Essential Differences on Abortion


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    11-08,12-21,5-22

Differences of opinion and attitude regarding abortion are a vexing problem for this country, for the issue by its very nature produces strong emotion in advocates for each of the primary viewpoints (“pro-life” and “pro-choice”).  Unfortunately, consistent with the preference of Americans to make issues “simple” even when they are not and the tendency of Americans to “take sides” rather than to seek to understand the differing viewpoints of others, this debate has consisted almost entirely of people on both sides stating their wishes, and there has been almost no dialogue or joint investigation of the matter.  The problem is compounded by the strong tendency to make every disagreement an adversarial matter rather than thinking first of commonalities and possible areas of compromise.  This brief analysis explores the sometimes unacknowledged bases for the fundamental positions of the two sides.  (I should note here that personally I think Roe vs. Wade or another compromise like that is the best solution available for this issue, but I have tried to give a balanced perspective without suggesting the either “side” is fully wrong or fully right.)

The fundamental questions on this matter are as follows.  The answers to these questions can determine one’s position on abortion.

(1) When does “human life” begin, when is a foetus a “baby,” and when does a “person” begin to exist?

(2) What say should pregnant women have, if any, regarding whether their pregnancies continue to term?

(3) At what point does the foetus or child begin to have “rights” (since this is the point at which others will begin to be concerned to safeguard and enforce those rights)?

(4) What responsibilities do men and women have in regard to contraception as a way to avoid abortion?

(5) What responsibility do men, women, pro-choice mothers, pro-life persons, and society in general have for children who are born unwanted?

On the answer to these questions hinge the concerns about “protecting” a foetus, whether a foetus has “rights,” and what will happen to an unwanted child?

We will find that there is no indisputable answer to any of these questions.  These questions can be answered in ways that are internally consistent, but this does not make that set of answers either consistent with scientific reality or “correct” in a logical sense (e.g., insisting that the foetus is a baby from conception and can do everything that a “real” baby can, or, insisting that foetuses after the point of traditional viability can be removed from life with no moral concern).  Most people, of course, think that their ideas about reality are “right” in a moral sense, even if they are inconsistent, inappropriate, or completely disproven by science.  In the end, positions on abortion are decided on the basis of emotion—largely feelings evoked by thinking of foetuses in the same way that babies are thought of after birth and feelings about the freedom of pregnant women to control their time and bodies, but perhaps this exploration can make a bit more clear the various ideas that people have about this issue.


Most of us would agree that a human existence (or a human life form) begins with conception (when a sperm enters the egg and the result connects to a womb), but a “human existence” or a “human life form” are not necessarily the same as a “human

life,” and a human life or life form is not necessarily a person.  Perhaps this is why a foetus is called a “foetus” and not a “baby.”  Historically most people have considered personhood to begin with birth.  A mass of cells not yet having any form is not at all like a living, breathing, already-born person, although it would be accurate to describe it as a “potential person” or something developing toward being person.  Some mothers, though, imagine the foetus as a person from conception and talk to it and relate to it as if it were already born (in many of the same ways that one would relate to it after birth).  Some of these mothers are against abortion and some are not.

Right-to-life advocates are prone to suggest such things as that the foetus’s heart beats after only a few weeks of life, but this is physically untrue, since tissue contractions in

the area of where the heart will gradually develop is not a beating heart and does not function as a heart (squeezing and pushing blood through the vascular system).  At that point in development there is no heart as an organ and no vascular system.  Similarly, the foetus does not breath air on its own and does not process nutrients or eliminate waste products the same as it will after birth when it will not be connected to the vascular system of another person.

A human life is constantly changing, both in the womb and during life in the outside world, first in initial development, then in growth toward maturity, and then in decline as some cells no longer reproduce themselves accurately, thus leading to gradually poorer functioning until the whole human system can longer sustain itself and death (the lack of self-sustaining activity) occurs. 

