Harvard Law Record fails at finding ‘middle ground’ on abortion

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In addition to dedicated pro-lifers and dyed-in-the-wool abortion advocates, the abortion debate is full of people who want to have it both ways—they want to distance themselves from the moral discomfort of abortion more stridently than “I’m personally opposed, but…” yet they don’t want to commit themselves to fighting its advocates or outright prohibition. On a number of occasions in my own life, I’ve met people whose politics are quite dogmatic in most respects but go out of their way to stress they dislike abortion—while still content to do nothing about it.

At the Harvard Law Record, Colin Ross attempts to stake out a more sophisticated middle ground, curiously declaring abortion “the moral wrong we must not ban.” He calls abortion a “monstrous problem,” both because of “the lives it may take” and “because it pits two bitterly opposed camps against each other, in a seemingly ever-escalating war, in which both sides are largely right about the goals and principles they hold most dear.”

Has Mr. Ross managed to square a circle so many before him have tried to and failed? Let’s find out.

First, he attempts to show “room for serious doubt that, in the moment after fertilization, a member of the human family has been created.” But his examples aren’t nearly as serious as advertised:

That same fertilized embryo could yet split into two to produce twins. Did a person just die and two more take up residence?

Perhaps, or perhaps the original survived and reproduced asexually in some way. We may not know the answer, but it doesn’t follow that it wasn’t a person beforehand. As others have pointed out, cutting a flatworm in half and the parts becoming two flatworms doesn’t mean what you started out with wasn’t a flatworm. What matters is that all the criteria by which science defines a living human organism—species, growth, reproduction, metabolism, response to stimuli, genetic composition—are all satisfied as early as the zygote stage.

A huge number—as many as 80%—of all embryos die when they are just days old, before they can even be implanted in the uterus. As one commentator has asked, “Is Heaven Populated Chiefly by the Souls of Embryos?”

This is a sheer fallacy. How does a group’s high rate of naturally-occurring death have any bearing on what they are? A human being who lives only briefly is still a human being. This is utterly irrelevant to the factual question of what the preborn are, and irrelevant to the moral question—someone’s likelihood of dying naturally is not a justification for deliberately killing him or her.


Fortunately, Ross sees that the baby’s personhood soon becomes much clearer as he or she develops, and even has a grim reminder for pro-aborts who deny it: what if the “benefits” you say women derive from abortion “are built upon millions of dead human persons”? But then he chastises “the pro-life movement [for] fasten[ing] blinders to itself is in thinking that this moral answer morally necessitates a blanket abortion ban”:

Before Roe, abortions were still pervasive in the United States. For decades, hundreds of thousands of fetuses were aborted every year. Added to this toll over the years were the thousands of women who died in dangerous abortions. Illegality makes things dangerous.

Judging by how many support upholding abortion based on this falsehood, I’d say historical revisionism makes things even more dangerous. Live Action regulars know that even before Roe, Planned Parenthood officials admitted that illegal abortion numbers were vastly smaller than PP’s modern scaremongering, that the vast majority of illegal abortions were performed by licensed physicians in good medical standing, and that the sharp drop in illegal abortion deaths was thanks to chemotherapy and antibiotics, not legalization.

The prosecution of doctors means that most competent doctors flee the field. Without competent doctors to perform abortions, women turn to the only ones left: the incompetent and the unlicensed. Crack down harder and deter even those and women will turn to dangerous self-help. The bottom line: ban all abortion and women will die.

Couple things: (1) the “most competent doctors” aren’t as competent—or ethical—as advertised; (2) the worse abortionists are enabled by abortion industry’s own watchdogs choosing to let them run wild; (3) the “dangerous self-help” argument’s primary evidence has been debunked.

Around the world today, tens of thousands of women die each year from unsafe abortions. Those deaths would drop drastically and rapidly if abortion were made legal, and they have done so in countries that have done so […] Economic security, not abortion prohibition, is the best predictor of low abortion rates. Cultural and moral norms, and access to and education about effective birth control, also play large roles. But it is not at all clear that laws do.

Live Action has also looked into these claims, finding that “unsafe” abortions have more to do with the medical and health standards in different countries than abortion laws, and identifying clear abortion declines in countries like Poland and Ireland that contradict Ross’s narrative. The New York Times’ Ross Douthat has pointed out that such claims typically fail to compare regions that have enough similar variables to make a reasonable inference; they also ignore that many of the countries regulate abortion more tightly than the US does. And Patheos blogger Marc Barnes has extensively shown that pro-life laws in this country are effective in decreasing abortions. (And all that is before getting into the evidence that even abortions performed carefully and professionally are physically and mentally dangerous for women.)

The pro-life policy path forward is to continue to expand the reach of affordable contraception to all through access and education. The biggest benefit that this approach has over prohibition: it works.

Birth-Control-PillAs evidence, Ross cites… a Colorado study that we debunked here, along with the broader meme that contraception is a magic bullet. To summarize, contraception is plentiful and affordable enough that it’s already preventing virtually all the pregnancies it can be reasonably expected to, and so pouring more into the country merely encourages more of the behavior that causes unwanted pregnancy in the first place.

He also finds it “positively mind-boggling,” “says this Catholic,” that pro-lifers oppose forcing religious entities to provide contraceptives. Free exercise of religious conscience is now inconceivable? Really?

Ross’s final bit of advice:

Don’t hold the March for Life at the Supreme Court. Hold it at adoption centers and foster homes across the country. Demonstrate with action that every child will have a welcome place, even if the mother cannot care for him or her. Volunteer time. Pledge to be a foster parent. Pledge to adopt. Pledge to support those who do.

I suppose it’s appropriate to close this out on the most clichéd straw men of all. Is he unaware that pro-lifers already do all of this all the time? Does he have any reason to believe we aren’t already adopting?

While Colin Ross makes more concessions to reality than the average pro-choice apologia, none of them matter in the end. The conclusion is still the same as if it came from any number of abortion activists: pro-lifers need to abandon the core of their policy agenda (evidence be damned); pro-aborts at most need to tweak their rhetoric a bit.

So beware any self-styled voices of reason pushing for this sort of middle ground. When one side has to move and the other doesn’t, the middle is not where they end up.

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