By El Lento
Presidential hopeful Ron Desantis made headlines recently when he announced that he did not believe that women who had an abortion should be criminally punished, even if it were illegal. This was naturally controversial. It satisfied neither committed pro-lifers, who would see such practice as rendering any abortion restriction de-facto toothless, nor pro-choicers, who would be opposed to any ban regardless. Most importantly, however, this suggestion, echoed by figures such as Nikki Haley, reveals a deep and fundamental problem with the pro-life movement. Sacrificing comprehensive bans for the sake of political expediency is a contradiction between belief and behavior. This stems from two root causes: the first insufficiently developed, illogical, or counterproductive arguments for the pro-life cause; the second is a lack of conviction for said cause.
I have attended the March for Life in Washington D.C.—the largest pro-life rally in the nation—twice in my life. These attendances had the opposite of the intended effect, causing me to become critical of the pro-life movement writ-large, as I would come away with two primary observations.
The first, which I will only touch upon briefly, was that the second march focused on Trump significantly more than the first. As I saw his merchandise being peddled by vendors to the crowd, his virtues being extolled to the high heavens, I recognized that the whole event took on the characteristics of a Trump or Republican rally. For an event which should not be partisan (and arguably cannot be partisan if it seeks to bring about a transformation of American society), this seemed highly counterproductive.
The second, more major thing I observed was that the average pro-lifer does not have any actual legal or political arguments against abortion, but merely religious ones. Throughout both rallies, I witnessed numerous speakers frequently default to religious or spiritual platitudes: from the women who had abortions and then repented after converting to Christianity, to the preachers who would cite some Biblical text to argue against abortion, to the speaker who claimed that they voted against abortion in their state because people there loved Jesus. What should become quickly apparent to anyone reading this is that these arguments apply solely to Christians, effectively excluding a sizable portion of this country from the mainstream pro-life cause. Beyond this, I will argue that even for the purpose of targeting Christians, they are poor arguments.
First, these appeals to religion lend credence to the pro-choice argument that those opposed to abortion are all religious fundamentalists, bent on forcing their religion down the American people’s throats. Pro-choice activists therefore argue that any abortion ban is a violation of the 1st Amendment and its anti-establishment clause. By framing the pro-life movement in entirely religious terms, moderate or passive Christians are therefore likely to oppose abortion bans, considering that the separation of church and state is an integral part of American culture and political thought. In fact, while I am a Christian, if the only arguments against abortion were religious, as the March for Life suggests, I could not support an abortion ban. The liberal political framework on which America rests is based on natural rights, individual liberty, freedom of conscience and a general deference to an individual’s conscience and right to act (insofar as it does not impede the liberties of others). This dovetails with Christianity (excluding those with erroneous beliefs concerning predestination), in that it relies upon one freely and willfully choosing to follow God. Thus, if one ought to be able to choose whether or not to reject God, and thus choose whether he will be damned, it follows, then, that attempting to force other issues of morality on the basis of religion would be not only contradictory but also be pointless. Finally, within our liberal society, many things are legal but undoubtedly sinful: blasphemy, witchcraft, adultery, even gluttony or drunkenness could be considered contrary to God’s will. Yet to suggest that these actions should be legally prohibited is absurd.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to argue in favor of legislative bans on abortion which are rational, constitutional, and consistent with liberalism. Put simply, abortion should be prohibited on the basis that the unborn ought to be considered persons, entitled to the same natural rights and protections as anyone else. Thus, the active act of killing, which abortion constitutes, is inherently a violation of these rights.
The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that the pro-life movement can and ought to be justified by rational—rather than religious—arguments, and that abortion ought to be viewed as akin to, if not itself an act of murder. The more intricate and detailed analysis of and arguments about abortion are beyond the scope of this article. Instead, I will simply refer those looking for said detailed analysis to look up the beliefs of departurism, which is the position on abortion which I consider to be most consistent with individual liberty.
