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Abortion is Wrong: Steelmanning a Position I Do Not Hold

Re­li­gious con­ser­v­a­tives grasp at straws when try­ing to jus­tify their pro-life (an­ti-abor­tion) po­si­tion, usu­ally ap­peal­ing to ei­ther re­li­gious doc­trine or the idea that abor­tion is “killing a baby” and killing is wrong. The log­i­cal faults with these ar­gu­ments are ob­vi­ous, but I see the ar­gu­ments of re­li­gious in­di­vid­u­als who are hor­ri­fied with abor­tion as a des­per­ate at­tempt to jus­tify their cor­rect in­tu­ition — cor­rect, be­cause abor­tion is wrong. It is the killing of a de­fense­less crea­ture we ought to pro­tect. Even most pro-­choice peo­ple ad­mit abor­tion is a last re­sort and un­wanted preg­nan­cies should be avoid­ed. This con­ceeds the un­eth­i­cal na­ture of abor­tion, and sim­ply states it is over­come by other fac­tors. This means where you fall on the pro-­choice/pro-life de­bate is a sub­jec­tive ques­tion of how you bal­ance these fac­tors, not “an­ti-­science” as some claim. I ad­dress sev­eral of these fac­tors in this ar­ti­cle, and I also out­line sev­eral of­ten-ig­nored rea­sons why abor­tion is wrong, and they’re hope­fully more so­phis­ti­cated than the usual re­li­gious tripe you’ve heard be­fore. Note that these are all ar­gu­ments for why abor­tion is eth­i­cally wrong and should be avoid­ed, not an ar­gu­ment that we should make abor­tion il­le­gal, which is a bad idea and does­n’t even make abor­tion less com­mon, only more dan­ger­ous.

Com­mon pro-­choice ar­gu­ments

Many pro-­choice ar­gu­ments are flawed in that they can be ap­plied equally to jus­tify abor­tion and (post-birth) in­fan­ti­cide. An MIT pro-­choice stu­dent group made the ar­gu­ment that “un­wanted life can be worse than no life at al­l,” im­ply­ing the right of a child to a mother who wants them and who is pre­pared for moth­er­hood, fi­nan­cially and oth­er­wise. Lack of such prepa­ra­tion of the mother is ap­par­ently grounds for killing the fe­tus, be­cause death is bet­ter than a bad life. So why not kill a three­-­mon­th-old baby whose mother is poor, or does­n’t care for them much? Would it not, too, be a form of eu­thanasia? More self­ish are the ar­gu­ments for the wom­an’s right not to be a mother and in­stead to be able to have a ca­reer or what­ev­er, which could as eas­ily jus­tify in­fan­ti­cide. Don’t want to kill your chances at a ca­reer? Kill your baby in­stead!

The same MIT stu­dent group ar­gues: why should a woman have to “face all con­se­quences from some­thing she did not do alone”? An­other ar­gu­ment for the killing of a fetusor baby based on in­con­ve­nience to the moth­er, but this time with a hint of the com­mon pro-­choice ac­cu­sa­tion of misog­y­ny: this is just men telling women what to do with their bod­ies, and if men could get preg­nant, then abor­tion would have been le­gal a long time ago. (N­ev­er­mind the fact that women have been able to vote since 1920 in the United States.) But this ar­gu­ment also falls with the com­par­i­son to in­fan­ti­cide. Men can’t get preg­nant, but they can have chil­dren, and many of them don’t want chil­dren. Many men would find it con­ve­nient to get rid of their chil­dren so they don’t have to pay child sup­port. So why is in­fan­ti­cide il­le­gal? Per­haps be­cause the de­sires of the par­ent are out­weighed by the rights of the child.

