Pro-Lifers’ Arguments Might be their Greatest Gift to Pro-Choicers

Abortion is always going to be a controversial topic.  For what it’s worth, I hold that there’s nothing wrong with it.  That’s me speaking from my habitual non-consequentialist position.  From a more utilitarian perspective, I’m willing to concede that, given the choice between world A, in which abortions happen, and world B, in which they don’t because noone gets pregnant without wanting it, and everyone is perfectly happy to continue with her pregnancy, A is worse.  But A is nevertheless a whole lot less bad than world C, in which women are compelled to continue with pregnancies they don’t want.  In other words, there’s no need or desire for abortion in super-happy-fluffy world, and super-happy-fluffy world is better than the real world – but we live in the real world, and having abortions available makes the real world better than it could be.

I’d like to think that I’m doughty enough to have my mind changed on this, though.  Should someone have a really good argument for the wrongness of abortion, or the overwhelming badness, I’d like to think that I could be persuaded – that I’d let the argument go wherever it takes me.  I think that that’s just intellectual honesty.  It’s just that I have yet to come across an argument that I find persuasive, and I don’t even know what such an argument would look like.

What I can say is that, while I find even the best pro-life arguments unpersuasive, some are worse than others, though.  There’s a guy who keeps posting to the Bioethics Facebook group with links to lamentably bad arguments.  And, of course, there’s the CMF.

On their blog, Philippa Taylor has been getting herself into a tizzy about the recent ruling that Northern Ireland’s very restrictive laws contravene human rights legislation, and suggests that there is a whole range of reasons why the law should not be changed there.

Let’s have a look…

First up, she takes the fetal abnormality aspect to task:

1. Labels such as ‘fatal fetal abnormality’ are not a medical diagnosis. No doctor can say with certainty that an unborn child, however severe their disability, would not live until birth. A 2012 paper entitled ‘Fatally Flawed?’, published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, similarly found that a term like ‘lethal anomaly’ is not a medical prognosis. If it is not a medical diagnosis, legality relies on an arbitrary, haphazard, decision-making process (as in the UK).

Irrelevant.  Why should something’s being a medical diagnosis be the be-all-and-end-all?  Things that are diagnosed might easily be classed as fetal abnormalities (on the basis that noone diagnoses normality); it doesn’t follow that abnormality is, or ought to be, a diagnosis in its own right.  That the child might live until birth is hardly an argument against termination, the whole point of which is that you shouldn’t have to wait that long.

Oh, and Northern Ireland is part of the UK.

2. Even with prenatal scans and where the diagnosis is clearly known, there are unpredictable variations in survival times. There is no agreed list of lethal or fatal conditions in medical literature because, for almost all conditions, there are mixed outcomes and babies often survive beyond birth, sometimes for longer than anyone expects.

Doubtless true, but also irrelevant.  We can have good reason to think that the child will die in utero or shortly after birth without being absolutely certain.  No other procedure requires prognostic certainty; why should this?

3. Any attempt to create a ‘list’ of so-called fatal conditions would be both arbitrary and subjective and would simply shift discrimination onto a more precisely defined group of people.

Untrue.  There’s no reason to think that any such list would be arbitrary or subjective, though what goes on to any such list might be a matter for debate, and there might be the odd liminal case.  But the problem can be answered by allowing termination for any reason.  I don’t think that this point generates the conclusion Taylor thinks it does!

4. Research and treatment constantly progresses, affecting actual outcomes for babies diagnosed with life-limiting conditions. Already 75% of babies diagnosed with anencephaly live beyond birth, and children with Trisomy 13 (a condition often described as a fatal abnormality) and Trisomy 18 now live, on average, for between 10 and 14 days after birth.

Woo-hoo!  Fourteen whole days!  No… wait.  So what?

5. Children such as Lilly Ann Behan, who lived for six days with anencephaly, should not be described as ‘doomed’ or ‘not human life’. She is rather a vulnerable baby with special needs.

I’m not sure that anyone would deny that hers was a human life.  What is denied is that that fact counts for all that much.  Also… six days in mundo.  I’m not sure how far through a pregnancy something like this is discovered as a rule – but to require women to go through any significant further pregnancy for the sake of six days seems, at best, grotesque.

