In a recent episode of the Kainos Project podcast, Tamara and I discussed the differences between the mainstream pro-life movement and the emerging abortion abolitionist movement.
Throughout that discussion, we sought to understand the differing visions of these two groups, their moral reasoning, and some of the theological underpinnings of their stances in as even-handed a manner as we could.
Listening back to that podcast, I felt that as I was explaining positions to which I do not adhere and playing devil’s advocate for the sake of exploring the moral complexities of abortion legislation, it may have become unclear exactly where I stand.
So as an addendum to that conversation, I’d like to offer some of the reasons why I am not an abortion abolitionist, as well as to expand upon some of the pro-life distinctives that are most important to me.
To begin, I will briefly (and, hopefully, charitably) summarize the abortion abolitionist viewpoint, to the best of my understanding.
Understanding the Abortion Abolitionist Viewpoint
The pro-life movement has long embraced an incrementalist approach to reducing the number of abortions performed each year through legislation and public advocacy, celebrating small wins in the right direction.
However, after the fall of Roe v. Wade (and in the run-up to it), those within the abortion abolitionist movement have begun to reject the idea of incrementalism in favor of outright bans on abortion, from the moment of conception.
In other words, the goal of abolitionists is not to reduce the number of abortions through incremental change of both laws and public sentiments but rather to use the full force of legislation, which is now available to us following the Dobbs decision, to ban abortion completely. Anything short of a total ban is not a “win” to abolitionists.
The reasoning behind this is, in part, that when pro-life legislators sign off on policies that reduces abortion access without banning it, abolitionists believe they are implicitly conceding that abortion is morally allowable in certain instances.
Abortion abolitionists are also distinct in their belief that penalties for illegal abortions should be levied not only against the doctors who perform them but also the women who receive them. Furthermore, they believe these penalties should come in the form of criminal charges. Some even believe that abortion should be a capital offense for both the doctor and the prospective mother.
Another way in which abortion abolitionism differs from the traditional pro-life movement is that abolitionists are far more sectarian in their anti-abortion advocacy. Pro-lifers have historically used non-religious moral reasoning to advocate for the unborn—in a way that is congruent with their biblical convictions—so as to build a broad coalition of support. Conversely, abolitionists advocate for ending abortion not on the grounds of nuanced moral reasoning but on the grounds that God has said “thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13).
With these distinctions in mind, here are a few reasons why I am not an abortion abolitionist.
The Woman Is the Second Victim of an Abortion
Abortion is not a decision that any woman wants to be faced with. In fact, many abortions occur under duress.
That duress can be financial: Consider a woman with no family support who can’t imagine surviving as a single mother, working full-time, paying for full-time childcare and medical insurance, and still somehow managing not to get evicted.
That duress can be relational: Consider a young woman who is being pressured by the father of her child or her own parents to end a pregnancy. Consider that one or all of these relationships may contain elements of abuse.
The duress that precedes an abortion often contains all these elements.
In other words, so many women are victims of circumstance when it comes to abortion. From a legislative perspective, it makes much more sense to institute policies that will help lift these women out of these impossible situations rather than focusing our efforts on victimizing them further.
This has never been more apparent than when we consider the fact that abortion rates in America have dropped most precipitously under presidents who support robust social programs.
In fact, abortion rates dropped the most dramatically they had in 50 years under the Obama administration, when the Affordable Care Act was passed. By the end of Obama’s presidency, abortion rates were lower than they had been two years prior to the Roe v. Wade decision, which ensured abortion access.
Even if we grant that some women obtain abortions without being under duress, they nevertheless still become victims of it. According to the National Institutes of Health, abortion is associated with elevated rates of mental illness compared to women without a history of abortion.
In other words, women are sold a lie that abortion is healthcare, and then they suffer the consequences of that lie.
In keeping with the traditional pro-life view, I believe the best course of action is to consider women who receive abortions as second victims according to the law, and we should instead target those who administer abortions in any legislation that limits or bans abortion.
Being Pro-Life Means Being for the Whole Life
As I have alluded to above, when it comes to being pro-life, my conviction is that we should not be solely focused on enacting punitive measures against illegal abortions—although some may be necessary. Nevertheless, I believe it is equally important to enact measures that will drive the demand for abortion down.
That means focusing equal effort on robust social programs that address the economic injustices that drive abortion rates up. For example, affordable healthcare, universal preschool, and robust social welfare programs are all measures that raise young women out of situations in which they begin to see abortion as the best or only option available to them.
I believe pro-lifers should pursue these policies with the same vim and vigor with which we pursue measures that limit access to abortion, because they provide protections not only for unborn children but also the women who would bear them. On this point, not even all pro-life advocates agree with me. But I think they should.
In the same way, I believe we should also be wary of indiscriminate abortion bans that disallow abortions even in extreme cases when the life of the mother is threatened. I understand that these are the minority of cases in which an abortion is sought, but these women deserve legal protections—for example, in the case of an ectopic pregnancy.
Many legal experts have assured the public that dilation and curettage procedures, which are performed in cases of ectopic pregnancies, are not abortions and therefore are not banned. However, given that the medical procedure is very similar to an abortion, some physicians in states with robust abortion bans have refused to perform them for fear of legal reprisals.
This leaves women vulnerable, and in some cases, forces them to seek care out of state.
What’s more is that such bans may subject women who have suffered miscarriages to investigations about the causes of their miscarriages, which adds a layer of trauma onto an already tragic experience.
These are all very real concerns that must be seriously addressed if we are to be truly pro-life rather than merely “pro-birth.”
A Pro-Life Government Doesn’t Necessarily Need To Be a ‘Christian’ Government
Another aspect of the abortion abolitionist movement that gives me pause is that a number of its leading voices also have ties to the Christian nationalism movement. This isn’t to say that all abortion abolitionists are Christian nationalists, but it is to say that a Venn diagram does exist. And this association bears itself out in the sectarian way in which the abortion abolitionist movement advances its view.
The mainstream pro-life movement has historically used non-religious moral reasoning, which is available to people of all faiths but is congruent with Christian theology, to argue for the end of abortion. On other hand, abortion abolitionists argue that abortion should be banned, not because it is morally defensible to do so, but just because the Bible demands it.
In other words, to Christian nationalists and some abortion abolitionists, public policy should not be the result of consensus, which Christians contribute to based on their biblical convictions. Rather, it should be the result of adhering to the Bible itself—or at least the interpretation of the Bible to which the people enacting the policy hold.
I believe that all truth is God’s truth. And protecting the lives of unborn children and their mothers is something for which we compellingly argue without ever quoting a verse of Scripture. (It is also an idea supported by Scripture.)
Nevertheless, because we live in a pluralistic society and I value the religious liberty of others as much as I value my own, it is my conviction that moral people of diverse faiths should be able to agree upon our shared laws while still holding to their own religious distinctives.
We have a lot of work to do to get to a place where we agree on what that morality entails. But this is the work of the pro-life movement. And it is not something I am willing to abandon in favor of heavy-handed political control.
In sum, my convictions regarding pro-life advocacy are somewhat nuanced and require us to do several things at once. First, we ought to be deeply concerned about the welfare of unborn children. We should likewise be deeply concerned for the welfare of their mothers. Furthermore, we should be deeply concerned about the religious freedoms of our non-Christian fellow-citizens, while also being deeply concerned about morally upright laws that are congruent with our Christian faith.
That’s a lot.
One thing I appreciate about the abortion abolitionist viewpoint is that it provides moral clarity amid complex legislative realities. However, while there are a great many things about which we can speak plainly and simply when it comes to the issue of abortion, we still must appreciate that it is a complex problem with no easy solution.