Refuting “Abortion as Self-Defense”

There is a new pro-choice argument that has begun to gain popularity. Many pro-life advocates have not heard of it yet, but to change minds on abortion, you need to know how to both identify and graciously refute it.

Estimated reading time: 26 minutes.

A woman in a self-defense position.

When I teach pro-life apologetics, I usually explain that there are two primary disagreements between the pro-life side and the pro-choice side and a bunch of distracting arguments that have grown from misunderstanding the issue at hand.

Most pro-life people are familiar with the first primary disagreement. These are pro-choice arguments that deny the humanity of the unborn child. These arguments about personhood definitions largely dominate the philosophical literature on abortion. People argue about what constitutes a person and then explain how the human embryo does or does not qualify. Notice that this is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. Science tells us what is killed during abortion: an embryo or fetus that is living, whole, and human. And philosophy tells us whether or not that human embryo’s life is valuable.

The second disagreement in the abortion debate is centered around bodily rights, in other words, the slogan that we have all heard before: “My body, my choice.” This argument is different from the first disagreement because it isn’t about whether or not abortion is killing a person. Instead, it argues whether the killing can be justified by the woman’s right to her own bodily autonomy.

A pro-choice person could agree with the pro-life community on the first personhood point, but still justify their position by arguing from bodily autonomy. However, it is more likely than the average pro-choice person will disagree with me on both points.

This new argument that I am going to refute today I am calling the “Abortion is Self-Defense Argument” and it doesn’t address either of these first two controversies. In fact, it can be used by someone who agrees with the pro-life position on both points, and that is one of the reasons I believe it seems so convincing on its face.

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The argument in clear terms would sound like this:

I support legal abortion because pregnancy and childbirth are life-threatening. Abortion is much safer than childbirth, and so I believe a woman should be able to choose abortion to protect her own life. It seems wrong to me for the government to legally require people to put their lives at risk to save another. Even if the woman doesn’t die because of the pregnancy, it threatens her health in one way or another. For some women, they will suffer physical ramifications; for others, the pregnancy will threaten their relationships, finances, mental health, or career. Safe, affirming abortion access allows women to choose for themselves. If she wants to continue the pregnancy and do it all, she can, but she shouldn’t have to. She should have the right to defend herself from the pregnancy, which is inherently a risk to her health.

Breaking Down the Argument

Now, the everyday person might not explain their position in such explicit terms, but through our team’s research and development, we have observed the idea of abortion as self-defense buzzing around the pro-choice mind since early 2016. For some people, it is towards the front of their minds, and for others, it is a hidden premise not yet realized. More often than not, it takes a significant amount of dialogue with the person to whom you’re talking before you are both able to identify what exactly they think about abortion and why. This is why we train pro-life advocates with dialogue tips and communication skills to find clarity in the abortion conversation. When you identify this argument, you’ll need to know how to respond persuasively and clearly.

Unfortunately for the pro-life advocate, there are actually six components working together in this argument, each with varying complexity. And while I am going to address each one, for some of them I will refer you to other sources where our team has refuted them, for sake of brevity.

First, we can separate the three levels of severity of this argument which are all being conflated together in my example statement. This really happens more often than not in real life.

Our example pro-choice statement contains three levels of “threats” that women should have the right to defend themselves from:

1. Abortion should be an option because pregnancy puts a woman’s life at risk.

2. Abortion should be an option because pregnancy puts a woman’s health at risk.

3. Abortion should be an option because pregnancy threatens her life circumstances, like financial health, relationships, or career success.

The remaining parts of the argument are as follows:

4. An empirical claim (or underlying presupposition) that abortion is safer for the woman than childbirth.

5. The idea that a fetus is an aggressor who is the one responsible for putting the mother’s life, health, finances, and whatever else, at risk.

6. The idea that consent to sex is not consent to pregnancy.

I remember this last point about consent to sex not being consent to pregnancy being hotly debated among the students in my college bioethics class and it seems to be one of those cornerstone disagreements in online comment threads where communication can start to break down. Let’s take a closer look at this idea first before we move on to threats versus aggressors and empirical data related to health risks.

Is Consent to Sex Consent to Pregnancy?

