The Abortion Status Quo is Untenable

I appreciated the tone and intent of Michael Austin’s By Common Consent post responding to Terryl Givens’ post at Public Square. He correctly identifies the question of abortion as one of competing rights: the right of the unborn human being to life set against the right of the mother to preserve her bodily integrity, but he makes two crucial mistakes.

First, he is too hasty in his application of the organ donation argument to abortion. According to that argument, since we do not require anyone to donate blood or organs to someone in need, surely we cannot require a pregnant mother to donate her body, either. Although this line of reasoning has strong intuitive appeal at first glance, the appeal vanishes if we probe a little deeper. Consider two scenarios (neither of which is an analogy for pregnancy or abortion; we’ll get to that later):

  • Alice has a rare genetic condition.
    Because of this, Alice needs a kidney transplant.
    Bob is the only potential donor.
    If he refuses, then Alice dies.

  • Bob steals Alice’s kidneys and sells them on the black market.
    Because of this, Alice needs a kidney transplant.
    Bob is the only potential donor.
    If he refuses, then Alice dies.

Now, I agree with Michael that the state cannot compel Bob to donate his kidney. In either case, he has the inviolable right to refuse to donate his organs. That doesn’t change the reality that, in the second case, if he refuses to donate the kidney and Alice dies, he will be guilty of her murder. Whereas if he agrees to donate the kidney and Alice lives, he will remain guilty of organ theft (and probably assault and kidnapping, etc.) but not murder.

The deeper flaw in Michael’s argument that’s revealed here is the attempt to change the topic from whether abortion should be illegal to whether pregnancy should be compulsory. Like many on the pro-choice side, Michael sees the two as equivalent. As this example shows, they aren’t. 

The second mistake Michael makes is dismissing the difference between actively killing someone and passively allowing them to die. Michael admits that in most cases this distinction is valid. I presume he’d agree with me (and most people) that if someone is starving to death and you have the right to withhold food (which means they will certainly die), that doesn’t mean you can shoot them in the head and it certainly doesn’t mean you can torture them to death.

This ordinary distinction doesn’t apply in the case of abortion, Michael argues, because “there is no practical difference between actively ending a pregnancy and simply removing the mother’s support.” 

But this is a failure to grapple with the central issues that Michael told us were at stake: the bodily integrity of the woman and the life of her child. Human beings have rights, not pregnancies, and so framing the distinction as between “actively ending a pregnancy” (rather than a human life) and “removing the mother’s support” misses out on addressing the competing rights Michael agrees are central.

The results of this bait-and-switch are by no means purely academic. Most of Michael’s argument is a minor update to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s seminal 1971 paper, A Defense of Abortion. In it, Judith pioneered most of the logic Michael uses, but at the end she remained clear-eyed about precisely what her argument entailed, concluding: “while I am arguing for the permissibility of abortion in some cases, I am not arguing for the right to secure the death of the unborn child.” (emphasis added)

Michael assumes that “nobody seriously believes that, if it were possible to detach a fetus from a woman’s body and allow it to die of natural causes, the issue of abortion would simply go away.” Well, no, the whole issue you wouldn’t go away, but that straw-man exaggeration is a long away from the reality that the methods of abortion matter

When performing an abortion on a fetus that is viable, inducing premature labor or surgically removing the fetus intact and allowing it at least a chance at life is not the same thing as deliberately killing him or her prior to birth. When conducting surgery on fetuses 21 weeks or older, researchers advise the use of anesthesia. Therefore, manually dismembering a 21 week fetus without anesthesia (as is standard practice) is not the same thing as providing at least that barest, smallest sliver of humane mercy in the unborn child’s final moments. 

And yes, even when it comes to earlier abortions, the ability to remove a fetus without deliberate injury–even if they cannot survive for long–is a fundamentally different kind of action than deliberately killing them. It’s the same difference as refusing to feed a starving person versus stabbing them in the heart. If we really cannot tell the difference, then we are truly past feeling.

Here are the general principles that remain standing between Michael’s starting point and his desired pro-choice position.

First, active killing is never automatically justified. The main reason that abortions often rely on dismembering fetuses or crushing their skulls is because smaller parts are easier to extract than an intact body. As a result, these methods of active killing can be safer for the mother. As such, they may be warranted in some circumstances, but this is not automatic. Michael assumes the difference doesn’t even exist. It does, and that means that a kind of blanket any-means-at-all approach to abortion is presumed rather than defended.

