This article is the most recent entry in my “Debunking Right Wing Talking Points” series. In it, I will identify the most popular types of argument that are used against abortion or to justify anti-choice restrictions, and then will use evidence and logic to debunk them.
Unlike the other entries in this series, the abortion debate isn’t entirely clear-cut between partisan lines—there are many pro-life liberals and there are some pro-choice conservatives (particularly within libertarian circles). Here is a Gallup poll illustrating this point:
That said, as shown in the Gallup polling, a majority of Democrats are “pro-choice” while a majority of Republicans are “pro-life” (in fact, it breaks down fairly evenly, with 68% of Democrats supporting abortion rights and 69% of Republicans opposing it).
This divide is unsurprising, as the religious right has attached itself to the abortion issue since the Roe v. Wade decision and has used calls to eradicate abortion as an organizing and fundraising tool. Conversely, the left has aligned with the women’s rights and reproductive healthcare (sex education, contraception, abortion, etc.) movements.
In the last decade, conservative state governments aligned with the anti-abortion movement have passed hundreds of abortion restrictions and virtually eradicated access to legal abortion services in many states. They have closed clinics with draconian and needless regulations (ex. mandating surgical-grade sanitary conditions in order to give out a pill), imposing waiting periods, forcing women to listen to state-written anti-abortion propaganda (not written by doctors), and even tried to mandate unnecessary ultrasounds that amounted to state-sanctioned rape.
While I will tailor my arguments to deal primarily with the right-wing talking points, most of these responses are easily adapted across partisan lines.
“Abortion is murder”
Abortion is not murder under any legal or ethical definition of the term. According to the Cornell legal dictionary, murder is defined as follows:
“Murder occurs when one human being unlawfully kills another human being. See Homicide. The precise legal definition of murder varies by jurisdiction. Most states distinguish between different degrees of murder. Some other states base their murder laws on the Model Penal Code.”
The key term here is the phrase “when one human being unlawfully kills another human being” and abortion clearly doesn’t fit this definition.
First, on a legal level, abortion is a constitutionally protected right in this country until, at-minimum, fetal viability—this was established in Roe v. Wade and no amount of anti-abortion gesticulating can change this simple fact. As abortion is not only legal, but protected, it cannot, by definition, be murder in a legal sense. While this may sound semantic, numerous states have actually tried to include fetuses in their legal statutes, pursuing murder charges against women who take drugs during their pregnancies, then suffer from miscarriages.
Second, and more importantly, the vast majority of abortions are performed on blastocysts, zygotes, embryos, or pre-gestation fetuses, none of which are actually human. While some of these developing organisms have the potential to one day become human—if they receive the proper nutrition, shelter, and care—this doesn’t mean that they are legally human or that it is immoral to terminate them.
Pre-viability fetuses are not sentient, have not developed enough of a nervous system to process any external stimuli (here is a link to a meta-analysis by the Journal of the American Medical Association confirming this fact), and are incapable of living if detached from their host. This complete lack of awareness, individuality, or sensory capacity by underdeveloped fetuses means that they are not entitled to the same protections as actual humans do.
Functionally speaking, at the earlier stages of development, a fetus/zygote/embryo is basically a parasitic organ growing within the mother. It is a part of the mother because it lacks any autonomy in its biological functions, thus should be completely under her control in regard to medical decisions (as her liver, kidneys, and heart are). While some argue that a pre-viability fetus is a “human” because it is technically alive and has a full strand of human DNA, the fact is that these traits are shared with your vermiform appendix (with the slight difference that an appendix shares 100% of its DNA with its holder while a fetus only shares 50%), yet nobody tries to make this classification in that case.
Some may try to argue that pre-viability fetuses may not now be sentient but, like coma patients, should still be granted full rights and protections. This comparison is fallacious because of on key difference between these two situations: Unlike a person in a persistent vegetative state, a fetus must be attached to a person to live, restricting that person’s rights and autonomy. The actual purpose of an abortion is to allow a woman to exit a situation that restricts her autonomy, not destroy the fetus (the “death” of the fetus is just an unavoidable consequence). In order to make these situations analogous, you would have to support forcing people to spend 9-month shifts hooked up to that coma patient as living life support devices out of the need to keep that person alive.
Even when anti-choice activists point to extreme examples of late-term abortions when making their case that abortion is murder, their arguments still fall apart. Most of these efforts are just excuses to show graphic pictures of later-term fetuses that have been aborted and exploit the emotions of the viewer to win the argument without having to make a case. They do not explain the reasons behind those late-term abortions, nor do they acknowledge just how rare such occurrences are, and let the viewer believe that those late term abortions are representative of all abortion procedures.
Put simply the abortions that occur after viability are a miniscule percentage of the total—just look at the following graphs to see the wide agreement on this fact:
This graph is from the extreme anti-abortion group Operation Rescue (there is no dataset or time listed).
…and this graph is from the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute.
