Highly restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates. For example, the abortion rate is high, at 29 and 32 abortions per 1,000 women of childbearing age in Africa and Latin America, respectively—regions where abortion is illegal under most circumstances in the majority of countries. In Western Europe, where abortion is generally permitted on broad grounds, the abortion rate is 12 per 1,000. ( Sedgh G et al. cited below)
There it is in black and white. Countries in which abortion is illegal have higher rates of abortion in most cases. What does this mean for the pro-life argument? Some have argued that pro-life advocates should work to make abortion legal. For example, Margot Magawan writes, “It’s clear that top Republican candidates are being short-sighted and ineffective, rushing off in precisely the wrong direction if their goal truly is to reduce abortions.” The argument seems to be quite simple. After all, if the goal of the pro-life advocates is to reduce the number of abortions, then if making it legal reduces them, they should argue to legalize abortions.
There are a number of problems with this argument, however, and I’ll briefly list them before examining them in turn.
1. Those making this argument seek to compare countries unilaterally based on a situation with all kinds of factors which cannot possibly be weighed fairly.
2. The argument reduces the goal of the pro-life movement to reducing abortions only; but the movement has a broader range than that. The argument is susceptible to a reductio ad absurdum which shows that the premise on which it is based is absurd.
3. The argument begs the question against the pro-life position by assuming the position itself is false.
3. The argument assumes consequentialism as a metaethical theory without argument.
1. Comparing Countries Unilaterally
It seems strange to me to compare the situations of different countries unilaterally on an issue like this. For example, it seems to have been shown that many things cannot be compared in this way. Installing democracy into random countries does not have a stabilizing effect. Comparing the economic situation of Rwanda with that of the United States seems almost grotesque. I’m not disputing the results of the study cited above; rather, I’m disputing the application of those results to a moral sphere. Think of all the factors which must be weighed: economic status, education, career choices, etc. To then take the raw data and apply it to a moral sentiment is quite a stretch. After all, it doesn’t take into consideration all the factors that those countries in which abortion is legal may have.
I do not want to make this the focus of my rebuttal, however, because I think the next 3 points are much stronger. To those we shall now turn.
2. Is Pro-Life About Reducing Abortions?
Another problem with the argument is that it assumes the pro-life position is dedicated to reducing abortions. That sentence may seem strange on a first reading, but read it this way instead: “the pro-life position is dedicated to reducing abortions only.” That is where one of the major difficulties arises for those making this argument. The pro-life position is not only about reducing abortions. In fact, while reducing the number of abortions is a goal of the pro-life movement, that is not the only goal or even, perhaps, the highest goal.
Suppose that reducing abortions was the only goal of the pro-life candidate. In that case, one way to reduce abortions would be by eliminating all human beings. If, after all, not a single human being were alive, there would be no abortions! This is, of course, patently absurd. Why? Not just because it seems obviously wrong to murder everyone on earth (or to murder anyone) in order to reduce the number of abortions, but also because this is a gross reduction of the pro-life position.
The pro-life position isn’t just about reducing the number of abortions. It is about advocating for life. In other words, those in the movement are making a factual and a moral claim: the entities aborted are human persons and it is wrong to kill them. But those who want to make the argument that pro-life advocates should legalize abortions in order to reduce them are, on a pro-life view, essentially arguing something similar to this:
Suppose that making murder legal reduced the number of murders. If you are against murder, you should then legalize murder.
The absurdity of this argument becomes clear because no one but a psychopath wants to legalize murder. But then it becomes clear that those pro-choice people making this argument have begged the question against the pro-life person. Let’s turn to that.
3. The Argument Begs the Question
If the pro-life position is correct, then it makes a mockery of this argument. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the advocate of the pro-life position is right: the unborn are not merely embryos (and other stages of development) but are rather human persons who deserve the same rights as people outside of wombs. Now, granting these assumptions, suppose one finds that legalizing abortions reduces them. To then argue that “we should legalize abortions to reduce their number” is exactly equivalent to arguing that we should legalize murder to reduce the number of murders. Note here that I’m not saying legalizing murder does reduce the number of murders; I’m arguing that if the pro-life position is correct, these arguments are exactly analogous. One who argues we should legalize abortions would be the same as one who argues we should legalize murders, if the pro-life position is correct.
Thus, it becomes clear that those who make an argument like that of Margot Magawan have begged the question against the pro-life position. They simply assume that it is morally permissible to have an abortion, and combine that with the false position that the pro-life position is only about reducing abortions. Thus, the argument fails because it begs the question. Without argument, the pro-choice advocate has caricatured its opposition and argued against this false image.
4. It assumes consequentialism.
The last rebuttal is more technical, but I want to keep it brief. Consequentialism is, basically, the position that it is not the status of actions themselves which are judged as moral but rather the consequences. If one takes an action which has morally good consequences, that action is deemed good.
Now consider once more the argument, “If your goal is to reduce abortions, you should legalize them [because if abortion is legal, the number is reduced].”
This argument doesn’t take into consideration the moral status of an abortion [again, see above: they’ve already begged the question]. Rather, it assumes that because the consequences (fewer abortions) are considered by pro-life advocates as morally good, they should take the action (legalizing abortions) which open the door for these consequences.
Without too much strain, it becomes clear that most pro-life advocates do not hold to consequentialism as a metaethical theory. There are many alternative metaethical theories which are preferable for any number of reasons. If a pro-life advocate holds to a deontological theory of ethics, for example, he will argue that the wrongness of abortion is outweighed by the benefits of reducing the number. Such examples could be multiplied almost beyond comprehension. Thus, the pro-choice advocate has assumed, again without argument, a controversial position and then utilized that position to argue against pro-life advocates. Therefore, the argument fails.
The argument which has been considered here is that “if the goal of the pro-life advocates is to reduce the number of abortions, then if making it legal reduces them, they should argue to legalize abortions.” I have rebutted this argument in four ways. First, it seems to trivialize the enormous amount of factors which must go into consideration of comparing abortion rates across countries. Second, it reduces the pro-life position almost beyond recognition and is susceptible to a reductio ad absurdem. Third, it begs the question. Fourth, it utilizes a controversial metaethical theory to justify its premise. For these four reasons, I conclude that the argument is unsound.
Sedgh G et al., “Induced abortion: incidence and trends worldwide from 1995 to 2008,” Lancet, 2012. (accessible: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2811%2961786-8/fulltext); summary: http://www.guttmacher.org/media/presskits/abortion-WW/statsandfacts.html.
Image Credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Prolife-DC.jpg
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.