Many pro-life advocates think of the foetus as having a soul that is placed there by God, which makes it a person worth saving, though there are many pro-life advocates who do not believe in souls but still think that the foetus is a person and therefore deserves protecting.  It is unclear how many pro-choice persons think that a soul exists in the foetus but that abortion is still OK, but people who are atheist, non-theist, non-religious, or philosophically materialist would all say that there is no such thing as a soul (which means that abortion would not eliminate a soul).

The legal compromise (Roe vs. Wade) between pro-choice and right-to-life claims has been to say that abortion is not permitted after the foetus reaches “viability.”  Viability used to mean “able to exist in the outside world (out of the womb, by breathing on its own, ingesting nutrients orally and processing them for energy) with only ‘normal’ parental care” (at roughly the end of the second trimester of pregnancy), but as medical science has progressed in being able to keep premature babies alive through mechanical means, some people now think of viability as the point at which a foetus could be kept alive in neonatal intensive care units, albeit at great cost, even though without this special assistance, the foetus could not survive.

Similarly, people have traditionally reserved treating the foetus as a person until after birth, when we interact with the baby in caretaking, give the baby a name, christen the baby, etc.  We look forward to the birth to celebrate a beginning, even though the process of development toward life begins nine months previous to that.  The large number of spontaneous abortions (which is even larger than the medically recorded number of spontaneous abortions, since many occur without even the woman knowing for sure that she is pregnant) can lead to the notion that gestation (growth in the womb) is nature’s trial period to see if each sperm-egg combination is going to be able to survive after birth.  If the foetus from the beginning is a person, and every person has a soul, then these spontaneous abortions might suggest that God kills a lot of people (unless, as some believe) at death the soul ascends to heaven.  A claim by pro-life persons that abortion kills a soul is not consistent with this more widespread religious belief that souls instantly go to heaven (or back to God) upon death.  The number of spontaneous abortions also argues against the idea that God wants a particular person (a particular genetic arrangement) to exist so that that unique person will be a part of creation.

In the non-religious view, there is no scientifically defensible argument for “a person” to begin to exist at some identifiable point in utero, since development is continuous, and there are no “break points” or “turning a corner” involved at any stage.

If a person exists from conception, then stopping the existence of the foetus could be seen as murder, while if there is no person, then it cannot be murder.  Pro-life persons want it to be seen as murder (so that abortion will be illegal as well as immoral), while pro-choice persons, who don’t think there is a person there, can’t see it as murder.

If a person exists from conception, then our legal concepts would require considerable adjustment.  It would be difficult (and controversial) for persons inside another person’s body to be viewed and treated the same way as persons following birth.  In order to be consistent, people who believe that a person exists from conception might eventually wish to have legal control over the pregnant woman’s body, to protect the foetus, including incarceration for putting the foetus at risk by drinking, smoking, not wearing a seatbelt, or eating the wrong foods.  Some might advocate for “gestation police” and in-home surveillance to make sure that the foetus was protected.


Since pregnant women are the ones affected the most by pregnancies (both currently while pregnant and in regard to the implied commitment post-pregnancy to raise the child), it would seem reasonable that of all the persons already born, they should have the most say or even the only say regarding continuation of pregnancies.  A pregnant woman could wish to terminate a pregnancy before birth either because she dislikes being pregnant or because she does not wish to give birth to and raise a child.  (There could be other reasons, like the angry wish to subvert God’s intent for her to be pregnant or the angry wish to harm the man involved, but these are probably rare.)

The only argument that the pregnant woman should not have control over whether the pregnancy continues to term must be based on someone or something else also having an interest or stake in the matter and therefore a say in determining whether the pregnancy continues.  The candidates for this are the foetus if it is a person, God, the man who impregnated her, her family, the family of the man involved, and society as a whole in the form of laws regulating behavior.  Subgroups in society could wish to have a say in the matter (like those wishing to change laws regarding abortion), and they may voice their opinions and wishes, but we agree that only the total society will have formal and enforceable impact through its current laws.

