Welcome back for Part 4 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].
“Every child a wanted child”. This catchphrase has been in circulation for decades now, written on signs during protests, boldly printed on Planned Parenthood flyers. Short and pithy, it seems to express a noble sentiment—one which has found a new pop-culture platform via the Netflix hit Orange is the New Black. Orange is the New Black tells the story of a number of women convicted of serious crimes and placed in prison. In one episode, an inmate mourns for several children whom she aborted earlier in life. However, she’s soon approached by another inmate, who captures the essence of “every child a wanted child” when she argues:
The abortions that occurred after [abortion was made legal]… these were children that weren’t wanted. Children who, if their mothers had been forced to have them, would have grown up poor, and neglected and abused. The three most important ingredients when one is making a felon[ii].
The implication is that since these children were unwanted, were going to live traumatic lives, and would wind up in prison, aborting them was the right decision. Therefore, the mourning inmate need not feel any more regret, as her children were spared suffering and life as a felon.
As with many popular arguments for abortion, this type of argument has great initial appeal, but once you begin to assess its logic and draw out its implications, it becomes less and less persuasive. In the following paragraphs, I’ll outline the argument more clearly, and then highlight three flaws that render it unsound.
Though there are various ways to develop an argument from unwanted children, most reflect the following sentiments. A number of social problems, such as child abuse, unnecessary financial burden, and poverty are (at least partially) the result of families having to manage unwanted children. Legal abortion reduces the number of unwanted children, and, as such, minimises these problems. Therefore, abortion should be legal. Additionally, unwanted children are likely to live unhappy lives. Since they may suffer physical, mental, and emotional abuse, it is better for the mother to opt for abortion.
- Begging the Question
Perhaps the most significant problem with popular arguments for abortion is that they beg the question. As I’ve argued in previous posts, question-begging plagues arguments from rape and the dangers of illegal abortions, and the argument here is no exception. For those of you unfamiliar with what “begging the question” is, it’s a form of circular reasoning in which someone assumes what they’re supposed to be proving[iii]. In this case, the proponent of the argument assumes that the unborn are not valuable human beings, which is what they need to prove in order to justify abortion.
To demonstrate how it begs the question, we can run a parallel argument that replaces every instance of “unwanted children” with “toddler”. Doing so results in the following:
A number of social problems are the result of families having to manage unwanted toddlers. Legal toddler-killing reduces the number of unwanted toddlers, and, as such, minimises these problems. Therefore, toddler-killing should be legal. Additionally, unwanted toddlers are likely to live unhappy lives. Since they may suffer physical, mental, and emotional abuse, it is better for the mother to opt to kill her toddler.
Obviously, it’s wrong to kill unwanted toddlers. Why? Because they are valuable human beings. Similarly, if unborn human beings possess that same value, then it’s wrong to kill them simply because they are unwanted. The real question, then, is not whether children are wanted, but whether they are valuable. And, since the argument from unwanted children must assume they are not valuable in order to succeed, it begs the question.
One might object to this charge by contending that value is attributed to humans precisely because they are wanted. Whether or not one is wanted determines whether one has value, and thus to say that the unborn is unwanted entails that they have no value. On this reading, the argument doesn’t beg the question.
However, it is relatively easy to think of a counter-example to this notion. Imagine that everyone you know suddenly decided that they no longer like you, and no longer want you. Your family abandon you, your partner separates from you, your employer fires you, and your friends snub you. Does it follow from this that you have no value? I suspect that your intuitions tell you that, even in such circumstances, you still have value, and as such it would still be wrong for someone to kill you. But if this is the case, then your value resides in you, not in whether other people want you, which is simply to say that whether you are wanted or not is irrelevant to whether you have value.
