Several years ago, I gave an open presentation to a student group at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Afterward a young man identifying himself as pro-choice approached me. He objected to a description of abortion procedures I gave in the presentation. The facts of my description were not in dispute. His objection was that the gruesome nature of the description seemed irrelevant to my moral point. “You would think abortion is wrong even if it weren’t gross. You only shared that description to emotionally manipulate your audience.”
This New York Times opinion piece by Jessica Valenti, The Anti-Abortion Movement Can’t Use This Myth Anymore, seeks to make a similar point. Valenti charges the pro-life movement with hypocrisy claiming increasing and greater access to the RU-486 abortion protocol disarms the pro-life movement of its main charge, abortion is a violent act. From the article:
“The primary political strategy of abortion foes relies on the claim that abortion is brutal and dangerous, a myth that is much harder to perpetuate when people can easily access medicine to safely end their pregnancies at home.”
After making the point that increasing advancements in medical science make abortion less and less invasive as more than 40% of women choosing to abort their offspring prior to birth choose to do so using RU-486 she goes on to write:
“Those who continue to insist that ending a pregnancy is terrifying and gruesome don’t have science — or common sense — on their side.”
The thrust of her claims center on a few main points. Abortion continues to become available earlier and earlier in pregnancy, in her own words before an embryo becomes a fetus. Abortion becomes safer and safer for women, undermining the point that abortion is dangerous. Abortion becomes increasingly private and less open to the charges of being gruesome and ugly. Do these claims hold up to scrutiny? Does Valenti either misunderstand or misrepresent the pro-life position depending on how charitable we wish to be in evaluating her claims?
Early abortion is still abortion
Valenti obviously misunderstands the pro-life position if she believes destroying human life earlier in its development somehow makes that destruction less morally wrong. The morally relevant question is not “At what point in its development is the life you wish to destroy?” but “What is the nature of the life you wish to destroy?” To put it more simply using Greg Koukl’s terminology, if someone asks you, “Can I kill this?” your response should not be “How old is it?” but “What is it?” The former question fails to give you any information relevant to the central issue, but the latter question gets right to the heart of the matter.
Advancements in medical science continue to make it possible to both nurture and destroy human life in ways never experienced in history. As we actively seek to create artificial wombs and increase our ability to treat children born extremely prematurely, our ability to reach into the womb and destroy early human life increases as well. She assumes killing early human life is a different type of action than killing more developed human life. Why? Because it is easier? Because they can be destroyed before they can develop enough to voice an objection or suffer the pain? She needs to explain why early human life has less moral worth than more mature human life, not simply assume that point.
When does a human life become one of us? The pro-life position argues that our basic moral duties begin when a human life begins. Identifying an embryo or fetus tells us what stage of development the human life in question is in at that moment. It doesn’t explain why humans at that stage don’t matter. When Valenti celebrates the ability to destroy human life earlier and earlier in its development she isn’t advancing an argument that the human embryo isn’t one of us. She tells us more about herself than human embryos.
Safe for whom?
Valenti seems to believe that as we move toward safer and safer abortion procedures the pro-life position becomes more untenable. What exactly is abortion? Any honest definition will include the recognition that abortion is the intentional destruction of a human life in a very early stage of development prior to birth in order for the woman to avoid either some anticipated obligation or the biological consequences of pregnancy. Abortion is the destruction of life by definition. Pro-choice advocates may wish to argue over whether it is meaningful human life, but the fact that it is a human organism destroyed in abortion is inarguable fact. If there was no human life present, then abortion is unnecessary. We stop a human organism from developing by killing it early precisely because we wish to avoid the more mature human we anticipate it will grow to become if we let it continue to live. An extracted tooth is removed because it hurts today, not because I fear it will stop me from pursuing some personal goal by requiring love and attention later.
The abortion procedure can never be made safe. It can only be made safer for one party. The fact that I recognize any death as a result of abortion, whether mother or child, is a tragedy doesn’t obligate me to celebrate when human ingenuity and creativity produces a less dangerous means for others to destroy innocent human life.
Abortion can be both ugly and wrong
Finally, I will return to that young man who approached me at UNC. I asked him the following question, “Is it possible that abortion is both ugly to look at and to describe and at the same time morally wrong? Not do you think that is the case, but is it possible that is the case?” He nodded and agreed that was possible. I continued, “So I am arguing that abortion is both ugly and morally wrong. I believe what you said is correct, even if it were less ugly based on my arguments it would continue to be morally wrong. That does not make its ugliness irrelevant. Human beings are both rational and emotional beings. If I can discourage someone from participating in the moral evil of abortion by pointing out its ugliness then I see that as perfectly legitimate to do so, both for the person who abstains from participating in abortion and the young life that endures as a result. You concede my ugly description of the abortion procedure is accurate but wish me to withhold that information because the ugliness isn’t the cornerstone of my moral case. So what? I anticipate medical science will eventually make abortion less ugly, but until then its ugliness is relevant.”
Valenti makes the same mistake that young man did. She is right that the pro-life message has long stated that abortion is ugly and wrong. She is mistaken that arguing both of these points ever made pro-life advocates hypocrites. Abortion can become less visually gruesome, less risky for the women seeking abortions, and more and more private. It will remain by definition an intentionally destructive act against an early human life. Changing the optics of abortion does not change the morality of it.