If the foetus is not a person, then it would have no say in the matter.  If the foetus is a person, then it is difficult to determine its wishes or who could speak for it.  A foetus will only have a “say” through someone else (who is already a person) speaking for it, and we should be wary of anyone claiming to speak for the foetus, since doing so is a perfect opportunity to say what the speaker wants and not necessarily what the foetus wants.  We would probably be justified in assuming that the foetus doesn’t “want” anything, at least until the six month point in the pregnancy, and it would be difficult to discern what it did want after that point.  We could impute wants to the foetus (good nutrients?, comfort in the womb?), but that is not necessarily what the foetus wants (if it “wants” anything).

The man who impregnated her could have an emotional stake in the continuation of the pregnancy, either from wanting to have a child or wishing for the pregnancy and the resulting child to bring him closer to the mother.  Some, perhaps many, men would not feel either of these.  Some men might have a moral belief that abortion is murder and would therefore prefer that the woman not abort.  Some men might believe that the pregnancy embodies the intent of God (that God intends for this particular child to be born) and would therefore prefer that the woman not abort.  The families of the woman and the man could have these same concerns and preferences.  The man who impregnated her and these families might also wish for children in order to increase their power and the size of their clans, but these are less important considerations than they used to be and seem minor in our society compared to the claims of the pregnant woman.

While we can appreciate the concerns and wishes of the man and the families, the much greater risk and commitment of the pregnant woman versus the risk and commitment of these other entities argues that her wishes regarding continuation of the pregnancy should carry more weight than theirs.  Pregnancy takes a toll on the body and could result in death, and women still make far larger contributions to childrearing than men or extended families.  Women often give up education, careers, and other possibilities in life because of childrearing.  Any “time out” to raise children, even to age six for example, reduces a woman’s chances for lifetime advancement in most jobs and careers.  In our largely individualistic society, her individual sacrifices carry more weight than the wishes of the man who impregnated her and the families, but there are subcultures within our society which would consider the family’s wishes and decisions more important than the woman’s concerns, and that might also be the predominant view in more collectivist societies.

The moral and religious concerns of the man and of the families regarding abortion may be considered, but in our society moral concerns only require certain behavior if embodied in actual law.  The primary moral concern cited in current arguments is that abortion is murder, but this is not convincing to many.  (A number of states seem poised to deem it murder if the Supreme Court overturns Roe.)

In the past, children were important sources of labor, of old-age security, and of power (strength in numbers) for couples and for extended families, but in developed countries, these are no longer important concerns.  We no longer need greater numbers of human beings in the world to ensure the continuation of the species.  In the view of many, there are already too many human beings in the world, leading to greater and greater problems with pollution and degradation of the natural environment.

Regarding the possible interests of God in this matter, some believe that God intends for every pregnancy to produce a child and that to interfere with that (through abortion) is therefore “wrong.”  These beliefs are inconsistent with the large number of spontaneous abortions that take place, since the only explanation for these that would be consistent would be that God changed His mind (which is not consistent with the view of God of most people).  (If God knew in advance, as we presume He/She would, that this particular combination of egg and sperm could not be carried to term by this particular body, then what was the point of letting it start in the first place?) 

This concern for God’s intent is also at variance with all contraceptive efforts (including the rhythm method and surgical prevention of pregnancy such as hysterectomies) since they would be interference with God’s intent.   It seems unlikely that God would both view creation as His/Her exclusive domain and also allow humans to do the haphazard creation of new humans that they do.  Finally, according to the belief that every conception is intended by God to result in a person, rape could be seen as an instrument of God, or we would have to think that God doesn’t care about the mother’s, father’s, or family’s feelings regarding the context in which the pregnancy occurred (or about the impact these feelings could have on the child).  

An alternative possibility, of course, with regard to God’s place in abortion decisions would be to say that God is not in control of everything or is not intending anything in particular, but most believers will not want to give up their belief that someone is in charge of everything.  It could be that He/She is against any termination of life and simply expects us to adjust to whatever happens pregnancy-wise with grace and compassion, but many people will not want to believe that God favors the embryo so strongly over all of the impacts that the pregnancy and birth will have on the already living mother.

