The most popular defense of abortion today is this: without it women are forced to experience great misery and even death, especially in poor countries with limited access to contraceptives. In my conversations with these defenders, the bottom line does not seem to be that the unborn are not human beings or persons. The bottom line is a woman’s right not to be pregnant and not to endanger herself with unsafe abortions. It seems that more and more it is irrelevant that the unborn may be a human being with a right not to be killed.
There are at least three generally accepted principles of justice that stand in the way of this reasoning.
1. Justice proceeds on the assumption that if one person’s legitimate right must be limited in order to protect another’s legitimate right, the limitation that does the least harm will be the most just. Injustice is not the denial of rights per se. Injustice is the denial of one right to maintain another when the one denied protects a lesser value than the one maintained.
Denying rights that protect lesser values for the sake of maintaining rights that protect greater values is what virtually all laws are supposed to do. We are denied the right to drive at 100 miles per hour because the value of life is greater than the value of being on time for an appointment. So it is an act of justice to take away the right to speed.
Except in the rarest cases pregnancy does not threaten as much harm to the mother as abortion does to the child. In fact the harm done to the child is almost always horrific while the harm possible to the mother is much less. Therefore it is a matter of justice to deny the mother the right not to be pregnant at the cost of aborting the child.
2. Justice proceeds on the assumption that when either of two people must be inconvenienced or hurt to alleviate their united predicament, the one who bore the greater responsibility for the predicament should bear more of the inconvenience or hurt to alleviate it. For example, if I take my fourteen year old son with me to rob a bank and both of us are arrested I should bear a greater penalty than he because of my greater responsibility in the common predicament.
Except in the rarest cases the predicament of pregnancy is owing to free and conscious choices that the mother made in having sexual relations, while the child’s predicament is owing to no choice of his or her own. Therefore in the great majority of the cases it is just to require the mother to bear the weight of her greater responsibility in the predicament and not require the ultimate price of the child who bore no responsibility for the predicament at all.
3. Justice proceeds on the assumption that a person may not coerce harm on another person by threatening voluntary harm on themselves. For example, you commit a grave injustice if you threaten suicide in order to coerce someone to commit adultery with you. The threat of women to risk harm to themselves with unsafe abortions, if we will not sanction the legal killing of their children, is an unjust coercion of harm—ultimate harm—onto another person, the unborn child.
Conclusion: Since the right of an unborn child to life is greater than the right of a woman to use abortion as a means of birth control, and since the woman’s right to be free from pregnancy is not as great as the unborn’s right to be free from life-threatening violence, therefore, a law that reverses the order of these rights is unjust in the extreme and those who support it have innocent blood on their hands.
How then shall we live?