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Matters of the Heart
An extended treatment of the realities of the abortion regime enabled by Roe v. Wade fifty years ago, now debated by the American people with the return of the issue to state-by-state consideration.
In January 2019, the New York State Legislature passed the Reproductive Health Act, granting virtually unrestricted abortion access into and through the third trimester. This legislative act sparked significant debate and demands for action. There have been voices both desiring similar legislation in other states and responding in horror to the provisions of such laws. Later that year, in an apparent backlash, the states of Alabama, South Carolina, and Louisiana passed legislation attempting to move in the other direction. These laws sought to introduce the most restrictive abortion laws in the country.
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Since then, the debate has only grown all the more virulent, thanks to the overturning of Roe v. Wade last year. But while the Supreme Court no longer recognizes abortion as a constitutional right, the debate over abortion continues to follow the same pattern it has in the fifty years since Roe v. Wade. The Left rallies around the idea of “Pro-Choice,” and the Right instead asserts the idea of “Pro-Life.”
Somewhere in this dichotomy lies an intriguing debate about ethics, morality, and human rights. That debate failed to take place for decades because the Supreme Court in the 1970s granted total legal victory to one side of the issue. It’s a debate that is only beginning to take form in the post-Roe era we now live in.
In Roe v. Wade, the court decided it didn’t want to delve into a theological and philosophical debate. They didn’t wish to legally determine when life actually begins and when the government should protect life by force of law. It chose to err on the side of securing the right of a woman to make her own healthcare choices. However, this itself was a philosophical determination, one that many Americans have come to view as the foundation of their understanding of the morality surrounding abortion. And yet, a great deal has changed in our understanding of life in the womb since the ruling in Roe v. Wade, which is a big reason why that precedent was overruled in Dobbs v. Jackson and why all sides should welcome the issue being returned to the state level so that we can have this important debate.
Now that Roe v. Wade has been removed as a legal precedent, it’s time to consider whether American society should similarly reconsider its moral precedent. In this essay, I will discuss how many arguments for abortion access at the time of Roe are either no longer in vogue, have fallen to the wayside, or have been proven false by the test of time. I will also argue that between the increasing viability of preterm birth in earlier stages of pregnancy and the growing options, effectiveness, and affordability of birth control, justifying unrestricted abortion based primarily on a “woman’s right to choose” is becoming less philosophically and morally sound.
At the time of Roe v. Wade, fifty years ago this year, the abortion debate had many more planks of argument than the issue has today, especially on the side that supported legalized abortion. Among these were that abortions would happen regardless, that legalizing abortions would help decrease poverty, and that legalized abortion would be “safe, legal, and rare.” These arguments have either been proven false over time or are simply no longer arguments that pro-abortion advocates care to make.
Further, the prevalent argument of our time, that a woman has a right to choose, is far more philosophically, medically, and morally complicated than abortion advocates are often willing to admit. Their argument relies heavily upon the asserted non-personhood of the human fetus, which keeps the consideration from being one of an intersection of rights. The argument has also been considerably weakened by the increased availability and affordability of birth control, as well as the new realities of medicine, healthcare, and technology.
“Safe, Legal, and Rare”
Most Americans have heard the phrase “safe, legal, and rare.” It was a phrase that originated in the 1960s and 1970s era of the abortion debate and was made most famous by its use by the Clinton Foundation.
The idea was that legalizing abortion would allow women a safe place to legally have an abortion instead of risking their health and even their lives getting an illegal abortion. Such a place would also provide an opportunity to discuss their options moving forward, which included abortion but could also include adoption and other avenues.
Proponents of this viewpoint used to argue the number of abortions in America would go down once the government legalized it because the decision would be made by women who could have a clear sense of their options as opposed to making a rash decision while at the height of fear and panic.
For a time after Roe v. Wade, this argument seemed like it would play out. Consultation at an abor ion clinic could last over an hour as they would walk a woman, step-by-step, through the process she was considering. The clinics would also present her with a full gambit of her options. Abortion clinics would not consider it a failure when women left without having undergone an abortion.
However, developments over the last few decades have demonstrated the idea of “safe, legal, and rare” has been largely abandoned. Abortion clinics now tout their efficiency, as seen in 2005’s Annual Review of Public Health, where they state positively that abortion applicants require “fewer clinic visits.” There is a strong emphasis placed on this development, as opposed to a focus on the overall psychiatric health and well-being of the woman as she learns of and chooses from her available options.
