The Duality of Abortion: Simple and Complex

People often have trouble recognizing when two seemingly contradictory statements are both true and not at all contradictory. (Christians ought to have a bit more practice with this, since the nature of the Trinity, for one, is a hallmark example of this kind of thing.) But it’s not enough for things to seem contradictory, nor for someone to just assert that they can’t possibly coexist; it’s important to drill down to what the statements actually mean and whether those meanings are or aren’t compatible. Unfortunately, as is often the case in arguments about abortion, people like to stay at the “seeming” level and share snarky memes rather than engaging in this next level of critical thinking. 

And so one side of the debate tells us that abortion is a complex issue, too complex for simply banning it to be an option (but, it bears mentioning, not too complex to label those who oppose abortion as “anti-choice”). Every abortion situation is unique, they say, and every possible regulation on abortion could affect a woman’s life in myriad ways, so it’s best to keep our noses out of other people’s business and simply “trust women!” The other side maintains that abortion is fundamentally simple, and anyone who says otherwise is trying to distract from the fact that “babies are murdered here.” The assumption is that one or the other of these statements is correct; either abortion is simple, or it is complex. The reality, however, is that both statements are true: abortion is a simple issue and a complex issue.

Simple and complex

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

How Can Abortion Be Both Simple and Complex?

First off, I want to dispel the notion that I’m looking for some kind of “middle ground” position that doesn’t exist or that I’m searching for a compromise that isn’t true to either idea. To be fair to both statements, to quote G.K. Chesterton,

We want not an amalgam or compromise, but both things at the top of their energy.

If I may say, abortion is fully simple and fully complex, in a way that many partisans don’t anticipate and which frustrates the sort of conclusions they try to draw.

Abortion is a complex issue. Just discussing it intelligently requires engaging with biology, philosophy, legal theory, and constitutional law (among other subjects). Unless you successfully deny fetal personhood (which you really shouldn’t), you’re considering competing rights claims by two people. And it’s not just a difficulty on paper; the bodily autonomy interests of the mother are real and serious, and pro-life people on the whole probably don’t give them enough consideration. Too many men simply brush off the difficulties of pregnancy and childbirth. Just last month, Emily had a pro-life man tell her after a speaking event, “Women need to stop complaining about pregnancy! Maybe it’s just a little uncomfortable for that last month, but any woman who acts sick during pregnancy is a wimp!” That’s not just a bad opinion, it’s factually incorrect and makes him look like an idiot and a tool. I have one friend who couldn’t drink flat water for the first three months of pregnancy without throwing up. There are women who are on bedrest for large segments of their pregnancies. Even without getting into medical complications, there are plenty of real, physical issues facing pregnant women, and pro-lifers who implicitly or explicitly belittle them make it impossible for pro-choice people to consider that they might have something of value to say on abortion (or much else). There are also notable social effects of either legalizing or banning abortion, even to the level of shaping pricing and consumption on a national scale (for example, the legality of abortion underpins a normative two-earner income, allowing housing prices to inflate). There are social pressures on women to seek abortions, for a panoply of reasons and combinations of those reasons.

Without going much further, and just using what I’ve laid out right there, it’s clear that abortion is really and actually complex. It doesn’t make any sense to me to deny that.

But—it’s also equally true that abortion is simple. The entire abortion debate comes down to two questions:

  1. Is the human developing in utero a valuable, rights-bearing person?
  2. Is there a sufficient justification to kill that person anyway?

The pro-life side answers 1) yes and 2) no, meaning that abortion is unjustified, illegitimate killing of a human person with rights which ought to be legally protected. Any other combination of answers yields a pro-choice position that abortion is, minimally, acceptable in at least some circumstances. That’s not complex. Neither is the brutality of what we know happens when that tiny human person is killed in an abortion. And no side issues change the simplicity of the question in any way. Either you oppose abortion and believe it should be illegal as a form of killing; you are fine with killing fetuses and embryos because you deny that they have rights; or you believe that it’s justifiable to violently kill prenatal persons.

How People Abuse the Duality of Abortion

We’ve established that abortion is simple and complex at the same time in true and relevant ways. The fact that both are true means that we ought to be able to throw away some of the garbage reasoning used by both sides about what their opponents are like and how the abortion debate should proceed.

