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Top 10 Things Not to Say about Abortion (US edition)

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

“There are only two kinds of people in the world: those who insist on dividing the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.” That old joke rings with fresh relevance now that our American cousins have put abortion back into public consciousness.

Is “prolife versus prochoice” so very simple? Here’s a checklist of common fatuities to be avoided in the months of controversy ahead. (This column is a little longer than usual, but the underlying point is that the issues involved here are not resolvable at bumper-sticker length.)

#1: “The issue is already decided.” Canadian federal cabinet minister Maryam Monsef said so in 2019 in a public letter to then-Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer. But this is a very odd thing to say, especially by a politician, and even more especially by a female politician whose portfolio is, indeed, “Women and Gender Equality.”

Not long ago, women were not persons in the eyes of Canadian law. (Canadians should remember the campaign of the Famous Five a century ago.) The status of women was once decided. But then it was decided again. And then it was decided once more. One would like to think that Minister Monsef would be glad that her political predecessors did not think that once something is decided in a democracy, no one can evermore revisit the issue.

The issue of abortion is not, furthermore, decided. It certainly isn’t up here in Canada, where we in fact have no abortion law, not since Henry Morgentaler pressed the Supreme Court into invalidating what law there was in 1988, and Kim Campbell’s government failed to pass a new law in 1991.

But it obviously isn’t “decided” in the USA, either, as furore over “undoing” Roe v. Wade indicates.

So when someone says “it’s decided,” all she means is what so many people seem to mean by such phrases—namely, “We, and everyone like us and who likes us, have agreed.” But that’s not the same as actual law.

#2. “A woman has sole rights over her own body.” This feminist slogan seems to have come down from Sinai. But as a feminist myself, I confess to being ashamed of it because no one really thinks that. No one really thinks a woman can do whatever she likes with her body when another body is involved.

You know the old adage: Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. (We may need such adages in the arguments to come.) So, yes, a woman can act as she pleases so long as she doesn’t use her body in a way that harms others. And when it comes to terminating a pregnancy, there are harms-to-others involved.

Here’s where the dark logic of bioethicists such as Michael Tooley and Peter Singer cuts both ways. If a woman is entitled to terminate her offspring when within her body, why not later once emerged?

Her body is implicated in both circumstances. In fact, any mother who enjoyed a healthy pregnancy and who is now chasing a young one all day and facing ever-mounting expenses will say how much easier it was on her body to be pregnant. If one is not, however, prepared to countenance infanticide, then why tolerate abortion? As Tooley and Singer argue, the rationale for both actions is the same.

There is also a point to be made here about men. How nice for (certain kinds of) men if women insist that the outcomes of sex are entirely the woman’s responsibility—or how terrible, if men instead want to share responsibility and indeed share in the new life resulting from their union. It takes two to tango, and while the ability to get pregnant falls on the woman, why should she be (alone) responsible for that new life ever after?

#3. “It’s just a clump of cells.” Well, so are you.

#4. “What I mean is, it’s not a person.” Ah, but as we have noted, the term person has a chequered history: slaves, women, children, and foreigners—who are undoubtedly human beings—have often been treated both officially and unofficially as something other than persons. So one needs to be on guard when “persons” shows up in political discussion. It has often been a tool in campaigns to render certain human beings unworthy of proper treatment.

Why, one might then ask, is the relevant subject here not human being? Perhaps because it has proved difficult in bioethical debates to draw a bright line between the fetus and an unconscious or brain-damaged adult such that aborting the one is manifestly different from killing the other.

Moreover, there is no bright line separating one kind of fetus from another in the gestational period. “Viability outside the womb” has been pushed back steadily until now it’s at 23 weeks or so—but who knows what technological advances lie in the future? How about the threshold of feeling pain? Having a beating heart?

From the moment of conception, the zygote is a human being—if not, what is it? And if it is, how can we have the moral assurance that it’s okay to abort it at any particular stage—which moral assurance we had better have if we’re terminating a life?

#5. “Abortions happen naturally all the time.” Yes, they do. That’s not our doing. We are responsible for what we do. So we had better be sure we are doing the right thing. Are we?

#6. “People didn’t used to have such extreme views about abortions—even Christians didn’t.” This one is at least partly true as a matter of record. I myself recall my late father, a physician, being called upon to speak about abortion in the early 1970s to a conservative Canadian church that was openly wrestling with the issue.

