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Few Pro-Lifers Actually Think Abortion is Murder
Promoting a culture of life is different from using the state to take away liberty
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The pro-life position typically claims abortion is murder. This is not semantics, or a case of rhetorical hyperbole; it’s a bedrock of the argument for outlawing abortion. However, many who espouse it don’t act like they think abortion is literally murder, but something less; still immoral, just not as bad.
Banning abortion essentially gives the state custody of a pregnant woman’s uterus. That’s not a politically correct way to put it, but it’s what a ban entails. Under such laws, if a woman gets pregnant, she loses the right to control what happens inside her body. If she doesn’t want to carry to term and give birth, the government forces her to against her will. That means the state, not the pregnant woman, has custody of her body. Otherwise, she, not government, would get to decide what happens inside her uterus, and whether the rest of her body should go through the physical changes and health risks that accompany pregnancy.
Government violating a person’s right to bodily autonomy is a big deal, which is why advocates of anti-abortion laws need abortion to be murder. Wherever one marks it — conception, heartbeat, reactions to stimuli — the fetus must be a person, morally and legally, deserving the same rights as any other. Only then can deliberately terminating a pregnancy be murder. Only then would the unborn child’s right to life clearly outweigh the pregnant woman’s right to liberty.
America’s abortion debate is dominated by extreme positions, but most people think a fetus has moral value that falls somewhere between a clump of cells and a person. As the fetus develops, it gets closer to personhood, and its moral value gets closer to that of the pregnant woman’s bodily autonomy. This moral intuition is evident in public opinion, such as this AP-NORC poll from June 2021, which found that 83 percent of Americans think at least some abortions should be legal in the first trimester, with 61 percent thinking it should be legal in all or most cases, but by the third trimester, 54 percent think it should be illegal in all cases.
That belief aligns with current abortion law in the United States. Supreme Court cases Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) establish legal abortion as a right and treat viability outside the womb as a meaningful threshold. Viability is typically marked at 23 or 24 weeks — and thanks to improving technology, some hospitals now provide treatment to babies born at 22 weeks — which is more than half of the way through the second trimester. 41 states legally restrict abortion after this point (16 states after 22 weeks, four states after 24 weeks, 20 states at the point of viability, and one state after the second trimester).
That majority-supported status quo is what the pro-life movement is trying to change. The Mississippi law at the center of a current Supreme Court case bans abortion after 15 weeks. A new Texas law, which the Court allowed to go into effect while awaiting further litigation, bans abortion after six weeks (getting around the Roe/Casey legal architecture with a gimmick, authorizing and incentivizing private citizens to enforce violations rather than instructing state employees to do it). At least 21 states are poised to ban or heavily restrict abortion if the Supreme Court allows it, outlawing the procedure in all or part of the first trimester.
The justifying principle is that every fetus is a person, and therefore every abortion is murder, but other common pro-life arguments indicate few actually believe that. That doesn’t mean they think abortion is good — a lot of immoral actions fall short of murder — but it does mean many think a first trimester fetus is not a full and equal person.
If Abortion is Murder, Women Who Get One Should Be Prosecuted
Murder is a very serious crime. Killing can be legal and morally justified (e.g. in self-defense), but murder cannot. With abortion, the doctor is arguably the killer, but that still makes the woman who chooses to get one an accessory or conspirator. Murderers and accessories to murder face criminal charges.
But most pro-lifers don’t think women who get abortions should be thrown in prison.
This contradiction was inadvertently highlighted by Donald Trump in 2016. Trump transparently doesn’t care about abortion — and there’s a decent chance at some time in his life he’s impregnated a woman who got one — but he was courting evangelicals and other social conservatives, and has little compunction about telling audiences what he thinks they want to hear.
In a March 2016 interview, Trump said “we have to ban” abortion, and “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who get one. Pro-life leaders objected. For example, Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, said “Mr. Trump’s comment today is completely out of touch with the pro-life movement… No pro-lifer would ever want to punish a woman who has chosen abortion.”
Trump quickly walked it back, but the incident showed that many pro-lifers don’t actually think a fetus is the same as a born baby. If a woman brought a baby to someone and asked to have it killed, and gave the killer financial compensation, she could face criminal charges, and few would object.
If it’s Murder, There Cannot Be Exceptions for Rape or Incest
If you get assaulted, physical force may be justified against your assailant — self-defense, maybe retaliation — but there’s no way you’re justified in murdering an innocent third party. If a fetus is an independent person, the circumstances of its conception have no bearing on the morality of abortion.
But a fetus is not an independent person, since it is entirely inside of a human being. And that person has rights.
A September 2021 poll found that 77 percent of Texas voters think abortion should be legal in cases of rape or incest (which Texas’s new law does not allow). That compares to 45 percent who say abortion should be illegal after a fetal heartbeat can be detected (around six weeks, Texas’s legal threshold). This indicates that 32 percent of Texas voters are pro-life, but have a moral intuition that bodily autonomy is an important right, women don’t lose that right when they get pregnant, and the fetus is not a full and equal person. Combining those pro-life Texans with pro-choice Texans constitutes a large majority.
The state forcing a woman to carry her rapist’s baby seems especially harsh — and it is — which inherently acknowledges that making a woman spend months pregnant against her will is an imposition on her freedom. One could argue that consensual sex is choosing the possibility of pregnancy, and therefore comes with responsibility, while unconsensual sex does not. But if the state gets involved — if people go beyond expressing moral disapproval and enact a ban— that treats consensual sex like a contract signing over custody of the woman’s uterus, forfeiting the right to bodily autonomy in the event of pregnancy.
Unsurprisingly, advocates of abortion bans typically prefer to describe this with euphemisms.
Culture, Not Law
People who hold funerals after a miscarriage and bury the remains, and who reject exceptions to abortion bans, act like they believe a fetus is a person and aborting it is murder. I don’t agree with that position, but it’s internally consistent.
It is not, however, common. Far more people, including people who identify as pro-life, find it difficult to balance a pregnant woman’s right to liberty and a fetus’s right to life. Most think the calculus changes as a fetus develops. And most recognize that birth is an important threshold, because the baby is no longer inside the mother, which changes the bodily autonomy side of the equation. That’s why 45 percent think third trimester abortions should be legal in at least some cases, but vanishingly few think infanticide should be.
According to CDC data, about 92 percent of abortions take place in the first trimester, and another six percent happen in the first half of the second trimester. Those abortions, the ones a majority of Americans think should be legal, are what new laws are trying to ban.
Aiming for fewer abortions by promoting a “culture of life” honors individual autonomy. While there’s a good case it’s no one else’s business, giving pregnant women information, even trying to persuade them, still leaves the decision to them. Comprehensive sex education and widely available contraception reduces unintended pregnancies. Support for parents — parental leave, child tax credits, etc. — keeps more options open, as does a strong adoption system.
By contrast, outlawing abortion, effectively transferring control of a pregnant woman’s uterus from person to state, is a bad, liberty-infringing idea. But because a political minority has successfully executed a multi-decade project to take over the judiciary, and to gerrymander state legislatures to the point they’re mostly insulated from popular will, there’s a decent chance it happens.