Two days ago, I read Caitlin Flanagan’s piece at The Atlantic, The Dishonesty of the Abortion Debate. My immediate response was to write and record a Merely Human Moment (See those here) short podcast quickly addressing a couple of points. Then I held up. Flanagan’s article is well written. It plays some familiar notes but in a compelling way. That is why I decided to take a breath before responding. There are real problems with her piece, but they need to be answered the right way.
Flanagan devotes a large portion of her article to revisiting a bizarre chapter in abortion history, a period where the household cleaning product Lysol became an instrument in illegal abortions. She shares heartbreaking stories of women suffering and dying painful deaths from the internal damage caused by their uterus being filled with Lysol. The idea of anyone allowing someone else to do this to them is so obviously insane that it demonstrates just how desperate these women were to avoid another pregnancy, another child. She shares how her mother sat next to two young women as they died of botched abortions. It is impossible to read these stories and not be moved over the tragedy and the loss of hope. Flanagan uses this imagery to build her case. Even when the choice for abortion is by definition elective, the circumstances that drove women to these choices were far from frivolous. We cannot go back.
Usually when confronted with this type of argument I point out that it assumes the unborn are not human in the same way you and I are. This justification sees the intentional destruction of human life through the act of abortion as something lesser, or even of little significance, compared to the loss of life of the women so resolved not to give birth they acted against their own interest endangering and sometimes sacrificing their lives to avoid the reality of this new being. The argument mourns the thousands of women who died from illegal abortions while ignoring the millions of unborn human lives lost. Nowhere else in law would we make it easier to harm one group in order to protect another group from the terrible consequences of their choice to harm those others. The only way to embrace that idea is to assume the unborn are lesser than the women. Flanagan, however, does not do this.
The dishonesty she sees in the abortion debate is each side’s failure to engage the best arguments of the other side. Just as the pro-life side, in her mind, fails to see the complexities behind women choosing abortion no matter what obstacles are placed before them, the pro-choice side fails to see the most powerful argument of the other side. What is that argument? In her own words:
“The argument for abortion, if made honestly, requires many words: It must evoke the recent past, the dire consequences to women of making a very simple medical procedure illegal. The argument against it doesn’t take even a single word. The argument against it is a picture.”
Ultrasound technology opened a window into the world of the unborn for us all. It penetrated the dark mysterious environment of this new life and left us to confront the obvious truth. That is a little human being growing and developing. I don’t mean human in any trivial sense. Flanagan points out, the baby hiccups, it moves, it performs physical actions any mother or father would recognize in their born children. An ultrasound picture of your unborn child is, by her admission, a baby picture.
This is the unresolvable and unwinnable nature of the abortion argument Flanagan asks us to consider. The unborn is, by her words, one of us. But we can’t go back, so we must be allowed to destroy “one of us” to prevent the terrible anecdotes she shared earlier in the article from becoming tomorrow’s reality. It is a moving case, but ultimately deeply flawed.
The argument isn’t new, however artfully offered. The unborn are one us, but so are the women who abort them. If illegal abortion means women MUST die, then abortion MUST remain legal. Here we encounter the first problem with this reasoning. It isn’t necessary that women die from illegal abortions. Restricting abortions doesn’t force women to violate the law in order to destroy the life of “one of us.” As Greg Koukl argues,
“A woman is no more forced into the back alley when abortion is outlawed than a young man is forced to rob banks because the state won’t put him on welfare. Both have other options.”
Flanagan writes, “She tried to do something to save herself—because when you can’t face something, there is no other choice.” This isn’t true. It is better stated that when we think we can’t face something we often can’t see other choices. That is undoubtedly true. What is the most human response to a woman terrified about how an unexpected child will impact her life? Flanagan rightly dreads one aspect of the past; I would never want my own daughters in an hour of desperate fear to turn to someone who gives the following counsel:
I will take your money, you cannot tell anyone what happened, you cannot tell anyone who I am, and you can never seek my aid again no matter how badly I hurt you, even on the death bed I unintentionally put you on through financially profiting from helping you destroy your unborn offspring.
Those are precisely the promises extracted from these women by the abortionists who somehow become the mysterious heroes in abortion narratives when they are so obviously the villains. Even on their deathbeds, deathbeds created by someone willing to inject boiling water and Lysol into their uterus for a price, these women kept their promise. Even as good doctors worked to save them, they kept their abortionist’s identity a secret. I agree with Flanagan, I don’t want any more of those people in the lives of the women in my life.
Here is the problem. Legal abortion didn’t protect women from men like Kermit Gosnell or Ulrich Klopfer. It didn’t protect women from institutions offering no hope and only one solution. It didn’t protect them from abortionists that would lie about the fetal age to extract more money from them or even perform “abortions” on women who weren’t pregnant. Legal abortion didn’t get rid of the bad guys. All of society became a little like the back-alley abortionists extracting our promises from hurting women. Tell us nothing and never mention it.
