How to Disagree about Abortion

Abortion is one of the most fractious political and moral issues in contemporary American life. I am caught in the middle, surrounded by friends and family who take polar opposite positions. If you believe the accusations slung by both sides, I am beset by life-hating, baby-killing, genocidal monsters on one hand and freedom-hating, doctor-killing, repressive misogynists on the other.

But when I actually speak to my friends and family on either side, I find normal, decent people having normal, decent reactions to the issues that they are presented with.

Something has gone deeply awry with the debate over abortion. We have become so entrenched in our own perspectives that we have dehumanized those who disagree with us. Instead of seeing that they are normal, decent people who are doing their best to honestly address the issues, we shape them into caricatures and stereotypes. This is convenient for us because caricatures do not deserve our respect and stereotypes do not require our empathy.

We need to take a step back.

Abortion involves the most fundamental moral issues that we face: the nature of humanity itself, the beginning and end of life, death, what it means to be a person, love, sex, family, parenthood, the nature of society, the role of government, and more. These issues are intensely important but also incredibly complex. They could not be otherwise. They implicate the very basics about what it is to live and flourish and exist as a human being.

Humans have been interrogating these questions from the first moment we could and we will grapple with them until the last moment we can.

Given the stakes, of course we disagree about abortion, and we disagree passionately. Our views on the nature of life, our relationships, our families, and our values are part of our very identity. They structure our choices on a daily basis. Disagreement about them challenges the things we care about most. These disagreements can be difficult and painful.

Abortion is the perfect storm of moral disagreement.

It involves such complex and fundamental issues that disagreement is to be expected. It involves such important and personal issues that disagreement is painful. It takes a person of self-reflection, emotional and intellectual maturity, and deep empathy to accept the inevitability of both of these facts.

In other words, it takes adults to truly understand abortion. It takes adults to comfortably exist in the eye of the storm, to accept the pain and the complexity.

When we see the storm, we see that disagreement about abortion is not only expected. Disagreement about abortion is also reasonable. This is the difficult truth that our culture has fled from. It is the difficult truth that only an adult can accept. Understanding it requires being able to genuinely believe in the truth of your own opinion while simultaneously appreciating the viewpoint of those who disagree with you.

And so we have come to the crucial point. We have to exercise our empathy and step into the shoes of those on the other side. We have to take on a perspective not our own and do our best to understand it.

I will try to charitably and succinctly state some of the main considerations in favor of each. Contrary to the extreme portrayals, they don’t rest on bloodthirsty murder or oppressive misogyny. They rest on considerations of deep complexity and fundamental importance: life, personhood, humanity, freedom, and respect.

Consider some of the general points that each position rests on.

Pro-life: we value human life to a very great extent. Human life matters. Respect for human life, in all its forms and varieties and wherever it exists, is deeply rooted in our political, legal, moral, and religious cultures. Rejecting the value of human life leads down paths that we do not want to tread. Furthermore, the moment of birth is essentially arbitrary from a moral point of view. The baby that just exited its mother is not a different being from the fetus inside the mother from one second prior. The birth could have happened a few seconds, or minutes, earlier or later, depending on a wide variety of factors like the time when drugs were administered or when procedures were performed. These factors are irrelevant to the value of a living being. Recognizing the potential of something like a fetus or infant to grow into a full life of value makes sense. It is therefore reasonable to regard the fetus, especially in the latest parts of the pregnancy, as a being that deserves moral respect, consideration, and protection.

Pro-choice: having a child is one of the most life-altering, identity-changing choices that any person can make. It should not be up to anyone else but the person making that choice. Respect for the autonomy and freedom of each individual to choose the nature of their own life is deeply rooted in our political, legal, moral, and religious cultures. Rejecting the liberty of people to live their own lives leads down paths that we do not want to tread. Furthermore, at the point of conception and for a great deal of time afterwards a fetus is nothing like a human being. It has none of the features that make us distinct and worthy of special respect. A single-celled organism cannot be the moral equivalent of an adult human. A being that cannot feel pain is not worth more consideration than one that can. To suggest otherwise is to greatly denigrate the intrinsic dignity of the unique beings that we are. It is therefore reasonable to regard the mother’s choice as the overriding factor when considering the zygote, blastocyst, embryo, and fetus, especially in the earlier parts of the pregnancy.

If you’re like a lot of people I know, one (or both!) of those paragraphs made you feel pretty poorly. Your mind started raising a host of counterarguments, your chest welled up frustration that I overlooked or misstated important points, your stomach started churning. Experiences of pregnancy and parenthood and pain and pleasure rush in. You wish I were there to yell at. You’re getting ready to slam someone for sharing this or for suggesting it wasn’t the disturbed rantings of an evil man.

Deep breaths, everyone. You’re feeling the storm. We expected this.

Both positions appeal to factual features that we agree on. Both positions appeal to values that we all recognize and that we all appreciate. Both positions use forms of reasoning familiar to us. Both conclusions are a natural result of mixing all these deeply complex issues together and letting the due consideration of a human being go to work.

Do you agree with it all? No. Of course not. The point is that neither position is irrational. Neither position is irredeemable. Neither position is atrocious.

Both positions are reasonable.

This is unfamiliar ground. You might be uncomfortable here. It may feel like you are somehow violating your principles even by considering it. Extremists on both sides deny that we can rest here. The easiest way to deal with complexity is to deny it, ignore it, and repress it.

But here we are. I think some of us will be relieved to have found this place. I increasingly see a deep desire to be able to recognize the nuance, the complexity, the difficulty of the issue of abortion. This cannot be done in a moment. It must be done over time, in dialog with real interlocutors who care deeply about the issues but who we can also see with respect and empathy, and it will not be easy. Perhaps this is a first step. I hope it is.

Here’s how to disagree about abortion. Find a real person. Look at them and appreciate that they deserve your respect and empathy. Take a step back and realize that life is hard. Abortion involves the most difficult, the most important, the most complex, the most vexing moral issues that we face. That person in front of you doesn’t have them all figured out. But neither do you. Now talk about abortion. You’ll disagree, maybe even fundamentally. But you were expecting that, right?

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