In a recent development of the abortion debate in the United States, a document was leaked in which it appears the Supreme Court is bound to overturn the Roe v. Wade decision, and consequently, make abortion illegal once again.
As well as representing a significant rolling back of human rights, this opens a can of worms regarding legal and deeper philosophical questions. If abortion is criminalised, will IVF (in-vitro fertilisation) also be illegal? After all, in that procedure, non-implanted embryos are commonly discarded. Strangely, IVF does not arouse as much opposition in the wider public. Between 37% and 48% of Americans are anti-abortion, but only 12% are anti-IVF. For all its faults, the Catholic Church is at least consistent, as it stringently opposes both. But Catholicism (and other religious faiths with similar anti-abortion views) is not off the hook when it comes to other glaring inconsistencies.
For instance, Catholic doctrine teaches that animals have no souls. Yet, that does not imply that the Church authorises the torturing of animals, because as Thomas Aquinas argued, by harming animals you become insensitive to violence, and it makes it more likely that you end up harming other human beings. But if you were ever in a fire and you had to decide whether to save a 30-year-old woman, or five kittens, who should you save? According to Catholicism, saving the 30-year-old woman would be more important than saving the five kittens. As opposed to what extreme animal rights activists may think, this is a reasonable stance.
But what if, instead of five kittens, there were five human embryos in a petri dish, trapped in the fire? Should you still choose to save the woman? I certainly would. To my knowledge, no formal psychology experiment has been done with this scenario, but I suppose most people would agree with my answer. Yet, if Catholic doctrine is true, an embryo is a person, and consequently, the choice should be obvious: saving five persons is preferable to saving one.
When it comes to priorities, stringent anti-abortion activists begin to resemble the most extreme animal rights activists. Anti-abortion activists may counter that a kitten will never be a person, whereas an embryo will develop into one (in many – though crucially, not all – cases), and consequently, the five embryos’ potentiality allows for them to be protected, even above the one fully developed person. But let us consider a famous thought experiment by philosopher Michael Tooley:
Suppose at some future time a chemical were to be discovered which when injected into the brain of a kitten would cause the kitten to develop into a cat possessing a brain of the sort possessed by humans, and consequently into a cat having all the psychological capabilities characteristic of adult humans.
In this case, because of the chemical that has been discovered, all kittens have the potential to become persons. Should we then prefer to save the five kittens over the woman, because there is a chemical that could turn kittens into persons? Of course not. In fact, we can extend this even further: with cloning technologies, any human cell can be turned into a human being. So, by this logic, hair is potentially a person. Should barbers store cut hair from their clients, so as to avoid killing millions of potential persons?
Catholicism also teaches the doctrine of just war. Again, this is a reasonable stance. In opposition to pacifists, I believe some wars are just and use of force in self-defense is legitimate, provided the response is proportional, it does not target civilians (i.e., they die only as collateral damage), and the cause is just. Criticise Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin all you want, but most people would agree that there was justification in using military force to stop the Holocaust.
Yet, if the Catholic teaching about abortion were true (that abortion is literally murder), a genocide larger than the Holocaust would currently be taking place in the United States, with an estimated 62 million abortions having taken place since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.
During the Holocaust, Jews in the Warsaw ghetto rebelled and killed some of the Nazis. Nobody blames them: they killed Nazis in order to try to save victims of the ongoing genocide, as there was no time to wait for Soviet or American liberators. If abortion is literally murder, couldn’t fundamentalists who bomb clinics be said to be doing something similar to the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto? They might believe they are killing abortion doctors (who they see as active perpetrators of the genocide) in order to save genocide victims. As in the Warsaw ghetto, there is no time to wait, because each moment that passes, more than two thousand embryos are killed in “extermination centers”.
Unsurprisingly, despite their “abortion is literally murder” rhetoric, the majority of Catholics and other stringent anti-abortion activists condemn the bombing of abortion clinics. Make no mistake: the bombing of abortion clinics is vile terrorism and should be energetically condemned. But it can only be condemned if one accepts that abortion is clearly not the same as, and not really anything like, murder. Otherwise, a deep moral inconsistency is at play.
Caring for the unborn, exclusively
These are inconsistencies on an ideological level. But on a practical level, one also finds hypocrisies. If anti-abortion activists are so concerned about the welfare of children, why are they so indifferent to the fate of mothers who have recently given birth? Why do they neglect support for neonatal care, school lunch programs, day-care, and so on? Why do they vote against bills to ease baby formula shortage? Comedian George Carlin famously ridiculed this moral hypocrisy in 1996:
Once you are born, you are on your own… if you are pre-born, you are fine; if you are pre-school, you are fucked!
Some historians have claimed that prior to the 18th Century, we in the West were not overly concerned with children. Infant mortality was so high that people for the most part were emotionally indifferent to children’s deaths. Our current concern for children is certainly a sign of progress, but where once society was somewhat accustomed to the suffering of children, today’s demagogue politicians know there are votes to be had in stoking moral panics over the plight of children and the unborn. When someone hysterically screams “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” à la The Simpsons’ Helen Lovejoy, populist politicians take note. When these politicians run out of rational arguments, they will appeal to what-about-the-children-ism: a cynical move to get voters emotionally charged by appealing to our sensitivity to the well-being of children. In so doing, they may even expand the category of “children” to include entities that are clearly not part of it, such as embryos.
Donald Trump was a perfect example of this trick: once a pro-choice figure, he suddenly turned into an ardent anti-abortion politician. Was this move sincere? We are not inside his head, so we do not know. But be it as it may, he reaped the political fruits of his sudden transformation. His 2016 electoral bid relied heavily on the evangelical vote, and unquestionably, that support was due to his not-so-veiled promise of overturning Roe v. Wade. Trump is no longer in office, but if abortion is criminalised in the United States, it will largely be because of him, and the Supreme Court judges he was in position to appoint.
The anti-abortion position is full of inconsistencies, and despite their insistence to the contrary, it appears many on the Religious Right do not really consider foetuses to be persons. Some may genuinely think they hold that view, but they have not sufficiently examined the implications of their position and have thus not come around the inconsistencies. Others, however, may use the anti-abortion position simply as a ploy to gain power, or simply to accommodate misogynistic attitudes. Whatever the reason, skeptics must push back and point out the many inconsistencies of the anti-abortion view, as part of a wider effort to defend reproductive rights.