Posted by: edsohn | October 13, 2008

very anti-abortion… and yet, pro-choice

I thought that it would be an interesting time to talk about this.  Abortion hasn’t really leapt out in this election season, which is refreshing in itself, since abortion and homosexuality have often been used as a political wedge to coerce people into voting a certain way.  But the issue has been raised, and often the weight of appointing certain Supremes (see my last post) is pointed directly at Roe v. Wade.

I am anti-abortion, but passively pro-choice.  I am not ideologically wired to the typical “sides” of this debate, and I would be willing to be that the majority of Americans hold a similarly neutral viewpoint.  But I’d like to break down some of the contextual and philosophical issues surrounding abortion, to  challenge people to think a little bit beyond the usual limited menu of options.

1.  Being pro-choice actually expresses an opinion about the place of government, not the morality of abortion.

Plenty of pro-choice people are, in fact, pro-abortion.  But being one does not require that you are the other.  I am pro-choice because abortion is a mixed question on which there is no clearly majority opinion (and to my knowledge, if there was, the majority is pro-choice over pro-life).

A common question: “If you see it as murder, then how can you not demand action from the government?”  Because while I do see it as murder within my definition of life, I know that others do NOT see it that way.  So rather than trying to legislate over their views, I’m more interested in persuading their views so that we can all agree with overwhelming majority to legislate against abortion.  More importantly, I’m interested in changing human behavior.

An analogy I often use here is with regards to my faith.  My faith is not sort of just a “spiritual” part of my life that is open to debate.  It is life-defining truth, unequivocal and written in stone.  Nevertheless, I recognize that it is subjective truth, all the same.  If I believe that without saving knowledge of Jesus the Messiah, human souls have an eternal destination of torture and suffering, wouldn’t I do everything in my power to criminalize non-Christians?  Isn’t that as compelling (or even more compelling) a cause as the murder of 1.2 million lives every year?

That wouldn’t work, because it wouldn’t effectively create Christians.  It might even deter them to the cause.  Likewise, government, on issues like these, hasn’t really been very effective in my lifetime.  Which leads me to the next conclusion…

2.  Recent history demonstrates that in terms of political effect, the distinction between voting pro-life and pro-choice is pretty much nonexistent.

Yes, if McCain wins, these poor ancient Supreme Court justices are going to have to hang on for dear life.  Because yes, there is a possibility that he would appoint legally activist justices who would love to overturn Roe.  But I think the likelihood of all that happening, even if McCain IS elected, is fairly slim.  Yes, the Gonzales case upholding the constitutionality of a federal partial-birth abortion ban was upheld by the Roberts court, and yes, Thomas and Scalia did articulate in dicta their belief that Roe and Casey should be overturned (an opinion that Roberts and Alito did NOT join in concurrence).

Putting that all the Supreme Court stuff aside, the simple fact is that Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and then Bush… they haven’t had any effect on abortion jurisprudence at all.  Bush didn’t make a big push for a constitutional amendment defining life, nor did Clinton try to federalize the legality of abortion.

There’s no reason to believe that voting for McCain would result in criminalizing abortion, nor that voting for Obama would somehow release a valve and increase abortion rights.  Both have expressed a desire to reduce the number of abortions.  That brings me to my last point:

3.  Because we live in a globalized economy, abortion will always be available somehow.  Therefore, making abortion illegal is simply one particular strategy in “abortion reduction”, not a wholesale unequivocal solution.

What I mean is basically this: somehow making abortion illegal would simply create a black market for abortion, and increase the abortion business in Canada and Mexico and abroad.

4.  Abortion can be reduced by addressing the human source instead of the legal structure.

This is sort of a subpoint, but consider this:

“The reasons women give for having an abortion underscore their understanding of the responsibilities of parenthood and family life. Three-fourths of women cite concern for or responsibility to other individuals; three-fourths say they cannot afford a child; three-fourths say that having a baby would interfere with work, school or the ability to care for dependents; and half say they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their husband or partner.”

Look at the reasons cited for having an abortion!  These are human causes that we can fight, things that won’t change by outlawing abortion.  I do not legitimize these reasons as being solid and good ones for having an abortion (my personal view is, truly, that other than perhaps the life of the mother, abortion is morally wrong), but my view is that these are issues we can and should tackle.  It will do more for these mothers-to-be and more for society as a whole to help them understand their options and build up their ability to support children than to, for instance, throw them in jail for getting a black market abortion.

Contraceptive awareness is another strong point here.



If I told you that illegalizing abortion would not address the reasons women are getting abortions, create a black market for abortions, increase the massive drain on our political and economic systems, enact laws that the majority of Americans do not agree with, and ultimately not reduce in the long-run dramatic decrease of the number of abortions occurring… would this still speak to pro-life stances to criminalize abortion?  Or is there a third way, one that is neither legalizing and encouraging abortions nor criminalizing them?

Again, my view is anti-abortion, unequivocally, except where the mother’s life is at risk.  But politically, and as an avid anti-abortionist, I think that the pro-choice stance is the realm in which there lies the means most effectively and ethically to reduce the number of abortions.