While people have greater ability these days to prevent pregnancy while still having sex, we still have unwanted pregnancies.  What responsibility do persons have for the foetus if they have failed to prevent that pregnancy?  Pro-life persons might argue that if you allowed the pregnancy, you have the responsibility to give the resulting foetus a life, while pro-choice persons would view this is an unfortunate accident the results of which should be remedied as soon as possible.  There might be a moral difference also between failing to prevent the pregnancy through neglect (not getting the pill, not using the condom) versus through failure of a faithfully applied and usually effective method, but pro-life persons would say that no matter how it happened, the foetus is now there and alive and deserves a life.

There are differences of opinion also about whether the likely future of the foetus as child should enter into these considerations.  Pro-life advocates seem to believe that any quality of life is better than no life (which is why they put such emphasis on “hope,” even in “hopeless” situations), while many pro-choice advocates seem to believe that if the life of the foetus as child is likely to be unhappy or damaging, through unrelieved poverty, a bleak or criminal environment, poor treatment received from a mother who does not want the child, or poor treatment received from immature and sometimes violent parents, then abortion (and therefore not living that problematic life) seems like a merciful thing to do.  This of course is an opinion.  Neither pro-life nor pro-choice persons can know what a foetus’s life will be or how that person will deal with his/her life.  Pro-life persons may think of these unwanted babies as rising heroically above any obstacles to achieve eventual happiness (“anyone can succeed if they just work hard enough”), while pro-choice persons imagine lives of fear and agony for many unwanted children, due to parental abuse, attitudes, and circumstances.

If abortion were banned, some pro-life advocates and legislators are willing to put additional public funding toward counselors to keep up the spirits of the woman who does not want to carry the foetus to term and providing adoption options upon birth (how is unspecified), and some have already taken this step or have volunteered to do this supportive counseling.  Perhaps a very small number of pro-life believers are also willing to take on babies whose mothers did not want to carry them to term and still do not wish to be mothers, but the pro-life movement by and large simply wants women to want their babies and raise them themselves, regardless of whether they do want them or whether they want to be mothers.  They see this as a moral position (women should want these things and there is therefore something wrong with them if they do not), though psychology in general is clear that trying to force a person to feel something he/she does not feel is both fruitless and a violation of the person’s freedom of self-determination. 

Pro-life persons would say that something can’t be a violation of a freedom if it means doing what authority says you should do—either God or the law, because you should not think you have that freedom in the first place.  Pro-life persons (being more conservative in general) are predictably slow to want to change social conditions (poverty, unequal schools, child abuse except for sexual abuse), because they want to believe in the individual’s ability in all of us to succeed despite difficult conditions, while pro-choice persons would want to improve these conditions through government before more mothers are encouraged to have babies.

Pro-life persons push for more “help” for pregnant women, such as counseling against abortion and providing prenatal and postnatal emotional support for the woman toward that end, but of course this “help” has already determined what is best for the woman, regardless of the impact of this position on the woman.

The rights and responsibilities of men in regard to a foetus are strangely absent from discussions and debates about abortion, though this is consistent with the primordial image we have of males roaming about impregnating as many females as possible and having no real responsibility for the results.  Apparently, though, evolution has favored the offspring of males who also protected their offspring (while trying to cut off access of the mothers of those offspring to other males).  One way of raising greater awareness in the men of our society with regard to the life costs of banning abortion would be for men to be faced with (or at least consider in secret) what it feels like to have an analogous restriction for themselves—e.g., imagine that there was an “impregnation tax,” imposed only on men, that required every father (biological or assumed) to contribute twenty-five percent of his income during the pregnancy to the government (or work in a childcare center an hour and a half every day during the pregnancy).  There would be great outrage among men, which could clue them in to realizing the thundering impact on women of being required to carry the foetus to term when they don’t want to.

As women’s rights have developed over the last hundred years in our society, it seems like a step backward to many women to lose control over whether they continue an unwanted pregnancy.  Some on the other side, of course, feel that woman’s place is in fact in the home and woman’s role is motherhood, and anything else like job or career must be squeezed in in addition to these primary functions, which must take precedence.  The idea that society should force women to be mothers when they don’t want to be seems grotesque to pro-choice persons but seems simply as doing the right thing to pro-life persons.  To be forced by an abortion ban to carry a child to term and then raise it for eighteen years is a great burden and is an amount of sacrifice that men would never accept, including the male politicians who wish to ban abortion.  Many women now see it as reasonable that they might wish to have a vocation other than child-rearing—reasonable enough that they “should” be able to opt out of a pregnancy.

