Misunderstanding the Abortion Debate at New York Magazine

(Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters)

Abortion is Morally Good ” is Sarah Jones’s headline, but her article doesn’t live up, or down, to the title, offering as it does nothing in the way of argument for that claim. She makes two points that deserve comment.

First, she criticizes, as both wrong and politically unhelpful, rhetoric that defends legal abortion while suggesting that abortion “is sad, a thing to be avoided and disliked.” People who speak thus — even Alyssa Milano — “lend credence to right-wing arguments against abortion.” Jones is right about that: If abortion is something to be avoided, after all, it is because it is the unjust taking of a human life, which suggests that there’s something wrong with allowing it. (Nobody talks about appendectomies as sad or to be avoided.)

You’d think, though, that Jones would grapple with why so many people who think abortion should be legal use the rhetoric she deplores. One of those reasons, it seems clear, is that the view that abortion is immoral or at least unfortunate is much more widely shared than the view that it should be illegal. Gallup asks people whether they “personally believe that in general,” abortion “is morally acceptable or morally wrong”; its most recent finding is that 43 percent say it’s acceptable and 48 percent say it’s wrong. Presumably even some of the people who say it’s “acceptable” would shrink from saying it’s “morally good”; some of them probably even agree that it’s a thing to be avoided or disliked.

Jones concludes, “There is no compromise, not on the personhood of women. You can’t find middle ground. Invite them into your big tent, and you threaten the most vulnerable people inside it.” If you exclude compromise and middle ground from your tent — that’s what she means by “them,” I take it — then your tent is not going to be close to a majority of the public in the country or in many states. It’s apparently not even going to include Alyssa Milano. On this point, Jones and I apparently have common ground: We both want a smaller tent for supporters of abortion.

Second: Jones claims that opponents of abortion “weigh the suffering of women against the prospective life of the fetus, and favor the fetus in the end . . .  To abortion opponents, the potential person seems to be the one true innocent in the world. The woman carrying it, though, is a different matter altogether. She can make mistakes . . . ”

Jones is not trying to pass an ideological Turing test here. But what the heck, I’ll give an answer, one that nearly every reflective pro-lifer I’ve ever known would affirm. We pro-lifers don’t “weigh the suffering of women against the prospective life of the fetus,” especially since we don’t regard the human being in the fetal stage of development as a “prospective” life in the first place — since, you know, pro-lifers don’t think that way. (Nor, by the way, do authors of human embryology textbooks or others who know the biological facts concerning human embryogenesis and development.) Similarly, we do not believe it would be justified to kill a woman (or man) to provide a benefit, even a very important benefit such as good health, for a baby, regardless of whether the person killed had conducted himself in a wholly praiseworthy or disreputable way.

The metaphor of “weighing,” though it is quite commonly used, could hardly be more inapposite to the moral judgment that pro-lifers have reached, which is just as well, since the weighing of lives against one another is an enterprise best avoided. It is much better to follow this principle: We should never deliberately target for death any peaceable human being, nor should we as a society permit such targeting.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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