Clinics that offer abortions also tout various numbers of efficiency as worthwhile and valuable, such as initiating “same-day service,” decreasing the waiting period from “20.3 to 3.6 days,” increasing the number of procedures per session “by 52.7%,” and increasing the percentage of same-day procedures “from 7% to 62%.”
The numbers are fast approaching a reality where nearly every woman who goes to an abortion clinic ends up having an abortion. The phrase “safe, legal, and rare” is beginning to not only be seen by abortion advocates as out of vogue but as actually hostile to women. According to an article in Solidarity, it’s a phrase that “reinforces the stigmatization of those who choose that option.”
Clearly, “safe, legal, and rare” is no longer a plank in the pro-abortion argument. Instead, success seems to be measured by increasing the abortion rate as much as possible.
The Poverty Argument
Another tent-pole argument of the ‘60s and ‘70s pro-abortion debate was that legal abortions would decrease poverty. Advocates of this view pointed out that areas of high poverty had an extremely high rate of births out of wedlock. It was believed that because young men and women were thrust into provider roles, they could not progress toward higher learning and better-paying careers. Accidentally starting a family was viewed as “getting stuck” and a significant contributor to generational poverty. Low-income areas were also the least likely to afford and use birth control options. So, the belief was that without abortion as an option, both men and women would become doomed to persistent poverty, all because of “just one youthful mistake.”
Given these arguments, it could be expected that over the several decades since Roe v. Wade, there should be quantifiable statistics demonstrating upward mobility from low-income communities. Specifically, we would expect higher high school graduation rates, higher attendance of college, fewer children born out of wedlock, fewer families on welfare dependence, and less overall generational poverty.
However, the actual raw numbers contradict the original premise. While abortion rates in low-poverty areas, especially amongst the African-American community, have sky-rocketed each decade since Roe v. Wade, there has not been a significant change in any of the abovementioned numbers.
An article in the Journal of Economics states the situation clearly by saying, “in the last three decades, U.S. poverty rates have changed very little.” Most interesting is that despite the increased rates of abortion, there are still significant numbers of children born out of wedlock. One possible reason for this development could be increased recreational sex among impoverished young adults, specifically because abortion is an option to remove the consequences of their sexual activity.
While the argument that abortion access can decrease poverty still exists, it is a much more cursory argument since the numbers over nearly half a century do not suggest any real benefit to the impoverished by having unrestricted access to abortions.
The Inevitability Argument
The final argument of the pro-abortion viewpoint that does not play out in the numbers is that abortions will happen regardless. This argument suggests that a woman who does not want to be pregnant will go to whatever lengths and use whatever means available to terminate her pregnancy.
This argument cites the many horrible instances in the past where women have engaged in dangerous behavior to self-abort or have submitted themselves to the treatment of those offering abortion services through an unregulated black market.
While these are serious concerns for society to address, whether abortion is legal or not, the argument that abortion should be wholly legal and unrestricted based on these realities makes several faulty assumptions. The argument assumes only those who would go to the lengths of self-harm or submit themselves to a black-market physician would get an abortion when it is legal.
Additionally, the argument ignores the reality that those who would submit themselves to self-harm or questionable procedures need love, understanding, and counseling, not just merely a termination of their pregnancy. And finally, the argument side steps the fact that abortion advocates and abortion clinics have a personal stake in their viewpoints and the success of their business model or worldview.
Abortion has become an industry, and, like any industry, it seeks to grow, expand, and convince its consumers that its services are valuable and necessary. This industry glorifies women who get abortions as liberated champions of feminism and lionizes those who provide abortions as civil rights heroes. In contrast, many in this same industry shame women who birth children and become mothers for acquiescing to “the patriarchy” (especially if they choose to be stay-at-home mothers) and clinics that offer a myriad services to expentent mothers but are morally opposed to abortion are not only demonized but have increasingly faced the threats and actions of terrorism.
Due to fewer pregnancies in recent decades, the overall abortion numbers have, in fact, been trending down, But this trend didn’t begin until the ‘90s. Before then, the numbers steadily rose starting in 1974 and culminated in an all-time high in 1990.
