Abortion Law: What would Solomon Do?

We are all familiar with the current impasse on abortion. On the one hand, we hear the pro-life group, usually appealing to religious and ethical principles, decrying abortion as homicide, pure and simple. On the other, we are confronted by the pro-choice group, usually appealing to considerations about women’s rights, zealously defending a woman’s right to make her own “[non-]reproductive choices” without interference from anyone. When these two camps occasionally get into debate in the media, or in private, one notices that they are like two trains passing in the night. The onlooker notices only clashing values, and no meeting of the minds.

Wouldn’t it be helpful if we had Solomon to help break the impasse? You may recall the story in the Bible (I Kings, 4) where King Solomon, after having received a special gift of wisdom from God, was asked to judge between the claims of two women, each of whom claimed possession of a newborn baby. The first claimed that the other stole her newborn during the night, after her own newborn had died, placing the dead newborn next to her. The second said that this was a lie, that the live baby was hers. They didn’t have DNA tests in those days. Solomon probably tugged on his beard for a bit, then called for a sword and asked the swordsman to cut the baby in two, giving half to each woman! The first woman cried out, “No, just give the other woman the living child.” The second woman said, “Divide it, so that neither of us will have it.” And Solomon knew from these responses that the first woman was the mother, and commanded that the baby be given to her.

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So what would Solomon say when confronted with the opposing camps regarding abortion? Obviously, armed with modern knowledge of the sex of the fetus, he would command that ultra-sound tests be conducted of pregnant women. Then, only males may be aborted and the abortion of females would be absolutely prohibited; and this would be the law of the land. This sounds cruel, but no crueler than the original Solomonian decision.

This decision, like the original one, would test the mettle and sincerity of the adversaries. Will the pro-life advocates, who may never be able to get effective laws passed against all abortions, pass up the chance to actually save 50% of the potential abortees? Will the pro-choice advocates, who pride themselves on dedication to women’s rights, pass up a golden opportunity to give the possibility of rights to an extra half million females a year, who could be raised and trained by committed radical feminists?

There are obvious differences in context: in the original situation, Solomon would watch to see which woman would be sensitive enough to walk away and say, “forget it.” In the second scenario, he would be offering a compromise which would possibly be acceptable to both parties, but would ironically lead to a sea-change in the numbers of abortion, as I will show.

Feminists come in different stripes. We hear from the feminists of NARAL Pro-Choice America, who have astutely pulled all strings to make abortion an absolute right; but also from Susan B. Anthony feminists, who are in the forefront of opposition to abortion. And more recently we have heard from “progressive” feminists like Mara Hvistendahl, whose recent book, Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, which exposes the complicity of the UN Population Fund in the selective abortion of girls in Asia, causing social problems by the sharp increase of males over females in these populations.

Similarly, pro-lifers are divided. Many insist on an absolute prohibition of abortion (which may only be eventually possible with the passing of a special Constitutional Amendment declaring the unborn fetus to be a person), while, on the other hand, a large number of citizens are against “elective” abortion, although some of them either favor, or are ambivalent about, exceptions in cases of rape, incest, and/or threats to the physical life of the mother.

But let us, in this thought-experiment, contrapose two extremes subject to the Solomonian judgement — the committed pro-abortionist versus the committed pro-lifer. The decision that they make, when confronted by Solomon’s challenge, would be largely based on whether their position is based on ideology, or on ideals. Ideologues follow the party line, are interested only in what advances their agenda, purposely avoid addressing thoughtfully any arguments which put their position in doubt, and tend to ridicule or ostracize those who they take to be enemies. Their motto is the famous fiat justitia, pereat mundus (“let justice be done, even if the world has to be destroyed”). But those who have ideals which they would like to see implemented politically and socially, will try to address counter-arguments from their own repertoire of principles, possibly making distinctions where distinctions are called for, and try to promote a course of action rather than an “agenda.”

I can visualize feminists like Ms. Hvistendahl, faced with the decision mentioned above, really zealous for women’s rights, and armed with knowledge of abortion practices in the world at large, choosing Solomon’s “compromise” as a way to counterbalance the constant selective abortion of female fetuses in countries like China with its one-child policy, and India with endemic traditions favoring male progeny. But I can also visualize idealistic pro-lifers accepting this as a half-cup compromise, because they imagine what might happen if pregnant women would actually be required to see with ultrasound apparatus the fetuses, male or female, that they were thinking of aborting: probably the males would survive, as well as females.

A compromise often involves a sacrifice of principles. But this Solomonian “compromise” would appeal to dedicated defenders of women rights, as well as to pro-life advocates who know that even adamant pro-choicers (like some Planned Parenthood officials recently), actually seeing the preborn child, male or female, whom they were thinking of destroying, would change their mind. They would no longer be sheltered from the moral consequences of their act by blindly trusting to sophisticated machinery and medical “professionals.”


  • Howard Kainz

    Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

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