Thursday, May 20, 2010

The pro-choice plan to 'reduce the need for abortion'

Pro-choice advocates frequently say they want to "reduce the number of abortions," and that this can be accomplished not by enacting actual legal restrictions (however modest), but by implementing liberal policy ideas such as government-run health care, an enlarged welfare state, comprehensive sex education in schools and greater availability of contraception. Traditional pro-life legislation should be abandoned in favor of this new agenda, which will lessen the "need" for abortion and address the "underlying causes."

There are two problems here. One is an empirical, factual problem: Research shows clearly that standard pro-life legislation (legal restrictions, bans on taxpayer funded abortion, informed consent laws, parental notification requirementssignificantly reduces the number of abortions, while the impact of the pro-choice politician's preferred policies (over-the-counter emergency contraception, welfare spending, etc.) on abortion rates is dubious at best. Some argue that such policies actually work to increase the number of abortions, at least in the long term. (To be clear, MCCL takes no position on issues like sex ed and contraception.)

So if we really want to reduce abortions, as pro-choice politicians like Tom Horner and President Barack Obama claim, then pro-life legislation -- the kind supported by MCCL and National Right to Life -- is the way to go.

Second, there's a philosophical problem with this approach. As Francis Beckwith writes in a recent essay:
While pro-life activists have worked tirelessly over the years to reduce the number of abortions, a numerical reduction is not the point of their activism. The point is that all members of the human community, including the unborn, are entitled to the protection of the laws. "Reducing the number of abortions" could occur in a regime in which this principle of justice is denied, and that is the regime that President Obama wants to preserve and extend.

This is a regime in which the continued existence of the unborn is always at the absolute discretion of those who possess the power to decide to kill them or let them live. Reducing the number of these discretionary acts of killing simply by trying to pacify and/or accommodate the needs of individuals who otherwise would procure or encourage abortion only reinforces the idea that the unborn are subhuman creatures whose value depends exclusively on someone else's wanting them or deciding that they are worthy of being permitted to live. So, in theory at least, there could be fewer abortions while the culture and the law become increasingly unjust.

Consider this illustration. Imagine two men in nineteenth-century America having a discussion about reducing the number of slaves. One man says he is not interested in giving slaves full citizenship, but he would like to see a reduction in the number of people brought to this country to be slaves. The other man says that he, too, wants to reduce the number of slaves, but he proposes to do it by freeing the slaves and giving them the full citizenship to which they are entitled as a matter of natural justice.

Which man is really "against slavery" in a principled sense? The first wants to reduce the number of slaves, but only while retaining a regime of law that treats an entire class of human beings as subhuman property. The second believes that the juridical infrastructure should be changed to reflect the moral truth that slaves are human beings made in the image of God, who by being held in bondage are denied their fundamental rights.

Just as calling for a reduction in the number of slaves is not the same as believing that slaves are full members of the human community, so, too, calling for a reduction in the number of abortions is not the same as believing that unborn babies are full members of the human family—regardless of their size, level of development, environment, or dependency.
It would seem strange to focus on reducing the "need" for a man to abuse his wife, or to merely address the "root causes" of abuse (e.g., psychological issues) while keeping the practice legal. It is equally strange to talk that way about abortion if abortion is, indeed, the unjust killing of an innocent human being. Basic justice demands protection by law for every segment of the human family.

So it seems that legal restrictions are necessary both to save lives from abortion and because the pro-life position entails that unborn human beings be protected by law as a matter of basic justice.

Now, what about those who do not take the pro-life position? It makes sense that they would reject pro-life legislative efforts to restrict abortion. But why do they still want to "reduce the number of abortions" if abortion is morally unproblematic? I think, ironically, the only good reason to want to reduce abortions (namely, that abortion unjustly kills innocent human beings) is also the reason we ought to enact legal restrictions, and why the pro-choice alternative discussed above (liberal policy ideas) is wholly unsatisfactory.