There are just over half a million abortions in the U.S. every year. Over 50 million of them since Roe. Nearly one in five pregnancies in the U.S. end in one. This is why comparisons to other issues like capital punishment or gun control are so inapt: abortion is the leading cause of death in America after heart disease. Higher than cancer. It deserves more focus.

Most people don’t know these figures. If they did, more would be pro-life. A professor at UCLA found that students estimated the abortion rate to be about 65 times lower than it is. When they were told the real rate, the number of students who thought there should be no restrictions on abortion dropped. The number of students who thought the abortion rate should be decreased rose.

Most abortions take place around thirteen weeks. At that point the baby has toenails, fingernails, eyes, ears, brainwaves, and a heartbeat. At 20 weeks they can feel pain. I’m not going to go into detail about how abortions are performed; you know how brutal it is. Any doctor who provides abortions will tell you those awful photos of aborted fetuses you see at pro-life rallies are not inaccurate. Abortion is inhumane.

Yet people on the Left act like it’s the same as getting your tonsils out. Did you know Icelanders are claiming to have “cured” Down Syndrome? Of course Down Syndrome can’t be cured; it’s a genetic condition. What they mean is nearly 100 percent of Icelandic women who discover their child has DS from a prenatal screen choose to terminate the pregnancy. That’s ableism! It’s straight out of Brave New World: selecting the most ‘desirable’ humans and terminating the rest. Is that the dystopic future we want to live in? I sure don’t.

J: Look, I agree that’s concerning.

S: “Concerning?” It’s terrible!

J: Yes, terrible. But banning abortion won’t stop ableism. We need to change how our society values people with intellectual disabilities. Better medical counseling would be good place to start.

S: A society’s laws reflects its morals. Banning abortion is the moral thing to do. Unfortunately a few justices on the Supreme Court legislated from the bench that our Constitution guarantees a ‘right to privacy’ that includes abortion, even though those words don’t even appear in the text.

J: Those words don’t appear verbatim, but the Bill of Rights and fourteenth amendment prevent the state from interfering in a person’s private matters — whether it be their religion, their speech, their gatherings, their home, their effects, or their personal information. There’s a pretty strong implication that the government shouldn’t mess with our personal medical decisions. One of the most famous privacy cases was Griswold v. Connecticut, where the Supreme Court said the right to privacy implied in the Constitution prevented the government from banning the sale of contraception. I think when you remove the abortion question, almost everyone agrees the Constitution does protect people’s privacy.

S: We’re circling back to the primary issue. I suppose I agree the Constitution prevents the government from meddling in medical procedures concerning one’s own body — but not if it ends someone else’s life. That’s where Roe v. Wade breaks down.

The mantra of the Democratic party used to be “safe, legal, and rare.” Now they want unlimited access, up to the moment of birth. I could never vote for that.

J: I do think the Party leadership is a little further left on this issue than the average Democrat, just like congressional Republicans are further right than their members on gun control. But I don’t believe late-term abortions exist without medical complications. What woman would spend almost nine months pregnant and then suddenly decide to terminate? Only about one percent of abortions take place after 20 weeks. Abortions that take place in the delivery room are a myth. Late-term abortions happen when a medical complication arises that threatens the mother or the child or both, and parents have to make awful decisions about what to do. I don’t think the state should get involved with that.

S: Again, there are hundreds of thousands of abortions every year. A small percentage of them is still too many, especially if the fetus is viable outside the womb. I am not going to vote for politicians who will allow there to be more of them.

J: Medical complications do happen. And abortion rates have dropped every year since the ’80s, no matter what party controlled Congress, the presidency, or the Supreme Court. The national rate is half what it was in the Reagan years, lower than it was before Roe. So voting for Democrats doesn’t increase abortion rates.

This gets to a point I’ve been wanting to make about pragmatism. Let’s imagine that Roe was overturned tomorrow. What would happen? It would go back to being controlled by the states. A handful of deep red states would ban it, but most would not. Would that significantly curtail abortion? I don’t think so. It would do nothing to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. Any woman who could afford to would drive across state lines. Reproductive rights organizations would buy women bus tickets. Desperate women would get unsafe, back-alley and self-induced abortions.

Now contrast that with another political goal: easy access to contraception. In 2009, Colorado started providing free contraception to low-income women. Over the next four years, the teen abortion rate dropped by nearly HALF. One study found that providing effective, no-cost contraception could cut the U.S. abortion rate by up to 78%. Study, after study, after study confirms that greater access to contraception leads to lower abortion rates. If every state were to provide it for free, we would have a small fraction of the abortions taking place that we do now.

As you know, Obamacare mandated that healthcare plans provide contraception coverage. The Trump administration just won a big Supreme Court case that allows employers to opt out of this requirement. They’re still trying to get the Court to strike down the entire law. To me, there’s no question that this will lead to more abortions taking place. Studies have also shown that countries with less restrictive abortion laws have lower abortion rates. Democrats want more access to contraception and less restrictive abortion laws. So my conclusion is: if you want less abortions to occur, vote for Democrats.

I think I have said about all I can say. I hope you can see where I’m coming from, and why I think a pro-life person can vote for a Democratic ticket. Being pro-choice doesn’t have to mean being pro-abortion.

S: I do understand. And I think I can at least meet you halfway by saying that I don’t think you are voting for Democrats because you don’t care about children’s well-being.

J: Thanks. I know you care about kids too. Let’s chat again soon.

Footnotes

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