Second, invoking a right to withdraw support doesn’t work if you are responsible for the need for that support in the first place. We saw this general principle at work with the example of Bob and Alice; even though compelled organ donation is off the table, he’s still culpable for Alice’s death in the case where he took her kidneys to begin with.

Of course stealing someone’s kidneys is intrinsically wrong and harmful. Having sex (and possibly creating a new human being) is not. But the crucial link between Bob and Alice does not depend on the immorality or illegality of organ theft. It only depends on his responsibility for Alice’s predicament

Imagine inviting a little child to jump into the deep end of a pool with you. Or tossing a toddler into the air to make them laugh. These are harmless, everyday activities, but–purely by placing that child into a state where they depend on your you–a duty is created. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that there is no general duty to save a drowning child or catch a falling toddler, you absolutely would be held culpable for the death or injury to those particular children if you passively allowed them to drown or fall.

Take a moment to note that elective abortions violate both of these principles. Biological parents have a particular responsibility for a child created through consensual sex, but even if this first point falls, there would still be the fact that we could only permit a passive withdrawal of support, not the active killing typical of abortion methods.

Some might protest that attempting to avoid pregnancy by using contraception nullifies this responsibility, but that isn’t how responsibility works. We don’t get to pick and choose what we’d like to be responsible for based on what we wish had happened. As long as a new human being is created as a foreseeable consequence of the voluntary actions of a mother and father, the responsibility holds.

Some might also protest that it’s unfair that–although theoretically the responsibility adheres to mothers and fathers–only mothers are actually biologically on the hook during pregnancy. This is true; it absolutely is unfair. This unfairness incurs an obligation on all of us–as a society–to protect, support, and assist mothers facing unplanned pregnancies. But it does not obviate the responsibility parents have to their children to the extent that it allows elective abortions, especially via methods of active killing.

Finally, some might protest that there are exceptions in the case of rape, or a threat to the life of the mother, or critical medical problems with the unborn child. That is correct. It is a feature, not a bug. If the pregnancy results from a rape, for example, then the mother is not responsible in the way I’ve outlined above. This makes an abortion potentially permissible, but not automatically so (see: active killing). This is a very good fit for the Church’s position, and we can follow similar logic for the other exceptional cases.

I have a final observation to make. Abortion is indeed a very complex issue, especially when we consider the hardest and most fraught cases. Abortion is also a very serious issue, involving two of the most fundamental human rights: the right to bodily integrity and the right to life. Deciding on a perfect abortion policy is difficult and fraught, with many considerations to be balanced. 

But not every facet of the issue is complicated, and the least complex is the facet pertaining to elective abortions especially later in pregnancy. In those cases, which are generally legal at present, which make up the vast majority of abortions (elective ones, not late-term ones), and which were the target of Terryl’s piece, the complexity that Michael finds is an artifact of his own tangled arguments and not the issue itself. Unfortunately, complex arguments don’t need to be correct in order to be effective. To the extent that an incorrect argument dulls and deflects, it succeeds in protecting the status quo.

That is why Terryl began his essay with the observation that “the intellect disconnected from the heart is just an organ for winning arguments.” Even as we are mindful of the high stakes and complexity of the debate, we should surely be able to start by ruling out elective, late-term abortions. It’s hard to see how anyone who approaches this issue with open heart, open eyes, and open mind could seriously countenance defending this practice.

14 comments for “The Abortion Status Quo is Untenable

  1. This is an excellent piece. I would also add that another Common Law principle applies: people have a duty to save a life where there is a special relationship, chief of which is the relationship between a parent and a child. A parent is guilty of murder if he does not feed his child and the child dies as a result. In that case, there is no legal difference (and certainly no moral difference) between letting a child die and infanticide.

  2. This post ignores some very basic issues.

    First is of course the question of when “life” actually begins. In LDS parlance, this means, When does the spirit enter the body? There is no definitive scriptural answer to this question, but most of the indirect scriptural evidence seems to indicate that it happens at birth. This is probably one reason why the LDS Church’s official position allows for exceptions.

    Second, the LDS position on abortion is problematic because it leaves a large gap. Between the injunction against abortions for convenience and the short list of exceptions where abortion is allowed, there are myriad circumstances where abortion is not for convenience or for reason of the stated exceptions. I would argue that these circumstances create difficult moral dilemmas, which is why most abortion decisions are fraught with anguish. If a single mother with small children has to choose between having a baby and losing her job and being homeless, for instance, which choice creates the greater good (or does the least harm)?

