The Abortion Debate: Arguments from Tolerance


Francis J. Beckwith

Article ID:



Jul 31, 2022


Mar 26, 2009

Many people in the abortion rights movement argue that their position is more tolerant than the pro-life position. After all, they reason, the abortion rights movement is not forcing pro-life women to have abortions, but the pro-life movement is trying to deny all women the option to make a choice. There are basically five arguments which the abortion rights advocate uses in order to articulate this position.

Argument from Pluralism

It is sometimes argued that the question of when protectable human life begins is a personal religious question that one must answer for oneself. Justice Blackmun writes in Roe v. Wade, “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate.”13 Hence, the state should not take one theory of life and force those who do not agree with that theory to subscribe to it, which is the reason why Blackmun writes in Roe, “In view of all this, we do not agree that, by adopting one theory of life, Texas may override the rights of the pregnant woman that are at stake.”14In his dissenting opinion in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989), Justice Stevens goes even further than Blackmun: “The Missouri Legislature [which said that life begins at conception] may not inject its endorsement of a particular religious tradition in this debate, for ‘the Establishment Clause does not allow public bodies to foment such disagreement.'”15 Thus the pro-life proposal that pro-choice women be prohibited from having abortions on the basis that individual human life begins at conception is viewed, not only as a violation of their right to privacy, but as a violation of the separation of church and state as well. Such a separation is supposedly necessary to sustain tolerance in a pluralistic society. As pro-choice advocate Virginia Mollenkott argues, “Women who believe that abortion is murder may never justly be required to have an abortion.”16 Put in the words of a recent bumper-sticker: “Don’t like abortion, don’t have one.” There are several problems with this argument. First, it is self-refuting and question-begging. To claim, as Justices Blackmun and Stevens do, that the Court should not propose one theory of life over another, and that the decision should be left up to each individual pregnant woman as to when protectable human life begins, is to propose a theory of life which hardly has a clear consensus in this country.17 That is, it proposes the theory that the personhood of the unborn child depends on the point of view of the mother — if she thinks it is fully human, then it is, and if she thinks it is not fully human, then it is not. This is a theory of life held by a number of religious denominations and groups, whose amicus briefs Stevens oddly enough (since he’s concerned about not injecting religious traditions into the debate) cites in a footnote in his Webster dissent.18 Hence, in attempting not to propose one theory of life, Blackmun and Stevens in fact assume a particular theory of life, and by doing so clearly beg the question and show that their opinions cannot abide by their own standard of not proposing one theory of life. Second, the fact that a particular theory of life is consistent with a religious view does not mean that it is exclusively religious or that it is in violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. For example, many pro-life advocates argue for their position by emphasizing that there is nontheological support for their position,19 while many pro-choice advocates, such as Mollenkott,20 argue that their position is theologically grounded in the Bible. Hence, just because a philosophically and scientifically plausible position may also be found in religious literature such as the Bible, that does not mean such a view is exclusively “religious.” If it did, then our society would have to dispense with laws forbidding such crimes as murder and robbery simply because such actions are prohibited in the Hebrew-Christian Scriptures. Furthermore, some public policies — such as civil rights legislation and elimination of nuclear testing — which are supported by many clergymen who find these policies in agreement with and supported by their doctrinal beliefs, would have to be abolished simply because they are believed by some to be supported by a particular religious theory of life. Hence, the pro-life position is a legitimate public policy option and does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. Third, in claiming that “women who believe that abortion is murder may never justly be required to have an abortion” but they shouldn’t force their pro-life beliefs on pro-choice women, Mollenkott is asking the pro-life advocate to act as if the pro-life view of human life were incorrect. Mollenkott is also demanding that the pro-lifer accept the pro-choice view of what constitutes a just society. I believe that this is asking much too much of the pro-life movement. Philosopher George Mavrodes drives home this point in the following story:

Let us imagine a person who believes that Jews are human persons, and that the extermination of Jews is murder. Many of us will find that exercise fairly easy, because we are people of that sort ourselves. So we may as well take ourselves to be the people in question. And let us now go on to imagine that we live in a society in which the “termination” of Jews is an every-day routine procedure, a society in which public facilities are provided in every community for this operation, and one in which any citizen is free to identify and denounce Jews and to arrange for their arrest and termination. In that imaginary society, many of us will know people who have themselves participated in these procedures, many of us will drive past the termination centers daily on our way to work, we can often see the smoke rising gently in the late afternoon sky, and so on. And now imagine that someone tells us that if we happen to believe that Jews are human beings then that’s O.K., we needn’t fear any coercion, nobody requires us to participate in the termination procedure ourselves. We need not work in the gas chamber, we don’t have to denounce a Jew, and so on. We can simply mind our own business, walk quietly past the well-trimmed lawns, and (of course) pay our taxes. Can we get some feel for what it would be like to live in that context?…And maybe we can then have some understanding of why they [the right-to-lifers] are unlikely to be satisfied by being told that they don’t have to get abortions themselves.21

Since Mollenkott is asking pro-life advocates to act as if their fundamental view of human life is false, pro-life advocates may legitimately view Mollenkott’s position as a subtle and patronizing form of intolerance.

Argument from Imposing Morality

There is a more popular variation of the above argument. Some abortion-rights advocates argue that it is simply wrong for anyone to “force” his or her own view of what is morally right on someone else. Consequently, they argue that pro-lifers, by attempting to forbid women from having abortions, are trying to force their morality on others. There are at least three problems with this argument. First, it does not seem obvious that it is always wrong to impose one’s morality on others. For instance, laws against drunk driving, murder, smoking crack, robbery, and child molestation are all intended to impose a particular moral perspective on the free moral agency of others. Such laws are instituted because the acts they are intended to prevent often obstruct the free agency of other persons; for example, a person killed by a drunk driver is prevented from exercising his free agency. These laws seek to maintain a just and orderly society by limiting some free moral agency (e.g., choices that result in drunk driving, murder, etc.) so that in the long run free moral agency is increased for a greater number (e.g., less people will be killed by drunk drivers and murderers, and hence there will be a greater number who will be able to act as free moral agents). Therefore, a law forbidding abortion would unjustly impose one’s morality upon another only if the act of abortion does not limit the free agency of another. That is to say, if the unborn entity is fully human, forbidding abortions would be perfectly just, since abortion, by killing the unborn human, limits the free agency of another. Once again, unless the pro-choice advocate assumes that the unborn are not fully human, his or her argument is not successful. Although it does not seriously damage their entire position, it is interesting to note that many abortion-rights advocates do not hesitate to impose their moral perspective on others when they call for the use of other people’s tax dollars (many of whom do not approve of this use of funds) to help pay for the abortions of poor women.

Argument Against a Public Policy Forbidding Abortion

There is another variation on the first argument from pluralism. Some people argue that it is not wise to make a public policy decision in one direction when there is wide diversity of opinion within society. This argument can be outlined in the following way:

(1) There can never be a just law requiring uniformity of behavior on any issue on which there is widespreaddisagreement. (2) There is widespread disagreement on the issue of forbidding abortion on demand. (3) Therefore, any law that forbids people to have abortions is unjust.