The complexity of abortion means that women who get abortions, by and large, are not moral monsters in spite of the fact that they are paying someone to kill their children. As I’ve argued elsewhere (much to the dismay of some simplistic pro-lifers), there are good reasons to believe that people don’t have the full picture about abortion, that important facts are systematically obscured by pro-choice propaganda, and that they’re not making the decisions they think they’re making.

The simplicity of abortion, though, means it’s ridiculous for people to argue that it’s somehow insoluble or that no one should pass a law on it, or that it should be returned to the states and decided by 50 popular votes. If pro-life people are right, abortion is wrong and must be banned in totality, even if it takes a while to get there. Complexities don’t alter this in the way that they don’t alter the illegality of killing in normal cases (though, even in normal cases, judges and juries can take complexities and justifications into account while still upholding the fact that killing is banned).

(Note: this might raise questions for you about what ought to be done as far as punishing people for abortions when they’re illegal. We plan to publish more on the topic soon, but until then check out our podcast episode from a few years back in which we discuss this topic.)

But then there are classes of people who try to abuse this duality. I alluded earlier to pro-choice people who argue that abortion is hopelessly complex, but then simplify their rhetoric to “us-good, them-bad.” That is not only frustrating but inconsistent; just because abortion is both simple and complex doesn’t mean that just any way of appealing to both ideas is accurate.

The worst offenders, though, are the people who verbally acknowledge that the pro-life position is true, but then appeal to “complexities” in order to de-prioritize it, de-fang pro-life initiatives, and muddy the waters for the people listening to them. These people are using a trumped-up version of the real complications around abortion to swallow up the equally real simplicity of the issue. To give two real examples: they argue that “perhaps we should work on decreasing demand” instead of decreasing abortion’s supply through bans (as if they were incompatible), or that “the world needs to be shown another way” instead of “forced by law to abandon something it perceives as a ‘right.’” They actively undercut the pro-life cause, and they get away with it because they belong to some “team” that is supposed to be on our side, such as evangelical Christians or Republicans. These people are morally worse than the pro-choice people not because their position is more wrong but because, in affirming that abortion kills people, they ought to know better. I find it hard to take seriously that a country legalizing the killing of its own people by the hundreds of thousands per year should take a backseat to another political issue (especially everyone’s favorite, “the economy”).

It’s Important to Recognize that Abortion is Complicated AND Simple

Maybe it sounds like I’m being pedantic, but I believe that words and definitions matter. I think it’s important to recognize that abortion is both simple and complex because it squashes so much bad thinking. It’s hard to really affirm both ideas properly and demonize everyone who disagrees with you, or argue that abortion isn’t a priority, or claim that abortion shouldn’t be a legal question.

Framing abortion as complicated and, at the same time, straightforward allows us to form an accurate picture of what’s at stake. We’re able to see all of the factors that influence the discussion, but in such a way that we can determine which ones are essential and which don’t actually matter to the central conclusion.

It also helps us make fewer incorrect assumptions about other people. We can’t hide behind slogans or wonder why the other side doesn’t just see it the way we do and impute ignorance or malice to them. Instead, we can agree on what’s true and use this now-common ground to convince them of the other, weightier truths of the pro-life position.

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The post The Duality of Abortion: Simple and Complex 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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Director of Content & Research

Andrew Kaake (pronounced like “cake”) is the Director of Content & Research at Equal Rights Institute. He holds a bachelor’s degree in classics and political science, cum laude, from Amherst College, where he wrote a thesis on the topic of C.S. Lewis and natural law philosophy. He completed his master’s degree in bioethics at Trinity International University, studying the philosophical underpinnings of controversies about life, death, and technology and trying to create ways to communicate that information to others. During his studies at Trinity, he worked as a research assistant for The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity.

Andrew wants the pro-life movement to help foster a culture that seeks truth and embraces logical consistency. “What I believe about humanity and personhood clearly impacts what I think about abortion, but it also holds implications for how I should (and, more importantly, shouldn’t) dialogue with other people who disagree with me.”

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