“I am personally opposed to killing abortionists. However, inasmuch as my personal opposition to this practice is rooted in a sectarian (Catholic) religious belief in the sanctity of human life, I am unwilling to impose it on others who may, as a matter of conscience, take a different view…. In short, I am moderately pro-choice.”
These words, penned by Princeton professor Robert P. George, might seem shocking and appalling if taken at face value. However, this passage is actually a satirical indictment of the position that while abortion is wrong, we should not impose this moral conclusion on other people. The position that Dr. George (a pro-life advocate and an outspoken opponent of violence) mocks is patently absurd—which is precisely his point. Yet the “personally pro-life” stance is quite common: Politicians like Joe Biden and Rudy Giuliani agree with it. Both their views and George’s satirical view show the same flawed logic.
Those who take the “personally opposed but pro-choice” position must confront the question: why are you “personally opposed” to abortion in the first place? The obvious answer is that you have at least some notion that abortion is morally wrong. Even if you don’t know precisely why, you know that there is something special about life before birth that deserves protection. Even if you can’t articulate your reasoning—or even phrase it in this way—you intuit that a child in utero is in fact a person, with all the dignity and moral worth of any other person. Indeed, the only answer to this question is that you believe that a child in the womb is a human being; otherwise, there is no reason to have any moral qualms about destroying one.
Though vague, these perceptions are exactly correct, with plenty of well-developed philosophical and scientific reasoning to support them. They are ideas not to be hidden out of shame or fear, but to be offered to the world and defended with pride.
How should these moral conclusions affect abortion law? Those who take the “personally opposed but pro-choice” position propose that they should have no impact at all. They contend that the decision to have an abortion should only be made by the individual, and that government should not try to “legislate morality.” However, this view carries implications with which no one is comfortable. Under the “personally opposed” logic, Dr. George’s satirical jab at the pro-choice movement becomes a completely legitimate position. Both are based on respecting a person’s purported right to perform grave moral evils that harm other people.
When applied to other issues this logic is quite obviously untenable. It suggests that we should respect the right of thieves to steal things or the right of arsonists to burn down buildings if they so choose. In fact, the “personally opposed” reasoning would not even permit the abolition of slavery. Perhaps, the reasoning would go, we could take action to reduce the number of plantation owners who feel the need to exploit slave labor. However, we should stop short of banning slavery outright, out of respect for the rights of conscience of those who make the choice to own other people.
The error of the “personally opposed but pro-choice” position lies in a fundamental misconception of the law itself. Although the proper scope of government is a matter of considerable debate, most people can agree that one of the most basic roles of government is to protect human rights and dignity. However, the only way the government can offer such protection is by rendering moral judgments and acting upon them. This could mean making a conclusion about the morality of theft, arson, or slavery, or about the moral value of a life in the womb. In any case, the idea of refraining from acting on such moral judgments makes little sense; indeed, it undermines the concept of the rule of the law itself.
Those who believe in the right to life of the unborn and those who do not can have a legitimate debate over the nature of personhood; however, those who are “personally opposed but pro-choice” simply have no rational basis for their position. If abortion is wrong (and thus something that should be opposed) it is because it is the unjust taking of the life of its unborn victims. But if that is so, then potential victims have a right to life, which a government is bound to protect. When it comes to protecting innocent human life from deliberate destruction, no one should ask, “Are we justified in preventing this?” Rather, anyone who is “personally opposed” to abortion has but one place in this debate: standing in support of the pro-life cause, affirming the intrinsic value and dignity of all human life.
James P. McGlone ’15 lives in Grays Hall. He is the Vice President of Community Impact for Harvard Right to Life.