6. Revealingly, over 90% of Irish parents who are told their baby has a life-limiting anomaly do not seek an abortion (despite often being pushed for it).

10% do.  *shrugs*

Incidentally, the methodology behind the link is a bit perplexing on this one.  I’m assuming that they’re comparing the number of recorded abortions with the number of Irish parents who didn’t abort and went on to have children with a life-limiting abortion.  But all this tells us really is that 90% of parents in this situation who would have to go to another country to get an abortion didn’t get an abortion.  This is not really news.  Forcing women to travel overseas is going to inflate the number of default continuations to term.

Oh, and note how the talk is of parents, not mothers.  I’m not fundamentally hostile to the idea that the father’s wishes count for something when it comes to deciding whether to abort – again: I’ll listen to the arguments, and might accept them if they’re good enough – but they don’t count for very much.  The “something” is tiny – to all intents and purposes, nothing – and the arguments to persuade me that the father’s opinion is even close to as important as the mother’s would have to be astonishing.  And half of that 90% of parents wouldn’t be in a position to seek abortion to begin with, because half of them would be… er… men, and not pregnant.

7. Abortion in these cases is rarely ‘easier’ than carrying a baby to term. In fact, women who terminate for fetal anomalies can experience grief as intense as that of parents experiencing a spontaneous death of a baby. New research from Duke University found that women who had an abortion after a diagnosis of anencephaly were significantly more likely to suffer depression and despair than those who did not abort.

Possibly true; certainly irrelevant.  It’s part of being an adult that one can make decisions that one might later regret, so long as no third parties interests are significantly set back.  And isn’t it possible that some of the emotional turmoil here has to do with having such a disabled baby in the first place?

8. There are alternative, positive, caring options for women carrying babies with life-limiting conditions, such as palliative care and perinatal hospices (a ‘hospice in a womb’), both providing support before and after birth.

Goody.  Some women won’t want their bodies turned into hospices, though.  I wouldn’t.  It sounds like a horrible idea.

9. Almost all families of children with Trisomy 13 and 18 reported that their time together was happy and rewarding overall.

So everyone should be forced to carry the pregnancy to term!  Hurrah!  (Do stop me if I start to sound sarcastic.)

10. Babies in the womb, even if severely disabled, are not ‘anencephalics’ or ‘doomed fetuses’, they are babies with severe disabilities, they are humans, and they are alive.

Of course they’re human.  Of course they’re alive.  Noone has denied any of that.  It doesn’t follow that they have a (strong enough) right to life such as to make abortion wrong: at the very least, more argument is needed here.

11. Dehumanising and devaluing the lives of fetuses with disability, however severe, is a dangerous road to travel. At what point do the same criteria apply to those near the end of life? Those in comas? Those with severe disability already past the point of birth?

Gee whizz.  Maybe the fact that a foetus is in utero has some significant impact here.  You don’t have to embrace The Paper Of Which We Do Not Speak to think that there’s a difference between a life that is currently wrapped inside a fully functional human person and one that isn’t.  Taylor seems to have forgotten the woman carrying the baby here, which is… perplexing.

So those arguments are pretty awful.  Not just unconvincing – genuinely awful.

Anyway: then we move onto the bit about conceptions that arise through sexual violence.

Rape is a terrible crime and the case for abortion seems overwhelming to many people in the light of this. But consider the following:

1. Not only is rape itself uncommon (thankfully), conception after rape is extremely uncommon.

I’m not sure it is as uncommon as we might like to think – but so what?  “Your pregnancy is very unusual therefore you should not be able to end it” is a strange thing to say.

2. The little evidence there is finds that most women in this situation actually choose to keep their baby. The Rape Crisis Network Ireland found that most women who become pregnant through rape or incest did not want an abortion: In 90 cases of pregnancy through rape only 17 women and girls chose to have a termination. In another anecdotal survey, of 37 women who had a rape-related pregnancy, only 5 chose abortion.

