Well, I’ve about exhausted what I have to say about the Bible and abortion, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of the modern ethics and policy discussion.
Up to this point, I’ve argued against something more than I’ve argued for anything, and what’s more I’ve fallen into the most basic trap of modern abortion politics: focusing too narrowly on the developing fetus.
Don’t get me wrong. The question of fetal personhood is central and it’s worth spending time on, but it can’t be the end of the discussion for several reasons. First, it’s intractable. I’ve made arguments that the Bible does not view a prenatal fetus as a person—and it doesn’t—but did I change any minds? My hunch is that if you believe personhood begins at conception, you will continue to think that, and if you believe personhood develops gradually or is imbued at some later point you will continue to believe that. The question is simply not one that can be reasoned from evidence, because personhood is a socially negotiated cultural construct, not an empirical fact.
The second reason is that abortion politics are about way more than the fetus and its rights. Raising children affects every part of parents’ lives. So do the ways wee regulate reproduction in society. With that in mind, discussion of abortion should be occurring within larger discussions about reproduction and childcare in society.
We have to take a step back. Instead of only asking what to do when people want or get abortions, we have to ask why they want abortions in the first place.
And when we get right down to it, ninety-nine percent of abortions have one cause: unwanted pregnancy.
That raises some questions:
- Why are so many unexpected pregnancies unwanted?
- Why are so many unexpected pregnancies occurring in the first place?
- Why is there so much focus on restricting or banning abortion rather than on, say, reducing unwanted pregnancy or making unexpected pregnancy less frightening?
The answers could fill volumes, but here I’m just going to point to some resources I’ve found useful. If you’re interested in the politics of pregnancy, abortion, and child-raising, I think these books are a good place to start your own research.
The first book deals with the consequences of unplanned pregnancies, and what can make the prospect of an unexpected child so daunting. Let’s acknowledge that not all unexpected pregnancies have to be unwanted pregnancies—I’ve known many people who happily and lovingly raised “whoopsie” babies. But children affect everything in your life. Being willing and open to the process matters. Being safe and stable matters.
Diana Green Foster shows why in her recent book The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, A Thousand Women, and the Consequences of Having—or Being Denied—an Abortion. The book recounts a massive ten year study following a thousand women who had sought abortions at around the legal limit in the regions they lived. Some were a few days under the limit and went through with their abortions, while others were a few days over the limit and were denied. By clustering the participants so closely around the cutoff date, Foster’s team ensured that the abortion and non-abortion groups were very similar for all practical purposes.
Foster’s study found that being denied an abortion had serious negative consequences on the lives of women over the ten year term of the study. The women themselves were less well-off economically, had attained less education, had poorer mental health, and were more likely to be in unhealthy and/or abusive relationships. Even the children that women already had fared better if their mother was provided an abortion.
Basically, along every axis of comparison, women who were allowed to have abortions and their families were better off than those women who sought abortions but were turned away. Being forced to bring an unwanted pregnancy to term and raise and unexpected child has profound consequences for the economic and material wellbeing of the family.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that unexpected pregnancies can be terrifying events. There is a lot in pregnancy and child-raising to fear if you are not willing and open to the process, or if you are in n unstable or precarious situation. Even the staunchest opponents of abortion must acknowledge, at the very least, that there are many times when it is rational not to want a child.
Abortion, though, is only one way of choosing not to have a child, and a late-stage one at that. Why are there so many unexpected pregnancies to deal with in the first place? And wouldn’t it be easier to prevent them than to abort them, regardless of your view of abortion itself?
For some innovative answers to these questions, I recommend Ejaculate Responsibly: A Whole New Way to Think about Abortion by Gabrielle Blair. This book is a game changer for the public discussion on abortion. It is incisive, laser-focused, and best of all: short. You can read it easily in a sitting or two.
The book is based upon this twitter thread Blair wrote in 2018, expanded, honed, and supported with ample references. She begins with a provocative claim: 99% of abortions result from unwanted pregnancies and 100% of unwanted pregnancies result from irresponsible ejaculations. Thus, the responsibility for unwanted pregnancy—and thus for abortion and its prevention—should lie most heavily on men.
For those of you feeling skeptical or protesting women’s sexual irresponsibility right now, read the book. Blair does an impeccable job supporting her claims, and you’ll be hard-pressed to leave unchanged,. Of course, she admits that women make irresponsible sexual decisions too, but no uterus can impregnate itself.
Think of it like this: if your buddy urges you to shoot him on a dare, he’s being irresponsible. But guess what? It’s also irresponsible (and criminal) for you to comply.
If a woman begs a man to have unprotected sex with her when neither of them wants a child, she is being irresponsible. If he complies, so is he. And it’s only his irresponsibility that can cause a pregnancy. Begging for sex, by itself, cannot.
From here, she argues for increased and proactive contraception use among men and for improved sex education and contraceptive availability for everyone. This approach—impressing their reproductive responsibility on men from a young age and empowering everyone to make responsible reproductive decisions—has the potential to decrease abortion rates more than criminalization ever could.
Even in countries with bull bans and criminal penalties for abortion, around 68% of unwanted pregnancies are aborted nevertheless, according to WHO estimates. On the other hand, a pilot program in Colorado that provided free long-acting reversible contraception reduced teen birth and abortion rates by nearly 50% between 2009 and 2017.
The program saved money as well. The Colorado Department of Public health estimated that every dollar spent providing free preventative birth control saved $5.85 in Medicaid costs, for a total savings of nearly $70million. With support and expansion, results would be even better.
Bans are punitive—moderately effective but cruel. Strategies based in trust and provision are both more effective and more humane.
This leads to my final recommendation: a holistic framework known as Reproductive Justice. This framework was developed by a group of women including Loretta Ross who wanted to expand the discussion of reproductive ethics beyond fetuses and abortions. Their framework boils down to three simple rights:
- To have children when desired.
- To not have children when not desired.
- To raise and provide for the children you have in safe and nurturing environments.
They are simple, but profound when taken seriously.
Instead of doing nothing to prevent unwanted pregnancies and punishing people for choosing to terminate them, this framework trusts and equips them to make informed and responsible reproductive decisions from the beginning to the end of the process.
It doesn’t treat birth like an endpoint, but includes the right to raise children in safe and healthy conditions as a central component. How much we care about embryos and fetuses should never be disconnected from how we care for children and adults, though too often it is.
So To put a bow on this series, I may think the ethics of fetal personhood and abortion are fraught and murky, but my approach to law, policy, and social norms end up being pretty simple.
I choose trust.
I choose care.
I don’t support bans or restrictions on abortion, but want to see solutions to the problems of unexpected and unwanted pregnancy, for parents raising children with inadequate support and children being raised in unstable and unsafe environments. I want to see a world where every child is wanted and cared for.
I want reproductive justice, in the most expansive sense.