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  • Paul Stark

It's about justice: Correcting misunderstandings in the abortion debate



When it comes to a conversation as complex and important as the abortion debate, clear thinking is essential. Walter’s McClure’s recent commentary in the Star Tribune (“A friendly letter to pro-life believers”) is riddled with confusions. Correcting these mistakes can help put the debate on a sounder footing.

McClure, a defender of abortion, begins by trying to rule the pro-life position outside the bounds of public policy consideration. Both pro-life and pro-choice views, he writes, are “purely beliefs of faith or conscience.” While pro-lifers are free to personally believe that the unborn deserve protection, they are not free to actually seek to protect them. That would violate the religious liberty of others.

This is an egregious misunderstanding. Consider, instead, laws protecting human beings who are already born. Do such laws violate the religious freedom of those whose “beliefs of faith or conscience” tell them that born people lack a right to life?

Of course not. After all, those laws are about justice, not religious doctrine. One need not be religious in order to oppose the killing of born people. But one need not be religious in order to oppose the killing of the unborn either. (Indeed, the group Secular Pro-Life estimates, using polling data, that some 13 million pro-life Americans are not religious.)

The pro-life position is a view about what justice requires. It’s based on two core ideas. The first is a fact established by the science of human embryology—that human embryos and fetuses are distinct and living members of our species. They are not mere “cells,” as McClure calls them, but rather whole organisms developing themselves through the early stages of human life.

The second idea is that all human beings have human rights. Our rights don’t depend on characteristics like age, appearance, dependency, or cognitive ability. If that were true, then we wouldn’t have equal rights (we all differ with respect to such traits), and some people wouldn’t count at all (those who are too young, too old, too sick, or too disabled).

Instead, we have human rights simply because we are human. That’s why we all matter, and why we all matter equally. And since unborn children are human beings like us, they matter too.

McClure disagrees. Consider, now, the three reasons he puts forward for his view that unborn humans don’t count as members of the human family.

The first argument is that many such humans die of natural causes. This is, to put it gently, an indefensible line of thinking. The infant mortality rate was once extremely high (and still is in some places), but that didn’t make infants disposable. The reality of natural death doesn’t justify intentional killing.

McClure’s second argument is a popular thought experiment: If a fire breaks out in a fertility clinic and we can save either a dozen young embryos or a newborn baby, whom do we save? Wouldn’t we all choose the infant, and doesn’t that mean (as McClure puts it) “you do not really grant early unborn human life the right to life”?

Scenarios like this one, about which much has been written, can be made to point our intuitions in different directions. Those feelings—often based on surface appearances—aren’t always a reliable guide for how we ought to treat other human beings. Importantly, in the fertility lab case, we are not choosing whom to kill, but rather choosing whom to save when saving everyone isn’t possible. As with hospital or battlefield triage, our decision need not mean we think those left behind lack dignity or that destroying them is okay.

McClure’s final argument is that the denial of abortion “ruins” and “wreaks havoc on” people’s lives. He references “research on denied abortion” and probably has in mind a controversial project—one conducted by pro-choice advocates deeply intertwined with the abortion industry—known as “The Turnaway Study.” What McClure doesn’t mention is that this same research found that only a tiny fraction of women ultimately regret not being able to have an abortion. According to these pro-choice researchers, when women seek an abortion but can’t get one, they are later glad it didn’t happen.

This isn’t to deny that mothers often face extraordinarily challenging and unfair situations. But are such situations a reason (as McClure says they are) to think that the unborn don’t count or that abortion is a humane response? Suppose that laws against child abandonment lead to hardship for families dealing with financial crises. Even if true, that’s no reason to repeal the laws and allow the abandonment of those children.

If unborn children have rights, as born children do, then tough circumstances don’t justify killing them. Tough circumstances call on us, instead, to provide the support, the care, and the alternatives that women and their families need.

McClure is wrong: The abortion debate isn’t a theological dispute. It’s about the scope of human rights. McClure takes an exclusive view—one that says some members of our species are expendable and should be denied protection against acts of violence. As a review of his arguments shows, though, the case for this exclusion just isn’t very good.

This article appears in the October 2023 issue of NRL News.

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