A lot of the rhetoric surrounding abortion turns out to be nonsense.
Consider an example from South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who is currently running for president. When asked if there should be any limits on abortion, Buttigieg responded: "No, I think the dialogue has gotten so caught up on where you draw the line, that we've gotten away from the fundamental question of who gets to draw the line, and I trust women to draw the line when it's their life."
In another interview, he expressed the same idea: "No matter what you think about the cosmic question of how life begins, most Americans can get on board with the idea of, 'I might draw the here. You might draw the line there.' The most important thing is the person who should be drawing the line is the woman making the decision."
This kind of language has some surface-level rhetorical appeal. But think carefully about these remarks. What exactly is Buttigieg saying?
He could mean that women should get to "draw the line" regarding when human beings in utero matter and when they don't. But no one really thinks that human rights are bestowed by the decision of another person. We don't get to decide, for example, that it's okay to kill people who are inconvenient to us because they don't count. That's not how rights work.
Buttigieg could mean, more generally, that women should get to "draw the line" regarding what is and is not ethically permissible. But Buttigieg knows well that right and wrong don't depend on what someone thinks, or feels, or decides. They aren't a matter of personal preference. That's why child abuse, for example, is wrong even if the child abuser thinks that it's right.
Finally, Buttigieg could simply mean that government shouldn't get involved in this area—the law should allow women to decide ("draw the line") whether or not to have abortions. This might be the most charitable interpretation. But while government should allow people to decide to do all sorts of things, there are some things people shouldn't be allowed to do—like things that are unjust.
Is abortion one of those unjust things? Buttigieg doesn’t want to deal with this question. Indeed, he says the "fundamental question" isn't "where you draw the line" but rather "who gets to draw the line." The "most important thing," that is, isn't the justice of abortion—it's simply that abortion should be allowed. We should "trust" women, Buttigieg says.
This is pretty obviously backwards. Abortion should only be allowed if it's not unjust. Are there other unjust acts whose legality we advocate by saying that we need to trust people? No one wants to legalize spousal abuse on the grounds that we should "trust men." No one wants to abolish child support requirements on the grounds that we should "trust dads."
The reason for laws pertaining to spousal abuse and child support, of course, is not that we don't think men or fathers are capable of making their own decisions. It's that certain acts harm innocent people and ought to be guarded against in a just and compassionate society.
The question in the abortion debate is whether abortion is that kind of act. Do unborn human beings have human rights just like all other members of the human family? Does it therefore violate human rights to tear off their arms and legs, crush their skulls, and end their lives?
That's the question that most rhetoric in support of abortion is designed to avoid.
This article appears in the September 2019 issue of NRL News.