• Paul Stark

Free will, moral agency, and abortion



Nancy Pelosi, the U.S. House minority leader, often invokes God and free will when asked about her opposition to any legal limits on abortion. "We are all endowed with a free will and a responsibility to answer for our actions," she has explained. "And … women should have that opportunity to exercise their free will."

Religious defenders of abortion frequently make this kind of argument. They appeal to choice or to the moral agency of women. "Choice is a God-given right," says the Rev. Carlton Veazey, former president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. He says he believes in "the moral agency of individuals" and their "right to make moral choices."


Willie Parker, a prominent abortion practitioner, says that the freedom to choose abortion is actually divine. "The part of you that's like God is the part that makes a choice," he writes. "That's what's sacred."

This moral agency argument, however, is a bizarre non sequitur. Our free will—our ability to make choices—doesn't mean that every choice we make is good or morally acceptable. Some choices aren't. Choices to mistreat other human beings, for example, are not good choices.

Nor does our free will mean that every act we choose should be permitted by law. That would be (literally) anarchy. Some acts should not be permitted. Most of us, for example, think that society should not allow acts that harm innocent people, violate basic human rights, or seriously undermine the common good.

Pelosi, Veazey, and Parker (like virtually everyone else) are definitely not anarchists. They agree that the law should prohibit certain harmful actions that people sometimes use their free will to pursue. Merely appealing to free will, therefore, doesn't justify anything. It does nothing to show why abortion is morally permissible or why it should be permitted under the law.

The question isn't whether we are free moral agents. We are. The question is whether using our agency to kill human beings in utero is a just thing to do. (It's not.)

This article appears in the November 2017 issue of NRL News.

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