- Finding Solutions vs Eliminating Problems
Another problem with the argument from unwanted children is that it confuses the notion of finding a solution with that of eliminating a problem. For example, it’s possible to cure a headache by chopping off one’s head, or to drive out termites by burning down the house. These courses of action do, in a sense, eliminate problems. However, given that they violate certain unspoken criteria within which one seeks a solution (e.g. to cure a headache but to remain alive, or to drive out termites but retain a home, or to eliminate unwanted-ness without killing human beings), they aren’t really solutions. As Francis Beckwith writes of a similar example:
One can eliminate the problem of poverty by executing all poor people, but this would not really solve the problem, as it would directly conflict with our basic moral intuition that human persons should not be gratuitously exterminated for the sake of easing economic tension. This “solution” would undermine the very moral principles that ground our compassion for poor people – namely, that they are humans of great worth and should be treated with dignity regardless of their predicament.[iv]
Granted, aborting unwanted children does eliminate a problem, namely, that of children being unwanted. But is this really a solution? My contention is that, given that the unborn are valuable human beings (which I’ve argued here), solving the problem of unwanted children by killing them in the womb is comparable to eliminating poverty by killing impoverished people. In both cases society rids itself of a problem by ridding itself of the humans who have the problem. Unwanted-ness does not justify this “solution”.
- Killing vs Potential Suffering
Katharine Whitehorn, columnist for The Guardian, exemplifies the argument in question when she writes “there’s a lot to be said for preventing babies from being born who are going to be unwelcome and therefore have a rotten childhood”[v]. Take note of the reasoning here—since the child will be unwelcome she will have a rotten childhood, and since she will have a rotten childhood, it’s better to prevent her from being born (which is a euphemism for killing her). There are at least two problems with this line of reasoning.
Firstly, Whitehorn’s argument hinges on the assumption that certain death is better for a child than potential suffering. But is this really true? Although unwanted children may suffer more than wanted children, there’s no guarantee that they will. Therefore, her claim must be that the probability that the child will suffer gratuitously is high enough that they’re better off dead. But how can we determine this probability? Given the countless variables in any individual’s life, it’s impossible. Furthermore, what level of suffering is sufficient to outweigh the drawbacks of death? An answer to this question depends on subjective considerations—how much suffering an individual can endure—and objective considerations which are hotly debated—e.g., what happens after death. It seems, then, that it’s simply too difficult to determine whether this assumption is true, and therefore it doesn’t provide a firm foundation for making life or death decisions.
Secondly, the idea that death is better than suffering is contrary to many of our intuitions about comparable situations. Take, for example, the following case. Someone at a warehouse climbs onto a shelf several metres above ground in order to remove a heavy, awkward item. In so doing, they fall from the shelf, landing on a hard concrete floor. They’re knocked unconscious, but a nearby First Aider rushes to the scene and determines that they’re breathing, despite having broken their spine and having suffered a deep gash to the head. To keep them alive, the First Aider rolls them onto their side to prevent their airways becoming blocked. By doing this, the First Aider has acted upon the assumption that it’s better for the injured person to remain alive and endure potentially lifelong suffering (i.e. paralysis, brain damage), rather than for them to die. Few people would approve of a First Aider who decided to let the patient suffocate because of the possibility of future suffering. This assumption, however, is contrary to the assumption underlying the argument from unwanted children. Although this example isn’t a knock-down argument in favour of keeping people alive despite suffering, at the very least it should prompt further reflection on the role that the potential suffering of a child might play in deciding whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Is certain death the solution to potential suffering?
Recall that pithy catchphrase from earlier: “every child a wanted child”. It’s true that children fare better when they are loved and wanted. It’s also true that abortion does provide a sort of “solution” to a profound problem. But is it the right solution? Does it take into account the value of human beings, and does it exemplify love and care for the unwanted? Allow me to make a bold suggestion: perhaps the problem is not that some children are unwanted. Perhaps the true problem is that we as individuals and as a society are not willing to love, care, and nurture those whom we don’t want. Perhaps we’d find that if we were willing to acknowledge the value of all human beings—even the unwanted ones—we’d eventually come to see that value ourselves, and our attitudes might be changed. The implications of this extend far beyond the abortion debate. My hope is that you’ll weigh and consider what is written in this post, and, if the reasoning is sound and the cause just, consider the implications for you, and for those around you. Perhaps, in time, every child can be a wanted child.
[iii] For example, suppose a well-meaning Christian were to argue for the reliability of scripture by saying “scripture is trustworthy because the Bible says so”. This statement begs the question, as it’s only by assuming that scripture is trustworthy that we can trust what the Bible says, which is the point our Christian friend is attempting to prove.
[iv] Beckwith, F. J. (2007). Defending life: A moral and legal case against abortion choice. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, pp. 97-98.