Why abortion is even a thing

This post is not a direct answer to Broadblogs’s comment on my previous post, but it is inspired by her comment.  She blogs about feminism and gender relations here.

I have noticed that there tend to be a few distinct issues that tend to get blended together when people discuss abortion, and I wanted to take the time to break them out a bit.  Let me begin with a caveat that I’m speaking very generally here, so I’m not going to be able to cover all cases, all situations, or all people.

Generally speaking, abortion happens because of unplanned pregnancy.  How does that happen?

What causes unplanned pregnancy

  • Primarily people having sex. Consensual or otherwise.
  • Lack of contraception access. Usually this is where the blame for abortion gets pinned, but strictly speaking a lack of contraception (plus people having sex) only leads to unplanned pregnancies.  I don’t so much mean logistical access, since contraception really is widely available; rather, I’m referring to cultural access.  Since I made up the term (so far as I know) I’ll explain: a lack of cultural access would be, for example, a young woman who didn’t get anything resembling real sex ed, who might have heard of birth control but might not really know what the various risks and failure rates are for various methods.  All the logistical access in the world won’t fix the cultural access issues, unfortunately.
  • Contraception failure (plus people having sex).

So you have an unplanned pregnancy.  Congratulations!  Now what?  Are you going to keep it?  Let someone adopt it?  Abort it?

What causes abortion

  • Pro-lifers shaming women for being single moms.
  • Pro-choicers shaming women for being stupid enough to get pregnant.
  • Coercion from partners / parents / others.
  • Individual choice for reasons ranging from the serious to the trivial. Yes, some women do choose abortion for trivial reasons; there will always be people who make serious choices for trivial reasons, especially if there’s no particular obstacle to that specific choice.
  • A culture that is generally not very welcoming to new life, even in the best of circumstances. How many families struggle to make it work even when they get pregnant on purpose with a very wanted child?  The struggle is magnified the further you get from this ideal.

All that being said, abortion still wouldn’t be a thing without a very widespread but very incorrect assumption, which brings me to –

What enables abortion

  • The belief that the right to life does not begin for humans until …. ? Depending on which pro-choice person you are talking to, the right to life does not begin until the 12th week of pregnancy, the 20th week, the 36th week, the day of birth (as long as some part of the baby is inside the mother), a few weeks postpartum, or at a particular point I didn’t mention.

Science makes it abundantly clear that a new individual begins to be present at conception; at that point there is a genetically unique individual that has never existed before in the history of the world and will never exist again.  No other bright line exists for when the right to life begins, and no other point in development makes a logical bright line.

If this fact were universally recognized, and assuming we all agree that it’s wrong to forcibly end someone’s life, elective abortion would become unacceptable and virtually disappear.  The average person would no more choose abortion than they would choose to kill their toddler.  Of course there would still be medically necessary abortions, because even when you recognize that you have two patients in front of you, sometimes you simply can’t save at least one of them, but those abortions would no longer be of the hack-n-slash variety.

How do we reduce abortion?

The thought process that enables abortions is frankly the easiest thing to address, but even that is very difficult in practice for a wide variety of reasons, probably primarily the fact that all of the causes of abortion are still present.  This impacts the general willingness to listen, as important as it is to continue to spread the word on this front.

Although I have seen some progress in pro-lifers fixing their attitudes toward single parents, unfortunately women are still generally in the position of having to give pro-lifers AND pro-choicers the finger when they say, “No, abortion is unacceptable and I won’t do it.  Period.”


  1. Science does not actually conclude that life begins at the moment of conception. At least not human life as being equivalent to a human being who has been born. That’s more a religious belief. And a lot of people, like me, feel that we need to keep the separation of church and state.

    I once heard Christopher Reeve pose the following question: if you were in a stem cell research lab with a two-year-old and a fire broke out, would you save the child, or would you leave her to die so that you could save thousands of stem cells (people)? I suspect most of us — all of us — would save the child.

    1. “At least not human life as being equivalent to a human being who has been born.”

      On what basis is there an ethically relevant differentiation?

      1. So if you were in a stencil research lab with a two-year-old and a fire broke out, would you save the child, or would you leave her to die so that you could save thousands of stem cells (people)?

