A common question pro-life advocates come across has to do with how we address scenarios in which a woman may experience life-threatening complications due to her pregnancy. Ever since the Dobbs decision, these questions have been becoming more commonplace.
It is highly important for pro-life advocates to understand that many of the people who raise this question do have personal reasons for being concerned. Many have experienced difficult pregnancies, or have friends and loved ones who have as well. How we respond to people with heartfelt concerns matters. Relying on snarky sound bites such as “No Woman needs an abortion” or “Abortion is never necessary” tend not to be very helpful when someone wants to have their concerns addressed. Responding with care and empathy does more to change minds on the issue of abortion far than any soundbite can, and should frame the ways we interact with people in all matters, not just in conversations about abortion. People deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of whether we are trying to change their minds.
Given how many people are concerned about this issue, it is imperative for pro-life advocates to find ways to respond.
Unfortunately, not everyone who raises difficult scenarios such as life of the mother situations is interested in genuine dialogue; some people are just looking for a way to dismiss a pro-lifers entire case. As Scott Klusendorf has written about in regards to questions of pregnancy resulting from sexual assault, there are two types of questioners: Learners, and Crusaders. In a similar way, there are also Learners and Crusaders when it comes to life of the mother questions.
The Learner might get why pro-life advocates are opposed to abortion, but she still struggles with this question. After all, it seems inconsistent on one hand to say that abortion could be acceptable in some cases but wrong in all other cases. On the other hand, it seems harsh and immoral to require a woman to carry out a pregnancy which could very well end her life.
Before answering the question, it’s important to help people understand what is at issue when it comes to abortion in general. To do this, a predicate question should be asked of the Learner first:
“I think we can both agree that this is a very difficult situation, especially for a woman who finds herself facing the possibility of dying if she carries out her pregnancy. Before I explain what I think, can you answer a question for me first? How do you think we should treat innocent human beings who do not pose an immediate threat to our lives? Should we be allowed to kill them so we may live as we please?”
What you are doing is bringing the issue back to the central question of the abortion debate: What are the unborn? If the unborn are not members of the human family, then there is nothing wrong with killing them regardless of the circumstances surrounding pregnancy. However, if the unborn are members of the human community, it makes little sense to say they can be killed so the rest of us who have already been born may live as we please.
Once we have clarified what the issue is, we still have address the specific scenario. To do this, we must talk about the difference between foreseen but unavoidable consequences, and consequences we directly intend.
As Christopher Kaczor notes, when it comes to life-threatening pregnancy complications, there is a big difference between foreseeing that the death of an innocent human being will occur as a result of actions taken to save a mother’s life, and deliberately seeking to end the prenatal human life. In his book The Ethics of Abortion, Kaczor highlights several cases in which life-threatening pregnancy complications can occur, such as ectopic pregnancy or craniotomy(a situation more common in the developing world), in which the child’s head is too large to safely exit the birth canal.
In the case of ectopic pregnancy(which tends to be more common) a doctor may remove the developing embryo from the fallopian tube where it has implanted so as to prevent their mother from bleeding to death internally. This action is always fatal for the embryonic human. In this case, while the death of the embryo is foreseen as a necessity, it is not the intention of the doctor. If it becomes possible in the near future to reimplant the embryo into the womb of his or her mother, saving both of their lives, then this would be the moral course of action to pursue.
To help highlight the difference between foreseen consequences and intended consequences, consider the example of the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day in 1944.
In preparation for the Allied landings on the beach, Allied aircraft such as B-26, B-17, and B-24 bombers dropped bombs on the French coastline in advance of the amphibious landings. In addition, Allied battleships shelled the Normandy beaches using high explosive ammunition from the English channel. The reason? The bombings and shellings were done with the intention of creating craters on the beaches that incoming Allied infantrymen could use for cover from German mortars and machine guns while advancing up the beaches, as well as to destroy German fighting positions to make the landings safer for infantrymen as they disembarked their landing craft.
Unfortunately, this did not happen, as Allied bombs and shells often missed their designated targets and landed in French villages along the coastline. As Giles Milton recounts vividly in his narrative history of D-Day(2), this led to much injury and death among the French civilians. However, while it was foreseen that civilians on the coastline would be put into harm’s way, it was not the intention of the Allies to kill the people they were coming to liberate. The purpose was to establish a beachhead, an area Allied troops could disembark at before liberating the rest of Europe from the Nazis, ending the war as well as the Holocaust.
Contrast this with the actions of the Nazis. During the course of the war, resistance fighters in occupied countries would engage in espionage and acts of sabotage to delay or disrupt the German war effort, particularly in France leading up to the D-Day landings. To combat this, Nazi agents of the Gestapo or SS would often torture or kill villagers at random(sometimes entire villages) in regions where acts of sabotage took place, so as to punish any would be or actual supporters of resistance fighters. While in both cases, tragedy befell innocent civilians caught in the crossfire of the war, in the case of the Nazis the intentional killing of villagers was undeniably evil and not in any way equal with the foreseen but unintentional killing of civilians during Allied operations.
Bringing the matter back to the issue at hand, the fact that we may act in a way that we forsee could lead to the death of an innocent human being, though it is not our intention, does not mean we may deliberately kill other innocent human beings who don’t pose a threat to our lives, but simply get in the way of what we want. That deadly force in self-defense is legal does not mean we should be allowed to kill anyone we please if it suits our agenda.
While this answer may satisfy a Learner, it won’t for a Crusader. During a recent pro-life campus outreach event where I was explaining my views to a group of students, a nearby student who had been vigorously trying to dismiss anything we were saying immediately jumped at the opportunity to shout me down, getting visibly annoyed and saying “Oh, so how about if a woman will die? You call yourself pro-life but you’re okay with forcing a woman to die!”
Seeing where this was going, I asked the following:
“Tell me, if we passed a law that banned all abortions but made exceptions for cases when there are life-threatening complications, would you support such a measure?”
Her answer was an immediate “No! Women have a right to abortion!” Unfortunately I never got the chance to give a follow-up, because other people were raising questions, but if I had the chance, I would have said the following:
“So why did you even bring it up, given that this is not your primary concern? Your position is that abortion is a woman’s right that should never be taken away. You could be correct about that, but you need to give me some reasons why you think that way, instead of hiding behind hard questions. Because if we agree about abortion in those cases, we still disagree about it in all other situations that don’t involve difficult situations. So why don’t we talk about whether or not it’s okay to kill the unborn in general before we focus on the difficult questions. Is that fair?”
The point is not to silence a critic, it’s to make them think carefully about what they are defending, and what you are proposing. We agree with pro-choice advocates, life-threatening pregnancy complications are difficult for everyone, especially for the people who experience them, and people need to be treated with empathy and respect when it comes to this issue. However, using the pain other people have experienced as leverage to justify doing whatever you want is not noble. It’s narcissistic and cruel, and needs to be confronted.
Pro-life advocates are not asking to move mountains. We’re simply proposing that the human community is bigger than we were initially led to believe, and that all humans should be protected from unjust harm, regardless of whether or not they have been born yet.
1.Kaczor, Christopher, The Ethics of Abortion (3rd. Ed) 2022, pg. 219-221
2.Milton, Giles, Soldier, Sailor, Frogman, Spy: How the Allies Won on D-Day 2019
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