But people, including Christians, didn’t used to be so intolerant of slavery, either. Or of workplace harassment of women. Or of schoolyard bullying of homosexuals. Or of indifference to handicapped access. So this isn’t a telling point to make.

#7. “Women will get back-alley abortions and put themselves at risk.” That’s likely true, and that’s very sad. But folks on the left need to be careful of using arguments on this issue that sound like ones they despise offered by the right on other issues, such as “Criminals will always get guns.” Just because some people will likely find ways of doing something, no matter what the law and society say about it, doesn’t mean we throw the doors open to it, much less valorize and subsidize it.

And it’s not as if pregnancy is just magically visited upon unsuspecting women here, like a disease or an injury for which they deserve public sympathy and assistance. Let’s be honest: putting oneself at risk occurred at the moment one consented to sexual relations.

#8. “No one should be compelled to care for another person.” The ethicist Judith Jarvis Thompson devised the oft-cited scenario of a person waking up to find that she is medically bound to a famous violinist who will die if the life-saving tubes connecting their kidneys are disconnected. Organ donation is another instance in which we do not compel people, even relatives, to be charitable.

The analogy, however, doesn’t work. First, no one wakes up pregnant from consensual sex with no clue as to how she got that way. It’s simply basic to our entire moral and legal system that if one engages in risky behaviour, one is responsible to deal with the outcomes.

Even if one had no intention of producing a particular result by a particular action, if one could reasonably foresee such a possible result, one is responsible for it. People know that sex can result in babies. So to engage in sex is to deliberately risk pregnancy. To then play the “innocent victim” card seems absurd.

#9. “Rape and incest make the whole issue different.” No, they don’t. We must avoid a literal version of the genetic fallacy here. In logic, the genetic fallacy is the dismissal of a proposition because of its dubious origin. “Well, if Bob says so, and we know Bob is a twit, then it’s wrong.” No, it’s only probably wrong, and one has to evaluate each idea on its own merits, even Bob’s ideas.

In this case, the horrific circumstance of forced or familial sex has nothing to do with the value of the human being who is thus produced—or, at least, it certainly shouldn’t. Yes, it’s doubly wrong, and awful, that a woman was raped and then has to go through a pregnancy. But either terminating a pregnancy is okay or it isn’t. How the woman got pregnant shouldn’t matter.

(The mention of incest is a red herring. If the sex was consensual, the act may be wrong in terms of genetics or morality, but it’s still consensual sex like all the rest. If it wasn’t consensual, it’s rape. The familial dimension makes whatever happened uglier, but it doesn’t make it something else.)

#10. “Prolifers care about the baby only while it’s in the mother’s womb. And they clearly don’t care about the mother at all.” Both sides need to own failure here.

Many people on the political right say they oppose abortion, but they also resist policies that will make it much easier for desperate women either to keep their babies (adequate welfare, affordable daycare, good jobs, decent housing, and the like) or to give those babies to others (and who thinks we have an adequate system of foster and adoptive care?). So, prolifers have to ask themselves, do you really care? Really? Enough to actually make keeping the baby a better option for mom than abortion?

Many people on the political left, for their part, congratulate themselves for their stout defense of the vulnerable in society—only to abandon the most vulnerable members of society: those literally incapable of life on their own. In fact, the spooky thing about typical liberal rhetoric here is the disappearance of the child from moral consideration. It’s all about the woman and her body, as if there is no one and nothing else to consider. You can’t get more marginalized and oppressed than that: You won’t be mentioned and you might be killed on the say-so of another.

Yes, there are pathological moral and cultural issues involved at the extremes. My wife and I knew a medical colleague of hers who said she terminated her pregnancy merely because she and her husband were anticipating a lovely cruise and she didn’t want to lose her “bikini body.” This culture of indifference has its mirror opposite in the young woman who proudly gets pregnant to demonstrate that someone valued her enough to sleep with her—but doesn’t want another child or two once that point has been made.

But most abortions aren’t sought by people like that. Most are sought by women in clear distress facing years of difficulty. The basic ethical challenge remains: to make abortion no longer the least bad of the available tough choices (for anyone but the most self-centred). Can we pull together as a society to make that happen?

Or will each side take its preferred cheap and easy route: to allow the abortion of any unwanted offspring or to just make abortion illegal?

There remain, therefore, only two kinds of people: those who will consider a complex and costly matter such as abortion with the careful consideration it deserves, and those who will trade instead in simplistic and self-serving slogans. Here’s hoping for a better conversation about abortion this time around.

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