  1. Despite being pretty adamantly pro-life, I agree with most of this stuff. Any plan of reducing abortions has to include other options for mothers-that probably means a radical re-think of the welfare state as we know it. For more on that, see here: (

    But I think we part ways when you say the Presidents ‘haven’t had any effect on abortion jurisprudence at all.’ It would perhaps be more fair to say that the economy and social conditions has far more of an impact on the abortion rate than any of the presidents have had; but Bush did pass a ban on partial birth abortion that Clinton vetoed, and a (mainly Republican) majority of Supreme Court justices upheld that bill. Obama and Clinton both support state funding of abortions (and this will become even more of an issue if we get universal healthcare) and oppose parental notification.

    Again, these are issues on the margins, and don’t affect the abortion rate as much as economic/social conditions; I fully grant that. But any economist will tell you that incentives matter-it will be practically impossible to substantially reduce the abortion rate if the state funds abortions. I admit that an immediate all-out ban on abortions would create a lot of human suffering, an abortion black market, and there isn’t the societal support for it.

    So how about a slightly different middle ground…Social conservatives should agree that societal support for mothers with children that they do not want/cannot afford is essential, no matter what the abortion legal regime is. At the same time, marginal restrictions on late-term abortions, parental notification, and no government support for abortions per se in order to reduce the rate. Sound reasonable?

  2. “Because while I do see it as murder within my definition of life, I know that others do NOT see it that way”

    This is classic moral relativism, and very dangerous. In the 1800s, some people viewed blacks as human and some viewed blacks as subhuman. The slave owners said to abolitionists, “Who are you to impose your values on us?” The slave owners were wrong because blacks are objectively human. They’re human because they are human, not because one person, or 1 million, or 100 million people say they are.

    Likewise with the unborn. The unborn are human. It doesn’t matter if half, or a third, or ten percent of Americans believe it. The unborn are human because they are human. They have human DNA, they are a result of human sexual intercourse, etc. Their definition as human beings is not subjective. It is based on objective reality.

    One can’t straddle the fence on the status of the unborn. Either they are objectively human or they’re not. We are not gods, we can’t make the unborn human or not human merely by our perspective.

  3. it’s a valid view, but the question is when you do live in a pluralistic society, what do you consult as the ultimate definition of what is right and wrong? must it not be the majority?

    slavery was an issue that tore our nation apart, but i would also note that the united states was one of the modern world powers to abolish slavery through law, that the civil war resulted in part through the legislative differences that were attempted to be forced on the other views, and that slavery was hardly abolished when the law stated that it was. this country’s terrible history of discrimination and hate crimes began upon abolition and continued until a coalition of people stood up (the Civil Rights era) from top to bottom, across all different races and backgrounds, and said that there was a need for change. it was a movement that was picked up, not behavior as forced by law.

    saying that i know other people don’t see it that way doesn’t make me a moral relativist. i still think i’m right and that they are wrong, not that everyone can be right. i want to do everything i can to persuade and convince and demonstrate to the pro-abortionists that abortion is morally in the wrong.

    but it’s the action that springs from my personal beliefs about truth that dictate what makes someone pro-choice or not, and in my opinion, legislating a minority view over a majority of people is both unsustainable and ineffective.

    there are people in this country who are as vehemently vegetarian because of the rationale that killing animals is a carnal sin, almost every bit as murderous as killing a person. they are a vast minority, obviously much more of a minority than the pro-lifers, so this is an extreme example… but would i be ok with them legislating over my right to eat meat because they know they are right and that i’m wrong?

    maybe in a different country, but unfortunately, i’m stuck in this one. it’s not moral relativism to choose persuading and mobilizing a critical mass of people to my position instead of forcing them to adhere to it.

    a position, even if it is about life and death, is still only one person’s position.

  4. with any discussion on abortion amongst Christians, I find that there is almost always a subversive partisan undertone that drives the opposing arguments, so let me begin with this disclosure: I am a moderate independent who voted for Obama in the CA primaries. I have already cast my vote (absentee) 2 weeks ago for Obama. I also voted for CA Proposition 4, which requires parental notification (not a consent) and a 48 hour waiting period before a minor can have an abortion.

  5. To begin, a lot of interesting and important points have been raised in this post. As a Christian living in the self-proclaimed “birthplace of radical liberalism” (SF/Berkeley/Oakland), I’d like to add perhaps a different perspective to this topic

    I think it is one thing to say that an individual who is personally against abortion can rationalize voting for a candidate who happens to have a pro-choice stance. However, it is a completely different matter to state that maintaining pro-choice legislature theoretically REDUCES the number of abortions compared to having an anti-abortion state.

    I agree with many of the points raised in this post and also have different perspectives on some of them. However, I would respectfully disagree with what I perceive to be the conclusions stated at the end of this post (although some of this may be just a matter of semantics).

