Having grown up in a Catholic culture that emphasized the value and dignity of the unborn, I’m not at all unsympathetic to the pro-life position. I understand that abortion raises an array of moral concerns that can be very discomforting and difficult to grapple with, and I don’t intend to make any claims about the moral implications of the act itself.
I know that a fetus is human, that it’s alive, and that it’s not comparable to a finger or toe; it is an individual entity, complete with its own distinct set of DNA. I must therefore concede that when a woman terminates a pregnancy, she is terminating the development of an individual life.
But is she terminating a person’s life?
That’s a much harder question to answer because it’s a philosophical question, not a scientific one. No one can determine for certain where the line between human life and personhood is drawn, so it will always prove difficult, if not impossible, to establish a consensus on when an unborn human becomes a full-fledged person.
On the other hand, there’s a relatively clear consensus on the issue of individual autonomy. That consensus is reflected in the many laws we’ve designed to provide individual people with maximum control over what happens to their own bodies. The government cannot require you, for instance, to donate an organ to save another person’s life. So long as you’re a mentally competent adult, doctors can’t force you to undergo any medical procedure without your explicit consent. You can’t even be vaccinated against covid without your consent despite the fact that unvaccinated people are more likely than vaccinated people to contract and spread the virus.
Individual autonomy is the foundation of the pro-choice position. When governments pass laws against abortion, they strip women of their autonomy by stripping them of their right to withdraw consent.
Consent isn’t a binding agreement. It isn’t something that is ever given permanently. Just as a man can consent to having sex but withdraw that consent before the act is finished, so too can a woman consent to becoming pregnant but then withdraw that consent after the pregnancy has begun. To take that right away from her is a violation of her autonomy, and most women will not stand for that. They may not know the precise moment at which an unborn human life becomes a person, but they are very much aware that they are not and should not be required by law to carry out a pregnancy to which they no longer consent.
Given the immeasurable value that most women place on their autonomy, it is an absolute certainty that, even if the Supreme Court does overturn Roe v. Wade, the Republican Party will never stop women from exercising that autonomy. Therefore, if this is the hill the GOP is willing to die on — if they are absolutely convinced that an unborn human life meets the criteria for personhood and is therefore entitled to the right to live — they should stop trying to take away a woman’s right to choose and instead pursue a more scientific route.
Abortions only happen because there is a demand for them. If you remove that demand, there won’t be any more abortions. If Republicans want to make that dream a reality, they should drop their hostility toward the scientific community and instead rally behind efforts to give both women and men more effective options for preventing unwanted pregnancies. One of those efforts is already quite close to bearing fruit; human trials for a new male birth control pill could begin by the end of 2022.
The development of new birth control options that are even more effective than the ones already available would surely help reduce the demand for abortion, as would the development of contraception that doesn’t produce any unwanted side effects.
Artificial wombs are another scientific pursuit in which the pro-life movement should invest. If that technology is ever realized, it could give women the option of terminating a pregnancy without terminating the life of their unborn child. That would be especially helpful to women whose pregnancies put them at risk of serious harm or death but would prefer to keep their children.
It’s also long past time for social conservatives to reconsider their opposition to comprehensive sex education. It’s a simple matter of priorities. Research shows that sex education does in fact reduce unintended pregnancies among teenagers. So the question conservatives must ask themselves is this: is shielding their kids from information about sex more important than preventing the termination of a human life? One would have to think that, in the eyes of pro-life people, the latter is a much higher priority than the former.
No matter how Republicans choose to respond to the (hypothetical) overturning of Roe, they will never stop women from having abortions so long as the demand for abortion exists. So if those Republicans really do care about preventing abortion, they must turn their attention toward reducing the necessity of abortion. Nothing else will work. Women will not accept a blanket ban on abortion, and there’s absolutely nothing Republicans can do about that.