These arguments are pitiful

Women will die from unsafe, illegal abortions.

An unwanted child will suffer abuse and neglect.

Poor families will be further deprived with one more mouth to feed.

Caring for a child with physical or mental abnormalities is an incredible strain.

Forcing a woman to bear the child of her rapist is cruel.

Abortion rights supporters frequently portray themselves as more caring and compassionate than those who oppose abortion. Pro-life folks like me have a “fetus fetish” and are unsympathetic to the struggles of pregnant women who will suffer somehow by having to bear the child. They’re the thoughtful ones who look at all the unfortunate consequences both women and children will have to endure if abortion is outlawed, and conclude that therefore abortion is a morally acceptable choice.

Philosopher Francis J. Beckwith classifies this line of defense of abortion rights as arguments from pity. In his book Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (1), he defines an argument from pity as, “an attempt to show the plausibility of one’s position on any issue by trying to move another emotionally.” So by focusing our attention on the sad realities that can accompany the bearing of children, abortion rights supporters hope to make their case that true compassion demands that we sanction the right to kill the unborn.

Beckwith answers each “pitiful” argument individually, but all that really needs to be said is that though compassion is truly called for when others are suffering, suffering which might result from the birth of a child never justifies intentionally preventing his or her birth if the unborn are fully human. Arguments from pity are irrelevant if the unborn child has as much right to life as the born one. Unless it can be established that the unborn have no rights, if an argument is invalid against an infant or toddler, it’s invalid against a preborn child.

Nevertheless, there is much that can be said to counter the arguments’ claims. I’ll highlight just some of Beckwith’s answers.

Argument from the Dangers of Illegal Abortions

We’re hearing this a lot today…that huge numbers of women will die if legal abortion becomes unavailable. Beckwith points out several ways this argument misleads.

  1. It’s based on “highly questionable” statistics. He quotes Bernard Nathanson, co-founder of NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League), admitting that leaders in the pro-abortion movement fudged the facts. “5,000 to 10,000” women were dying yearly from illegal abortions, is what they were claiming, but Nathanson admitted, “I knew the figures were totally false.” The year before Roe v. Wade (1972) only 39 women died from illegal abortions, according to the U.S. Bureau of Vital Statistics. Beckwith also demonstrates at length how a common claim that prior to legalization there were one to two million illegal abortions is also clearly false.
  2. The coat hanger image is meant to imply that illegal abortions would be self-induced or performed by back-alley butchers and so are inherently unsafe. But the author reports that Dr. Mary Calderone, while president of Planned Parenthood in 1960, wrote that, “90 percent of all illegal abortions are done by physicians.” Yet a succeeding Planned Parenthood president, Faye Wattleton, told Congress in 1979 that prior to Roe 95 percent of illegal abortions “were conducted illegally by unlicensed practitioners,” clearly and purposely flipping the statistics.
  3. Even 25 plus years ago when this book was written, medical technology and pharmacology had advanced to where an illegal abortion would be unlikely to result in the woman’s death. So with the additional medical advances since then, the danger is further decreased. Beckwith quotes Nathanson again: “…if abortion is driven underground again, even non-physicians will be able to perform this procedure [suction curettage] with remarkable safety. No woman need die if she chooses to abort during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy…As for self-induced abortion, by thrusting a coat hanger or other dangerous objects into the womb, this will be a thing of the past.”

Will some women die from illegal abortions if Roe is overturned? Yes, but some women die from legal abortions too. The optimal strategy for decreasing maternal deaths is to persuade women not to abort and to help them get genuine reproductive healthcare.

I’ll continue with more answers to arguments from pity next time.

1. Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993)