The Arguments Against Abortion Do Not Make Sense

A new anti-abortion book shows that the “pro-life” movement defends a bizarre, irrational morality that aims to turn back the sexual revolution and considers embryos equal to adults.

Now that a Republican Supreme Court has removed the constitutional right to an abortion, the anti-abortion movement will be aggressively pushing for new legislation around the country to eliminate access to the procedure. Previously, they already imposed a burdensome obstacle course on those seeking abortions (tricking patients into thinking Christian counseling centers were abortion clinics, requiring doctors to scare patients with misinformation, etc.). They will now be able to use the full punitive power of the state to shut down clinics and prosecute doctors, women who terminate pregnancies or even miscarry, and those who help someone procure an abortion

Anti-abortion activists have made their intentions very clear, and for an understanding of how they think and what they will do next, one can turn to the new book Tearing Us Apart: How Abortion Harms Everything and Solves Nothing by Ryan T. Anderson and Alexandra DeSanctis, which contains both the central arguments against abortion and a vision for a world in which abortion is both “illegal and unthinkable.” Anderson is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Life, Religion, and Family (yes, those DeVoses), who has previously written books attacking same-sex marriage and transgender people. DeSanctis is a writer who specializes in anti-abortion opinion pieces for National Review. Their book, which is perfectly timed (it announces a plan for moving forward after the overturning of Roe, which it happily anticipates—indeed, Roe was overturned mere days before the book’s publication), may well become something of a handbook for anti-abortion activists, giving them their basic talking points and goals. Examining the case it makes can help us as we plan to counter a newly energized and aggressive anti-abortion movement that has already succeeded (with the help of feckless do-nothing liberals) in rewriting the core set of constitutional rights Americans possess.

Tearing Us Apart makes an expansive case against abortion, arguing that it is harmful in myriad ways. As the chapter titles indicate, Anderson and DeSanctis believe abortion wrecks just about every part of society: 

  1. Abortion Harms the Unborn Child
  2. Abortion Harms Women and the Family
  3. Abortion Harms Equality and Choice
  4. Abortion Harms Medicine
  5. Abortion Harms the Rule of Law
  6. Abortion Harms Politics and the Democratic Process
  7. Abortion Harms Media and Popular Culture

Let us dwell mostly here on the first two of these alleged harms, because many of the arguments in the rest of the book require us to accept these first two points (for example, the media and medical profession’s embrace of abortion is considered harmful because abortion is harmful to women or the Unborn Child). If abortion is not the murder of a child and actually helps women, the rest of the case is substantially weakened. 

The Case That Abortion Is Murder 

In the first chapter, Anderson and DeSanctis lay out the case that abortion is homicide and should be prohibited by the government because of the harm inflicted on the “child.” They say their argument has three parts:

  1. “Biological: a new human being comes into existence at conception.”
  2. “Moral: Human beings are created equal and possess intrinsic dignity and worth.”
  3. “Political: Governments exist to, at the very least, protect innocent human beings from lethal violence.”

The authors say that proponents of abortion are in denial of the basic biological fact that at the moment of fertilization (a sperm fusing with an ovum) “a new human being comes into existence.” (This is similar to the comment of a biochemist quoted recently by the Catholic News Agency: ‘“There is indisputable proof that life begins from the moment of conception when the sperm fertilizes the egg, because there is the creation of a new, totally distinct, integrated organism or a human being, which is going to be biologically distinct from all other life forms on this planet.”) They say that this is an undeniable scientific truth. (In fact, pro-lifers actually diverge from the medical consensus, which is that pregnancy begins at implantation rather than fertilization, but adopting this view would be damaging for the pro-life argument, which is that moral status is magically conferred through the creation of a “unique organism.”) Then, because human beings are “created equal,” it follows that the unborn deserve equal rights, and because the government’s job is to protect all people from violence, abortion must be stopped by the government. (It also follows that anything that destroys an embryo should be stopped by the government, because the embryo is an “innocent human being.”) 