    This leads to a third issue. LDS scripture at times supports a form of utilitarian ethics. Take for instance the choice Nephi faces in finding a drunken and unconscious Laban. The Spirit tells him that he should kill Laban (who does have a spirit in his body) because it is better for one man to die than for an entire civilization to live without whatever was on the brass plates. This isn’t even a choice between one life and another. It’s between one man’s life and the knowledge and moral foundation of a group of people. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, this is actually a false choice Nephi is given. It assumes that God could not reveal whatever was on the brass plates to Lehi and Nephi. But that’s another issue altogether. The point here is that sometimes, it appears, it is right to take a life to accomplish a greater good.

    There are no easy answers regarding abortion. But having the state step in and dictate blanket rules for what is usually a very difficult and unique situation is probably not the best answer. I agree with Michael on his main point: it is possible to be both pro-choice and anti-abortion. I do find it odd, though, that it is the Republicans, who are usually so against government intrusion in our private lives, who are in favor of allowing the government this particular intrusion.

    It is also relevant that abortions tend to decrease more under Democratic leadership than under Republicans, which is largely due to factors such as increased sex education and greater availability of birth control.

  3. Nathaniel, your civil discourse is so much more of what should prevail compared to Sam’s.

    Your statements remind me of Walter Block’s legal framework of Evictionism, which although not a complete moral framework on the issue, if adopted would address the good-faith concerns of pro-choicers, and at the same time save millions of lives.

    Wondered your thoughts on that .

    Thank you again for your thoughtful efforts in Latter Day Saint philosophy and history .

  4. Franklin,

    You’re picking and choosing from Latter-day Saint doctrine. If the Church is an authority on doctrine, and you believe that doctrine points to “life” beginning at birth, wouldn’t the Church also be an authority on the morality of abortion? I don’t think you can take the Church as an authority only when it is inconvenient.

    Having said that, I don’t see evidence that Church doctrine points to “life” beginning at birth. There are certain practices in which the Church keeps records only for those that were born, but that can just as easily be explained as an administrative convenience based on a lack of knowledge about when mortality begins as it is an indication that mortality begins at birth.

    (I should note that there’s no real question as to when life begins from a scientific standpoint. A new human organism is formed at fertilization. The legal question of when does that organism attain personhood or the spiritual question of when the mortal body unites with the spirit are, of course, separate questions.)

    Your example of a single mother choosing between having a child or keeping a job ignores several salient facts, chief among them is that mothers can place children for adoption.

    You’re right that the Book of Mormon teaches, to some extent, utilitarian ethics. That is handled in the exceptions that Nathaniel already pointed out.

  5. Didn’t we all already write a paper on killing vs letting die in freshman Philosophy 101? Please, for the love of all that is holy, can we have a moratorium on men writing about abortion?

  6. Regarding Franklin’s last comment about abirtions going down under Democratic administrations versus Republicans. The fact checking site rendered that assertion false. Per the CDC’s website abortions have been on a steady decline since 1980. They conclude it has much more to do with other factors than the party of the president that is in office.

  7. “…that mothers can place children for adoption.”

    I had a family member in this situation and under her state law she could not without the consent of her (abusive) husband or boyfriend (if they hadn’t been married).

    I’m too tired to do this conversation again other than to point out that most of the arguments presented are about later-term abortion. Most states already place limits on late term abortion.

  8. There is an industry designed to deamonise late term abortions, and so many fall for their lies. As does this article. It is believed by the right of politics.

    There are 3.8 million live births in America and 24,000 still births.

    There are 600,000 abortions 91% are before 13 weeks, 98.7 before 21 weeks, and there some of the 1.3 percent (7800) are after 21 weeks. Most of these are before 26 weeks. Most of the poor women who got an abortion between 21 and 26 weeks were delayed by legal obstruction, and poverty. They tried to get them earlier but could not. The rest of late term abortions are because of health of mother or foetus.

    So the abortions this article is worried about those after 26 weeks (viable) but not for health of mother or child. Now most states also have infanticide as a crime, so killing viable feotuses is not on.

    Now it is fact that there are 24,000 still births, how many of the remaing late term feotuses die in the third trimester, and have to be aborted if there are 24,000 still births

    The problem the article addresses is either a fiction or very close to it

    I could not see the solution offered in the article. Birth control is mentioned, but not advocated. Abortion are the result of unwanted pregnancies, which can be reduced greatly by sex education, affordable birth control, and legal abortion.

    The other big problem with this article is lack of respect for women. It assumes there are women out there getting pregnant and wilfully waiting untill the third trimester to get an abortion. These women need to be controlled. Are your women less responsible than German women who are provided with resources to prevent unwanted pregnancy, and so their abortion rate is one third the US. Even Canadian women have one third less than the US.