As you can clearly see, both sides agree that only about 1% of abortions happen after viability occurs at 20 weeks, while nearly 90% happen before 12 weeks. If you are interested, this is what you looked like at 12 weeks of development:
Abortions that occur later in pregnancies are mostly performed due to women being unable to access abortions earlier in their term (ironically, due primarily to draconian anti-abortion laws) and severe fetal defects that would threaten the mother or doom the fetus—in effect, they occur because the woman has had her hand forced and not because she is just indecisive or irresponsible.
Unfortunately, fetal complications can lead to terrible consequences for pregnant women, thus some of these late-term abortions are absolutely necessary (and are sometimes sought by women who actually want children). Calling these women murderers for taking necessary actions to save their own lives or avoid having to deliver a child that would never survive is morally reprehensible. In some countries that ban abortion, women die due to these complications. For example, in 2012, a woman in Ireland named Savita Halappanavar died from complications in her pregnancy precisely because her doctors refused to give her an abortion on “moral” grounds. They thought that abortion was murder and ended up killing their patient in an attempt to spare a fetus that was already dead.
To conclude, if anything that has the potential to one day be human given a living incubator is considered human, then the in vitro fertilization industry is “murdering” millions of “people” every year when they dispose of the spare fertilized eggs that are never implanted. Obviously, this is ridiculous, and even most anti-abortion activists don’t try to make this case.
To fully drive home this point, here is a quick thought experiment: Imagine that a truck belonging to an in vitro fertilization company, carrying 1,000,000 fertilized eggs, and a school bus, carrying 25 children, collide on a bridge. This sparks a fire and you only have time to save one vehicl. Do you save the truck and prevent the deaths of 1,000,000 potential children or do you save the bus and save the 25 actual children?
I would posit that even the most extreme anti-abortion zealots would agree with me that any rational person would save the 25 children. This demonstrates the feebleness of the “abortion is murder” argument and proves it to be largely an emotional plea with no real substance. Unless a person is willing to answer this hypothetical by arguing that they would save the fertilized eggs over the children, they have refuted their own position by clearly stating that developed humans have FAR more right to life than potential humans (40,000 times more in this hypothetical).
“Abortion is a sin”
As I stated in my “Refuting Anti-Gay Rights Arguments” article, the term “sin” is one without any real secular utility thus doesn’t actually need to be refuted. If a religion wants to label abortion a “sin,” declare it to be “haram,” or attach some sort of religious taboo to it, than that is its right. That said, no religion has the right to declare what another religion considers to be a “sin,” nor does any religion have the right to insert their “sin” stigmas into our secular laws.
For example: In Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, it is an extremely serious sin to worship an idol or any entity other than the Abrahamic god. Each of these religions have every right to declare idolatry to be “sinful” within the context of their dogma, but they cannot export this stigma outside of their houses of worship—they cannot declare that all Hindus must suddenly agree with them on this matter, nor can they ban all Hindus from worshipping their gods.
If somebody wants to argue that their personal religion considers abortion to be a sin, you can just say that that is great, but you don’t belong to their religion and don’t have to agree with their opinion. This is true whether you follow a completely different religion, belong to a different sect of the same religion (ex. Unitarian Universalism supports abortion rights while Catholicism doesn’t, yet both are Christian), or have no religion.
Honestly, I think that the proper response to this sin-based argument was stated by Jeff Bridges in the film “The Big Lebowski:”
It is pointless to argue about what constitutes a “sin” with this kind of person, simply because the term is only given meaning within the context of the religious faith that person follows (ex. it is undeniably a “sin” in Islam for somebody to drink alcohol or eat pork). You have no right to determine what they consider a sin, just as long as they keep their religious language away from your secular laws.
If somebody claims the right to establish their idea of “sin” in the secular laws, you can simply point out how this is not only unconstitutional, but intensely anti-American. Our country was founded with religious liberty in mind, and trying to establish Sharia-style religious codes is a betrayal of this.
If they do not acknowledge this historical reality, you should point out how, no matter what religion that person claims to represent, they are in the minority (even if we consider all Protestants, the largest religious group, to be one sect, they still only compose 45% of the country). Religious laws create a terrifying and dangerous precedent, where every group faces the danger that demographic shifts or political alliances will enforce another religion’s dogmas on their lives.
The second that a Catholic or Mormon decides to justify abortion bans by using Christianity, they must contend with the fact that they are outnumbered by Protestants, thus must also accept the establishment of Protestant doctrines over their own lives if they choose to validate the religious argument—after all, if somebody claims that a majority religion should have the right to decide abortion policy, they must accept this argument in other areas of policy, even if they disagree with the majority faith in that arena. Obviously, this is anathema to them and absolutely destroys their argument by illustrating its hypocrisy.
If the person making the argument is a Protestant, you can point out that their faith is fragmented by sects and very well may lose its dominance in the future. This means that, while they may feel justified in using their popularity to enforce their religion over everybody else today, they will not always be the majority and will one day face the other side of this discrimination.
In short, letting any religion control secular politics creates a constant struggle by religions to control the law and impose on the rest of us. It threatens everybody’s freedom and is one of the primary reasons why our founders separated church and state in the first place.
Please share this with your progressive friends and come back tomorrow for Part #2 of this series.