OK.  Again: so what?  “Your desires are different from your neighbours, therefore we can ignore them and make their realisation legally difficult” is also a strange thing to say.

3. When women are actually asked to speak for themselves, their opinion of abortion turns out to be the opposite of what most predict. Of 192 women interviewed who had become pregnant after rape or incest, nearly all (80%) who had an abortion regretted it. Over 90% of these said they would discourage other victims of sexual violence from having an abortion.

4. Of women interviewed who carried their pregnancy to term, not one expressed regret about her choice.

I’ll deal with 3 and 4 together.  Serious bit first: the fact that most regretted an abortion is neither here nor there when it comes to working out rights.  And some, plainly, didn’t regret it anyway.

Now the bit that’s in its way hilarious: how seriously should we take those figures?  Well, the links are to the Amazon page for a book called Victims and Victors.  This was published in 2000 by Acorn Publishing, which – as far as I can tell – is a vanity publisher.  David Reardon, the writer, is a pro-life campaigner who earned his PhD in biomedical ethics from Pacific Western University – an uncredited institution requiring no attendance that was closed down in 2006.  Victims and Victors may be a fabulous piece of scholarship that satisfies every conceivable test of social scientific rigour.  I mean it.  It might.  Then again, my cat might turn out to be an expert on Old English poetry.  In an infinite universe, this sort of thing is bound to happen.  Still, unless evidence is persuaded otherwise, I’m going to assume that this is, at best, terrible, cherry-picked “research” by an ideologue on one occasion 15 years ago.  Not a good sign.  If you’re going to leap from an is to an ought, you might at least want to make sure that the ground from which you’re making that leap is solid.  It’d help.

5. Abortion is not an ‘easy solution’ to rape and cannot alleviate or undo in any way the crime committed. Getting rid of the pregnancy does not ‘solve’ the problem for women who are pregnant as a result of rape.

Well, it solves one of the problems.  And to expect it to solve the others is asking rather too much, no?  Look: I don’t want to make light of rape; I’m just trying to give Taylor’s argument the respect it deserves. Ahem.

6. It is difficult to see how a law that allows abortion after rape or from sex with a family (or ‘extended’ family) member, could be framed. It takes months to establish guilt through the courts in the case of rape by which time any baby conceived by violation would already have been born. Presumably the assertion of rape or incest (or even the label ‘coercive’ or ‘non-consensual’ sex) would have to suffice to get an abortion.

Fair point.  Probably best just to drop the stipulations, then.

7. We should not rank the value of people based on the circumstances of their conception. The worth of children should not depend on whether their fathers were better people or not. Why is it that pro-abortion advocates are always saying the unborn child is really the mother’s, not the father’s, until she is raped then suddenly the child is viewed as just the father’s, not the mother’s?


Oh, and there is no such thing as a pro-abortion advocate.  There are advocates of the right to abortion, but none of them celebrates another one taking place.

8. Calling the baby the ‘child of the rapist’ is emotive language which imputes guilt to the baby. Yet the baby is the second innocent victim of the crime. The question has to be asked: should the baby die for the father’s crime? The reason most women decide to carry babies after rape is because they see and identify with the baby as a victim and see that giving it life helps them to make progress in overcoming the rape.

Maybe astonishing claims like that in the last sentence should come with a link to at least some reputable research, and an argument about why it makes the blindest difference to the right to an abortion anyway.  But noone is imputing guilt to the baby; and noone is saying that it has to die for the sins of the fathers.  (Whether the idea that one person might die for the sake of another’s sin is a bit of the Easter myth creeping in is anybody’s guess.)  Noone is even saying that it’s a good thing that there be an abortion in these circumstances.  It might, though, be the least bad thing for at least some women.

Really: if this is representative of the arguments against changing the law in Norn Iron, a change should be a shoo-in.  Even in somewhere as politically… different as that, noone could take these arguments seriously, surely?

  • Rossco Piquo Train

    Never mind the lazy contradictions in the first paragraph (non-consequentialist utaltarianism?, there’s nothing wrong with it but it is bad isn’t it?) the chief flaw in this entire piece of writing is that it attacks a straw-man, something that is even hinted at at the end of the writing:

    “Really: if this is representative of the arguments against changing the law in Norn Iron, a change should be a shoo-in. Even in somewhere as politically… different as that, noone could take these arguments seriously, surely?”