    I agree with franklin, and Owen.

    The Church has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion.

    The church has a position for members but does not try to impose it on others as the givens seem to advocate.

  9. I feel strongly about the abortion issue, which makes it difficult for me to even read these discussions. I would prefer that we had a discussion about “adoption, not abortion” and then DO something about it.

    There are about 73 million abortions per year worldwide, and typically there are about 1 million abortions a year in the United States. Based on the US population, using worldwide rates, there should be about 3.6 million abortions in the United States. That indicates that people in United States are more than three times less likely to have an abortion then occurs worldwide. I guess that is a good thing, but it still seems light years from where it should be.

    The situation seems to be that the church headquarters has washed its hands of this particular social issue, as it has with so many other important social issues. I believe it is correct that the church has gotten out of the adoption business completely. Naturally, I assume that also gets it out of any direct contact with most abortion questions and actions. I am one of those “radical” people who think that LDS church headquarters should use its significant resources directly to improve society, not merely offer a few theoretical comments, and then stay completely on the sidelines.

    Going a step further, if the church is going to be a fastidious bystander, like the Levite and the priest who passed by the wounded man on the road to Jericho, the same man who was later attended to by a Samaritan, then it really ought not to have a justifiable claim to all the resources it is given each year. If it is only going to do $40 million worth of humanitarian work in a year, then that is all the money it should receive from its supporters. That would leave quite a bit of money for church members to use in doing good on their own. Charity is really the first principle of gospel action as taught in the New Testament, but it has been diminished today to about the 1% level.

    In case anyone wants to consider taking some specific actions, along with thinking about the general topic, I have written up a 50-page discussion of a potential action program. I have called it the “Leland Farms Project.” There happens to be a wonderful place in south Utah County where all the best farmland has not yet been covered up with houses and apartments. That would be a beautiful place to set up a big project to do something real about the problems of abortions, adoptions, foster children, mothers who need assistance, orphanages, etc., all dealing with this question of whether the LDS people really do believe that there are spirits who need to come to this Earth.

    As a kind of science fiction interlude here, we might consider the fact of how fast the church would grow if somewhere near the 73 million abortions that occur every year were converted into live births and those children were taken care of by people who actually value human life. The church HQ itself, or even a large group of church members acting separately from the central church organization, are obviously not in a position to do that entire project tomorrow, but I think it could be started and then quickly scaled up to eventually make it a $100 billion annual project, serving perhaps 1 million children. I expect that the “ripple effect” of doing such a uniquely Christian activity as rescuing unwanted children on any significant scale, perhaps starting with a project that could serve 20,000 children, would multiply the social effect worldwide perhaps 100 times, as far as improving the nature of our worldwide society.

    I assume that we have the resources in Utah Valley, the most “Mormon” place in the world, to take on significant projects such as this. We would have to assume that the church headquarters would want nothing to do with this sort of thing, at least at the beginning, so a separate group of people would have to be the charity “entrepreneurs.” Later, the Salt Lake City offices might get involved in some way.

    You can read my charity project thoughts at

  10. Kent, love the idea to do something. Sad that you set your project up as an eyeroll toward the Church, though. WE are “The Church” and have been commanded to do much good of our own free will and choice. So yay for working toward some solutions. We probably need thousands (or hundreds of thousands) more of these kinds of initiatives. In fact, if abortion discussions could turn more toward idea brainstorming, we’d probably help a lot more women and unborn babies. (Although I appreciated the points of the post.)

    Might I recommend reaching out to someone like Merrilee Boyack, who is very connected, passionately engaged in civic affairs, deeply and fearlessly concerned about abortion (see her personal page and her main photo to get a sense), and has already been vocal about the importance of programs that can provide options to women.

    But I would recommend going light on the “The Church is doing it wrong” rant. It takes away from the power of your pitch if you want to reach people like her. Let your idea stand on its own.

  11. Geoff Aus
    What do you think abortion is, a walk in the park?
    It’s modern day child sacrifice.

  12. Michelle, you offer some excellent comments. I will follow-up on your suggestions to contact the person you mentioned. I am sad about the church headquarters position on these topics. I actually took the trouble to ask and was told that the church would never get involved in initiating any of these projects, although later, after all the political and financial parameters were clear, they might contribute just as they might contribute to Catholic Relief Services as they do today. That near-total passivity does not match with my personal impulses on this and many other related matters.

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