Any­one who has seen a new­born baby knows how un­de­vel­oped they are, and the dis­tinc­tion be­tween a baby right before birth and right afteror right before ’viability’ and right after, if you prefer is sim­i­lar to the dis­tinc­tion be­tween magma and lava — that is, it’s ba­si­cally the same thing but in a dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tion. This means nearly every pro-­choice ar­gu­ment can be ap­plied equally to jus­tify in­fan­ti­cide, ren­der­ing it use­less. The ex­cep­tion is the ar­gu­ment of the bod­ily au­ton­omy of the moth­er: the fe­tus has no right to the body of the moth­er. Ap­par­ently this bod­ily au­ton­omy of the mother ex­tends to the right to cut up the fe­tus and suck its body parts out with a hose, or the right to crush the skull of the fe­tus, or the right to poi­son the fe­tus to death — all com­mon meth­ods of abor­tion. If the fe­tus were sim­ply re­moved in a fash­ion sim­i­lar to birth, and al­lowed to die of nat­ural caus­es, this ar­gu­ment may ap­ply, but oth­er­wise a dou­ble stan­dard ex­ists be­tween the bod­ily au­ton­omy of the mother and the bod­ily au­ton­omy of the fe­tus. In any case, the ar­gu­ment for bod­ily au­ton­omy is weak: the fe­tus did­n’t ask to be cre­at­ed, and the mother cre­ated it any­way, so she should be re­spon­si­ble for it. The ten­ancy agree­ment of the fe­tus was made im­plic­itly on con­cep­tion.

Sym­pa­thy ar­gu­ments

We don’t eat dog or cator dogs or cats, if you prefer to avoid the mass nouns and see them as individuals be­cause it would be ab­ho­rant to us to eat crea­tures which would re­mind us of crea­tures we love, even though, for ex­am­ple, pigs are at least as cog­ni­tively so­phis­ti­cat­ed. But pigs are gross and roll in the mud, so it’s okay to eat them. Eat­ing them won’t break any­one’s hearts un­less their hearts were al­ready bleed­ing. Sim­i­larly to our aver­sion to cati­cide and dogi­cide, we should avoid abor­tion be­cause feti­cide re­minds us of in­fan­ti­cide. Even if you are not killing a real baby, you’re mak­ing peo­ple feel on a vis­ceral level that you are, which is suf­fer­ing in its own right. This is not a hy­po­thet­i­cal ar­gu­ment: at least a third of peo­ple in the United States think abor­tion should be il­le­gal in all cas­es. Such peo­ple are hor­ri­fied by abor­tion. Even if it does not ac­tu­ally in­volve killing ba­bies, these peo­ple think it does, and their hearts break in sym­pa­thy.

Slip­pery slope ar­gu­ments

Abor­tion is the first step on the road to the de­struc­tion of the sanc­tity of hu­man life. Hu­man life must be sa­cred, not for re­li­gious or spir­i­tual rea­sons, but be­cause we are hu­mans and there­fore want the value of hu­man life to be en­shrined in the law. (One rea­son why sui­cide is il­le­gal in some places.) Be­cause of the sim­i­lar­ity morally be­tween late-term abor­tions and early in­fancy in­fan­ti­cide, there is a slip­pery slope to in­fan­ti­cide. But more gen­er­al­ly, al­low­ing hu­mans to kill other hu­mans al­ways makes hu­man life cheap­er.

Abor­tion can also lead to eu­gen­ics. Par­ents can screen their fe­tuses for cer­tain traitssuch as sex, and abort if the they don’t like what they find. This logic has made fe­male in­fan­ti­cide in China not un­com­mon, so it’s easy to see how it could cause abor­tion, too. One of the prob­lems is that parental screen­ing of fe­tuses need not be log­i­cal. It will be more likely to be de­ter­mined by what is fashionablesex in China and what is de­ter­mined to be de­sir­able given the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal cli­mate.

If peo­ple be­come much less likely to have autis­tic ba­bies, then those who do have autism will have less re­sources, be less un­der­stood by so­ci­ety, and be more likely to face dis­crim­i­na­tion. If the gen­der ra­tio be­comes to im­bal­anced, the prob­lems are ob­vi­ous. And any nar­row form of se­lec­tion can lead to loss of ge­netic di­ver­sity in the pop­u­la­tion. But be­yond just the util­i­tar­ian ar­gu­ment against eu­gen­ics via abor­tion, I think it’s a bit sad that we think some ba­bies just aren’t good enough to be born.