Overall, then, in our individualistic society, the strongest arguments seem to favor the woman’s power to make decisions about her pregnancy, since she is so much more impacted by the pregnancy and birth than anyone else, and since the idea of God placing so much more value on the foetus than on the pregnant woman (as illustrated by Catholic hospitals that will not intervene in a pregnancy even though the pregnant woman’s life is about to expire) seems senseless and difficult to believe.


Pro-life persons who think of a foetus as already being a person will think that the foetus

has rights from conception, even if those rights are not clearly defined or understood.  The right that pro-life persons are most concerned about is protection from being “murdered” through abortion, but post-birth persons have other rights as well, such as protection from ill treatment (some of it “child abuse” including acting in ways that endanger the foetus).  Pro-choice persons typically view rights as starting at birth but may also be concerned about how the pregnant woman’s behavior could harm the foetus.  Given that the pregnant woman’s behavior could harm the foetus, some behaviors by the pregnant woman could potentially be seen as child abuse.  A few states have laws about endangering a foetus, and there are cases of pregnant women being incarcerated (in jail) solely in order to prevent behavior (excessive drugs, alcohol) which was thought to be bad for the foetus.

For the vast majority of women, being pregnant results “naturally” in concern for the foetus and in taking measures to safeguard its welfare.  There has not been sufficient concern about safeguarding of the foetus to lead to specific requirements (e.g., mandatory prenatal medical care) or penalties (e.g, jail punishment) for the mother’s “treatment” of the foetus.  Since science has indicated that the intake of many substances can cause harm to the foetus, many women have tried to use this information, by not using alcohol or tobacco, for instance, but many have not refrained despite the risks.  Those concerned about maximizing the welfare of the foetus have begun to agitate to force women to stop smoking and drinking (and other things) during pregnancy.  Science does not help us sort out what is appropriate behavior, since it cannot say that even small amounts of alcohol or tobacco use will harm a given foetus, and it does not say how much use makes harm probable.  


Since successful contraception could eliminate the need for abortion, we may ask what

moral responsibility men and women have for contraception.  The Catholic Church, of course, formally forbids contraception (except by abstinence) because God has a plan that includes every potential person, and contraception, then, interferes with God’s plan.  In practice, priests usually turn a blind eye to contraception by their charges, especially in the U.S. where the majority of Catholics simply disregard the Pope’s stand on this.

To some, it seems reasonable to tell women who ignore contraception and then have an unwanted pregnancy that they must carry the baby to term (although this ignores the huge price that she will pay for that error).  At the same time, carefully used birth control methods can occasionally fail, and it doesn’t seem fair to exact the same price for taking appropriate steps for prevention that don’t work as they should.  As usual, our society does not have the same expectations of men for contraception as it does for women, and it does not ensure that men bear an equal burden for pregnancies that occur (equal to the burden of carrying the foetus to term).


The impact on women who do not want to have or raise children of being forced to do so is both emotional and practical.  Considerable anger and resentment are generated by being forced to have and/or raise children.  This anger is toward those in society who force the woman into that situation, but it bleeds over, unfortunately, onto the foetus, or later, the child.  The anger probably also colors other interactions the woman has with society in general.  This issue—being forced to have a child, is primary for many women among the many issues that arise from making abortion unavailable or illegal (hence the placards in rallies reading “hands off our bodies”).  It is perhaps difficult for pro-life women to fully imagine this feeling, since many of them view having children as simply normal and cannot imagine a sane or proper woman feeling otherwise.  The realities of reproduction have always put more burden on women than on men, and many women have accepted this unequal burden and feel good about doing this good work, but not all women see it this way.  We have not faced this issue (forcing women to carry a child) as a society until now, since until recently whether or not a given sexual encounter would result in conception was in the realm of the unknown and unpredictable and was dealt with as the luck of the draw rather than involving any choice.