    2. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be such a thing as stencil research. I tried to Google it and everything.

      Anyway, to your actual question, ideally I would save everybody. But in this case, as in all cases, I am constrained by what I can actually do.

      For example, I would argue that ending genocide in (insert country here) is a greater moral imperative than helping America’s moderately uncomfortable poor be a little bit less uncomfortable. But every Christmas, my church has a gifts drive where all the presents go to our sister church in a less-affluent area. A person who participates in the gift drive knows with all-but-absolute certainty that their contribution is going where they intended it to go. Sending that same level of effort to help end genocide would likely either be wasted (by being fraudulently diverted) or be ineffective (by being insufficient / too distant to save even one life). So is the solution, then, to end charitable help for all but the most serious issues? Is it wrong for us to send Christmas presents to low-income families? I would argue that doing limited good is better than doing no good at all.

      So taking this logic back to your question, I can obviously save the two-year-old, because I am an able-bodied adult. Check. Can I save the embryo-sized people as well? Maybe. Let’s ignore for a bit that in a stem cell research facility, those embryos are doomed regardless of whether I save them today or not. If the embryos are in a container that’s easy to take, then sure I can save both. I only need one arm to carry a two-year-old. But honestly, I’m having a hard time picturing an embryo storage unit that wouldn’t be impossible for me to move even if I had two free arms and no two-year-old to worry about. Plus there’s the very real possibility that by unplugging them I would directly cause their demise just as much as the fire would.

      TL/DR: Yes I would save the child, but not because the embryos aren’t people. It’s because I’m constrained by reality.

      1. Given what you have said, there is absolutely no reason why pro-life forces should be against stem cell research since there’s no possibility of life for them, anyway. So why the protest?

        I don’t know whether what you say is true but you missed my point. So let’s not argue about that.

        Instead, let’s say that there is/was a resource by which those fertilized eggs — stem cells — could be grown into people — maybe through some technology. In that case would you save the two year-old child or thousands of stem cells, aka, “people”?

  2. Thank you for sound reasons and for standing firm on the conviction that life begins at conception.
    I do not understand how people can say the baby isn’t alive, even after they feel the baby move.

    1. I’ll be honest – I kinda get it from an emotional standpoint, just because I don’t naturally connect with my babies until they are about 4 – 6 weeks old. But I know, intellectually, that they are there and they are my responsibility from before I am even aware of their existence.

  3. While I’m not a fan of abortion on a personal level, I appreciate the fact that it’s available in a safe, hygienic way. I also don’t think it’s fair to judge a woman for her choices (not that I’m saying that’s what you’re doing), or limit her ability to make that choice for herself.

    1. That isn’t the case in America for most of the women seeking abortion. Things are different in other parts of the world where abortion is legal (and rare because of the safety requirements).

  4. Even though I am going to agree to disagree with you Athena about science concluding that life begins at conception, I am liking your post because both sides need to keep the dialogue going and to be open enough to listen to each other, so neither goes overboard. I am liking your right to say what you want to say and how you said it.

  5. I liked this post and meant to comment earlier. I do quibble with the access to contraceptives part. There is abortion in the abstract and abortion in the concrete:

    I don’t care if the stranger who lives on the next block exercises her law of the land right (or privilege) to have an abortion;

    if I’ve met said stranger over coffee and neighborhood block parties I might be a little more concerned but still not my business;

    if I’m good friends with her, then I might ask if she’s looked into other options, but still ultimately her business, not mine.

    if she’s my blood relative then I am gonna be upset that I will lose out on a future cousin/nephew/niece/whatever;

    if she’s my wife/gf/one-night-stand and the child is mine, then shit I don’t know what I would do, only know its a situation I don’t want to be in.

    so there it is, how do you codify a law that works for case#5 without impacting cases 1-4?

    I should add, if she’s the

    1. “There is abortion in the abstract and abortion in the concrete”

      That is true, but the reason I broke out causes for unplanned pregnancy and causes for abortion is because in a culture that’s open and welcoming to life, there’s virtually no reason an unplanned pregnancy needs to lead to an abortion. What if, instead of shaming and scolding young parents, we congratulated and encouraged them? What if, instead of sequestering pregnant teens at an “alternative” high school, we treated them like they were the same person as before? What if childfree employees, instead of being resentful at occasionally pitching in to help a frazzled parent colleague, saw it as their contribution to the raising of the next generation? What if we saw raising the next generation as ultimately everyone’s responsibility rather than as a luxury that parents chose? There’s a LOT that can be improved on a macro level, but on a micro level each individual can make a huge difference.

