Responding to Abortion-Choice Arguments on the Impact of Pregnancy

The humanity and personhood of all human beings from the moment of conception until natural death have been firmly established by embryologists and moral philosophers.[1] If we can hold the following to be true –

            It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being.

            Abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being.

            Therefore abortion is wrong.

– the abortion argument is over. What is in a woman’s body from the moment of conception is a living, whole, distinct human being, and abortion intentionally puts that human being to death. However, once that part of the pro-life case is made, arguments sometimes shift to issues regarding the impact of pregnancy on women. I’d like to look at two such arguments: the mother’s health and bodily autonomy.[2]

The Mother’s Health

Abortion-choice supporters always fight to include exceptions to whatever new legislation might try to restrict abortion. They often claim that such legislation poses a threat to the woman’s “health.” Many readers assume that when they see “life” and “health” together in such a sentence, the words refer to the woman’s physical life and physical health. Not so. While the concept of a threat to a woman’s life is unambiguous, abortion-choice supporters rely on the ambiguity of the word “health” to gain allies and eviscerate any proposed restrictions on abortion. The Supreme Court ruled in a Roe v. Wade companion case, Doe v. Bolton, that “health” was a broad concept that could consider “the light of all factors—physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age—relevant to the wellbeing of the patient.”[3]

In fact, pregnancy sometimes does result in physical health complications. During pregnancy, some women develop serious conditions such as gestational diabetes, placenta previa (where the placenta covers all or part the cervix), or preeclampsia (high blood pressure, with its associated risks of organ damage). These health problems, however, don’t require abortion as a solution. Gestational diabetes often can be managed or controlled through diet, exercise, and medication. Placenta previa sometimes resolves itself later in pregnancy, and when it doesn’t, doctors can deliver the child via caesarean section. Physicians can monitor and treat preeclampsia, and, if necessary, deliver the baby early. When abortion-choice supporters smuggle in the word “health” as an exception to abortion restrictions, they typically mean much more than physical health.

People often argue for abortion because a woman cannot “afford” to have a baby (economic health). And no doubt, giving birth and raising children can carry significant financial expense. Some men also threaten to (or actually do) leave their pregnant girlfriends or wives.

Some parents threaten to disown or evict teenage girls who become pregnant (relational or familial health). My wife and I hosted such women in our home after they were forced to leave—one rejected by her husband, the other kicked out by her parents—because they would not agree to abort their babies.

Some women suffer intense psychological distress at the thought of motherhood (emotional health).

But do any of these reasons justify the intentional killing of human beings in the wombs of their mothers? All of these arguments, at their root, appeal to sympathy. No one wants to watch another person suffer. We want to find a way to solve the problems of our friends, loved ones and others in trouble.

When untimely pregnancy comes to a woman who subsequently suffers physical, financial, relational, or psychological problems, abortion-choice supporters step in and offer to kill the innocent human being in the womb through abortion. This they call “health care.”

Human beings, whether inside or outside of the womb, have identical moral worth. All human beings are persons. So should we support the abortion of children for the “health” reasons that Doe v. Bolton allows? To answer the question, make a simple substitution. Since no significant moral difference exists between a six-month-old in the womb and a six-month-old outside the womb, replace the term “baby” with “toddler” or “adolescent.”

Who would argue for killing toddlers because they might bring germs or infection into the house, potentially compromising a parent’s health? Who would allow parents who just lost their jobs, and as a result suffered financial strain, to kill a few of their children in order to lighten their economic burden? No one would support destroying innocent family members because leaving them alive might result in a failed relationship between the parents, or because the kids might cause the parents distress. If you were to suggest such a lethal course of action, people would call you a monster.

If it’s wrong (and illegal) to terminate the lives of troublesome or inconvenient toddlers or adolescents, then why should it be right (and legal) to terminate the lives of troublesome or inconvenient children still inside the womb? In fact, it’s wrong to kill unborn children because they may cause inconvenience or trouble, just as it’s wrong to kill toddlers or adolescents because they may cause inconvenience or trouble.

Bodily Autonomy

“My body, my choice” has become the slogan for the so-called “bodily autonomy” argument. The simple form of this claim, the one used by the majority of abortion-choice supporters I have encountered on college campuses, insists that people should remain free to do whatever they want with their own bodies.

Many find this claim intuitively attractive. Which of us, after all, wants others to tell us what we can and cannot do with our own bodies? This claim appeals to our desire for freedom. But this claim, as stated, has at least two key problems.

First, embryologists and others have established the distinct humanity of the human being in a woman’s womb. The pregnant woman who wants an abortion is not really seeking the right to do what she wants with her own body; she assumes the right to do whatever she wants with someone else’s body. In fact, she wants the right to use her body to transport someone else’s body to a place where a third party will intentionally kill that unborn person, at her request.

Second, human beings clearly do not have the right to do whatever they want with their own bodies. For example, pregnant women cannot be prescribed thalidomide, even though it is a very effective drug for managing morning sickness. But no present-day physician will prescribe this “miracle drug” because it causes significant birth defects. Doctors know that when pregnant women ingest drugs, those drugs don’t affect the women’s bodies only; they also affect the very distinct bodies of the children nestled in their wombs.

While it is important to acknowledge and respond to “impact of pregnancy” arguments, as these are genuine concerns for many, recognize that these claims do not justify abortion and they all assume that the unborn are not human.

Written by Dr. Marc Newman, March 2022

Dr. Mar Newman is president of Speaker for Life and author of Contenders: A Church-Wide Strategy to Unmask Abortion, Defeat Its Advocates, Empower Christians, and Change the World.

Sources and further reading:

[1] Keith L. Moore, T.V.N. Persaud, and Mark G. Torchia, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 11th Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier, 2020), 11; Stephen D. Schwarz, The Moral Question of Abortion (Chicago, IL: Loyola University Press, 1990), 15-16. See also Christopher Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice (New York, NY: Routledge, 2011) 143.

[2] What follows is adapted from my book, Contenders.

[3] Doe .v Bolton, 1973.

Picture credit: “Close-up portrait of a beautiful sleeping baby on a soft bed” by wuestenigel is marked with CC BY 2.0.