Flanagan, like so many others, points to how legalizing abortion brought an end to thousands of women dying from illegal abortions in America every year. There are problems with this claim. First, in order to get to a time when larger numbers of women were dying, we have to go much farther back than the late 60’s and early 70’s when abortion laws changed. The year prior to Roe v Wade, 1972, the CDC claims there were 39 deaths as a result of illegal abortions in the United States as well as 24 deaths attributed to legal abortions that same year. Each one of those is a tragedy, but even if that number is conservative it is nowhere near the thousands so often claimed. Dr. Mary Calderone, a former medical director for Planned Parenthood wrote in 1959 (13 years prior to Roe v Wade), “Abortion is no longer a dangerous procedure. This applies not just to therapeutic abortions as performed in hospitals but also to so-called illegal abortions as done by physicians.” She credits advancements in medical treatment (chemotherapy and antibiotics) as well as the fact that 90% of illegal abortions were being performed by medical professionals and not the Lysol injecting maniacs in Flanagan’s article.
Flanagan provides further evidence to the true cause of the decrease in deaths related to abortion. In the article she linked by Dr. Karl Finzer, he explains his reason for sharing the stories of women in renal distress due to Lysol abortions. So that other doctors will check kidney function when they suspect they are treating a botched abortion and be better prepared to save their lives. Rather than legalizing abortion, the evidence indicates that a combination of medical advancements, proper diagnosis, and the rarity of non-medical professionals performing illegal abortions drove down those numbers prior to Roe v Wade. (For a more thorough look at this subject see here)
It is inarguable that what Flanagan shares is horrifying. It seems equally inarguable that it isn’t repeatable. Does anyone actually believe women will start injecting themselves with Lysol should Roe v Wade be overturned? Or that Lysol would begin offering veiled ads encouraging women to do so? Does anyone believe we will suddenly forget the basic biology we’ve collectively learned in the past century and immediately start behaving like we have the medical knowledge of people that lived in centuries past?
If Roe v Wade is overturned, we aren’t facing a bizarre dystopia. We are facing a political world where women can use their considerable numbers and abilities to advocate for their interests on a local level however each individual woman understands those interests. As legal scholar Joseph Dellapenna wrote, “Nor should we overlook that women are not an ‘insular minority’ in this or most nations; they are both the majority and an increasingly vocal and politically effective majority in the United States.” The strongest advocates I know for single mother’s on campuses and for women and families facing an unexpected pregnancy are pro-life women. They aren’t waiting for someone to fill in the gap and offer hope. They are actively doing it every day all around this nation. Flanagan doesn’t need to fear going back because these women would never passively allow such injustice. They would fight it just as they fight the injustice of abortion.
Flanagan’s case is that we must choose, either the unborn die or women die. It is a false dichotomy. We don’t have to allow our community’s unborn offspring to be killed to prevent women from dying. There are more helpful and hopeful options. If the unborn are one of us, as she says, then killing them requires sufficient moral justification. A woman’s understandable desperation combined with a third party’s willingness to anonymously risk the life of that woman in order to profit from her situation is not sufficient justification to kill one of us. It lacks both necessity and proportionality.
Which leads me to my final point, Flanagan imagines one of the victims of those Lysol abortions had other children. She paints a gut-wrenching picture of her husband having to leave his now dead wife and tell their children their mother is gone.
I would like to offer another imagining. To any pregnant woman facing a new and uncertain future, it is natural to mourn the loss of what you excepted tomorrow to be. I can’t fully understand that mourning, but I can empathize. When my daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, part of the pain was mourning what was lost. It wasn’t her real future or actual future, but it was a future we all hoped for. A life of health unencumbered by this new thing that destroyed those dreams like a wrecking ball.
In that wreckage, new dreams have spawned. Sadness gave way to something beautiful. Don’t only imagine the stress of pregnancy, imagine coming home one afternoon and the smile of that child being the best thing that happens to you all day. Don’t only think of the income lost. Imagine playing at the park for free and watching that child run, run like only kids lost in play can. That is what they can be. Don’t only imagine the worst, dare to imagine more love in your life as well.
I left behind a job in my mid-thirties with two small children to pursue a life in ministry. Our little family had next to nothing and absolutely no idea the life I now lead was in our future. We lived off of our savings and those savings were going fast. One night I stood in my kitchen while my wife played music and made a modest meal. The fear of the future consumed me. Then a song began to play. My young son patted me on the leg laughing, and I scooped him up and danced with him. Every fear, every doubt immediately disappeared. My circumstances were the same but holding that young man in my arms reordered my priorities. Whatever our future was going to be, I would face it with those people in my kitchen. I would gladly have less money and less outward success to have more dances with them. My son saved my life that night. His sisters have done the same countless times. You’ve imagined the worst, now I beg you to imagine how your unexpected child can reorder your world for good. You may have less of the trappings of this world and more of that child and be all the better and happier for it.
 Joseph Dellapenna, Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History, (Durham: Carolina Academic Press 2006) 1088
 Dellapenna, 1095-1096