      Even in not-that-great circumstances, there’s no reason an unplanned pregnancy needs to end in abortion, provided the pregnant woman is pro-life with an f-the-world attitude. But that’s not everyone.

      As for the rest, if I am reading you correctly, you appear to be assigning value to the baby based on your level of personal involvement. Ethically, that only works for things that have zero intrinsic value. For example, my 9-year-old drew me a picture of a glass of red wine, some skulls, and the words “Death is coming soon.” (Side note: the word “soon” is kinda hidden so you don’t see it until you look at the picture up close, which just adds to the creep factor.) (Side side note: No I don’t think I need to pursue therapy for her just yet; she has a history of going through morbid phases periodically.) This piece of art has no intrinsic value; it would not be a moral tragedy if someone stole it, burned it, or used it as toilet paper. Now, I would care very much because it’s my daughter’s artwork, but if I changed my mind and decided to throw it away, you wouldn’t care; I wouldn’t expect you to care because again, the item has no intrinsic value.

      But for things that do have intrinsic value, that doesn’t work so well. For those things, destruction or misuse or abuse is a tragedy, whether or not anyone knows or cares. I’m trying to think of a good example here but I keep coming back to human life – we generally recognize that human life has intrinsic value. If I murder an old, cranky woman with no friends and no family and that no one cares about, it’s still wrong even though everyone is glad to be rid of her.

      So then I keep coming back to – based on what ethically relevant criteria do we decide that humans at certain levels of development haven’t earned their intrinsic value?

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      1. “based on what ethically relevant criteria do we decide that humans at certain levels of development haven’t earned their intrinsic value?”

        if we knew they’d grow up to Matt Walshes 🙂

        I see your point and I do fear I’ll end up on the wrong side of history on this one.

  6. hit the return key too quickly….if she’s the quote-unquote Welware Queen with four kids and three baby-daddies and wants to abort baby #5, I might just drive her to the clinic and pay for it myself.

  7. So I think I’m a total weird in that I don’t believe life begins at conception, but nevertheless don’t like abortion. I can’t logically believe that life beginning at conception…or at least individual, unique life that should be prioritized above the wants and needs of women. That’s because twinning occurs after fertilization. In addition, the blueprints for your unique individual life are NOT present at conception. An intricate series of molecular switches (aka epigenetic markers) must be turned on and off in a precise sequential process in order for a human embryo to develop into a human, not a chimpanzee or a lizard. 99 percent of our genes are identical with chimp genes. The reason we don’t turn into chimps is because of the timing of these epigenetic switches turning on and off. This process is orchestrated in large part by chemical signals from the mother’s body. So I see the human embryo and the mother as a weird pan-organism, with the embryo clearly subordinate to the mother, and as the pregnancy progresses they become more separate and the embryo attains more equal footing with the mother. I agree that our society is very anti-life, and that many more women would not choose abortion if we lived in a culture that saw children as gifts. That, realistically, is my only reason for finding abortion problematic; I believe on some level that children are gifts from God, and that to reject such a primal and fundamental gift is, in essence, being deeply disobedient to God.

    1. You’re not weird! I can see you’ve thought about this, so thanks for sharing.

      You are right that at any given point realizing our potential requires things outside ourselves to come together a certain way. You are also right that we are more vulnerable to stimuli at earlier levels of development. You are further right that, working backward, the closer we get to the point of conception, the more we depend on things going right and the more vulnerable we are to things going wrong. You explained the process of genetic expression, and on top of that it could easily be a million other things that could go wrong.

      Where we differ, I think, is that I don’t see how vulnerability impairs the right to life. I can see how vulnerability makes it easier to prey on victims (see every fact-based discussion of male / white / take-your-pick privilege), or at best makes it easier to be complacent about these things, but usually vulnerability magnifies the tragedy rather than mitigates it.

