In my previous series on abortion[i], I outlined the pro-life position and argued that the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings who possess intrinsic value and a right to life. In this post, and the ones that will follow, I’m going to address common objections to the pro-life position and attempt to show how they fail to refute the pro-life case I’ve offered. Firstly, let’s address the question of whether pro-life advocates should attempt to persuade others of their view and fight for pro-life legislation.
- “I oppose abortion personally, but I don’t want to force my view on others.”
- “You’re entitled to a pro-life opinion about abortion, but you shouldn’t force it on others by trying to make abortion illegal.”
- “If you don’t like abortion, don’t have one”.
If you’ve ever read news reports, articles, or had conversations about abortion, chances are you’ve heard statements such as these. In an age of “tolerance”, many of us like to avoid conflict regarding controversial topics, and abortion certainly fits that description. As such, statements like the ones above appeal to many people. Most would agree that, to a certain extent, we must allow others to act as they wish, even if we consider their actions immoral and therefore detrimental to their wellbeing. To attempt to control every action of every individual would lead to despotism of the worst kind. With this in mind, one might ask whether abortion is an action that we should tolerate, even if we consider it immoral. Just as we allow people to smoke cigarettes even though we know that doing so is detrimental to their health and, some would say, wrong, shouldn’t we allow people to have abortions, even if we consider it immoral? In the following paragraphs I’ll argue that, if the pro-life case is sound, the answer to such questions is a resounding “no”.
The first question that comes to mind when considering the statements above is “why do people personally oppose abortion?”. Take a moment to pause and see what answers you can think of. Chances are you’ve thought of an answer along these lines: most people who oppose abortion do so on the grounds that it kills a valuable human being who has a right to life. Since possessing a right to life entails that others have a moral duty to avoid intentionally killing you, those who oppose abortion typically believe that we have a duty not to intentionally kill the unborn.
Following such reasoning, we can take the statement “I oppose abortion personally, but I don’t want to force my view on others” and fill in the “why” behind it. Doing so, we end up with the following proposition: “I oppose abortion because it kills a valuable human being, thereby violating their right to life. However, I’m okay with allowing other people to violate that right to life if they choose, because I don’t want to force my view on others”. Such a stance appears inconsistent when examined in this light, for if unborn human beings are intrinsically valuable (which the statement affirms), then we should do our utmost to defend their right to life—even if others fail to recognise their value (which the statement denies). As such, this view is internally inconsistent and should be rejected.
Perhaps an analogy is in order. Imagine you are a white American, living during the 18th century when the slavery of African-Americans was widely accepted. Furthermore, imagine you believe that African-Americans are valuable human beings (as I’m sure you really do), despite the fact that the majority of your fellow countrymen believe otherwise. Due to your beliefs, you oppose slavery. Would it make sense to say that, although you personally oppose the slavery of African-Americans on the grounds that slaves are valuable human beings, you don’t want to force your views on others? (After all, if you don’t like slavery, then don’t own a slave). Or would it be more consistent to argue that, due to the fact that the enslaved are valuable human beings, we should fight for their right to freedom? It seems that when human rights are at stake, such as the right to freedom or the right to life, we are amply justified in enforcing measures that prevent the violation of those rights. This principle applies just as much to abortion (assuming that the unborn are valuable human beings) as it does to racism and slavery.
In addition to this line of reasoning, there’s another problem with the statements above. The declaration that a pro-life advocate shouldn’t force their opinions on others appears to be founded on the assumption that we shouldn’t force opinions regarding controversial topics onto other people. This can be summarised as follows:
(1) We shouldn’t force views/opinions regarding controversial topics onto other people.
(2) When pro-lifers argue that abortion is immoral and try to legislate against it, they are forcing a view/opinion about a controversial topic onto other people.
(3) Pro-life advocates shouldn’t argue that abortion is immoral and try to legislate against it.
Take a moment to process (1). Then, turn your attention to (3), and reflect on these questions: is (3) a view/opinion? If so, what is (3) a view/opinion about? (Obviously it’s an opinion about abortion). Is abortion a controversial topic?
Evidently, (3) is a view/opinion about abortion, which is a controversial topic. However, if we believe that (1) is true, then it appears that we shouldn’t force (3) onto others. In other words, the statement “you shouldn’t force your pro-life views about abortion on others” is itself a view on a controversial topic, and thus we shouldn’t impel it upon pro-life advocates. Why should we allow a pro-choice advocate to “force” their view of abortion on a pro-life advocate, but not the inverse?
In fact, it’s not difficult to provide a counter-example to the assumption that we shouldn’t force our views regarding controversial topics on other people. Many would argue that guns should be more strictly regulated in the United States. Gun control is a controversial issue, and if advocates of stricter gun control were to succeed in passing appropriate legislation, they would be “forcing” their views on others. Nonetheless, from their perspective they would be entirely justified. Why? Because doing so would presumably protect valuable human lives—which is exactly what’s at stake with abortion.
All of this underscores a crucial point—the most important question to answer pertaining to abortion is whether the unborn is a living, valuable human being. If so, then pro-life advocates should contend for their views in the public square, and should fight for laws that protect vulnerable unborn human beings. If not, then no justification for abortion is required. This question lies at the root of all moral reasoning around abortion, and answering it brings clarity to questions and statements such as those outlined above.
For further reading please see my previous series (links below), as well as Part 2 of this series, which addresses rape and abortion.