The seeming power of the argument comes from the fact that it can appear difficult at first to deny any one of these premises. Do you deny that fertilization produces a genetically distinct organism? Do you deny that organism’s humanity? Do you deny that human beings are equal? Or do you deny that the government should protect human beings from violence?

But upon brief examination, the argument turns out to be sophistry. What it has not given us is an argument for why the moment the sperm fertilizes the egg, the combination of genetic material confers a new moral status that makes the destruction of the new entity tantamount to infanticide. It is stipulated that at the initiation of the process of the organism’s development, it becomes “equal.” But this clashes profoundly with basic moral intuition. For instance, most of us would agree that there is something much more wrong in killing an infant than taking birth control pills that could prevent implantation of a fertilized egg (there are ongoing debates as to which methods can do this and how often), and it is not hard to recognize that a cell barely visible to the naked eye is morally distinct from a live child. Yet, by the authors’ reasoning, we are expected to see all these things as the same and attribute vital moral significance to this moment: 

Indeed, as one anti-abortion writer says in The Atlantic, the question of whether common contraception methods can inhibit the chances of a fertilized egg being implanted in the uterus has  “caused strongly pro-life people, as I am, to consider the birth control pill—and the morning after pill, which operates on the same principles—to be, potentially, an abortifacient and, therefore, to be rejected within a pro-life philosophy.” The author says many pro-lifers actually believe in rebranding some contraception methods as “abortifacients” if they could not just prevent fertilization, but prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg, since the egg becomes a person once fertilized.  

By calling it an undisputed “biological fact” that the fertilized egg is “a human being,” and adding only that humans should not be killed and the government should prevent them from being killed, the authors of Tearing Us Apart believe they have done all that is necessary to resolve the moral question. Abortion is murder, case closed. Of course, the zygote, blastocyst, and embryo in fact pose a major challenge for the conservative view of abortion, because to treat their destruction as equivalent to a homicide appears an absurdity.  It means that entities at very early stages of human development—those without sentience or even the rudiments of a nervous system—must be treated as equivalent to the rest of us, despite feeling no pain, having no thoughts, and being such a rudimentary entity as to make a frog or hamster appear godlike. Does this really make sense? Why does the fact that the entity has unique genetic material make a dispositive moral difference? Anderson and DeSanctis write: 

The unborn child is an entirely new organism—a whole human being. Yes, it is young and immature. Yes, it has yet to develop into something that looks like an adult. But the one-celled zygote is exactly what a one-day-old human being looks like, and it does exactly what a one-day-old human being does. So, too, with the eight-day-old blastocyst—that’s what a human being of that age looks like, and it does exactly what it’s supposed to do. So, too, with the twenty-week fetus. These are all complete, whole organisms, even though they are rapidly developing to reach the next stage of life… The basic facts of biology and embryology, make it clear that, from the moment of conception, the unborn child is a distinct, living human being, just like each one of us.

In fact, the various embryological entities are clearly not “just like each one of us” in almost any way, except for their genetic material, which, to Anderson and DeSanctis, means the zygote is a “child,” and there are no meaningful moral distinctions between embryos and people. But once again, we see a missing stage in the argument: why does the fusion of the genetic material into an “organism” confer a moral right? Why does the fusion of human genetic material confer moral status? (Let us leave aside the question of why this new, instantaneous equal status is so significant that it outweighs any right a woman may have to decide what shall or shall not inhabit her uterus.) 

An approach that better accords with widely-held moral intuitions is to say that moral status is not necessarily instantaneously conferred, and that life does not begin at a single identifiable moment (there was life in the material that made the zygote, too), but unfolds over time. As the zygote develops into the blastocyst, then the embryo, then the fetus, it is slowly gaining the properties that make it recognizably a human rather than the rudimentary components that initiate the development of a human. (Likewise, to lay the first brick of a house is not the same as having a house, even if the first brick is foundational and even if it is not clear at what precise moment the structure becomes a house.) When the fetus is the size of a prune or a Polly Pocket, one can stipulate that because it is an “organism,” it has a right to life, but this is something the anti-abortion crowd assert rather than argue. If I do not grant the premises that one’s humanity is defined by the possession of unique genetic material 1 and if an organism has humanity, it must have an equal right to life and destroying it must be murder, I do not see any persuasive argument for why destroying an embryo should be morally distinct from, say, removing a kidney. The “completeness” and “uniqueness” of the embryo seem morally irrelevant to me, as compared with, for example, sentience, desires, the experience of pain, etc. (They also do not even seem accurate. The organism is not “complete” except if one defines completeness to mean a genetic sequence instead of all the other properties that make a human, with the actual development being irrelevant. Blueprints are not a building. Nor is the entity terribly unique, since it is 99.9% identical with the rest of us.) 

