Welcome back for Part 3 of this series, in which I’m looking at common objections to the pro-life perspective on abortion. If you aren’t familiar with the pro-life view, I’d recommend you take a look at some of my previous posts, links to which can be found in the endnotes [i].
In 2005, socialistworker.org posted an article titled “An Era of Tragedy for Women: When Abortion was Illegal”[ii]. The article opens with a bold statement: “the threat of… [abortion being made illegal] has never been more real”. Presumably, other pro-choice advocates agree that outlawing abortion is a threat, and would be a tragedy, as it would unjustly restrict the choice of pregnant women. Several arguments have been offered in defence of this perspective, and the author of the article goes on to provide one such argument that is frequently cited. Briefly: when abortion was illegal, many women sought illegal abortions, and consequently died or suffered serious injury[iii]. The best way to avoid this tragedy is to keep abortion legal. Clearly, this conclusion is one that pro-life advocates seek to avoid, and therefore the argument warrants careful consideration. Does the fact that women may seek dangerous illegal abortions provide good reason to think that abortion should be legal?
In more detail, the argument runs as follows. If abortion is made illegal, then pregnant women who don’t want children will be forced to seek illegal abortions. Illegal abortions are dangerous and can result in mental and physical harm for the mother; in some cases, they may result in death. Since the government shouldn’t force women into acting in such a way that puts them in severe danger, and making abortion illegal would do just that, abortion should remain legal.
As with many pro-choice objections, this argument is, on the surface, compelling. After all, no reasonable person wants women to die or suffer as a consequence of having an abortion. However, there are two significant flaws in this reasoning, both of which provide grounds for rejecting the argument.
- Women Aren’t Forced – They Choose
A crucial premise in this argument is that if abortion is made illegal, then women will be forced to seek dangerous illegal abortions. What reason do we have for thinking this true? Granted, if abortion was illegal, it could be the case (and historically has been the case) that some pregnant women would seek illegal abortions. But this is not the same as saying that they would be (or were) forced to have illegal abortions. The proposition “if abortion is made illegal, then pregnant women who don’t want children will be forced to seek dangerous illegal abortions” implies that pregnant women who have no legal access to abortion have no other option but to seek illegal abortions.
This, however, is patently false, for at least two other options are available. Firstly, the mother could carry the pregnancy to term and care for the child. This option is undesirable in light of the fact that she doesn’t want the child, but it’s an option nonetheless. Alternatively, she could carry the pregnancy to term and put the child up for adoption. Nothing in the envisioned scenario precludes these options, and as such they constitute clear counter-examples to the premise under examination.
To put it succinctly, a woman who is pregnant in a society in which abortion is illegal has at least three options—having an illegal abortion, caring for the child, or putting the child up for adoption. Therefore, to say that making abortion illegal leaves women with only one course of action is false. As Greg Koukl writes, “a woman is no more forced into… [having an illegal abortion] when abortion is outlawed than a young man is forced to rob banks because the state won’t put him on welfare”[iv]. Both have other options; both make a choice, and both are responsible for that choice.
- Begging the Question
Although the first flaw provides sufficient grounds for rejecting the argument, pro-lifers can point to another error that lies hidden beneath its surface; namely, in order for the argument to succeed, its proponents must assume that the unborn are not human beings who possess a right to life. However, this is exactly what the pro-choice advocate needs to demonstrate in order to justify the claim that abortion is morally permissible. As such, this argument begs the question. If you’ve been following my posts so far, you may recall that “begging the question” is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone assumes what they’re obliged to prove. This fallacy renders the argument doubly defective.
In order to highlight how this argument begs the question, let’s first read the argument in such a way that it doesn’t beg the question. On this reading, we’ll assume that the unborn is a human being with a right to life. What follows is that to say “abortion should be legal because women may die or harm themselves seeking illegal abortions” is tantamount to saying “it should be legal for people to kill valuable human beings (in this case, the unborn) because other human beings (in this case, pregnant mothers) will harm themselves while attempting to do it illegally”. In other words, “because people die or are harmed while killing other people… the state should make it safe for them to do so” [v]. When we apply this principle to murder, its absurdity comes to the fore. Uniformity would require us to say that, since people will murder regardless of the legality of homicide, and since said people are at risk of injury or death in doing so, murder should be legal. Clearly, this is not what the advocate of the argument is trying to show.
In order to avoid such extreme implications, therefore, the defender of this argument must assume that the unborn does not possess a right to life. And, as stated earlier, this is what he needs to prove in order to sustain the notion that abortion is morally permissible. Evidently, for the argument to work without leading to absurd conclusions, we must beg the question, and thus it fails to support the notion that abortion is morally permissible.
Every death that results from illegal abortion is a tragedy. Nonetheless, the fact that women may perish while seeking illegal abortions does not support the claim that abortion is morally permissible. And, if it’s not morally permissible, it shouldn’t be legal. If what I’ve written in this post is true, then the argument from dangerous illegal abortions fails. In virtue of this, those who stand in defence of unborn human life can have further confidence that their position is sound, and their cause just. In contrast, if pro-choice advocates wish to affirm that a state in which abortion is illegal is a looming, tragic threat, then they must find other reasons to buttress their case.
[ii] Socialistworker.org. (2005). An era of tragedy for women: when abortion was illegal. Retrieved from http://socialistworker.org/2005-2/562/562_06_Abortion.shtml
[iii] This argument is often referred to as the “coat-hanger” or “back-alley butcher argument” due to the fact that women purportedly self-administered abortions with a coat-hanger, or sought out unscrupulous physicians i.e. back-alley butchers.
[iv] Koukl, G. (2013). I’m pro-choice. Retrieved from https://www.str.org/articles/i-m-pro-choice#.WjMii0rXaiM
[v] Beckwith, F. J. (2007). Defending life: A moral and legal case against abortion choice. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, p. 95