Now if you’re talking with someone who is making any or all of these arguments, you need to address the presupposition which many pro-choice people hold: consent to sex is not consent to pregnancy. You should respond to this assumption with what pro-life philosophers sometimes call “The Responsibility Objection”. This objection states that when you have consensual sex, you engage in an act that you know might result in the creation of an inherently needy child, to whom you own compensation.

In recent years there has been an increase in education surrounding sexual consent. This is a vital issue for our culture right now and we can all agree that everyone needs to understand what does and does not qualify as consent to sex. One thing that has been given particular emphasis in this education is the idea that consent to sex is ongoing. In other words, a person has the right to say “no” at any time during sexual contact and end that interaction at any point. We should always respect someone else’s “no” immediately and take it very seriously, regardless of whatever has been happening.

I’ve seen some pro-choice advocates take this conceptualization of ongoing consent for sex and try to apply it to pregnancy. They say that pregnancy, like sex, also requires ongoing consent and that the woman should be able to withdraw consent from it at any point in time. The problem with this thinking is that pregnancy is being talked about like it is an action instead of an effect. When you consent to actions you are also consenting to that action’s consequences, even if you consider them to be undesirable.

And when they talk this way I also hear them express incredible frustration at the biological asymmetry between men and women in childbearing. They might say, “If the man can have sex and then just walk away if the woman gets pregnant, then why shouldn’t she have an out too? The whole thing just seems unfair!” It seems like they see abortion as a way to level out the biological imbalance of the sex contract.

I don’t find this sentiment convincing because everyone having consensual sex knows that this is the way the world works before they consent to the sex. They metaphorically agree to the sex contract even if they think the biological imbalance is unfair. Everyone capable of consenting to sex knows where babies come from.

Let me give an example to show why ongoing consent can’t apply to consequences. If you go to a casino, you probably already know that the house always wins. Still, there’s a chance you can use a little money to win a lot, especially if you put your chips on a single number in roulette. In case you’re unfamiliar with the game, in Roulette you place a bet on the table to indicate where you think the ball will land. The more specific you are with your bet the more money you can win. If you bet on a single number, you get 35 to 1 on your bet amount if the ball lands there. So, you place your chips on the number 15 to show that you consent to bet on that spin of the wheel. If the ball lands on 18 that’s bad news for you. You lose your money.

But imagine saying, “Wait! I gave initial consent to bet my money, but I never gave consent to lose it, only to win! Now that I see where the game ended, I withdraw my consent; give me my chips back!”

In real life, the pit boss would probably have security throw you out of the casino for trying to grab at your chips. But if they were going to be patient enough to explain the situation to you they might say something like, “You gave your consent to the bet; you could have withdrawn it anytime before bets were closed. But you knew that the nature of a bet is that you are likely to lose money, not just win it, and that’s the thing you consented to. You can’t just change the rules because you didn’t get the outcome you wanted.”

This is similar to sex. You consent to the act, knowing what the possible outcomes are, and you could’ve withdrawn the consent at any point. You can’t now refuse to consent to the outcome because it’s not what you wanted.

But what about the biological asymmetry in pregnancy? What about the fact that guys can leave and women can’t? Well, let’s change the scenario above. I’m betting at the roulette wheel, along with my boyfriend. The table has a rule in place where men are allowed to pick up their chips after the wheel has spun, and both of us know about this rule. We both let it ride on 27, but it comes up zero.

My boyfriend picks up his chips and leaves the table; he doesn’t lose anything, but I lose my entire bet. “That’s not fair!” I say to the operator. He tells me, “Of course it’s not fair, but this is a casino; it’s not supposed to be fair, and you knew all about this before you placed your bet.”

The pit boss is sympathetic to me though and tells me that I can get my money back if I kill one of the other players at the table.

I knew the game was unfair and the man could walk away, and I played anyway; it would be wrong for me to kill another person at the casino to avoid the consequence of the bet I consented to. Similarly, everyone knows the man can walk away if the woman gets pregnant. It’s not fair, but it was known when consent for sex took place. It’s part of what was consented to, and it’s not a sufficient justification to kill another person. We need to hold men accountable for their actions and start enforcing those child support laws the way they should be, not kill our own child because he walked away.