L.W. Sumner, in his excellent Abortion and Moral Theory, points out that both conservatives and liberals on abortion have gotten tripped up intellectually by trying to find some clear instantaenous line where equal human moral status begins. Liberals have sometimes chosen birth, which results in the bizarre conclusion that something is or is not human depending on where it is, and would justify acts that seem quite close to infanticide. Conservatives choose fertilization, which forces them to argue that the zygote and the human adult are morally equal, something I have a hard time accepting that they truly believe, but which they have to insist that they believe because otherwise they would be forced into the difficult territory of trying to identify post-fertilization moments where morally relevant properties arise, and this could lead them to the view that early abortions are morally acceptable. They cannot go with implantation, since it’s not clear why implantation should be of moral significance, and any moment after that would force conservatives to do difficult moral philosophy without easy answers (which would inhibit their ability to be angrily self-righteous). So fertilization it must be, and they must then devote themselves passionately to insisting that fertilized eggs are more morally akin to adults than they are to unfertilized eggs. 

Sumner argues that instead of the absurdity of saying that equal moral status is granted in a single magic instant, we should see it as arising gradually as the human fetus comes closer to full sentience. This is a view that will satisfy neither liberals nor conservatives, because it suggests that some late abortions may be morally wrong (though not all late abortions), while all early abortions do not involve the destruction of a morally significant entity. This avoids the conservative pitfall of saying that implantation-preventing contraception and murder are morally comparable. That ludicrous notion is what follows from the idea that the fusion of genetic material into a new organism is a moment at which a crucial line is crossed, and we go from “destroying these components (egg and sperm apart) would be morally meaningless” to “destroying these same components (egg and sperm together) would now be tantamount to cutting a newborn’s throat.” Anderson and DeSanctis are forced to argue that “the embryo, newborn, and adult share the same rational, personal nature, with basic root capacities for rational, personal actions,” which will certainly come as a surprise to the embryo. In fact, embryos do not have such capacities, but the authors’ case is that because they could develop rationality, they have the “capacity for rationality.” But a sperm could, if fused with an egg, become a rational creature, yet this does not give it the “capacity for rationality.” One might respond that the embryo is “complete” while the sperm is “incomplete,” but the embryo is not complete and much more must be added for it to grow. (Added by the woman, who is presumably obligated to use her body to complete the organism.) The argument for its completeness relies heavily on a simplistic view of genetics, and a view of the human person that gives overriding importance to genes in the determination of our humanity.

Further arguments against the proposition that fertilization is where “equality” should begin can be found in Sumner’s book and in David Boonin’s A Defense of Abortion, and there is a whole separate question of whether, even granting the fetus moral status, abortion may still be justified on bodily autonomy grounds. But Sumner’s point is that to argue abstractly about “the fetus” misses the way in which the development of a person is a process, and it makes sense to see their status as developing along with their mind and body. Conservatives like the fertilization line because it is easy and non-arbitrary, but it requires them to argue that zygotes have the “capacity for rationality” and deserve equal rights in the Constitution. It makes it very difficult to see how they could endorse the legality of contraception methods that prevent implantation, or distinguish the prevention of implantation from infanticide. A view that personhood and moral status are acquired incrementally, with no obvious “starting point,” may make line-drawing more difficult,  but it is consistent with the biological reality that humans come into existence slowly, and that in the early stages we are still so close to non-existence as to seem like nonentities. Conservatives tend to like easy answers to moral questions, hence the silly obsession with the fertilization moment (which incidentally, is itself not really a “moment” but a process), but a sensible policy on abortion begins with the recognition that over the course of the time between fertilization and birth a creature is steadily created. 