We can infer the drop in the abortion rate is due to other factors beyond abortion access. One such factor is likely better affordability and increased access to effective contraceptives. We can also infer, judging by an abortion rate decrease not as steep as the decrease in the number of pregnancies, that while the overall abortion rate has dropped, the percentage of actual pregnancies aborted has likely continued to increase.
Even more concerning is that minority communities do not reflect the nationwide drop in the abortion rate. These rates have continued to ncrease. The decrease in the abortion rate is due to reduced pregnancies in the middle and upper classes of society (further making a case for contraceptives as a primary reason for the decrease).
Clearly, having legal and unrestricted abortion access increases the number of abortions that occur significantly. While some abortions may happen regardless, even if the practice is banned, abortion activists cannot reasonably assert that just as many abortions would occur as presently is the case.
The Right to Choose and Fetal Non-Personhood
There is a contrast between the various original arguments for legal and unrestricted abortion and the standard arguments of today. Mainly, it is that a woman’s right to choose has become the near singular argument.
Given the deconstruction of the former arguments in the previous sections of this essay, both by statistical demonstration and by philosophical abandonment, we can ascertain that a woman’s right to choose is essentially the near-exclusive argument for unrestricted abortion access. There is, actually, a good reason for the endurance of this argument.
The idea of rights, both natural and constitutional, is ingrained in the collective psyche of American society. As a constitutional republic, built on the notion of ordered liberty, the predominant purpose of law in the United States is the navigation of the intersection of rights. That is to say, America’s laws chiefly lay out how society deals with situations when the exercise of one individual’s rights infringes upon the rights of another individual.
The pro-abortion perspective argues that a woman has the right to make her own healthcare decisions and has the right to terminate a pregnancy. They bristle at the idea that the government can force a woman to submit her body to the rigors and travails of carrying a pregnancy to term to give birth to a child she does not want. They believe such use of government force would violate a woman’s rights. From their perspective, it would be no different from taking a cancer patient’s options from them and forcing chemotherapy when other options could be available.
It is easy to see why Americans, as freedom-loving people, might find themselves agreeing with this stance. Nobody wants to feel like they are forcing anyone to do something. Nobody wants to feel like they are taking away the rights of others. America, at its core, is a live-and-let-live society. Were this the end of the discussion, the issue would not be controversial. But there is the consideration of what exactly an abortion is aborting.
An embryo becomes a fetus, and a fetus becomes a child, undisturbed by external events, including abortion. It is an unavoidable reality that, barring extreme circumstances, every abortion that has taken place in the last fifty years would have been a living, breathing human being had the abortion not taken place. Each of these individuals would have had a unique personality, singular talents, and their own life to live.
For this reason, the idea of a woman’s right to choose relies heavily upon the concept of fetal non-personhood. If a fetus were to be considered human life, the fetus would deserve the same fundamental human rights of life and liberty as the mother. It would not be consistent with the creeds of ordered liberty in the American republic to arbitrarily declare one individual’s rights as so overwhelmingly superior to another’s that their right to live could be permanently and irretrievably suspended.
Abortion and the Intersection of Rights
John Locke once said, “being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.” This is one of the earliest descriptions of the idea of negative liberty, that the actions of individuals should not be constrained so long as others’ rights are not violated. As a source of coercion and legal force, the government should only exercise its authority to maintain negative liberty.
The negative liberty quandary faced by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, and by others at the time, was to essentially decide if outlawing abortion violated the individual rights of pregnant women. They decided that it did, given that the origins of life, and the question of when human life begins, were seen as theological and philosophical quandaries while a woman, and her health choices, were not an abstract consideration.
Dobbs v. Jackson, for its part, overturned Roe v. Wade predominantly because the current composition of the Supreme Court felt it was inappropriate for the Court fifty years ago to offer judgment on an issue that had not been addressed explicitly in federal law nor found expressly in the traditions of American society. But the philosophy behind the decision in Roe v. Wade is not impossible to comprehend.
However, things have changed. Medical and technological advances over the last fifty years have been astounding. Specific to the healthcare advances in the field of pregnancy care, the leaps and bounds are beyond what most can comprehend. In terms of the viability of a fetus, most can survive out of the womb after twenty-eight weeks, near the end of the second trimester. The use of ultrasound technology is now universal and has long been able to detect a heartbeat at six weeks. Abnormalities decreasing the chances of viability or increasing the danger to a woman’s health can be found, and difficult choices made, primarily while still in the first trimester.