The titular “problem with the pro-life movement” is not just that religious arguments are employed, but that these religious arguments are used in place of—or to the exclusion of—classical liberal arguments. I will not deny that many of the most adamantly pro-life activists do not share my concerns about the separation of church and state nor supporting and preserving the liberal tradition. They thus see no reason to find alternative legal justifications for abortion bans. However, I believe there are many who hold anti-abortion beliefs on religious grounds, while still supporting the First Amendment. These people are the many members of the public who do not deeply develop or examine their beliefs, and simply latch onto whatever surface-level justification has been offered. The religious arguments in this regard effectively serve as a crutch: a simple, easily digested explanation which does not require much mental rigor. Because of this lack of examination, however, there is likewise a lack of conviction. When one makes a decision based upon a whim, this often results in him having little commitment to this decision. For many pro-lifers, their opposition to abortion in practice manifests as treating it as something with which they are simply uncomfortable or have a distaste, rather than a great injustice. These people have simply relied on either an intuitive opposition or passive compliance to dogma, instead of personally examining the ethics of it. Furthermore, many—even if they strongly support banning abortion on religious grounds—likely do not feel that these abortion bans should cause suffering to women who received abortions. In this view, these women are simply acting contrary to the pro-lifer’s religious beliefs rather than committing a uniquely heinous act of violence against their fellow man. Further, the unresolved contradiction between religious rationales for restrictions, and their latent support for the separation of church and state likewise undoubtedly causes a lack of conviction on what should be done about internal conflict crippling the pro-life’s movement.
This then would explain why many pro-lifers display these apparently contradictory behaviors, wherein they do not treat the issue with the gravity the situation deserves. For instance, it has frequently been the byword among religious pro-lifers that women receiving abortions are victims as well. They therefore need consolation and support. There is no denying that many who receive abortions likely do feel a sense of guilt and mental anguish over their actions, and that they made this decision due to poor circumstances. Despite these factors, however, the response by pro-lifers is completely and totally at odds with how society responds to other actions of similar moral ramifications. Imagine for a second that someone in an inner city comes from an impoverished background. Financially his prospects are dim, he receives little social support from friends or family, and yet he still desires and hopes to go to college to make a better life for himself. To this end, he decides to rob a local store and kill the owner so that he can have enough money to attend college. While some may say that even in this situation, the Christian thing would be to still show him love and compassion, nobody would consider him a victim of his own actions. Nobody would believe that he shouldn’t face consequences for these actions. Nobody would treat him as if he was simply momentarily confused. He would be seen as a murder who committed a horrific act for his own self-benefit and treated as such.
This discrepancy would not be altogether consequential if it were simply a matter of having the “right” attitude towards abortion compared to having the “wrong” one, but this undoubtedly has a tangible impact on the debate over abortion as well. When pro-lifers continue to insist that abortion is wrong on the basis of it being an act of murder, their refusal to treat it with the same gravity as the murder of and their refusal to respond accordingly suggests that they do not truly believe that it is an act of murder. Thus, any observer is likely to immediately find their arguments neither genuine nor credible, and dismiss them out of hand. The pro-lifers would thus be limiting their ability to convince a wider audience. This, in turn, detracts from their ability to bring about their desired changes.
If the members of the pro-life movement seek to bring about real societal and legal change, they must appeal to their audience with simple, nonreligious arguments, and demonstrate that they are genuine in the beliefs by standing firm, as opposed to treating it as a normal political problem that can be resolved through wheeling-and-dealing. Furthermore, the pro-life movement as a whole must remove from positions of prominence those who simultaneously support restricting access to or completely banning contraceptives. Not only is it an unjustifiable intrusion into personal affairs, but it would only increase the number of abortions. Similarly, it would be in the best interests of pro-life advocates to further sexual education regarding the usage of birth control, offer instructions on how to avoid pregnancy, and to offer free or discounted contraceptives in impoverished regions to increase the likelihood they will be used.