The Difference between a Threat and an Aggressor

Sometimes abortion-choice advocates describe the human embryo as an aggressor. Sometimes we will even hear gestation described as violence. Sophie Lewis, author of Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, says,

Abortion is in my opinion…a form of killing. It is a form of killing that we need to be able to defend…the violence that, innocently, a fetus metes out vis-a-vis a gestator… is an unacceptable violence for someone that doesn’t want to do gestational work. The violence that that gestator metes out to essentially go on strike or exit that workplace is acceptable violence.

Let’s leave aside for a moment how ridiculous it is to say it’s just as “violent” for the fetus to merely exist as it is to violently kill that fetus. Framing the fetus as a violent aggressor, even an innocent one, is a misleading description of what happens in pregnancy. Aggressors directly put others in danger; threats put others in danger only indirectly, by proximity or circumstance. For example, if I drop a bowling ball out of a tall building, I’m an aggressor towards the person walking below; the bowling ball is only a threat. While circumstances of pregnancy might add to complications or risks for the mother, a fetus never directly causes the mother harm. While aggressors are often blameworthy in their actions and liable to punishment, this isn’t true of threats. You can’t use disproportionate force to repel a threat without yourself becoming an aggressor. Even if radical feminists like Sophie Lewis think it’s fair to compare the fetus to a slaveholder, that’s not what the fetus is actually like, and so you can’t justify lethal force to defend yourself against the threat of inconvenience or difficulty; but I’ll talk more about this later.

Considering Levels of Responsibility

I want to offer a thought-exercise to help us think about the threat that the human fetus poses to the woman’s health and life during pregnancy. My thought-experiment has two variations because I want to account for the different circumstances of pregnancy. For those who are convinced by the responsibility objection, we have two different levels of responsibility when it comes to pregnancy: women who are pregnant after consensual sex and women who are pregnant after rape. And even if we ultimately believe that abortion is wrong in all cases for any reason, these levels of responsibility can affect our intuition in thought-experiments and intuition of the people we talk with about abortion.

Now, I have talked with pro-choice people who are somewhat convinced by the responsibility objection but think differently about it than I do. For example, they may believe that women who become pregnant after using contraceptive methods have a different level of responsibility for the pregnancy than women who had reasonable access to birth control but willingly chose not to use it while having consensual sex. In other words, I’ve talked with pro-choice people who would sort pregnant women into two responsibility categories: women pregnant after sex without birth control and women pregnant after sex with birth control or after rape.

I’ve also talked with people who are completely unconvinced by the responsibility objection altogether. They believe consent to sex never requires consent to pregnancy, and that the human fetus is always trespassing without consent. They might even say women have no obligation to care for the fetus, even if she was purposefully trying to get pregnant with fertility treatments or something. Because of these varying positions, I want to offer two variations to my thought-experiment that will account for different intuitions regarding responsibility. If you find the responsibility objection convincing, like I do, then you would believe only women pregnant after rape are in the second variation of the story.

Variation One: The Unlocked Boat

Let’s imagine that I have a really nice boat. I don’t mean like a fishing boat for a small lake or even a speed boat for water skiing. I’m talking about the rap music video yacht that has a nice bar and seating. Let’s imagine that I’m kind of a relaxed and laid back person who doesn’t really dwell on worst-case scenarios and even though in this fantasy world it is really common for people to wander on boats at the dock, I like the convenience of leaving my boat unlocked.

So one day, a small child gets lost at the docks, he’s just playing and wandering around and loses his way. He climbs on my boat and hides in a closet. Then I unknowingly later that day take my boat out on the water and it isn’t until we are miles from shore that I discover he is on my boat! And here’s the biggest problem: not only is he getting a free joy ride on my yacht, I know he is carrying a disease that could make me sick. He isn’t sick, he is perfectly okay, but he is a carrier of a disease that mirrors pregnancy in every way. There’s a chance I could have nausea, temporary diabetes, back pain, swollen feet, and I could even die. This disease has every symptom or threat to my life and health that pregnancy carries, with the same likelihoods. And let’s say I know that the only way to defend myself from catching the pregnancy disease is to kill the child. There is no other option, I can’t just stick him on the lifeboat or drive back to the docks. Let’s say I need to either take my chances or kill him. Would that be justified self-defense?