On the other end, the options for birth control are widening and becoming increasingly affordable for Americans of all income levels. Barrier methods, hormonal methods, intrauterine devices, sterilization, and other new concepts of birth control are becoming prevalent and affordable for both men and women. Many insurance companies were covering birth control costs even before the Affordable Care Act began mandating the practice.
These developments starkly differ from the realities before Roe v. Wade. As reported in A Medical View on Abortion, contraception in the 1960s “was not freely available...and could only be obtained easily from the clinics of the Family Planning Association by women who were married, or said they were about to be married.”
Clearly, circumstances in the viability of the fetus and in birth control options and availability have changed. These new realities should, in a non-dogmatic world, re-open an earnest and frank discussion about the prevalent practices that have taken hold over the last fifty years.
When life begins and whether a human fetus should be considered a person deserving of human rights is increasingly becoming a matter of scientific debate and not an abstract consideration for theologians and philosophers. Brain activity, a beating heart, physical animation, cognizant response to outside stimuli, and viability outside the womb are all measurable evidence of a living being. Common sense ethics and human rights, not just religion and philosophy, are beginning to suggest that unrestricted abortion up to the moment of birth is an immoral disregard for the self-evident humanity of a human fetus.
As for the idea of choice, consider that a woman who decides to have an abortion late in the third trimester has already made a list of choices before arriving at that moment. There was the sexual act, the decision to engage in the sexual act without contraceptive protection, the decision not to take a “morning after pill,” the decision to not have an abortion immediately, and the decision to carry the pregnancy past the first trimester, past the second trimester, and full-term into the third trimester. The question could be asked how many more choices must be evident before the rights of the unborn child get to be considered.
Roe v. Wade has proven to be far more than simply a legal precedent. While its legal restrictions on state law have been overturned, its philosophical and moral determination that banning abortion violates the rights and liberty of a pregnant woman, believing the origins of life and the beginning of human life were abstract considerations while a woman and her health choices were very real, remains a deeply held belief by a substantial segment of Americans.
However, this philosophical and moral view is challenged by the new realities of medicine, healthcare, and technology and needs reassessment by our society. Such an honest reassessment should force intellectually honest Americans, regardless of their various stances held on either the pro-life or pro-choice sides, to honestly conscede that several conclusions have strong cases.
On the one hand, if the creation and growth of human life is such a serious and momentous process, then restrictions on birth control options should be beyond consideration, and even “morning after” pills are up for consideration as allowable for family planning.
On the other hand, if science can detect all the evidence of life inside the womb, then a viable fetus should be considered a person with the same rights to life and liberty as any other person. Common sense should allow us to conclude, at the least, that abortions in the third trimester should be disallowed across the board. Further, an in-depth consideration of the scientific data should force society to consider whether a fetus is “alive” once a heartbeat can be detected.
In summary of this essay let me reiterate the chief points of my position.
Many early arguments for unrestricted access to abortion have either fallen out of vogue or been demonstrated as faulty by the march of history. The idea that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare” is no longer preached by abortion advocates or practiced by abortion clinics. The argument that abortion reduces poverty has not played out over the decades, as evidenced by the perpetual nature of generational poverty despite the dramatic increase in abortions among impoverished Americans.
The assertion that abortions would happen regardless does not jive with an honest assessment of statistics. Abortions are clearly occurring that would not happen otherwise due to the encouragement and processes of a large abortion industry. The only argument still viable and in vogue for unrestricted abortion is the belief in a woman’s right to choose. This belief relies upon the idea of the non-personhood of the human fetus for the consideration to not be one of an intersection of rights.
This final defense of unrestricted access to abortion, relying on the non-personhood of the human fetus and the necessity of abortion to allow a woman to have a choice in pregnancy, is increasingly contrary to the new realities of medicine, healthcare, and technology. There are numerous options for birth control, which have become affordable for most Americans. The evidence of life, such as brain activity, a beating heart, physical animation, cognizant response to outside stimuli, and viability, are all observable within the womb.
Finally, an argument against banning third-trimester abortions and even against considering a fetus with a heartbeat as a person with unalienable rights is increasingly becoming an immoral disregard of scientific realities. Between the increasing viability of preterm birth in earlier stages of pregnancy and the growing options, effectiveness, and affordability of birth control, justifying unrestricted abortion based primarily on a woman’s right to choose is becoming less philosophically and morally sound.
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