Moral Confusion in the Pro-life Camp

It seems that pro-lifers are not-so pro-life. According to a recent Gallup poll, 46 percent of Americans identify as pro-life, but only 18 percent say that abortion should be “illegal in all” circumstances. So what accounts for this moral confusion?

For one thing, the ease with which we rationalize morality down.

It goes something like this: Imagine an exceptional circumstance to a moral issue and subject it to a moral calculus until what is morally prohibitive becomes morally acceptable, if not commendable.

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In the abortion rights debate, those exceptions are rape, incest, and health of the mother—circumstances with high empathy quotients, especially when imagining a wife, daughter, sister, or oneself as a victim. People who poll pro-life, yet support some form of legalized abortion, have concluded it would be too difficult, unloving, or cruel for a woman to bear a child under those conditions.

Often their reasoning follows an alluring Golden Rule logic: “loving neighbor as self” means sparing him from any consequence I would want [my wife, daughter, sister, myself] to be spared from.

Further tipping the scale is that with a million abortions per year, nearly everyone knows a friend, neighbor, coworker, or family member who has had one. Thus, a person who deems abortion in the abstract as morally wrong, can be less inclined to be so when circumstances are real and close to home.

But let’s examine the calculus.

Consider the case of a child conceived in rape or incest. Is ending the life of the child a lesser evil than having the mother carry him/her to term? Granted, the post-traumatic consequences to the mother can be painful and prolonged, but the victimization of one person never justifies victimizing another who, in this case, happens to be the most vulnerable and voiceless person involved.

How about maternal health? Is abortion justified to save the life of a mother?

Ironically, in a book promoting legalized abortion, Dr. Alan Guttmacher, past president of Planned Parenthood admitted, “Today it is possible for almost any patient to be brought through pregnancy alive, unless she suffers from a fatal illness such as cancer or leukemia, and, if so, abortion would be unlikely to prolong, much less save, life.” And that was in 1967!

The doctor would find no argument from former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop who once stated, “In my 36 years in pediatric surgery I have never known of one instance where the child had to be aborted to save the mother’s life.”

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that abortion is necessary to preserve a mother’s life.

If a mother is willing, as nearly all mothers are, to assume some, if not significant, personal risk for the welfare of her post-partum child, how could she deny her enwombed child the same consideration? The child in both cases is a genetically complete and unique human being; they differ only in stage of development, as a newborn from a toddler, a toddler from a teen, a teen from an adult.

Then again, all this concern over “women’s health” neglects the very real and serious health consequences to women from abortion.

For example, an analysis of 22 studies, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, involving over 800,000 participants found that post-abortion women had “moderate to highly increased risk of mental health problems” that included substance abuse and suicidal behavior.

Concerning the physical consequences of abortion, the best documented ones include significant increased risks of premature birth in future pregnancies, uterine bleeding, and breast cancer.

Despite the medical facts concerning women’s health and the personhood of the child in utero, courts over the last four decades have denied the child its right to life, while declaring the woman’s right to abort “sacred ground.” So sacred, that her choice is to be free from restriction or personal consequence, even over the objections of the child’s father, and even if the cost of her choice must be borne by individuals and organizations against their religious beliefs.

Prior to Roe v. Wade abortion was legal in most states to save the mother’s life. Given the rare to non-existent instances in which that would be a legitimate concern and the fact that only about one percent of abortions involve rape and incest, according to the “pro-choice” Guttmacher Institute, the ruling should have had a negligible effect on abortion incidence. Instead, less than six years post-Roe, the number of abortions doubled from over 600,000 to over 1,200,000.

It was the result of expanding the health “exception” to include any physical, psychological, emotional, familial, or stage of life consideration deemed pertinent to the mother’s well-being. Under that broad definition, the reasons women give to abort—again, according to the Guttmacher Institute—include: a baby would interfere with my education or employment or dramatically change my life; I don’t want people to know I had sex; I’m not ready for a (another) child; I’m not married; I can’t afford a baby.

Speaking of a condition in his time, Blaise Pascal observed, “[You] make a rule of exception … from this exception you make a rule without exception, so that you do not even want the rule to be exceptional.” In our time, what was once intended to be an extraordinary procedure to save a woman’s life has become a billion-dollar industry to save her from any inconvenience.

Given that the pro-life movement is primarily made up of Christians, double-mindedness in the camp can be placed squarely on the doorstep of the Church.

It is not that Scripture and Church tradition have nothing to say in the matter. To the contrary, when the psalmist wrote, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me,” he was three millennia ahead of medical science in acknowledging when personhood begins.

As to church tradition, the sentiments of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi notwithstanding, the Church has always held that abortion is murder. In the second century alone, there were over twenty admonitions against abortion (without reference to exceptions) by early church fathers—like this from Tertullian: “In our case, murder being once for all forbidden, we may not destroy even the fetus in the womb…To hinder a birth is merely a speedier man-killing; nor does it matter whether you take away a life that is born, or destroy one that is coming to the birth.”

The problem is that abortion, seldom (if ever) is given any airtime in churches. If the war on children is to end, that must change.

The teachings of scripture and tradition must be placed front and center and made clear, not in a single sermon or sermon series, but throughout the church year from the pulpit, Sunday School curricula, and home study groups to remove the moral confusion that divides the pro-life camp and sustains a genocide claiming the lives of 56 million children worldwide, every year.


  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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