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Abortion as a Parenting Issue

The nationwide experiment in widespread elective abortion is coming to an end. As we try to newly establish a pro-life culture, we will need to expect more from both mothers and fathers.
Photo by Alicia Petresc on Unsplash

The abortion question is, among other things, a parenting question. The relationship that exists between the one who solicits abortion and the one killed by the procedure is that of parent and child, mother and daughter, mother and son. The unborn child who grows in the womb is the living human offspring of his or her parents. This is a fact often denied by those who characterize abortion as part of “planning” parenthood that already exists. But this is also a fact that is easy for pro-lifers to forget in their reflections on the meaning and ethics of human abortion.

The philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson made a famous pro-choice argument, popularly known as the “violinist analogy.” You wake up in a hospital bed connected to a renowned violinist, who is dependent on your body to remain alive. She will need to be connected to you for nine months, at which point she will be able to live normally, or she will die. Are you obligated to stay connected? Your moral intuition probably tells you no, you’re not—you can disconnect, even though the violinist will die. This is the situation a pregnant woman finds herself in, says Thomson, and she can justifiably “disconnect” by seeking an abortion.

The first Western country to explicitly license elective abortion will be the first to lead the way toward a post-abortion world.

There are many relevant distinctions between the violinist scenario and pregnancy, especially if the pregnancy did not result from rape. And the analogy, while influential, has been criticized by people on both sides of the abortion debate. One weakness of the violinist analogy is that it glosses over the question of violence—the intentional use of force that one knows is likely to cause injury or death. In first trimester surgical abortions, the curette or vacuum tube that is used to remove or “disconnect” the unborn child from the womb is also the means of killing her. In abortions after the first trimester, the child’s heart is often injected with a poison (such as digoxin or potassium chloride) that kills them before their body is dismembered and removed from the womb. In the violinist scenario, there is presumably no vacuuming, scraping, poisoning, or dismembering of the violinist involved—simply disconnection.

But this rebuttal of Thomson is incomplete. Even if abortion could be performed without violence—without directly inflicting trauma on the unborn child—we would probably still find it objectionable. This distinction between “disconnection” and violence is worth considering, if only because a growing number of early abortions are done non-surgically. When medical abortion (contrasted with surgical abortion) is used in early pregnancy, “fetal demise” is induced not by directly inflicting trauma, but by administration of mifepristone to the mother. Mifepristone, which in combination with misoprostol can be used in the first 8-10 weeks of gestation, is arguably more like “disconnection” than violence: it blocks the hormones that would otherwise keep the unborn child alive.

Many pro-lifers would argue this is a distinction without a difference. Whether a particular method of abortion is technically violence or not, they might argue, it is still killing and thus still impermissible. Yet in many other contexts, we scrupulously observe the difference between actively and passively killing someone. There is an important ethical difference between withdrawing active life support, on the one hand, and euthanasia on the other. We also recognize that withdrawing a decision to donate an organ that would have saved another person’s life is not violence, even if such a donation would have been praiseworthy.

But your intuition may still insist that organ donation and the violinist analogy don’t quite capture the reality of pregnancy. Something is missing. An important dimension of the problem not examined in Thomson’s analogy is the relationship between you and the “violinist.” Suppose, that is, you were the violinist’s mother or father. Suppose the violinist was not really a violinist but your little daughter, peacefully growing in the adjacent bed, or in your arms, unaware of the predicament you face, and not yet able to live on her own. Should you be expected not to disconnect?

The pro-life argument that gets closer to the core of the abortion issue than one that deals with abortion as merely a particular type of violence goes something like this: Parents have an inherent positive duty, moral and legal, to care for their offspring to the extent reasonably possible. This positive duty includes the duty to provide food, shelter, and affection to one’s children. It also includes, in the early stages, the obligation on the part of a mother to continue caring for her child through pregnancy, and the obligation on the part of the father to provide, protect, and care for the pregnant mother and child. Parents are not required merely, this argument goes, to refrain from violence against their children, but to care for them. Which is to say: Even if you think abortion is more like “disconnecting” than it is violence, at least in some cases, it is still a violation of the parental duty—it is neglect.

Framing the abortion question this way helps draw out exactly what offends us about abortion, but it is also helpful for understanding and sympathizing with certain pro-choice arguments. Parents have authority in their children’s lives—not merely duties toward them. Proponents of legal elective abortion often make an argument that should have a familiar ring to conservatives. Mothers should, proponents say, be able to make intimate family decisions without the interference of government or anyone else. This is an argument for parental rights. But parental rights, or parental authority, exist for the child’s sake above all else—parents have authority over their children precisely so they can raise them to be adults. Latitude must be given to parents to raise their children in the way they see fit, but this latitude simply cannot reasonably include the authority to bring about a child’s death by violence or neglect.

Ending mass human abortion will be only one part of a necessary effort to rebuild institutions and establish healthy norms of marriage and parenting.

The parent for whom the abortion question is most immediate and personal is the mother of the unborn child. By nature, the burden of the earliest stages of parenting falls on her. The father, however committed to helping he may be, is unable to take her place. Pregnancy is often where the duty to care for one’s child is hardest to fulfill. When we frame abortion merely as a special case of homicide, we tend to unwisely abstract away from this intimate reality.  Ending mass human abortion will be only one part of a necessary effort to rebuild institutions and establish healthy norms of marriage and parenting.he father is also a parent with duties toward his offspring. From the earliest stages, a man who impregnates a woman has an inherent duty toward mother and child. These duties to protect, provide, and care are most easily imposed on men within the framework of marriage, which is one reason the decline of marriage in our civilization has been a catastrophe. But they apply to all fathers—including those separated or divorced. Whatever his legal relationship to the child, a father who encourages, solicits, or approves of abortion is as culpable for the act as his child’s mother. In fact, in many cases, his culpability is greater because he does not directly experience the burden of pregnancy that makes a mother’s desire for abortion understandable (though not, in the vast majority of cases, justifiable).

If we are concerned with holding men to the responsibilities of fatherhood, we might reconsider our norms and laws. Why should it be socially acceptable for an unmarried man to have sex if he is not prepared to accept the parental responsibilities that may foreseeably follow from it? Why should a man not be expected to marry a woman he has fathered a child with if she will have him? We should also rethink no-fault divorce: Since the 1970s, laws have been passed in most jurisdictions allowing a spouse to unilaterally end a marriage without admitting or proving fault.

Roe v. Wade has now been overturned in the United States. The first Western country to explicitly license elective abortion will be the first to lead the way toward a post-abortion world. The end of Roe v. Wade is an answer to prayer and it had to happen, but it will present difficulties. The world of 2022 is different from the world of 1973. Marriage rates have collapsed, especially among lower-income classes. Between 1965 and 2010, the share of children born outside marriage in the US increased from roughly 10% to 40%. We must not merely ask mothers not to solicit abortion or doctors not to perform it. We must ask parents, both mothers and fathers, to fulfill their duties toward their children.

About the author

Tom Stringham

Tom Stringham is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at the University of Toronto.
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