For some women, a further practical impact (beyond the practical impact of carrying the foetus to term and then raising it) is the damage to a career that the mother is engaged in.  Having a child ends the hopes of many younger women for advanced education, as it is extra difficult to fit college into one’s life in mid-life when child-raising draws to a close.  Even being home for a child’s first six years takes critical years out of a professional career and causes considerable financial damage, which the mother can never really make up, since the resume of these mothers will never compare with those whose careers have been continuous.  This is a problem for both mothers who want their children and those who don’t, but mothers who want children can tolerate this with less anger, because their mothering has positive meaning for them, while mothers who do not want children are harmed for no personal gain for them, and society has no answer or concern about this.

The possibility of legally prohibiting employers from treating women who have not worked while raising children the same as those who have not could result in a bit more equity, but it would be very difficult to prove in court that this experience difference was the reason for a given applicant not getting a job.  We could also insist legally that women who have not worked while raising children be given credit for those years for purposes of pay determination, but many women who have not taken time off for childraising would call this unfair.


Research seems to show consistently that unwanted children do worse in life, getting lower grades in school and having more clashes with the law.  Assuming that people who have children but do not want them are not genetically inferior in general, then we could conclude that growing up unwanted (with routinely less love or even negative messages from parents) has enough negative effects on them to result in these research-proven decrements in functioning, and we could reasonably presume that these children will have less happy lives as well as less successful lives then children who are wanted.

There are, of course, a few unwanted children who manage to succeed and find love in life, but it is unclear what makes this possible for them.  In some cases, some other caring person is in a position to provide support, encouragement, and love (a relative, a neighbor, a teacher, etc.), but in most cases the blot on self-worth that not being wanted causes carries over to all other relationships and makes it impossible for the child to accept help from anyone else.

Pro-choice persons think that abortion is a merciful way to prevent the unhappiness, failure, and emotional pain of these unwanted children (and, of course, they don’t think that abortion eliminates a “baby” anyway).  If she experiences any of the instinctual positivity toward the child that evolution has provide most women with, the mother forced to have children will be faced after the birth with a painful and difficult decision about whether to swallow her anger and resentment and raise the child versus putting the child into the foster care system, where the level of care is often substandard.

Pro-life persons feel that any life is worth living, regardless of unhappiness, pain due to being unwanted, or failure in life.  This is consistent with an attitude of “there is always hope” but ignores what it is like to actually live those lives.  Pro-life persons might hope that mothers will come around to wanting their children when they are born, but we know that this does not happen, in reality, for many of these mothers.  The answer is not more social services, since these by themselves are not likely to change the mother’s mind.  (Social services in general are distasteful anyway to many pro-life persons who believe in personal and family responsibility.)  Pro-life persons say they want more pre-birth and post-birth counseling for mothers, but the resentment of mothers who do not want their children poisons most such counseling from the start.  Pro-life persons say that children can be adopted, but the large number of children in foster care, compared to the number adopted, indicates that this is not a solution, either.


As noted above, research shows that unwanted children fare worse in life than children who are wanted or children whose parents come around to loving them after their birth, and it seems a very long sentence (18 years) to insist that mothers and fathers rear a child they do not want.  Pro-life persons have not offered to adopt these children, and their position seems to be that mothers will come around to wanting and loving their children later, even if they don’t want them during pregnancy.  Some percentage of mothers do change to enthusiasm for the child after birth (30 percent?), but even more do not, thus leaving those children in the position of not having the love that is essential to maturation and becoming a good person.  So what is to happen to these unwanted children who are not lucky enough to be adopted or placed with a foster family that can really love them?

It can be argued that “forcing” people to become parents is only insisting that everyone do what it is “natural” to do (or what God intends for all of us) whether they want to or not (somewhat like maintaining that it should not be considered unfair for society to insist that people follow the laws whether they want to or not).  The counterargument is that nature does not “make” everyone have children but rather sets things up so that by hook or crook there will be children, some hoped for, some planned, and some “accidental.”  Nature does not punish people who do not have children.

