On April 23rd, the Des Moines Register published an opinion piece titled, “Pro-life and pro-choice advocates can work together to reduce abortion.” The author, Timothy Olson, claims to be engaged in a good-faith attempt to find the middle ground on abortion. Despite his professed objectivity, Olson’s piece has several inaccuracies and misleading assertions about key questions surrounding the issue of abortion and human life in the womb. As a result, some of his core conclusions fail to stand up to scrutiny.
#1: “I came to believe that conception was a biological, not spiritual, event and that abortion in the first 20 weeks was the moral equivalent of contraception. In preventing a person, abortion and contraception were exactly the same.”
Olson does not offer a satisfying explanation of why a preborn baby less than 20 weeks is comparable to a non-person that can be “prevented.” He rationalizes his position by claiming that ensoulment — the moment in which a human being gains a soul — is what alone grants the baby rights. Yet this is an unnecessary — not to mention non-scientific — over-complication of the question of when life begins. As Secular Pro-Life points out in responding to a similar argument, there is no need to appeal to theology:
This question absolutely has a scientific answer. Embryology textbooks state that a new human organism exists upon formation of a zygote. This organism has a continuous life cycle which will eventually end at death. You, as a human organism, were once a zygote. In a biological sense, that’s when your life began.
Olson’s flawed logic also extends to his 20 weeks claim. What changes at 20 weeks to make abortion suddenly go from not wrong to wrong? He presents no evidence or facts to support his assertion. Though claiming to respect biology, Olson ignores all the biological signs of human life that we have found, thanks to advances in neonatal science, including that preborn babies’ heartbeats starts as early as three weeks after conception, brainwaves start around six weeks, and research shows they may even feel pain as early as eight weeks. On close examination, his belief about when abortion should or should not be permissible is nothing more than that: an unfounded belief.
#2: “Polls show that Americans are evenly split on the morality of abortion. In the 2018 Gallup Values and Beliefs poll, for example, 48% of respondents thought abortion was wrong. … With the diversity of religious and moral opinion in the country, abortion should not be outlawed. It is not fair for Catholics to impose their beliefs on Methodists, or Southern Baptists on Episcopalians. Is this not a matter of religious freedom?”
Laws protecting life in the womb shouldn’t only exist when they’re popular. This type of flawed reasoning is what Alexis De Tocqueville, in his famous 19th century book, Democracy in America, was talking about when he warned against the “tyranny of the majority” — meaning that the rights of the vulnerable can be violated by a majority. Laws protecting life should always exist, because safeguarding vulnerable human life is the morally right thing to do. It has nothing to do with religion whatsoever.
Olson also cherry picks a statistic that does not capture the whole picture about Americans’ opinions on abortion. Other polls show that a majority of Americans would prefer laws more restrictive on abortion than Olson’s arbitrary 20-week line. A Marist poll from February 2019 indicates that 80% of Americans would restrict abortion to, at most, the first trimester. This includes a majority of self-described “pro-choice” Americans.
#3: “The main effect of outlawing abortion would be to force low-income women to have children they don’t want, or risk illegal procedures. Some women would suffer lasting health effects or die. Surely this is not the outcome anyone wants.”
This argument implies that the only solution to low-income women with unplanned pregnancies is abortion. This is a sad way to approach the burdens of others, one that doesn’t reflect the reality of truly compassionate options available. The United States has nearly 3,000 pro-life pregnancy resource centers throughout the country standing by to offer medical, material, and emotional support to these women in need. There are also Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) and comprehensive health clinics which vastly outnumber abortion facilities, and provide low-cost health care to those in need, without forcing them to resort to killing their own child.
Additionally, his assertion that some women “would suffer lasting health effects or die” if abortion were illegal is false. Abortion is never medically necessary.
And in reality we know the opposite is true: women suffer and die all too often from legal abortion. Pro-lifers agree that nobody wants women to suffer and die. Therefore we need to help women with unplanned pregnancies, without forcing them to resort to a violent procedure that always results in the death of at least one human being, and might also injure or kill the mother as well.
Olson’s piece ends up being an important reminder of why a seemingly reasonable “middle ground” position on abortion often lacks coherence when we really analyze the issues at hand. In the end, the reasonable-sounding tone cannot hide the irresponsible absence of logic on a matter that affects millions of human lives each year. Wanting to find common ground is a positive intuition, but abortion is too grave a matter to ignore the truth in order to do so.
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