On ‘Being Pro-Life’: Responding to Readers (Pt. 1)

Late last week I had an essay published at Vox on the meaning and limits of the term ‘pro-life.’

I tried in that essay to defend the claim that an emphasis on preventing abortions is reasonable, and that it is compatible with a deep concern about other matters of social policy. My approach was deliberately impressionistic; that is, I attempted to get beneath some of the formal arguments of ‘rights’ and ‘organisms’ to capture the basic disposition that, in my experience, many pro-lifers have but rarely articulate.

I have been very grateful for all who took the time to read it, and even more so for those who bothered to critique it. It is a limited essay; it does not comprehensively explain what it means to be ‘pro-life,’ nor does it address any of the very messy, practical situations where such intuitions are tested. That was also deliberate. Everything I wrote is compatible with (at least some!) fine-grained distinctions about what constitutes permissible killing. But I wanted to convey why I think all of us grasp such situations as ‘hard cases’, namely because we share intuitions that terminating a pregnancy has a more grave moral significance than, say, removing a limb or replacing an organ.

Many of the critiques that have come in deserve far more robust responses than I can give at the moment. Yet having started a conversation with readers, I feel obliged to try to keep it up with those who are interested. To that end, I plan on publishing some of the correspondence I have received, in hopes of clarifying some of my own commitments and sharpening my own understanding about these matters.

Any identifying information has been removed, and I cleaned up any punctuation errors that I saw. Otherwise, I publish these emails as I received and sent them.

Hi Matthew,

This message is in response to your article “People criticize pro-lifers for focusing so much on abortion. But there’s a reason we do.” on Vox. I open the article as soon as I read the title. I am pro-choice, and passionately so. But the title sounded like someone saying “I know you don’t agree with me already, let me calmly explain to you my point of view.” We need this kind of approach more than ever in our divided country, and, after reading your piece, I am extremely grateful to you for taking the time to share your opinion.

As I said, I strongly believe in women’s liberty to choose. However, I paused a few times to think while reading the piece, and thought — well, this is a good point. These are the parts that caught my attention:

The pro-life outlook is more enchanted, more infused with a secular sense of the sacred, than most of our philosophical arguments allow. […] But for the pro-lifer, that “clump of cells” is as wondrous, as potent, as mysterious as, well, the cosmos.


Yet the notion that the dignity of the human being subsists prior to any knowledge of the child and to its maturation means that, whatever fundamental rights we have in this world, we all share them equally.

As I was imagining what I would reply in person to you — probably in a civil exchange of opinions, not a heated, self-absorbed and often useless argument on comment sections online — these two questions arose:

Your parallelism between the start of human life and the start of the universe is beautiful, and it confers an innate, deeply rooted sanctity to the notion of life we should all, as humans, be in awe of. My take is that we feel this way because we are living in a moment in history where we have the privilege to see human life as anything different than a commodity (at least in developed countries). For most of our history as a species, the relation between parents, children and society was a product of survival struggle. The notion of pedagogy and the view of children as anything other than “younger adults” does not appear until the 1800s. This utilitarian view must have extended to unborn feti as well, or would you say it didn’t? In summary, it is a beautiful thought to think as a pregnancy as sacred experience that has been part of womanhood since the dawn of time. But, if we stop to think about the actual conditions of the common, regular people in the Middle Age or in the Paleolithic, well — that view delusional seems to me delusional, though beautiful in theory.

My second point regards the consequences of outlawing abortions. Plenty of research has demonstrated that making abortion access illegal does not stop women from not wanting a pregnancy and terminating it in unsafe ways, often leading to the death of the woman and the fetus. Sure, we can try to be more proactive in stopping these women and establishing a support system around them. If we take legal abortions out of the equation, the only coherent thing to do is to devote more money into resources for women who often think they don’t have any other alternatives. My question is, do you believe that, as a society, we can realistically address this issue? If your answer is anything different than “Yes, and here is my plan”, you probably already know what is my next question: is being ethically and morally right worth the life of the 68,000 women that die annually around the world due to unsafe abortions?

Thank you very much for taking the time to read my point of view, as well as for your beautifully written piece. As I said, it made me stop and think. I wish all debates had this effect and were this civil.




