Last month, I posed a list of questions to people who identify as pro-life. In the long comment thread which ensued, there were a fair number of people who stepped up to respond, both some who were traditionally religious as well as some who said they were atheists (but more about that later on). In this post and the previous one, I’ll survey and discuss their answers.
The Penalty for Doctors
The large majority of people who answered this question, to no one’s surprise I’m sure, said that doctors who perform abortions should be charged with murder. One person said they should be “removed from the community, until the person repents of this evil sin” (source).
The Penalty for Women
Interestingly, as contrasted to the last question, the large majority who answered this question said that women should be charged with a lesser penalty than doctors. Only one person said unambiguously that women who obtain abortions should be charged with first-degree murder. The dominant opinion was that the woman should either be given a lesser charge, like second-degree murder (6 of 12 said this) or no charge at all (3 of 12 said this). One person suggested the woman should be let off without charge “if she gives up the name of the abortionist” (source), and another said that bringing charges wouldn’t be “possible or useful” (source). See the next question for interpretation of these results.
Why Are the Penalties Different?
Why do most pro-lifers advocate punishing women who get abortions less harshly than doctors? There were two main lines of reasoning in the comments. First was what I’ll call the “mitigating circumstances” reaction: an unwanted pregnancy produces huge emotional stress and suffering, and a woman in that crisis situation shouldn’t be treated as harshly as a doctor, who presumably performs the abortion in cold blood. (Some examples of this: 1, 2, 3, 4.)
It’s fascinating to me that anti-choicers would make this argument, because it recognizes something that they don’t seem to acknowledge at any other time: an unwanted pregnancy is a terrifying prospect. Pregnancy can mean months of crippling nausea or enforced inactivity, can cause terrible pain and suffering, can result in disfigurement or death. Pro-choicers consider all of these to be excellent reasons why abortion should be legal – because we think it deeply immoral to force a person into that situation against their will, to make them take on those risks if they haven’t freely chosen to do so.
The other argument is that a doctor who performs an abortion is more directly culpable in ending the fetus’ life than a woman who merely seeks one out. Several people used the term “accessory” or “accomplice” (1, 2).
The obvious problem with this theory is that, if the doctor is the murderer, then the woman isn’t an accomplice, she’s the ringleader. She’s the one who came up with the idea for the crime and brought it to fruition. She’d effectively be in the same position as a person who hires a hitman, and in most jurisdictions, that person is also charged with murder.
I don’t think either of these reasons fully explain the discrepancy. I think there’s another reason that some respondents hinted at, but one came out and said explicitly: most anti-choicers are motivated by a patriarchal worldview in which women are treated not as rational, autonomous adults, but as permanent children, incapable of making their own decisions, who need to be guided and controlled for their own good. In this paranoid worldview, abortion isn’t the product of a woman’s autonomous choice, but of dastardly doctors who somehow deceive women into getting them for no particular reason. Here’s how that anti-choicer put it:
“In many cases, the woman doesn’t really understand what she’s doing.”
Should IVF Be Outlawed?
I was actually expecting a strong consensus in favor of outlawing IVF, but it turned out that there was more confusion on this question than consensus. 4 of 12 answers said that yes, they would ban it (one person said that IVF is “scientists playing God”); 2 others said they would only permit it as long as no embryos were discarded. (What do they think should be done with those excess embryos, I wonder? Implant them all and require the woman to carry them to term?)
The reasoning from people who weren’t advocating a ban was all over the map. One person said it should be legal “because you only kill life, that otherwise wouldn’t exist in the first place” (source). (Doesn’t this also apply to abortion?) Another person said that “Fertilized embryos outside the womb are not viable”, which is only true for a non-standard definition of “viable”. If an embryo deserves the moral status of a person, why should it matter whether or not it’s currently implanted in a uterine wall?
Should We Make Contraception More Available?
Again, this is a question where I expected a different pattern of answers than I got. Of 12 answers, 7 people said that yes, contraception should be as widely available as possible to reduce the need for abortion. One person, to my pleasant surprise, said that they personally were opposed to contraception for religious reasons, but didn’t think that should be a law for everyone. (One person said that contraception “enables promiscuity” and what we need instead is “Bible-based education” [source], the kind of abstinence-only fantasy rhetoric I was expecting more of.)