A human being of equal moral status to an adult, according to Tearing Us Apart 

The Argument That Abortion Harms Women

If we are not impressed by the argument that adults and zygotes are morally indistinguishable, Anderson and DeSanctis have another for us: abortion harms women themselves. This argument is actually a much heavier lift, because in order to make it, one needs to disregard the overwhelming testimony of those who have actually had abortions. Current Affairs recently published an interview with Diana Greene Foster, author of The Turnaway Study, which followed thousands of women for years who either had an abortion or were denied an abortion. Foster’s study found little evidence of harm from abortion, but she did find that the women who anticipated harms from being denied an abortion actually did experience the harms they had predicted. Foster found that “at five years postabortion, relief remained the most commonly felt emotion among all women.” The vast majority of women feel their abortions were the correct decision for them. (Anderson and DeSanctis dismiss the entirety of this research, saying that the attrition of study participants renders it unreliable. Instead, they cite research from an anti-abortion professor that has been subject to far harsher methodological criticisms, purporting to show that abortion causes mental health problems. The abundant literature reaching the opposite conclusion is treated as irrelevant.) 

Yet Anderson and DeSanctis go so far as to argue that “no family has ever been better off because of abortion.” Of course, in order to assert this, they have to believe that the opinions of families themselves are mostly inadmissible as evidence. They do, of course, give us anecdotes of those who regret their abortions, without providing comparable accounts of those who do not regret them. (This inconsistent standard alone is obvious intellectual dishonesty that shows they are uninterested in a serious discussion of the issue. It’s especially egregious when one recalls that they criticized Foster’s empirical research for its supposedly biased sampling techniques, despite “choosing the most disturbing anecdotes possible about abortion” being the exact opposite of an attempt to get a representative picture.) But they also say that abortion does damage to women “even if they don’t realize it,” meaning that no amount of protests from women that they have not been harmed can change Anderson and DeSanctis’ patronizing view that they have. For instance, they write, abortion “encourages mothers to view their children as antagonists.” If a woman who has had an abortion and later had a child were to insist that she does not view children as antagonists, her views would be irrelevant, because she must believe this “even if she doesn’t realize it.” 

But even if women who receive abortions say they are better off, Anderson and DeSanctis argue that they are still living in a worse society and that their relationships have suffered:

“Women are much worse off for living in a society that has embraced abortion… Perhaps the most significant detriment to women of such a culture is that widespread acceptance of abortion has undermined healthy relationships between men and women and severed the natural connection between sex and reproduction… Abortion treats pregnancy as a disease and treats the male body as the norm, disadvantaging women because of their natural role in the reproductive process. In the workplace, such a mindset lends itself to a corporate culture within which women must behave like men to succeed. Instead of accommodating women’s natural capacity for childbearing and, often, natural desire for childrearing, a culture that permits abortion encourages women to behave like career-focused men.  

Much of this story doesn’t even make sense (how does abortion make women like men or “treat the male body as the norm”?). And none of this story is proven. It is asserted. If women who have had abortions have healthy relationships and enjoy being able to have sex without reproducing, are they still “worse off”? If they do not see pregnancy as a “disease” and have children later in life, or already have children, is it still the case that they believe it even if they say they do not believe it? If abortion is linked to a corporate mindset, why is it that the very radical feminists who were pushing for abortion rights were those most critical of that very same corporate culture? Surely “accommodating women’s natural capacity for childbearing” is not the opposite of “permitting abortion.” A society built on feminist principles would do both, making sure that women had meaningful choices to either have children or not have children, without being coerced into either decision by the economy or a partner. (Anderson and DeSanctis cite examples of women being pressured into abortions by partners, which of course they should not be. Nor should they be pressured into giving birth. Theirs is not an argument against abortion, but against coercion.)

Anderson and DeSanctis believe that our abortion-permitting society should instead encourage “men and women to flourish in their roles as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, to encourage men and women to share the hard work of making a home, building a marriage and family, and offering a witness of self-sacrificial love to a world longing for meaning.” Here again, the arrogance is extraordinary. Who defines these “roles”? Why should these authors get to tell people what kinds of lives they ought to want? Are different views irrelevant? 