After all, I could die! Someone could say to me “Well, you did leave your boat unlocked and knew that this might happen! You can’t kill the innocent child, even if he is a threat!” Is that really fair though? We will come back to this question, but first let’s consider the second variation.

Variation Two: The Locked Boat

If we change the thought-experiment slightly, we could say that instead of being the kind of person that leaves my boat unlocked, instead, I am the opposite. I hear about this problem happening to other people and I really am against children coming on my boat. I am careful to lock it every single time it is parked at the dock and I even put a sign that says “NO TRESPASSING!” in big red letters. Unfortunately, there is an adult human trafficker who has kidnapped a child and he decides to hide the little boy on my boat. He trespasses against my will, breaks my locks, and puts the kidnapped child in my closet. The next day I take my boat out on the water, and miles from shore I discover the kidnapped little boy. He is a carrier of the pregnancy disease just as in the first scenario. Even though I took all the precautions I possibly could, I am still stuck with the same choice. Do I endure the pregnancy disease? Or can I kill the child to protect myself?

Evaluating Culpability

I think most people would agree that there is a different level of culpability between the two scenarios, or at the very least, you have more sympathy for me in the second story. But does it really matter? I mean, shouldn’t we have the right to protect ourselves, even if it means killing someone if our life is at risk? Maybe you think that self-defense would be justified even if you won’t die but if you will become very seriously ill.

I will respond to that in a moment, but it is necessary to pause and acknowledge that someone who responds to this thought-experiment by saying that abortion is different than my story because embryos aren’t the same value as small children or because they are dependent on the woman’s bodily resources is making a different argument than the pure self-defense argument I am refuting in this article. I would respond differently to those two objections. I am isolating this one part of the argument, not addressing everything.

I argue that whether or not I am justified in killing the child carrying the disease depends on how significant of a threat he is to my life. If there is a 75% chance I will die, then I think morally permissible options are very different from a 10% chance. When abortion-choice advocates make this argument, they use fear-mongering language about maternal mortality rates on the rise.

In May 2019 Dr. Hern, a late-term abortion specialist, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times. The title of his article is “Pregnancy Kills. Abortion Saves Lives.” subtitle “Every pregnancy poses a ‘serious health risk’ to the mother.” He writes: “pregnancy is a life-threatening condition. Women die from being pregnant.” Later he says, “pregnancy is dangerous, abortion can be lifesaving.” He certainly makes it sound like a pretty significant threat. What do the statistics on maternal mortality and maternal morbidity tell us about how significant this threat is?

How the Numbers Affect Our Intuition

To say that killing another innocent person is justified by self-defense, there needs to be some sort of legitimate risk to your life and probably there need to be no other safe alternatives. How do we determine what constitutes a legitimate risk to your life? Should you need to know it is a 50/50 chance that you will live or die? Maybe a 10% likelihood of death? Our intuitions might vary on where the line should be and it probably depends on other factors as well. That exact line might move case by case and I don’t think we need to answer this question before we decide whether or not abortion can be considered self-defense, because of the risk to the woman’s life that pregnancy poses doesn’t even come close to reasonable. It isn’t even a 1% risk. In the United States in 2016, a pregnant woman had a 0.017% chance of dying because of a pregnancy-related complication. You actually have a higher risk of death from getting your appendix removed, which is 0.21% chance for patients under 60 years old.

Like many people, I fully support non-violent efforts to reduce maternal mortality. I don’t want any women to die from childbirth, even if it is a low risk. And of course developing nations have a higher risk of maternal mortality than the United States. Let’s look at Ghana as an example because it is one of the most dangerous places to give birth in the world. In 2017, the maternal mortality rate in Ghana was 0.31%. How much should your life be at risk for you to call it self-defense to kill your unborn child? My answer is at least higher than 1%.