However, I don’t think the answers my site attracted were representative of the anti-choice movement. Of the 12 answers I surveyed, four of the respondents identified as pro-life atheists. No surprise that they were a majority of the pro-contraception answers. In real life, this movement is dominated by believers who oppose abortion on religious grounds, and who do believe that contraception should be unavailable. And one of the answers gave an inadvertently amusing proof of that:
In fact, I’m a member of an organization called Secular Pro-Life which seeks to show that abortion is not a religious issue, it’s a scientific and philosophical one… I am opposed to contraception for religious reasons[.] (source)
When I started reading that post, my interest was piqued by the idea of a secular person explaining his reasons for wanting abortion outlawed. But despite his declared membership in Secular Pro-Life, the author is not secular, but religious, as he himself admits. This fits with other evidence that allegedly “secular” anti-choice organizations are, in reality, mostly astroturf groups dominated by believers who want to present an appearance of atheist support, to make the anti-choice position seem less exclusively religious than it really is.
The Fire in the Fertility Clinic
Obviously, the point of this question was to test pro-life claims in a case of triage. If you believe that every human life is equally valuable, and if you truly believe that a single-cell fertilized embryo is the moral equivalent of a full-grown adult, then you should prefer the solution that saves more lives, even if those lives happen to be microscopic frozen embryos rather than living, thinking people.
But here’s the interesting thing: of the people who answered the question, every one said they’d save the girl, not the Petri dish. And their reasons for doing this were revealing.
As commenter Figs noted, the near-universal pro-lifer response to this question was “to lawyer away what makes it tough from their perspective”. Several people said that the frozen embryos might never be implanted even if saved, or if they were implanted, there was a chance that some or all of them would spontaneously abort anyway. (Obvious response: Change the scenario to stipulate that the embryos you save would all be implanted and would all develop into healthy pregnancies.) One respondent just made up an extra condition that the embryos would be destroyed by passing through fire no matter what. Another said that they’d save whichever had a better chance of coming out unharmed. (The point of the scenario was that either could survive unharmed and it was all up to the rescuer’s choice.)
Some people came a little closer to the truth by acknowledging that they’d save the girl rather than the embryos for emotional reasons, just as most people would save a relative over a stranger. But I think two replies in particular hit the relevant point squarely:
“It would be quite ethically logical for a pro-lifer to weigh the situation in the fertility clinic and decide that… they would choose to save the cowering five-year-old girl, due to the fact that, unlike the embryos, she will suffer a painful death if she is not plucked from harms way, whereas the embryos, even though they will tragically be lost, will not suffer in such a death.” (source)
“And while I would wish to prevent their loss of lives I would not empathize nearly as much with any potential proto-suffering to the palpable suffering I could relate to from the little girl.” (source)
In other words: the rights of a conscious human being to live and to be free of suffering trump the rights of microscopic multicellular embryos that can’t think or feel. Well done, fellows! You’ve admirably summarized the logic of the pro-choice position. Now all you have to do is apply that logic to your politics.
Why Have Evangelical Views Changed?
My bonus question asked why Christian evangelicals have changed their views on abortion in the last few decades (which they have). I didn’t get a lot of bites at this hook. Here are the few that did nibble:
“In previous eras many prominent Christians also supported slavery. Why do you think that was?” (source)
Well, that’s obvious: Christians supported slavery because the Bible says it’s okay. In America, at least, that changed because of a long and bloody war which the slaveholders lost, even though the pro-slavery passages haven’t been changed.
A second person’s suggestion was, “Turning away from politics and back to the Bible” (source). Since the Bible says nothing specific about abortion (and doesn’t consider pregnant women to be two people), I would love to know what Bible verses this person was thinking of.
A third person cited “advances in our understanding of the created world” (source), although, again, they didn’t specify what advances they had in mind.
One more person said that “Anyone who calls themselves a Christian and believes God would be okay with abortion either doesn’t know God, or has never read the Scriptures”, but then goes on to acknowledge that “there are no explicit statements in the Bible against abortion” (source). He didn’t attempt to answer why views have changed.
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