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Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights

Part One: The Appeal to Pity

by Francis J. Beckwith

Abortion has become the most divisive political and social issue in late twentieth century America.

When the Supreme Court ruled that the state of Missouri was within its constitutional rights to enact abortion restrictions (Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, 1989), it moved the debate from the realm of the federal judiciary into the lap of the legislative process. It is now possible for other states to enact similar and even more restrictive legislation. This, of course, makes a candidate's stance on abortion rights much more important in the electoral process, since his or her view on abortion can now make a practical difference in terms of what laws will be enacted if he or she is elected. And, since our judiciary has become more conservative, it is apparent that the abortion rights movement has the most to lose if the issue returns to the courts. Thus the arguments for abortion rights are being put forth in the political arena with greater vigor and hotter rhetoric than ever before.

It is also apparent that pro-life spokespersons and political candidates have, for the most part, responded inadequately. They have either toned down their pro-life position, caved in to the opposition, or permitted the pro-choice movement to control the terminology and framework of the debate.[1]

It is my hope that this four-part series will help to reverse this trend by providing a rigorous intellectual defense of the pro-life position -- helpful to policy makers, political consultants, pro-life leadership, and ordinary Americans.

In this first article, after briefly explaining what it means to be pro-life and discussing why abortion on demand is legal in America, I will present and critique those arguments best classified as appeals to pity. The second article will deal with more appeals to pity, appeals to tolerance, and arguments from ad hominem ("attacking the person"). In articles three and four I will present the pro-life case for the full humanness of the unborn from the moment of conception. Article four will conclude with answers to some common questions about the pro-life position.

Of course, not every defender of abortion rights holds to all or any of the arguments that will appear in this four-part series. Some of the more sophisticated defenders of abortion rights eschew much of the popular rhetoric and defend their position on other grounds. But since most people will come into contact with these arguments in both the popular media and pro-choice literature, it is necessary that they be carefully analyzed.


The pro-life position is subject to somewhat varying formulations. The most widely accepted and representative of these can be defined in the following way: The unborn entity is fully human from the moment of conception. Abortion (narrowly defined) results in the intentional death of the unborn entity. Therefore, abortion entails the intentional killing of a human being. This killing is in most cases unjustified, since the unborn human being has a full right to life. If, however, there is a high probability that a woman's pregnancy will result in her death (as in the case of a tubal pregnancy, for example), then abortion is justified. For it is a greater good that one human should live (the mother) rather than two die (the mother and her child). Or, to put it another way, in such cases the intent is not to kill the unborn (though that is an unfortunate effect) but to save the life of the mother. With the exception of such cases, abortion is an act in which an innocent human being is intentionally killed; therefore, abortion should be made illegal, as are all other such acts of killing. This is the pro-life position I will be defending in this series.

Some people claim to be both pro-life and pro-choice. This is a ploy taken by politicians, such as Nevada Senator Richard Bryan and New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who appear absolutely petrified to take a stand on the abortion issue. They usually say, "I'm personally against abortion, but I don't object to a woman who wants to have one if she believes it is the right thing to do."

The problem with this statement is that it doesn't tell us the reason why the politician claims to be personally against abortion. Since most people who are against abortion are so because they believe that the unborn are fully human and have all the rights that go along with such a status, we would expect that if the politician were personally against abortion it would be for the same reason. But this would make the politician's personal opposition and public permission of abortion somewhat perplexing, since the assumed reason why he would be personally against abortion is the same reason why he should be against publicly permitting it, namely, that an entity which is fully human has a right to life.

After all, what would we think of the depth of an individual's convictions if he claimed that he was personally against the genocide of a particular ethnic group (e.g., the Jews), but he added that if others thought this race was not human, they were certainly welcome to participate in the genocide if they so chose? What I'm getting at is simply that the nature of some "personal" opinions warrants public actions, even if these opinions turn out to be wrong, while other opinions (e.g., one's personal preference for German chocolate cake) do not. Thus, it makes little moral sense to claim that one is both pro-life and pro-choice.


It is important that the reader understand the current legal status of abortion in America. There seems to be a widespread perception that the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade (1973) only permits abortions up to 24 weeks, and after that time only to save the life of the mother. This false perception -- fueled in large part by groups supporting abortion rights -- is uncritically accepted by the media. The fact is that the current law does not restrict a woman from getting an abortion for practically any reason she deems fit during the entire nine months of pregnancy. In order to understand why this is the case, a brief history lesson is in order.

In Roe, Justice Harry Blackmun divided pregnancy into three trimesters. He ruled that aside from normal procedural guidelines (e.g., an abortion must be safely performed by a licensed physician), a state has no right to restrict abortion in the first six months of pregnancy. Thus a woman could have an abortion during the first two trimesters for any reason she deemed fit, whether it be an unplanned pregnancy, gender selection, convenience, or rape. In the last trimester the state has a right, although not an obligation, to restrict abortions to only those cases in which the mother's health is jeopardized. In sum, Roe v. Wade does not prevent a state from allowing unrestricted abortion for the entire nine months of pregnancy if it so chooses.

Like many other states, the state of Nevada has chosen to restrict abortion in the last trimester by only permitting abortions if "there is a substantial risk that the continuance of the pregnancy would endanger the life of the patient or would gravely impair the physical or mental health of the patient."[2] But this restriction is a restriction in name only. For the Supreme Court so broadly defined "health" in Roe's companion decision, Doe v. Bolton (1973), that for all intents and purposes the current law in every state except Missouri and Pennsylvania (where the restrictions allowed by Webster have been enacted into law) allows for abortion on demand.

In Bolton the court ruled that "health" must be taken in its broadest possible medical context, and must be defined "in light of all factors -- physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age -- relevant to the well being of the patient. All these factors relate to health."[3] Since all pregnancies have consequences for a woman's emotional and family situation, the court's health provision has the practical effect of legalizing abortion up until the time of birth -- if a woman can convince her physician that she needs the abortion to preserve her "emotional health." This is why the Senate Judiciary Committee, after much critical evaluation of the current law in light of the court's opinions, concluded that "no significant legal barriers of any kind whatsoever exist today in the United States for a woman to obtain an abortion for any reason during any stage of her pregnancy."[4] A number of legal scholars have come to the same conclusion, offering comments and observations such as the following:

In actual effect, Roe v. Wade judicially created abortion on demand in the United States.[5]

†††††††††The concept of "health," as defined by the Supreme Court in Doe v. Bolton, includes all medical, psychological, social, familial, and economic factors w