    Well no, the arguments appraised are not representative of the solid reasons for assessing abortion as wrong, or undesirable. These arguments refer to the status and rights of the unborn human life versus the autonomy of the woman etc etc.

    A cursory use of google will help you find some simple lists of the reasons for and against:

    And interestingly even some feminists think there are good arguments against abortion, who knew?

    I know this a blog and not an academic paper but I would have thought the subject deserves greater respect.

    • I never mentioned non-consequentialist utilitarianism: I said that I’m habitually non-consequentialist, but that I’m willing sometimes to articulate those arguments for the sake of analysis.

      Neither did I say that there are or could be no good arguments against abortion; I said merely that these ones are lamentably bad, and so if they’re in fact representative, the case as a whole looks shaky at best.

      There’s no particular reason to suppose that all feminists would think alike on all matters, including abortion, any more than there’s reason to think that all consequentialists or Tories or whatever would. However, one would expect feminists to be more likely to support the availability of abortion, even if particular feminists might eschew it themselves – rather as one would expect the general mood of consequentialists or Tories to be thus-and-so. I don’t see anything behind either of the links you’ve provided as being unanswerable, or even particularly hard to answer. None of them provides a positive reason to keep the law in NI as it is.

  • Toni Saad

    Dear Dr Brassington, you make a good point: if abortion for any reason is a right, it is quite irrelevant that (even a majority of) the public dislikes it or it has some downsides (e.g. regret or whatever). Clearly Dr Taylor does not share this presupposition, however, and has assumed that the unborn should not be subjected to death at the desire of its mother. It’s on this fundamental point you two disagree. If you didn’t, her points carry more weight with you. CMF can account for their view. How would you critique this assumption and defend the idea that abortion is almost always right?

    In response to her tenth point you suggested that disabled (unborn) children do not have as strong a right to life as others. And, to her fifth, you say that it would be grotesque at best for a child to be delivered for only six days of life. Could you please explain why you believe this is the case?

    Many thanks,


    • I don’t think that anyone would say that abortion is almost always right – at most, I’d want to say that it’s almost always *a* right.

      In respect of point 10, I think you’ve misunderstood my point. I take a right to be a claim, and a claim can be more or less powerful; hence it seems to me that a right can have more or less “gravity”. My suggestion is not that foetus A has a more or less powerful claim that foetus B, though, but that the strength of that claim has to be measured against the strength of the mother’s claim/ right. My suspicion is that *any* fetus’ claim is likely to be drowned out by the mother’s, disability or no. If there is a difference between fetus A and fetus B, then it’s marginal; it’s not where the moral action takes place.

      The grotesqueness point is related. I can accept – for the sake of the argument at least – a hypothetical case in which expecting the mother to carry the child to term would generate some tremendous good that would mitigate the badness of her being forced to remain pregnant. I don’t know what such a case would look like, but it seems formally possible; and even if you’re not a consequentialist, I think that it’s worth considering as a hypothetical. Nevertheless, my hunch is that six days of life outside the womb is not that supreme a good; and since I’m not inclined to be a consequentialist anyway, it does strike me as a terrible way to treat the pregnant woman, irrespective of merely hypothetical goods.

      • Toni Saad

        Thank you for your reply.

        Whatever a supreme good is, it has been documented that woman can find the process of giving birth to and caring for a sick child for a few days to be more conducive to proper grief and healing. So for the child and the mother, I think it can be the best option. To say that it’s a terrible way to treat a pregnant woman doesn’t seem correct.

        With regard to the strength of claims, I struggle to understand why a disabled child has a lesser claim to life in utero. The same is not true once they are born. Is it not an unjust discrimination to believe the disabled foetus is worthy of less protection (because of its weaker claim to life as you suppose) than a healthy one? I suppose the answer to the question is irrelevant if the mother’s claim nearly always drowns the child’s. Would you ever make a case against a woman who wanted an abortion, say for a late-term perfectly healthy child?