By per­mit­ting abor­tion, we tell moth­ers they are free to ab­di­cate their moth­er­hood. If you don’t want to be a moth­er, it’s okay, you don’t have to be a moth­er. This is an un­healthy mes­sage which may per­sist in the minds of women once they do de­cide to have a ba­by. If moth­er­hood is not a re­spon­si­bil­i­ty, but a choice, then moth­ers will be more likely to ne­glect their chil­dren or give up their older child for adop­tion when things get tough. The same ba­si­cally ap­plies to fa­ther­hood. If a man’s first re­ac­tion to hear­ing that he got a woman preg­nant is to plead with her to get an abor­tion, then he has been trained to run away from fa­ther­hood and not take the role se­ri­ous­ly. This is good for no­body.

Abor­tion is a bad de­ci­sion

In gen­er­al, peo­ple are not tak­ing the role of par­ent­hood serously any­more. Peo­ple would use abor­tion to put off par­ent­hood un­til a more con­ve­nient time, but we know from pos­i­tive psy­chol­ogy that build­ing a fam­ily is go­ing to have a much greater pos­i­tive im­pact on your hap­pi­ness than try­ing to ad­vance your ca­reer or lounge around for an­other decade. And pro­cras­ti­nat­ing par­ent­hood may lead to not be­ing able to see your grand­chil­dren grow up, or your chil­dren “make it” in the world. So why do peo­ple rou­tinely make the wrong choice in West­ern so­ci­ety? Abor­tion plays a role. It makes it easy not to see par­ent­hood as a re­spon­si­bil­ity and as a core part of the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence, but rather as more of a hob­by, which some may be in­ter­ested in, and other peo­ple might try bowl­ing in­stead. If abor­tion should be il­le­gal, it should be to stop moth­ers from shoot­ing them­selves in the footnot to mention shooting the fetus in the head.


They say the risks of abor­tion are less than the risks of child­birth, and sci­ence con­firms this: one study showed the risk of death from giv­ing birth is 14 times higher than from abor­tion. This is given as an ar­gu­ment in fa­vor of the pro-­choice po­si­tion. The prob­lem with this ar­gu­ment is that it’s a false com­par­ison; many moth­ers who get abor­tions now end up hav­ing chil­dren later any­way, so the risk is ac­tu­ally additiveabortion now + birth later vs. birth now. When a woman un­der­goes mul­ti­ple abor­tions, the sub­se­quent abor­tions are also pro­gres­sively less safe, and can lead to, for ex­am­ple, Ash­er­man syn­drome, which can cause pain and in­fer­til­i­ty. A 2015 re­view also found a link be­tween abor­tion and fu­ture is­sues with preg­nancy in­clud­ing pre­ma­ture birth and low birth weight. With the risks of abor­tion alone, it may be un­eth­i­cal to per­form abor­tions — at least in some cas­es, such as when the mother has al­ready had one or more abor­tions.

There are also so­ci­etal health risks to abor­tion be­yond the health of the motherand child…. The kinds of reck­less peo­ple who have un­pro­tected sex and need abor­tions are also the kinds of reck­less peo­ple who spread STIsthe infections formerly known as STDs, and it’s bet­ter if they set­tle down and be­come par­ents rather than con­tin­u­ing to spread dis­ease. Ide­al­ly, they would use pro­tec­tion, but are they go­ing to? In fact, I would bet the avail­abil­ity of abor­tions cor­re­lates neg­a­tively with con­dom-use, be­cause the pos­si­bil­ity of abor­tion re­moves one of the ma­jor rea­sons to wear a con­dom. If we could also abort HIV and He­pati­tis B, this may be fine, but as it stands, abor­tion may just pro­mote risky sex­ual be­hav­ior and be a net neg­a­tive to our health.