      Also, I’m not talking about prioritizing the unborn above women; I’m talking about looking at every pregnant woman as two people (the largest one being the mother).

      1. But I don’t see how framing an early-stage fetus as simply more vulnerable answers the fundamental questions. It is not just “more vulnerable” any more than a half-built house is a “more vulnerable” house. Blueprints and two-by-fours do not make a house. And it’s even worse than that, as the DNA blueprints are, on their own, not enough information to make a human. We need additional information in addition to more material and direction to create a human, beyond just DNA.

        To me, it is illogical to assume that embryos are endowed with a soul at the moment of conception for several reasons. a) many-to-most embryos do not implant and people never know they are pregnant. Does it really make sense that the destruction of a soul is a horrible awful thing, and yet God’s default system is to make most women’s bodies killing machines? b) twinning occurs after conception, so does God make a special exception for twins and put the souls in later, do they share the same soul that gets split up after conception, or what? Sometimes twins reabsorb the bodies of their siblings in utero; is the soul of one reabsorbed by the other??

        If you don’t believe a fetus or embryo has a soul, then there’s no reason to care about teeny tiny embryos as those little creatures are clearly NOT yet independent people with *functional (as opposed to intrinsic) value equal to a walking, talking woman.

        Once you take away the assumption that a fetus has a soul at the moment of conception, you are left trying to decide at what point they receive one. There is no clear, bright-line point that’s an obvious candidate. But it does not follow, then, that we have to decide it happens AT conception, when other evidence suggests that’s also a problematic and somewhat arbitrary time point to choose.

        Maybe it sometimes happens at some point in pregnancy, sometimes later, sometimes, in doomed pregnancies, perhaps God opts not to put a soul into a body at all. Even the catechism does not explicitly say that it’s 100 percent certain that God imparts a soul to every single embryo at the moment of conception. Also, who says that somehow getting a soul has to be this instantaneous process. In the Bible, God is described as breathing nefesh into Adam, and if you think about a breath, it is a fairly quick process but it certainly isn’t an instant, there’s a cycle of inspiration and expiration to it. So why can’t a soul be knitted gradually, as the body of the fetus develops? I personally think that makes more sense.

        It creates a lot of conundrums for us ethically, and it may still lead to the general idea that abortion should be outlawed because we want to err on the side of caution and avoid knowingly destroying something that likely has a soul. But at least to me it would be more consistent with what we know of developmental biology and embryology.

  8. “A culture that is generally not very welcoming to new life, even in the best of circumstances. How many families struggle to make it work even when they get pregnant on purpose with a very wanted child?  The struggle is magnified the further you get from this ideal.”

    I think this hits the nail exactly on the head. Even in Protestant circles (whose pro-life definition tends to end at not ending life that has already begun), there is definitely discouragement toward creating and welcoming new life, no matter the circumstances.

    Growing up Protestant, I feel like there was a double standard: abortion was a horrible, horrible thing that you should never do — but almost equally horrible was having a baby out of wedlock, or, even after you got married, having “too many” kids, or kids “too early.”

    The best way I can think of to demonstrate the difference is to compare cultures who REALLY value life: not only would abortion be abhorrent, but they actively celebrate, desire, and wish for more life. I used to be around people from certain Middle Eastern cultures, and even Latino culture in the southwestern US, and the difference is palpable: new babies, and even the potential for new babies, is welcomed — and aided. I had my first baby in a Latino-majority area of the US, and so many people (total strangers) treated her like her existence was the best thing on the planet. As a new mother, I felt accepted, celebrated, and helped, as if having a baby was the most awesome thing I could be doing. This was, to people in that culture, as natural as breathing.

    That, I think, is the way to discourage abortion: when our society actively celebrates and welcomes life, even in less-than-ideal circumstances, then ending it will become unthinkable.

    1. ” the difference is palpable: new babies, and even the potential for new babies, is welcomed — and aided.”

      I agree, and I have noticed this too – we live near a few majority Hispanic areas, and one thing I see is that they accept and celebrate the chaos of small children in public. I have yet to get the how-dare-you-be-in-my-sight stinkeye when I’m struggling to get my kids to behave more like humans and less like feral creatures. They usually smile instead!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s