Pro-choice persons assume that people “should” have choice about their lives in as many ways as possible, and they believe that mothers appropriately have responsibilities for their wanted children (and even for their unwanted children if no alternative care is possible).  Pro-life persons believe that mothers “should” be responsible for the human life (beginning with conception) that pro-life persons view as

worth protecting.  Both sides probably agree that a mother can end her responsibilities after the birth by turning the child over to adoption or foster care authorities.

Utilizing the general dictum that the person who wants something done should have first responsibility for it (i.e., if a person is hungry, it is that person’s responsibility, primarily, to seek out food), it is not unreasonable to think that pro-life persons bear some responsibility for caring for the children of mothers who do not wish to be mothers, since it is pro-life persons who want these children to have life.  The pro-life movement has not taken any of this responsibility, perhaps because they view abortion as murder and therefore wish to oppose abortion as a legal matter, rather than seeing forcing mothers to carry foetuses to term as simply the “wish” of pro-life persons.  Stopping abortions would at least double the number of babies “given” to adoption and foster care authorities at birth by mothers who do not want them, and pro-life persons could volunteer to raise some of these children, since they are the ones that want these children to live, but they probably will not inconvenience themselves in that way, using the argument that they are simply insisting that pro-choice mothers do the right thing by at least carrying the foetus to term.  Again, this demonstrates how dissimilar the perceptions and expectations of people on the two sides of this issue are.

If we accept that some people do not want to have children (and perhaps assuming that they acted responsibly in their use of contraception), then perhaps society should more clearly and automatically become responsible for children who are unwanted at birth.  Since there are not enough potential adopting parents, some of these unwanted children might then be raised in communal, government-paid settings, which, given enough financial support, could be fairly good experiences for the children.  However, financial support by society for raising children without parents is historically quite low and is some of the first funding to be cut when the budget is tight.  Pro-life advocates don’t deal with these eventualities, perhaps since they believe that all parents will become loving parents when confronted with the actual baby, even if they were against having children before.


The most salient issues regarding how to manage abortion, then, are (1) whether the foetus is a baby and a person (with all the implications of that), (2) whether women should be forced to carry a foetus to term if they have not been successful in preventing the pregnancy through contraception, and (3) who will care for a baby that is not wanted by its mother.  The first two are the most contentious.  Regarding baby vs. foetus, one side sees the foetus as a baby and possibly as a person as well, and the other does not accord it either status.  Many women are outraged that pro-life advocates want to “force” them to have children or at least to carry any foetus to term.

Since the pro-choice and pro-life positions are so antithetical, searching seriously for the best possible compromise, in terms of law and custom, would seem appropriate.  When one group treats the human life from conception as a baby, as a person, and as having rights, while another group completely disagrees with this perception, it is unlikely that either side will adopt the other’s viewpoint.  In my opinion, the best compromise between these intransigent sides seems to have already been reached—to allow abortions up to a certain point in the pregnancy without specifying legally that abortion before this point in pregnancy is murder.  This compromise is acceptable to some pro-life persons, but not to all those who view all abortion as murder.   Pro-choice persons are by and large satisfied with the Roe vs. Wade compromise and its follow-on limit on abortion after the point of viability as traditionally defined.  Compromise could probably be reached even on more stringent limits (such as fifteen weeks).  With its. general cut-off of foetal viability, Roe vs. Wade provides somewhat more support and “wiggle room” to pro-choice persons than it does to pro-life persons.

Even though there are sizeable variations in what any individual “believes” regarding these many complex issues, since there is such a difference between basic pro-life and pro-choice positions, it would make society more amicable if pro-life persons would let individuals decide for themselves about abortions and would stop their legislative efforts to make abortion illegal (which seem like efforts to force a majority of women to live like pro-life persons live simply because of a particular viewpoint—that the foetus is a person).  Efforts to compel others to adopt our own moral positions are always met with resistance or even hatred.  Justifying one’s insistence that others believe as one believes by referring to God as the origin or pro-life beliefs is not convincing to most pro-choice persons, and pro-life persons have not proposed that everyone should be compelled legally to adopt the religious beliefs of pro-life persons, which would certainly run counter to what most Americans believe about the country’s traditional stand on freedom of belief.  Another useful compromise might be for pro-life persons to adopt the goal of reducing the number of abortions rather than outlawing all abortions.