There are not enough ba­bies for the peo­ple who want them but can­not have them. Not by a long shot. Adop­tion is too expensivearound 20-50k and many cou­ples are priced out of par­ent­hood. In fact, 90 per­cent of cou­ples who want to adopt are never placed with a ba­by. It’s not a large log­i­cal jump from this to the fact that get­ting an abor­tion de­stroys one cou­ple’s chances to raise a ba­by. As gay cou­ples cannotyet re­pro­duce, this makes abor­tion in­her­ently ho­mo­pho­bic in ad­di­tion to clas­sist. The ar­gu­ment here is not that we should force un­will­ing moth­ers to give birth, but that car­ry­ing a baby to term and giv­ing it up for adop­tion rather than abort­ing the preg­nancy is prob­a­bly the right thing to do. You will be the hero to some cou­ple, some­where, rather than dash­ing their dreams of par­ent­hood.


Abor­tion is wrong. Most of the ar­gu­ments that say it is­n’t ei­ther rely on an ap­peal to the bod­ily au­ton­omy of the mother while ig­nor­ing the bod­ily au­ton­omy of the fe­tus, or could as eas­ily be used to jus­tify post-birth in­fan­ti­cide. Abor­tion, like in­fan­ti­cide, is nat­u­rally hor­ri­fy­ing to peo­ple. We don’t like the idea of killing ba­bies, be­cause ba­bies are pre­cious. Hu­man life in gen­eral is pre­cious, and should­n’t be dis­carded for the con­ve­nience of a woman who wants to avoid moth­er­hood. Abor­tion is also risky, and a bad de­ci­sion for many rea­sons. Worst of all, abor­tion de­prives cou­ples, es­pe­cially poor or gay cou­ples, of the abil­ity to raise a baby to­geth­er. This is a crime against hu­man­ity morally equiv­a­lent to in­fan­ti­cide. So why does every­one want to go out and get an abor­tion? Is our cul­ture so sick that we have lost sight of the im­por­tance and mag­nif­i­cence of bear­ing chil­dren and car­ry­ing on the hu­man race? I won­der why young women now, un­like ever be­fore, so com­monly view moth­er­hood as a bur­den to be avoided rather than a gift — a mir­a­cle. In any case, I think gov­ern­ments would do well to help moth­ers prepare for motherhoodfinancially and otherwise rather than help­ing them avoid it through such un­eth­i­cal means as abor­tion.


We rou­tinely per­form un­nec­es­sary cos­metic surgery on the penises of ba­bies. This is weird, and in­di­cates that maybe we don’t have it all fig­ured out when it comes to ba­bies. Ba­bies are in­no­cent and pure, and the fact that we care so much about them gives any ar­gu­ment about them a ma­jor ra­tio­nal blind spot. Rather than con­sider ra­tio­nal ar­gu­ments, peo­ple on both sides re­gur­gi­tate the few talk­ing-­points they’ve heard be­fore, and view the other side’s po­si­tion as not only in­cor­rect, but dan­ger­ous. This at­ti­tude stops thought, stops dis­cus­sion, and stops progress.

I don’t agree withstrongly disagree with the pro-life opin­ion I ex­pressed in this es­say. This was a thought ex­er­cise: take on a po­si­tion I dis­agree with, and try to make it as strong as possiblecalled steelmanning, in contrast to strawmanning, which is the opposite. The pur­pose of strength­en­ing the po­si­tion you dis­agree with as much as pos­si­ble is so that when you then knock down the po­si­tion, you know for sure you re­ally have ar­rived at the right con­clu­sion. Be­ing right is im­por­tant, but so is know­ing why you are right.

I won’t do the sec­ond step of ac­tu­ally knock­ing down the steel man po­si­tion here, but I may in a fu­ture ar­ti­cle, and I en­cour­age any­one in­ter­ested to do so. The point is that any­one who has shamed pro-lif­ers with­out hav­ing con­sid­ered all of these ar­gu­ments has­n’t done their home­work, and has just been par­rot­ing what they’ve heard. I’ll ad­mit to hav­ing done the same thing, and be­fore writ­ing this ar­ti­cle I was there­fore un­aware, for ex­am­ple, of the dif­fi­culty in find­ing a baby for adop­tion, and un­aware of the un­com­fort­able ap­plic­a­bil­ity of many pro-­choice ar­gu­ments to in­fan­ti­cide. I hope you’ve learned some­thing, as I have.