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  • Paul Stark

Why the pro-life view can't just be 'personal'

In a recent New Yorker article about the political views of some younger evangelicals, Eliza Griswold describes the position on abortion of one such Christian, journalist and author Jonathan Merritt:

"I'm personally pro-life," he told me. "But would I pull a lever and overturn Roe v. Wade? The answer is no." Merritt's view is common among his fellow-believers: that abortion is wrong, and there are ways to work on reducing it without overturning the law of the land.

Abortion is wrong, according to Merritt's view, but it should be publicly permitted. This "personally pro-life" position can be understood in two possible ways. Both versions badly distort what it really means to be pro-life.

The wrong of abortion

First, those who hold the "personally pro-life" view may not take very seriously the idea that abortion is wrong. They may, for example, see unborn children as less valuable than older human beings. This might make abortion slightly wrong but not wrong enough to warrant government interference.

But that isn't the pro-life position. The pro-life position holds that all human beings are morally equal by virtue of their shared humanity. It doesn't divide humanity into those who matter and those who matter a little or not at all. That's what the standard pro-choice position does.

Another reason people may not take abortion seriously is that they treat it as a matter of personal preference. Abortion is wrong for them, maybe, but not necessarily wrong for others.

But the pro-life position isn't that we don't like abortion or simply wouldn't make that choice ourselves. It's that abortion is actually wrong, whether we like it or not. No one says, "I'm personally against sex trafficking, but that's just my own view. I can't push it on everyone else."

Trafficking human beings is wrong for everybody. And killing children in utero is too.

The role of government

Second, those who hold the "personally pro-life" position may do so because they don't appreciate the proper role of government or law in the context of abortion. Abortion is seriously and objectively wrong, they think, but it should be allowed as a matter of public policy.

It's true that countless unethical activities (e.g., lying) aren't necessarily illegal. The government shouldn't always try to stop bad things from happening.

But one role government should play—a role that seems uncontroversial—is to safeguard basic human rights and, in particular, prevent lethal violence against the innocent. The United States was literally founded on the idea that "governments are instituted" to "secure [the unalienable] rights" of "all [human beings]."

The pro-life position is that abortion is a violation of basic human rights. It's violence against innocent human beings. If that position is true, then abortion is precisely the kind of act that ought to be legally prohibited. It doesn't matter if you're a socialist, a progressive, a conservative, or a hard-core libertarian. People of all political stripes (except, presumably, anarchists) agree that the law, whatever else it should or should not do, ought to at least protect people from unjust killing.

That's why the "personally pro-life" view is, as philosopher Julie Kirsch writes (with some understatement), "puzzling." The reason abortion is wrong is also the reason it should not be permitted.

Some people say that, rather than try to change the law, pro-life advocates should pursue measures to reduce the "need" for abortion or address its root causes. We should certainly try to reduce abortions through various avenues (as the pro-life movement has done). But this is no substitute for equal protection under the law. Nobody argues that we should legalize child abuse and just focus on its "underlying causes." Unborn children, like born children, deserve protection.

Many people say, though, that abortion should remain legal because laws against it don't work anyway or produce terrible outcomes. This appears to be Jonathan Merritt's own rationale for holding the "personally pro-life" view. In response to criticism on Twitter, he suggests that making abortion illegal wouldn't prevent abortion and would cause the deaths of women from coat-hanger abortions.

This claim suffers from two major difficulties. First, there's a factual problem. Evidence from around the world shows that a high standard of maternal health simply doesn't require legalized abortion. In the U.S., for example, antibiotics and other medical advances led to a huge drop in abortion-related mortality well before Roe v. Wade, which had no apparent effect on death rates.

Merritt is also mistaken to dismiss the impact of legal restrictions on the incidence of abortion. Laws can't stop all abortions, of course, just as laws can't stop all cases of sexual assault. But a strong body of evidence shows that laws can and do influence abortion numbers. Well-designed and properly implemented laws may, in fact, be the single most effective tool for reducing abortions.

Second, Merritt's view still can't overcome the justice problem. If abortion is unjust, the risks some people might assume by choosing to participate in the injustice are not a very good reason to make it legal. And if unborn children deserve protection under the law, then any difficulties in upholding that law are not a very good reason to abandon those children to industrial-scale dismemberment and destruction.

If a government ought to exist, and if it ought to protect basic human rights, then Merritt's position falls apart.

What it means to be pro-life

The pro-life position, then, can't just be "personal." It is inherently public.

It holds that unborn children have a right to life and that abortion is a breach of justice. Rights are entitlements. They demand the respect of others. Justice is giving people their due and treating them how they deserve to be treated.

All of this is public. It's about our society. It's about how we treat each other.

The pro-life position is also public in one other way. It's not a mere belief—it's a belief that entails public action. That's because if we don't seek justice, if we don't seek to defend the defenseless, then we're not acting as if we really believe the defenseless deserve defending in the first place.

To be pro-life is to believe that every human being matters—and to act accordingly.

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