Thanks very much for reading my essay, and for such a gracious and thoughtful email. I am sorry for my delayed response; my inbox has been a madhouse since the essay went live, and I have only now had the time to sit and respond to the many critiques and suggestions appropriately.

I cannot thank you enough for your kind words about my approach. I could not agree more that we need more such exchanges in our society, especially ones that are as direct as yours. Civility needs to go hand-in-hand with critique and argument, which is hard to pull off well. The alternative is that it devolves into a substanceless patina of niceness, in which everyone feels warm and fuzzy but no one is quite sure on what we actually disagree about. Your email is, dare I say, a model of what I someday hope to embody. Reading it is a gift. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

Niceties aside (he joked!), allow me to try to respond to your observations and questions. I’m sure I cannot do them justice; they are important, and merit more consideration than I have time tonight to give.

On the first, you have named something very important about my essay: it is a deeply romanticized vision of ‘human life,’ which is not very attentive to practical realities. That is true of both the messy realities of procreation in our own day and time (as many other readers have pointed out), and of those practical realities that existed prior to our own economically prosperous (for many), scientifically advanced culture with its sentimentalist character. It is easy to characterize every embryo as an angel when we are not worried about whether we shall be able to feed it. I think this critique is right; it’s the critique I would have made of my own essay.

I would say two things about it: First, I’d probably joke that we have made progress in our apprehension of the mystery of human life. Ultrasounds are practically magic — and anyone who thinks otherwise probably does not know the deep interrelationship science and magic have sometimes had in our Western societies. It intrigues how little we yet know about how human life is formed within the womb; the causes of male infertility, for instance, are almost wholly opaque to us. In some ways, our advanced learning has served to augment the wonder we can have — at least in responsible hands, anyway. So I think I could say that my romanticized approach toward human life actually represents a kind of progress.

But the other argument I would offer is that the ‘utilitarian view’ for children, as you name it, serves as an argument against abortion. The child was not simply another mouth to feed; it was a mouth who would feed the parents, when they were (hopefully) of the age where such assistance was required. I’m not much a fan of utilitarian forms of reasoning, but there are (still) strong economic and social reasons to pursue larger families than we currently tend to do in our privileged countries.

As to the consequences of outlawing abortions, I take it that whether or not women are likely to die from botched abortions has a lot to do with the quality of the medical care they have access to. So, Daniel Williams points out that in the 1930s, thousands of women died from botched illegal abortions, but by 1965, “only” 200 did. I put ‘only’ in quotes because one death is too many — but, at the same time, public policy and law can only deal in generalities. One death from a car accident is too many, yet we go on allowing other citizens to drive at speeds that are obviously hazardous to other people in the aggregate. There is no way to make this point without sounding callous and ogreish; yet I do not know how it can be avoided.

Suppose abortion is actually morally bad for a moment. Such a moral badness would happen on two planes: it would be bad because it ends of a human life, but it would also be bad because it would express and deepen an attitude that the goodness of human life is contingent upon our decisions and volitions. On such a view, there is strong reason to prohibit such an action, even if doing so meant that those who violate such a prohibition place themselves in more serious or grave harm than if it were permitted.

That is to say, yes, I think our society can “deal with this issue,” in the sense that we can meaningfully create the conditions where no lives are lost due to abortion if we prohibit it. 200 lives lost in 1965 gives me reason to think that, if it were once again prohibited, no one would die today. And that would be most welcome. The image of the ‘back-alley abortion’ is so powerful because of the dangers and risks it evokes; but the sanitization of the procedure that we are familiar with today does not necessarily make it morally appropriate. Not all that is medically safe is licit.

I’m going on too long, and doubtlessly sermonizing. But one final point: I have less confidence that every nation around the world is as well positioned as ours to prohibit abortions and avoid the tragic loss of life by mothers who attempt them. Access to medical care is enormously uneven. I suspect that such broader social conditions mitigate the badness of abortion, both for that country and for those who seek it. But I do not claim to know that. It seems to me, though, that here in America we are functionally without excuse. We know too much, and we have too many resources, to claim that our hands are clean because we permit a morally bad practice on the basis of the purported harms that might arise from prohibiting it.

There is more to say on this, no doubt. I would certainly welcome your reply, though I may not be able to respond to it very quickly. Still, I am immensely grateful for your kindness in reading my essay so carefully and thoughtfully. It is a gift that I do not deserve.

My best regards,


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