One way to show that this argument is wrong is to show that premise (1) is false. There are several reasons to believe that it is. First, if premise (1) were true, then the pro-choice advocate would have to admit that the United States Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, was an unjust decision, since the court ruled that the states which make up the United States, whose statutes prior to the ruling disagreed on the abortion issue, must behave uniformly in accordance with the Court’s decision. But since the pro-choicer denies that Roe was an unjust decision, he or she must also concede that it is false to hold that “there can never be a just law requiring uniformity of behavior on any issue on which there is widespread disagreement.” Second, if premise (1) were true, then the abolition of slavery would have to be regarded as unjust, because there was widespread disagreement of opinion among Americans in the nineteenth century. Yet no pro-choicer would say that slavery should have remained as an institution. Third, if premise (1) were true, then much of civil rights legislation, about which there was much disagreement, would be unjust. Fourth, if premise (1) were true, then a favorite pro-choice public policy proposal would also be unjust. Many pro-choicers believe that the federal government should use the tax dollars of the American people to fund the abortions of poor women. There are large numbers of Americans, however (some of whom are pro-choice), who do not want their tax dollars used in this way. And fifth, if premise (1) were true, then laws forbidding pro-life advocates (e.g., Operation Rescue) from preventing abortions would be unjust. One cannot deny that there is widespread disagreement concerning this issue. But these are the very laws which the pro-choicer supports. Hence, his or her argument is self-refuting. Another way to show that this argument is not successful is to challenge the second premise and show that there is not widespread disagreement on the question of whether abortion on demand should be forbidden. Recent polls have shown that a great majority of Americans, although supporting a woman’s right to an abortion in the rare “hard cases” (such as rape, incest, and severe fetal deformity), do not support the pro-choice position of abortion on demand. In other words, they do not agree that abortion should remain legal during the entire nine months of pregnancy for any reason the woman deems fit.22

Argument from the Impossibility of Legally Stopping Abortion

Maybe the defender of the above argument is making the more subtle point that because there is widespread disagreement on the abortion issue, enforcement of any laws prohibiting abortion would be difficult. In other words, abortions are going to happen anyway, so we ought to make them safe and legal. This argument also is subject to several criticisms. First, it totally begs the question, because it assumes that the unborn are not fully human. If the unborn are fully human, this argument is tantamount to saying that, since people will murder other people anyway, we ought to make it safe and legal for them to do so. But murder is never justified, even if there are social difficulties in forbidding it. Second, since the vast majority of Americans are law-abiding citizens, they will probably obey the law as they did prior to Roe v. Wade. “A reasonable estimate for the actual number of criminal abortions per year in the prelegalization era [prior to 1967] would be from a low of 39,000 (1950) to a high of 210,000 (1961) and a mean of 98,000 per year.”23 Contrasting this with the fact that there have been an average of 1.5 million abortions per year since 1973, one can only conclude that the pre-Roe anti-abortion laws were quite effective in limiting the number of abortions. Now if the pro-choice advocate claims that a law cannot stop all abortions, he or she makes a trivial claim, for this is true of all laws which forbid illegal acts. For example, even though both hiring paid assassins and purchasing child pornography are illegal, some people remain undaunted and pursue them illegally. But there is no doubt that their illegality does hinder a vast number of citizens from obtaining them. Should we then legalize child pornography and the hit-man profession because we can’t stop all people from obtaining such “goods” and “services”? Such reasoning is absurd.

Argument from a Woman’s Right to Control Her Own Body

An extremely popular argument asserts that because a woman has a right to control her own body, she therefore has a right to undergo an abortion for any reason she deems fit. Although it is not obvious that either the law or sound ethical reasoning supports such a strong view of personal autonomy (e.g., laws against prostitution and suicide), this pro-choice argument still logically fails even if we hypothetically grant that its strong view of personal autonomy is correct. The unborn entity within the pregnant woman’s body is not part of her body. The conceptus is a genetically distinct entity with its own unique and individual gender, blood type, bone-structure, and genetic code.24 Although the unborn entity is attached to its mother, it is not part of her. To say that the unborn entity is part of its mother is to claim that the mother possesses four legs, two heads, two noses, and — with the case of a male conceptus — a penis and two testicles. Furthermore, since scientists have been able to achieve conception in a petri dish in the case of the “test-tube” baby, and this conceptus if it has white parents can be transferred to the body of a black woman and be born white, we know conclusively that the unborn is not part of the pregnant woman’s body. Certainly a woman has a right to control her own body, but the unborn entity, though for a time living inside her body, is not part of her body. Hence, abortion is not justified, since no one’s right to personal autonomy is so strong that it permits the arbitrary execution of others. In this respect this argument also begs the question, because it assumes that the unborn are not fully human.

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