    Since an outline structure is already in place, I’ll just arrange some of my comments likewise…

    From Point #1
    – I agree that technically “pro-choice actually expresses an opinion about the place of government”, and I certainly agree that the issue of “public perception” is an important here. But this is where I have a different take on things. I believe that for the general population, voting on ANY issue is largely motivated by some moral principle (e.g. funding for welfare, military action or withdrawal, environmental conservation, etc). When it comes to the abortion debate, the anti-abortion activists base their stance on the moral right to life, whereas the pro-choice activist base their stance on the moral right for a woman to be independent and make her own decisions about her body. That is what drives most people in this hotly debated topic. So even though the statement in Point #1 is technically true, most Americans do not have the legal background to have this insight so they argue/vote their respective sides based on morality. To them, it really is about what is “right” and what is “wrong”, and passionately so.

    – I personally wouldn’t characterize the anti-abortion movement as an effort to “criminalize” people. Its focus has always been to defend the unborn. I do recognize that the passionate pro-choice activists here in the Bay area tactically focus on the language of “criminalization” to sway debates. I wouldn’t say that laws banning murder or theft or perjury were primarily meant to “criminalize” individuals but rather to protect the innocent. Sure, there will always be judgmental people who twist things for their own self-interests, but that’s beside the point. I think the use of the term “illegal” (as stated elsewhere in the post) would be better suited for this discussion rather than “criminalize” (but this may have just been a matter of semantics)

    – “That wouldn’t work, because it wouldn’t effectively create Christians” — I may have missed something here, but I’m not sure how this directly applies to the issue of abortion legislation. I think that this statement would be more appropriate in a discussion about how “behavior modification (reducing sins of commission and omission) does not bring salvation to a person”. But I am not aware of any prominent argument claiming that banning abortion would help create more Christians.

    From Point #2
    I’ll have to defer to your legal background and knowledge of historical jurisprudence here, and I certainly appreciate your additional insights on this.

    However, I would like to add that the “abortion issue” is not just about overturning Supreme Court decisions. The “pro-choice movement” is not just a simple, static activist group that is dedicated to preserving Roe v Wade. It is a diverse, multifaceted movement that is constantly working to EXPAND access to abortions, e.g. continued lobbying for public funding of abortions for the underserved, reversal of partial-birth abortion ban, prosecution/penalization of health care providers who refuse to participate in abortion care (based on religious/moral grounds), etc. I won’t even go into other bioethical issues that these same groups actively advocate for (e.g. embryonic stem cell research, human-animal chimera embryonic research, etc.) I’ve personally met some of these highly-motivated pro-choice activists (some are my colleagues at work) and it is really alarming as a Christian to see how passionate they are about these things

    From Point #3
    – I agree with the statement “making abortion illegal is simply one particular strategy in abortion reduction, not a wholesale unequivocal solution”. I believe that the goal of any of the inhibitory laws is not to statistically eliminate those acts from society but rather to help reduce them. No one expects our laws to completely eliminate armed robbery or murder in our country – this is clearly evident in SF/Oakland where both of these two crimes are currently at epidemic proportions here. But I don’t share the opinion that a reactionary “black market abortion industry” or increased trafficking to international abortion services would negate the justification for anti-abortion laws or the potentially huge numbers of lives that would be saved. When currently 1 out of every 5 pregnancies in the US is voluntarily terminated through abortion, I have a very hard time believing that the bulk of these abortions will be taken over by these “alternative” methods. (but again, that is just my opinion)

    From Point #4
    – I whole-heartedly agree with the point on addressing the needs and counseling for these pregnant women. This is a critically important aspect that is unfortunately overlooked in the general “public debate”. However, I do not see how ministering to the needs of expectant mothers and anti-abortion legislation are mutually exclusive

    And this leads to my alternative conclusion (a “fourth way”?): I believe that a Christian can be involved in addressing the needs of expectant women AND also participate in anti-abortion legislation at the same time. I don’t necessarily see conflicting interests here. (again, this is just my opinion)

    Regardless of how each of us believes to be the “best” way to individually and corporately address the tragic abortion crisis, ultimately as Christians I think we can all at least agree that these millions of unborn babies are precious children of God who are worth fighting for.

    For those who do have an interest in organizations which model Point #4, feel free to check out First Resort, a ministry that my church works closely with in the Bay area:
    It is a ministry that offers counseling, free health services, and financial aid to expectant mothers struggling with the decision of abortion. Anyone can support them specifically through prayer and/or donations if you are interested. Thanks everyone and God bless~

  6. good stuff. i won’t take up a discussion, bc while it would be healthy, i think things stand pretty clearly.

    i definitely agree that you CAN be pro-life and be anti-abortion intelligently. i think the same of being pro-choice and anti-abortion.

    it doesn’t make either position universally right, but rather a question of the intent behind the association. i disagree with one-issue voters and people who equate a pro-life candidate with the only and best anti-abortion candidate. but if that’s intelligently alongside of views rejecting the pretty complicated pro-choice lobby, it definitely makes sense.

    the discussion is sort of the entire point, and needs to be had more often. thanks.

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