Anderson and DeSanctis, in a section on health effects, argue that abortion “poses significant physical risks to women, even under the safest medical conditions.” They immediately cite, predictably, the horrifying case of Kermit Gosnell, a criminal doctor who ran a filthy, unsafe abortion clinic where he committed infanticide and caused a patient’s death. They call his story “illustrative,” saying that it shows how “unregulated” the abortion “industry” is. They do not actually present any evidence that Planned Parenthood clinics are anything like Gosnell’s chamber of horrors (I once worked at one myself, and it wasn’t.) Instead, they say that “even if we assume that physicians are generally licensed and competent, and operating environments sterile, serious complications still occur,” and then cite the fact that “of the roughly one million abortions in the United States each year, about 2 percent result in complications.” They admit that “two percent might not sound like much,” but say it means that “somewhere in the realm of twenty thousand American women will suffer each year from significant medical problems as a result of undergoing an abortion.” They also admit that “the complication rates for abortion in the United States may appear low,” but say that these rates are “almost certainly underreported,” suggesting that they are wildly off and that while we do not have data showing that abortion is dangerous, it actually is. (In fact, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded in 2018 that “clinical evidence clearly shows that legal abortions in the United States—whether by medication, aspiration, D&E, or induction—are safe and effective. Serious complications are rare.”)

They go on to give examples of all the worst-case scenarios, telling the story of a woman who died from an abortion (but not any who died in childbirth), as well as pushing the discredited abortion-breast cancer link (failing to discuss any of the criticism of the hypothesis). They do not, of course, discuss the severe negative outcomes someone can experience while giving birth, or the fact that every year “as many as 60,000 women in the U.S. experience unexpected outcomes during labor or delivery that have serious short- or long-term effects on their health and well-being.” Up to 900 American women every year die from childbirth complications. Anderson and DeSanctis pretend to care about women’s health, but of course they would force a woman to undergo childbirth even if she thinks she’s not healthy enough to go through with it. (Likewise, their discussion of whether abortion is associated with changes to mental health does not include any discussion of the downsides for life satisfaction of having to go through with an unwanted pregnancy, or the risk of having to remain in contact with an abusive partner.) 

One point Anderson and DeSanctis make in this chapter is actually not entirely wrong. They argue against the pro-choice talking point that claims that if abortion is made illegal, thousands of women will die in dangerous back-alley abortions. They say this is wrong. They say that the evidence shows women did not die in large numbers from illegal abortions in the pre-Roe era. In fact, while dangerous and deadly illegal abortions did happen (and will now happen again), it’s true that this wasn’t that widespread, for a simple reason: abortion is, contrary to the authors’ earlier assertions, relatively safe. The biggest problem with criminalizing abortion is not that abortions will become dangerous—and we should be careful about saying that, in case it scares women about illegal abortions. The biggest problem with criminalizing it is that you criminalize it, meaning that women fear arrest and incarceration for a medical procedure, and doctors have to risk serious criminal punishment for administering necessary care. I spoke recently with the leading historian on the era of criminalized abortion, Leslie J. Reagan, whose When Abortion Was a Crime shows that while it was true that women died in illegal abortions, many of the harms of criminalization are those we don’t discuss. For instance, illegal abortion providers would sometimes try to coerce poor women into sex in exchange for performing the procedure. Women would be interrogated by police, examined, and forced to undergo the humiliating ritual of testifying in court against their doctor. It was a horror. Yes, it could be unsafe, and as with the war on drugs, sending anything into the unregulated underground will make it worse. But Anderson and DeSanctis are right that illegal abortions were less deadly than their reputation—they just don’t realize that in trying to score a point against pro-choicers, they have inadvertently scored an own goal by showing the harms of abortion to be exaggerated. 

Foster’s book is full of testimonies from women who have had abortions, many of whom say things like:

“If I hadn’t had that abortion, I don’t think that I would’ve been able to do anything. I think that my whole life would be in chaos. I’m just grateful it was even an option. If they had made it any harder to have done it, it wouldn’t have just changed my life, it would’ve changed the lives of my entire family.”

