Criticizing popular pro-choice justifications

Opinion by Adam Johnson
Oct. 25, 2012, 2:23 a.m.

Before delving into the substance of this opinion, a few words are necessary. Abortion is certainly a complex and contentious issue, and I want to devote multiple articles to the topic to ensure that I provide each of these distinct, albeit related, subtopics an adequate treatment. Accordingly, in this first piece I will focus on critiquing three popular justifications for pro-choice policies.

All of the justifications below are actual quotes from various online sources. The three justifications I list here are by no means comprehensive. I will readily admit that they are not, in my mind, the strongest arguments the pro-choice position has to offer. Rather, they are commonly cited arguments that I believe people, regardless of their ultimate opinion on the legal and moral status of abortion, should refuse to accept.

1. “An unwanted life can be worse than no life at all.”

Although whether or not the fetus is wanted may be a relevant question for the mother, it should be irrelevant for justifying abortion more broadly. Would we allow an unwanted fetus that is days away from birth to be aborted? Many would say no, but then argue that it is OK to abort an unwanted fetus at a far earlier point in the pregnancy. These people are not necessarily hypocritical; a life can be unwanted at any time in its development, but at a certain point society draws the line and demands that the life be cared for, regardless of whether or not it is wanted. Where we draw this line has nothing to do with whether the life is wanted, but rather how we reconcile the rights of the mother with the rights (if any) of the fetus.

If one justifies abortion on the grounds that an unwanted life can be worse than no life at all, then one should view some abortions–those that involve severely unwanted fetuses–as more justified than others. One should also hold that those who will be unwanted by society should be aborted, all other things equal, at greater rates. Some go to these lengths and justify abortions by citing the socioeconomic benefits they create for society: lower populations, fewer disabled children in need of medical attention, lower crime rates and more. I would imagine, however, that not many current pro-choice advocates embrace these positions, and for good reason; they represent utilitarian approaches to what many perceive as a fundamental human right. Under the utilitarian approach, an abortion that involves a fetus who would be born into a desirable environment is less justified. This scenario is not a mere hypothetical; Nazi Germany legalized abortions for everyone but healthy “Aryan” females.

2. “We cannot have some people forcing their beliefs on us all.”

Yet this is precisely one of the functions of the modern state. Think about seat belt laws, compulsory school attendance, trans fat bans, conscription and the countless other examples of paternalistic government. In these cases, a governing body composed of “some people” imposes their beliefs on everyone else. Government, then, clearly can force some people’s beliefs on others. Which triggers the question: should a government be allowed to do so? Political philosophers have been discussing this question for centuries, with most agreeing that in an ideal society, citizens give up certain freedoms to the state.

Although we may not be able to expertly defend our vision for the proper role of government, we should at least be consistent in how we regard government interventions into the personal sphere; if we make certain exceptions, we should provide strong reasons for doing so. Unfortunately, much of the current discourse around the role of the state in cases of abortion starts and ends with “my body, my choice.” That slogan is a fine rallying call, but as a generalized political philosophy it necessarily opposes many widely accepted left-wing policies and runs counter to the trend of larger government.

3. “If abortion is criminalized, a lot of women will still seek abortions.”

This is a pragmatic argument to support legal abortions at this moment in time. It does not, however, say why the right to an abortion should be a legal right, or why we should favor legalized abortions in general. If you are staunch advocate of gun control, would you change your position if someone told you that people would still purchase assault rifles if they were criminalized? You probably wouldn’t.

Rather than bind the discussion with present facts and realities, we should instead ask ourselves what an ideal world might look like and try to promote measures to realize that end. In an ideal world, might abortions rarely be needed? What if we could lessen the primary stressors for abortion and/or give significant financial and emotional support to pregnant mothers who opt to have children in the face of hardship? What if we could increase access to sexual education and contraception? I would argue that the status quo is not ideal; abortion for many is a “choice” between a bad outcome and a worse one.  Yet the above argument does nothing to argue against the status quo–if anything, it tolerates it.


Have thoughts on this topic? Email Adam at [email protected] 

Adam is a senior from Illinois. He is majoring in Biomechanical Engineering, although his intellectual interests span dozens of departments. This is his second year writing for the Daily (you may remember him from his work last year on the Editorial Board). Outside of writing, Adam enjoys acting, skiing, making music, and thrift-store shopping.

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