Maternal Morbidity

What if we look at the second version of the self-defense argument, “Abortion should be an option because pregnancy puts a woman’s health at risk.” Dr. Hern, in his New York Times article mentioned earlier, says:

But pregnancy itself poses a “serious health risk”—including the risk of dying and losing all bodily functions. A woman’s life and health are at risk from the moment that a pregnancy exists in her body, whether she wants to be pregnant or not.

We can look at severe maternal morbidity rates, referred to as SMM, which are identified by the CDC using delivery hospitalization codes. Examples include eclampsia, amniotic fluid embolism, severe anesthesia complications, and sepsis. According to the CDC, SMM affected about 50,000 women in the United States in 2014 and this burden has been steadily increasing every year. In response to this trend, the CDC says, “It is not entirely clear why SMM is increasing, but changes in the overall health of the population of women giving birth may be contributing to increases in complications. For example, increases in maternal age, pre-pregnancy obesity, preexisting chronic medical conditions, and cesarean delivery have been documented.”

We cannot compare the number of pregnancies with the rate of severe maternal morbidity, because the number of pregnancies is not tracked in the United States. We can only compare the number of live births. Again, using CDC as our source, there were 3,985,924 births in the United States in 2014. This means that in 2014 women had a less than 1.3% chance of having severe, non-fatal pregnancy-related complications. A higher risk than our life-threatening risk of 0.017% Does that justify killing a child to spare ourselves?

I think we need to have a higher than .02% chance of dying and a higher than a 1.3% chance of serious health risks to kill another person and call it self-defense. If you look at these numbers and still want to make the self-defense argument, first of all, you’re a dangerous person to be around during flu season; and second, you need to defend the other part of the empirical claim, that abortion is safer than childbirth. If you cannot, then how can it be considered self-defense?

Is Abortion is Safer Than Childbirth?

If you want to say that abortion is a viable means of protecting yourself from the dangers of childbirth, you must be able to show that abortion is empirically safer. Abortion-choice advocates often make the claim that abortion is 14 times safer than childbirth, but there’s only one source that this widely cited statistic comes from. It’s a journal article from pro-choice researchers Elizabeth Raymond and David Grimes in 2012.

The study has a bad methodology and weak evidence. It’s poorly researched, poorly argued, and it doesn’t even support its conclusion. ERI speaking fellow John Ferrer thoroughly dissects the problems in his article Is Abortion 14 Times Safer Than Childbirth? Namely, it uses critically different data sets that don’t compare with each other and differ in scope; it uses inflation, false equivalence, and third-variable fallacies to manipulate statistics; and it is uncorroborated because no other scholars have been able to reproduce the results.

Without reliable empirical data, we cannot confidently say whether abortion is actually safer and if it is by how wide a margin. There is no conclusive evidence that abortion is safer than childbirth at all, which is a major problem with the bedrock assumptions of the self-defense argument for abortion. Even if it were safer, it would have to make enough of a difference to justify killing another person. If abortion were miraculously risk-free, it still would not make that kind of difference.

Why the Self-Defense Argument Fails

Now that we have some more clarity on the empirical data and I’ve made my case for responsibility as it pertains to pregnancy, I want to revisit the three types of threats that are given for why women should have the right to defend themselves with abortion:

  • Abortion should be an option because pregnancy puts a woman’s life at risk.
  • Abortion should be an option because pregnancy puts a woman’s health at risk.
  • Abortion should be an option because of pregnancy threatens her life circumstances, like financial health, relationships, or career success.

First, I have shown that there is insufficient empirical data to say that the risks of childbirth to the life of the pregnant woman are high enough to call abortion self-defense nor does it show that abortion is a significantly safer alternative. In no other situation would a sound person say it is okay to kill another person if your life is at risk when that risk is less than 1%. Looking at the available statistics, I have no choice but to say that the assertion that “abortion should be an option because pregnancy put’s a woman’s life at risk” is nothing more than scary rhetoric without sufficient evidence.

If we look at the risks to the woman’s health during pregnancy, we are faced with the very same problems. Does having about a 1% chance of health complications make it okay to kill someone? Given the data, is it fair to call this level of threat “a serious health risk,” to use the words of Dr. Hern? And are we comfortable applying that answer consistently across the board in other situations where a person puts your own health at risk? What’s more, the very idea that you’re justified in killing another person to protect yourself rests on common sense that you must actually be protecting yourself by killing them, but we don’t have all the available data to know if that is true with abortion and childbirth or if it is true, by how wide a margin?

