I open the floor for public Q&A after finishing almost every presentation. Some of the most frequently offered objections to the pro-life position during these periods are:

  1. “Abortion has always been around and making it illegal won’t stop that.”
  2. “If we make it illegal, we will just go back to the days when thousands of women died every year from illegal abortions performed in unsafe environments.”
  3. “If abortion becomes illegal won’t women who get abortions be prosecuted for murder?”

The answer to each of these begins by pointing out that the objection fails to address the question, “What is the unborn?” Only by answering that question can we determine the moral nature of abortion.

Suppose abortion has always been around. Slavery has always been around. That doesn’t make slavery acceptable. It only recognizes that as long as there have been human beings there have been people willing to subjugate their fellow man as a means to their ends. The idea that a behavior existing throughout human history is evidence that the behavior is morally acceptable is clearly false. At best, it simply acknowledges that, like slavery, abortion has always been around.

The second objection presupposes the inhumanity of the unborn. It assumes without argument that unborn lives don’t matter in the same way more mature humans do. We must legally protect women’s rights to abort around 1 million unborn human lives a year to protect those thousands of women from death. If, however, the unborn are full members of the human family and due our basic moral consideration then this objection is demonstrable nonsense. It argues that we ought to make it legal for one group of human beings to kill another group of human beings to protect the prior group from the tragic consequences of their immoral behavior towards the latter. We must answer the question, “What is the unborn?”

The third objection sidesteps moral consideration altogether in favor of a reductio argument claiming that IF the unborn are human as we claim THEN we must prosecute women as murderers for obtaining abortions. It isn’t clear that this is true, but, even so, this makes the mistake of getting our legal cart in front of our moral horse. Our first responsibility is to argue the morality of abortion by addressing the nature of the unborn human life. Considerations on how the law reflects our community’s moral commitments are a different category of argument altogether that come only after some moral consensus is reached.

All three objections have something else in common beyond avoiding the question of, “What is the unborn?” They have a historical component. Our initial responses stipulated objections 1) and 2) were true, but can we question these objections even further? Has abortion always been around? What do they mean when they say that, and why should I believe such a claim? Did thousands of women die of illegal abortions prior to Roe vs. Wade? How did people become so certain this happened that they share it regularly as a defense of permissive abortion laws?

As for laws restricting abortion requiring the harsh punishment of women, 30 states still had restrictive laws on the books prior to Roe vs. Wade. That was 1972. This isn’t exactly ancient history. How did we enforce those laws? Were women prosecuted for murder then? Why would anyone believe this level of prosecution would be necessary in light of the history of abortion law?

This series on abortion history intends to address questions about how abortion has been practiced and how societies have responded to it. It is NOT meant to make a case that abortion is wrong by virtue of historical evidences. It also is not an effort to appeal to some Good Old Days when abortion was illegal. The point of this series is to search for deeper wisdom. We exist in a moment that exists within the context of moments upon moments upon countless historical moments. This is an effort to help us see ourselves more clearly in the bigger picture based on the belief it is easier to get where we want to go if we already know both where we are and how we got here.

Future posts will evaluate the questions above as well as others. How did the advancement of medical science change the prevalence of the practice of abortion as opposed to infanticide? How did things like rapes in time of war and sex selection impact the practice of abortion in other countries? Why did earlier attempts to legalize abortion in the U.S. fail and Roe succeed? How did the Supreme Court appeal to bad history to justify a terrible decision?

This depth of understanding helps. We do our job when we point out that even if those previously discussed objections were true, they neither answer the question “What is the unborn?” nor morally justify the practice of abortion. We do even better when we can add history. We can tell them that primitive medical practices and the lack of knowledge of microscopic organisms made it impossible for abortion to exist as it does today prior to the mid-nineteenth century. We can inform them that the number of women dying of illegal abortion was never close to 5,000 – 10,000 per year in the U.S. and was on a sharp decline by the time of the Roe ruling.[1] The CDC reports only 63 total maternal deaths caused by both illegal and legal abortions combined in 1972. We can explain there are reasons women have not historically been prosecuted for murder when laws restricted the practice of abortion (legal reasons and pragmatic reasons), and we can have a high confidence they won’t be prosecuted in the future.

We can make an even stronger impact when we help our audience understand the cultural moment they find themselves living within a little better by placing it in the context of history.

Coming Soon: Part 2 – Has abortion always been around?

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00041486.htm#00001660.htm