Anderson and DeSanctis think these women are delusional about their own lives. The difference between them and advocates of choice is that the advocates of choice believe women are capable of making their own decisions about matters related to their reproductive health. 

When scrutinized carefully, the chapter on how abortion harms women turns out to be in major part based on our acceptance of the argument from the first chapter, i.e., a peanut-sized fetus is a child. The woman’s own opinion is treated as irrelevant in part because the authors have already concluded that abortion is murder, and murder must debase us whether we know it or not. Likewise, the rest of the chapters, about how abortion destroys law, media, and medicine, all presume we have accepted that abortion is a terrible moral harm rather than a basic right that (at least in the early stages) has no moral implications.

One chapter on how abortion has supposedly corrupted the medical profession says that “what most people don’t know—and what knowledgeable abortion supporters don’t admit—is that the political push for the legalization of abortion was spearheaded in large part by a coterie of ideologically motivated doctors, not just women’s rights activists.” In fact, I just discussed this very fact in my interview with Leslie Reagan, who notes that it was the testimony of liberal doctors rather than radical feminists who moved the (all-male) Supreme Court to codify the right to abortion. These doctors were indeed “ideologically motivated,” but their ideology was that criminalized abortion restricted their ability to do what was best for the patient. If you already believe abortion is a terrible harm, this may appear to you to be a sinister conspiracy of doctors. In fact, the true history only bolsters the case for abortion, by showing that the medical community came around to the position that legalized abortion is very important because the criminal legal system should not try to police medical care that doctors deem vital.

Anderson and DeSanctis make it clear that their long-term goal is not just to outlaw abortion, but to undo the sexual revolution itself and turn women back into good child-rearing wives: 

Making abortion unthinkable will be possible only when our society finally comes to terms with the disaster of the sexual revolution. So long as we fail to reckon with the damage done by widespread acceptance of sex outside of marriage—whether in the form of hookup culture or adultery—there will continue to be demand for abortion. Abortion is the ultimate backstop for “free sex” because it enables adults to engage in sex solely for pleasure and without commitment, erasing the consequences—their child—by means of lethal violence. A recovery of a sound sexual culture is the ultimate foundation for a culture of life. 

Sex for pleasure! What a horror. But at least they’re honest about the kind of society they intend to try to force on the rest of us, even if we don’t want to live there. The authors lay out a plan for following up the demise of Roe by aggressively using the law to curtail women’s rights wherever they dare to exercise them. Lest we think abortion pills are a way out, they exhort their fellow activists to make sure that women’s mail is heavily policed: 

It will be particularly important for pro-life legislators to focus on the new frontier of abortion-rights activists: expanding reliance on chemical abortion, prescribed via telemedicine, sent via mail, and self-administered by women alone in their homes. In pro-life states especially, laws will be needed to prevent cross-state transportation of abortion pills, protecting both unborn children and their mothers. 

Tearing Us Apart is worth looking at to see what the playbook of the anti-abortion movement is going to be next; many ideas for new restrictive laws are laid out. The ultimate goal, they say, is “a constitutional amendment to ensure that unborn children are explicitly protected as persons under the Fourteenth Amendment, precluding pro-abortion politicians from legalizing abortion at the federal level.” Since they are clear that fertilized eggs qualify as “unborn children” under the conception line, this would appear to mean in practice that both embryonic stem cell research and various common contraception methods would be prohibited by the United States Constitution. Truly, this is a roadmap toward a dystopian theocracy, and they are clear that the battle against abortion is part of a larger fight to reverse the freedoms gained in the sexual revolution and restore women to their proper “role” of being wives and mothers. The arguments may not make sense, and they may be accepted by only a small minority of the population, but as the Supreme Court has shown, it only takes a few fanatics in a position of extreme power to inflict an unpopular legal regime on the populace.

  1. They describe this as a “biological fact,” which is misleading, because biological reality does not tell us how to classify the world or what labels we must use for things. 

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