At last, we arrive at this argument’s final straw: “Abortion should be an option because of things like her financial health, relationships, or career success.” I think that it may sound weird to some people to frame this part of the argument in terms of self-defense but I believe that is how abortion-choice advocates feel about the woman’s decision to abort—like she has the right to defend her own goals, financial circumstances, and relationships from the unwanted child who poses a significant threat to all these things. And I think it is incredibly unhelpful to the public conversation to simply scoff at this perception or be dismissive about how much responsibility raising a child is. Having a baby changes your life forever. And many women who become pregnant have abortions because they do not want that change. A study published in 2005 peer-reviewed research journal, gathered quantitative and qualitative data for why women in the United States have abortions. Their results showed that:

The reasons most frequently cited were that having a child would interfere with a woman’s education, work or ability to care for dependents (74%); that she could not afford a baby now (73%); and that she did not want to be a single mother or was having relationship problems (48%). Nearly four in 10 women said they had completed their childbearing, and almost one-third were not ready to have a child.

From this data, we can see that this last kind of threat, the threat to the life she wants, is the most frequent real-world reason women in the United States are seeking abortions. Abortion-choice advocates know this and believe that these reasons justify abortion. Pro-life advocates do not. Why is there such a divide between the two sides? Well, I can tell you that the popular narrative is that people like me want to control women’s sexual choices and punish them for having sex with a baby, or that we don’t care about women in tough situations, or that we are religious zealots that want to take a strong-arm approach to proselytize the unwilling.

But this strawman story really starts to crumble in my conversations with real people when I ask them if they are willing to kill people for these same reasons that they believe makes it okay to kill the human embryo during an abortion. If we substitute a two-year-old child into any of these tough circumstances, suddenly my pro-choice friends object to the killing. If the mother of a two-year-old child is struggling financially, no one would support her choice to kill the child because it would significantly help her budget. What if I said the child is threatening her financial health and the mother wants to kill her so she can have a better quality of life? It doesn’t really help the justification seem any more plausible. When we make the substitute, my pro-choice friends and I can agree that raising a child in poverty is incredibly challenging and that a violent solution isn’t an ethical one.

We agree about the ethics when the hypothetical is the mother of a toddler but not the mother of a human embryo because we disagree about the moral status of the unborn. In other words, the argument “abortion should be an option because of pregnancy threatens her life circumstances, like financial health, relationships, or career success” isn’t a self-defense argument at all. It is actually a personhood argument dressed up in confusing language. But it feels a lot more comfortable to discuss the circumstances of abortion rather than the ethics of abortion. It is easier to say “If you really wanted to stop abortion, then you wouldn’t try to make it illegal, you would be helping all these people in tough circumstances” than engage with the question, “Does abortion kill a human person with a valuable life?”

The “abortion as self-defense” argument fails on each of its points. It conflates consenting to actions with being able to consent to effects. It fails to consider individual choice and responsibility. It bases its claims on unverified rhetoric about the safety of abortion. Two of its arguments pretend that risks are much greater in order to justify killing, and the last one is just a personhood argument in denial. This argument seems powerful, but you now have the tools to deconstruct and refute it.

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The post Refuting “Abortion as Self-Defense” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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Former Director of Training

Rachel is a former speaker, writer, and trainer with Equal Rights Institute. Rachel graduated in 2017 from the University of Michigan with a Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience major and Women’s Studies: Gender and Health minor. She was the president of the Students for Life club at the University of Michigan, leading their efforts to educate students on pro-life topics and to advocate for pregnant and parenting students.

Rachel is also a former staff member of the pregnancy medical center, ArborWoman. She formerly served on their Operations Committee and participated as a volunteer in their ministry.

Rachel wants the pro-life movement to be known for its love. “I want us to be courageous enough to speak with charity about abortion. Having a loving approach when presenting a good argument is a sign of strength, not weakness. We cannot allow our anger towards abortion to be directed at those who support its legality. Pro-life people care not just about the unborn, but about all people, and we need them to know that.”

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