Abortion and the Meaning Of “Life”

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”1

It’s amusing how a children’s book from the 19th Century can have relevance to one of the most contentious ethical issues in history.

In a recent podcast appearance, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, an increasingly controversial figure as of late, made an interesting response to criticisms of her office’s exempting abortion clinics from the shutdown of non-essential elective surgery wards:

“We stopped elective surgeries here in Michigan,” she said. “Some people have tried to say that that type of a procedure is considered the same and that’s ridiculous. A woman’s healthcare, her whole future, her ability to decide if and when she starts a family is not an election, it is a fundamental to her life. It is life sustaining and it’s something that government should not be getting in the middle of.”2

Her comments reflect a semi-recent trend on the part of some prominent pro-choice activists, a sort of reframing the debate by casting the pro-choice position as the truly “pro-life” position. By equivocating on the word “life”, those who defend abortion are given an infinite number of ways to claim the moral high ground and shred the credibility of the pro-life movement. A whole litany of bad arguments and lazy excuses then follow, which will be answered in future posts. For now, this piece will focus on the assumptions underlying Governor Whitmer’s comments.

In a previous piece, I answered the charge that abortion should be considered “essential healthcare”.3 To summarize, since pregnancy is not the result of an unhealthy condition, but is actually the end result of healthily functioning reproductive organs during sexual intercourse, then a pregnancy cannot properly be called an unhealthy condition. Inconvenient, perhaps, but inconvenience doesn’t necessarily equate to a medical problem that we are entitled to free ourselves from through surgery whenever we wish. You cannot call the purposeful interruption of a healthy outcome “healthcare”. You also cannot call the destruction of the outcome of properly functioning body parts healthcare. We know that abortion is geared towards destruction. Dr. Warren Hern, author of the medical textbook Abortion Practice, made this very observation at the conclusion of a paper presented to a conference of abortion providers: “We have reached a point in this particular technology [D&E abortion] where there is no possibility of denying an act of destruction. It is before one’s eyes. The sensations of dismemberment flow through the forceps like an electric current.”4

Because abortion directly destroys the end result of two properly working bodily systems (which just so happens to be one’s own offspring), calling elective abortion “healthcare” makes about as much sense as bathing nude in raw sewage and calling it “hygiene”. The intentionally destructive nature of abortion undermines the claim to healthcare that activists are fond of asserting.

Furthermore, the absurdity of Whitmer’s comments (and similar comments) can be exposed with a very easy question: Exactly whom is abortion supposed to be “life-sustaining” for?

Clearly, the answer doesn’t include the unborn. Whitmer has lazily assumed that the unborn, who are targeted for destruction in elective abortion, are not also members of the human family to whom we have an obligation. This is the lazy way out. It’s an excuse to avoid answering the question “What are the unborn?”

To illustrate the moral issues at play, if a single mother killed her toddler, would Whitmer’s excuses even make sense? Would we say that the mother’s life, or her healthcare, or her whole future are now certain? While we might sympathize with the circumstances she lived through prior to making the decision, it’s hard to show much sympathy towards the decision to take an innocent human’s life in order to further your own.

So what’s the difference when it comes to the unborn? Whitmer doesn’t get off the hook so easily. Sure, they are far smaller, and are hidden from our view, but that hardly seems relevant. Anyone who asserts, directly or indirectly, that there is a morally significant difference that allows us to justifiably kill the unborn needs to be clear as to what the difference truly is. Given the variety and often contradictory answers the pro-choice movement gives us, it seems that the abortion-choice movement rests on a morally flimsy foundation.

Whitmer’s comments also reflect a sort of intellectual laziness, in such a way that it is elevated to a near-art form.

Why is abortion almost always the first answer to hard circumstances that pro-choice advocates (such as Whitmer) punt to? Does she believe that women, faced with an unplanned pregnancy, are somehow incapable of finding an alternative solution that both secures their own well-being, and doesn’t involve taking the life of their own son or daughter? Whitmer’s comments betray a lack of creativity when it comes to hard decisions. Abortion may be the easy answer to our immediate problems, but the likelihood that it is the only answer is abyssmally small. As is said of suicide, so is true of abortion: Don’t seek permanent solutions to temporary problems.

Indeed, on a final note, Whitmer’s assumptions about life itself may be called into question. How can anyone be said to be living a “good life” if their view of the good life is built on the taking of another life? Yes, unplanned pregnancies bring unique, and oftentimes vexing problems, but problems can be overcome. Death permanently and completely precludes a human being from ever experiencing any of the goods of life: They will never know what it means to love or be loved, they will never get to experience things of value such as friendship, trust, compassion, justice, or beauty. And they will never be able to build a good life for themselves. Abortion, it turns out, is the ultimate anti-choice position; executed with lethal force against an innocent human being who cannot fight back.

(1) Lewis. Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass Hayes Barton Press, 1872, ISBN 1-59377-216-5, p. 72.
(2) Quoted in “Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer ‘Abortion During Coronavirus is Life-Sustaining’”
(3) Apodaca, Nathan “Abortion: Essential Healthcare for Whom?” Merely Human Ministries, April 14, 2020
(4) Hern, Warren “What About Us? Staff Reactions to D&E” 1978