People make bad arguments for good things all the time. True conclusions find themselves, through ignorance or inattention, allied with false premises. Reasonable assessments of particulars are generalised into absurdity.
Abortion is, I believe, a good thing. Unfortunately, many popular arguments in its favour are bad. Let’s consider a few.
1. “Abortion is not an expression of sincere concern for the unborn, but a misogynistic attempt to control women”. This argument, regarding the motivation of anti-choicers, is often but not always true. Some anti-choicers genuinely do lament the suffering caused by forced pregnancy; they just lament it less than (what they consider to be) murder. Others may be motivated by concern for the unborn at the same time as misogyny.
2. “Cis men should not make laws about women’s bodies”. (Alternative formulation: “No uterus, no opinion”). This suffers from the same problems as the former argument, as well as an additional one: Politics do not neatly track identity. Consider the many people with uteruses who are nonetheless anti-choice. One sits on the US Supreme Court.
3. “Anti-choicers are characteristically conservative, and conservative policy neglects many people’s lives and welfare once they’re born”. Even where this generalisation holds (it doesn’t always: See otherwise leftist opponents of abortion), it is, at best, an accusation of hypocrisy. People can hold good and bad views at the same time.
These attacks are all vulnerable to the uterus-possessing, economically progressive, adoption-and-parental-leave-obsessed, anti-choice interlocutor. This is because the correlations which these arguments identify – the sort of person who tends to be anti-choice; their standard motivations and political beliefs – are just that: correlations. While economic conservatism may strongly track anti-choice ideology, it is not essential to it. Certainly, these correlations reveal important insights about the anti-choice position – for instance, they might explain anti-choicers’ limited interest in preserving access to life-saving abortion – but they fail to discount it wholesale. One can take a circuitous journey to the truth.
The problem which plagues each of these arguments (and even the much stronger claim: “My body my choice” – if invoked without further defence or qualification) is a failure to contend directly with the essential conservative challenge. Namely, that the foetus is a person, and thus should not be killed. If this argument stands, charges of hypocrisy, misogyny, or insincerity – illuminating and significant though they may be – cannot surmount it.
Fortunately, it doesn’t stand. There are many good arguments for the permissibility of abortion. These explain, compellingly, that foetuses are not moral persons; thus, killing them is not murder. And that even if they were, we still wouldn’t have an obligation to keep them alive. Abortion is self-defence; no parasite is entitled to make a home of your body, even if removing it would cause it to die.
But anti-choice arguments make another, less obvious and more interesting mistake. They assume that under conditions of factual uncertainty we ought to always defer to the protection of the unborn. Journalist and self-described “pro-life liberal” Elizabeth Bruenig writes:
“The significant possibility that the fetus is alive is enough under most Christian ethical formulations to favor avoiding any action that might end such a life, much in the way that a Christian would be warned against firing a gun into a box if it was possible that someone might be inside it. Human life is significant enough, in other words, to allow wide latitude for.”
In short, any existent possibility of foetal personhood demands our submission, because murder is so gravely wrong. Certainly, a low but real probability of something very morally bad is worthy of our attention. Counterevidence of foetal non-personhood is indispensable for exactly this reason. But the argument that we must avoid any risk of murder at all costs, deployed against abortion, fails to fairly consider how steep those costs might be, and what, exactly, they might look like. In other words, such arguments do not engage with a sufficiently detailed and precise account of the harm of forced pregnancy.
The Turnaway Study is the largest ever long-term study of people denied and granted abortions in the United States. It found, controlling for pre-existing circumstances, that people denied abortions were at significantly greater risk of poverty, domestic violence, and serious ill health. To a liberal this may be unsurprising. But studies like these counter common and false views about abortion’s negative impacts.
Writer Sophie Lewis contends that it is unwise to deny that abortion results in the loss of life. “When “pro-life” forces agitate against feticide on the basis that it is killing” Lewis argues, “pro-abortion feminists should be able to acknowledge, without shame, that yes, of course it is… And it’s a good thing… for otherwise the world would sag under the weight of forced life”. The central, imaginative oversight of abortion’s opponents is their failure to take the weight of forced life seriously.
When we were both eighteen, my friend had an abortion; hers was the first unwanted pregnancy I had ever witnessed. Though she booked her abortion immediately, it was delayed by eight weeks. During this time, I watched my friend deform. Her body wasn’t visibly different, but she was. She cried and threw up. She was so tired that she could barely work or study. She appeared extinguished. I had never seen the spectre of motherhood look so deathly; I had never really seen it at all.
I soon started believing that abortion was not merely morally permissible but, in fact, morally good. No formal argument had convinced me.
Anti-choicers might add another argument to my list:
4. “Forced pregnancy harms the pregnant person”. This is almost always true in one way or another. But, to anti-choicers, this assessment neglects an essential comparison: abortion harms the foetus, whose suffering we, the self-appointed suffering assessors, cannot see or hear. I witnessed what a taste of unwanted pregnancy did to my friend; her foetus had no right of reply.
Anti-choicers opine at length about these unequally distributed powers of advocacy. But their worry gets things the wrong way around. Our cultural account of forced pregnancy is hazy, sanitised, and incomplete. It ignores a set of important facts. First, that a person whose body is conscripted in service of another relinquishes more than just their physical freedom. And second, that physical freedom is freedom-generative like very little else.
Anti-choice arguments make more than one mistake. They misunderstand the moral status of the foetus. But they also misunderstand the harm of denied abortion, which – given the necessity of moral triage in a context of competing interests and factual uncertainty – is the foetus’s rival. The reasonable anti-choicer might concede that Yes, the pregnant person suffers; but her suffering is a necessary sacrifice. He doesn’t dare wonder: How much does she suffer, and in what way?
Against this certain human pain, opponents of abortion weigh a speculative risk to life. But here is another bad argument. For there is very little value in life as anti-choicers construe it – austere, formless, and unchosen – and a great deal in life as we know and live it now.
This piece was an entry in the 2022 Honi Soit Writing Competition.