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Priority of Questions



Photo by Paul Studios; some rights reserved.

In the first issue of Life Matters Journal, we had an article arguing that access to birth control is a way to reduce abortions. In this issue, we have an article arguing that abstinence is the best way to reduce abortions. I would like to give a third perspective on this debate and argue that we're asking the wrong question. Instead of arguing how to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in order to reduce the number of abortions, we should instead be criticizing the idea that it's justified to kill unwanted children in the first place. We also should not shy away from arguing against the unjustness of legalized homicide.

To illustrate my point about prioritizing questions, let us say that we asked, "How do we make men less angry?" Now, as a man, I think this question is worth asking. The world's smartest psychologists, biologists, and historians should all come together to collaborate on this question. It would make life a lot easier. However, let us say that we asked, "How do we make men less angry so that they do not beat their wives?" Further, let us say we asked this question in a country where wife beating was legal. There is a problem with this question in that, by asking it, we skip a far more primary question, "Does a man's anger justify him beating his wife in the first place?"

In comparison, asking the question, "How do we reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies?" is fine in and of itself. Answering that question will make life a lot easier. However, connecting it to abortion, especially in a country where abortion is legal, skips the primary question, "Is it justified to kill children because they are unwanted?" It is not that those who do connect reducing unwanted pregnancies (whether through abstinence or birth control) to abortion believe that killing unwanted children is just. Rather, it is that in this society that question unfortunately needs to be answered, and skipping it will not help the cause of unborn rights.

Some may contend that arguing against the justness of abortion is impractical and that instead we should merely try to find common ground with pro-choicers and try to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. This position has even been argued by some in this journal. The conservative side of the pro-life movement will typically retort by saying that abstinence is the best way to reduce abortion, and thus the argument over abstinence vs. artificial birth control becomes connected with the abortion debate.

I'm afraid I must respectfully disagree with both the common grounder and the conservative. For, just as there will always be men who get angry, there will always be unwanted children, no matter which approach we choose. Maybe we can reduce instances of unwanted children, but they won't go away entirely, and, as long as there are unwanted children, then answering the question of the justness of killing the unwanted will be vital. So the real practical approach is to break the assumption that unwanted children can be killed in the first place, and then, for the sake of making life easier, try to find a way to reduce unwanted pregnancies.

Now, of course, there is another, more emotional reason why some would like to avoid arguing against the justness of homicide. Arguing about morality can sometimes make the arguer appear judgmental. Images of abortion protestors yelling at mothers or anti-war protestors spitting on soldiers instantly flash to mind. Too often ethical arguments have been conflated with name-calling, anger, and self-righteousness. However, arguing against the justness of legalized homicide, whether it is homicide against the unborn, foreigners, the elderly, or death-row inmates, can be done without name-calling and appearing too judgmental. Ethics and justice are about the moral nature of an action, not hatred toward those believed to be in the wrong. Indeed, if we appeal to the morals we have in common about the immorality of, say, killing newborns and then show how that ethic can be expanded to the unborn, foreigners, death-row inmates, the elderly, etc., then making our case can be done without malice. Even if we do cause strife, we should not seek to trade this tension for what Dr. Martin Luther King called a "negative peace," a deafening silence that condemns the innocent simply for the sake of avoiding offense.

Pro-life intellectuals should do all that they can to distance abortion from "sexual issues," because combining the two does not give abortion the proper moral weight it deserves. People are not as willing to legislate on issues of sexual morality, and for good reason. Sexual morality largely involves vices, not crimes. However, the ethics of violence do have a more direct relationship with rights and legislation. It's unethical to kill the innocent; therefore, the innocent have a right to live; therefore, we legislate against killing the innocent. If we put abortion in its proper category, as a violence issue, then we stand to make a case that the unborn have the right to live, regardless of whether he or she is wanted or not.


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

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