The monkey wrench in all efforts toward a compromise position is that some pro-life persons feel some moral responsibility for all aborted foetuses, regardless of circumstances and regardless of what other people might think or value.  A majority of people in our country want to have some abortion opportunities for women, although most accept some limitations (such as no abortions after some relatively arbitrary viability point).  Pro-choice persons don’t agree that pre-viability abortion is murder, so they see no reason for a law outlawing abortion.  Even the concession in laws of allowing abortion in cases of rape or incest must be unacceptable to those who believe that God has decreed that a foetus is the same as a baby and is a person.

It would also help (and instill some humility into discussions) if both sides would state both the pros and the cons of their own positions, rather than simply what they want.  Pro-life persons should, if honest, admit that outlawing abortion will increase the number of unwanted children (not all of whom will be adopted) who will suffer due to being unwanted or perhaps due to later finding out that they have been adopted, as well as requiring a very significant burden on a number of mothers who do not want the burdens of parenthood but who end up conforming to the law anyway.  Pro-choice persons should, if honest, admit that while it may not be murder, abortion does end the existence of a human life form (or potential human life) and one that could possibly become a full human being if given the chance.  Terminating a human life in this way is an awesome responsibility, whether or not it is murder.  Both sides should, if honest, admit that they do not have perfect solutions for the dilemma of unwanted pregnancy and the difficulties of unwanted children!

If the Supreme Court invalidates Roe vs. Wade, then it is likely that individual states will have jurisdiction on the matter in their own states, where this same debate will be carried out fifty different times.  Perhaps a Roe-like framework with a cut-off at 15 weeks, for example, would be possible in some states, which would be more restrictive than Roe but would still allow flexibility for pro-choice persons.  Some women will continue to get abortions no matter what, either by traveling to a state that allows them, by ordering by mail substances that could induce abortion (which states could, of course, make illegal), or by utilizing physical methods at home that have a significant chance of seriously harming the woman.  Congress could legislate on the matter, but the fear on the part of Congresspersons of angering pro-life advocates will probably keep them as silent as they have been about other controversial topics (such as immigration policy)!  The only hope for a settled position on the matter would seem to involve persons of both persuasions having greater empathy for the concerns of the people on the other side and therefore be open to a compromise on the matter such as the current position in Roe.


You can investigate the emotional underpinnings and the intransigence of the conflict by seriously responding to the following questions, which might lead you to conclude that the “other side” just might have something to say and which could then propel you to think in terms of compromise rather than victory over them.


What justification do you have for your perception of fetuses as babies and as persons?  Your perceptions are not built-in to human beings (proven by the fact that half the population doesn’t see it your way), so where did your perceptions come from, and recognizing that, what makes you think they are “right”?  What makes your perceptions any more “right” than the perceptions of people who don’t see it your way?

If you care about the welfare of mothers who don’t want to have children (as you say you do), what exactly justifies putting the right to exist of an unformed collection of cells above the right of the mother not to undergo the stresses and indignities of pregnancy?

Given that there is no consensus in our society about whether abortion is murder, what gives you the right to force other people to live your way?

If you acknowledge that pro-choice persons have some good points to make, then can you acknowledge that our best answer for living together amicably is compromise rather than winning?  How should we go about figuring out what the best compromise is?


At what point in development does a fetus become, in your mind, a baby and/or a person?  How do you justify abortions after that point in development?

What gives you the right to end the development of a human life, even if it doesn’t yet look like a baby?  What moral compromise are you making in ending that life?

What gives you justification for abortion when you consider the effects on everyone else concerned (the fetus, the mother, the other parent, the families, etc.)?

If you acknowledge that pro-life persons have some good points to make, then can you acknowledge that our best answer for living together amicably is compromise rather than winning?  How should we go about figuring out what the best compromise is?