Are pro-lifers for forced pregnancy?

Here are three distinct questions.

1. Is abortion morally wrong?

2. Should abortion be illegal?

3. Should women who have abortions be subject to criminal penalties?

It’s worth nothing that a person could say No to the second two questions and still say Yes to the first – thinking that abortion should be legal but that it’s wrong. (For what it’s worth, I’d say ‘Yes’ to 1. and 2. and ‘No’ to 3.)

Unfortunately, a lot of discussion about abortion mixes up the three. In particular, pro-choice arguments regularly swap one out for another in a way that’s confusing. Take talk of ‘forced pregnancy’. It’s a very common pro-choice argument that a lot of people find very compelling: the idea that the pro-life position involves forcing women to stay pregnant against their will.

But this argument can only even potentially work as an argument against 2 and 3: the questions abortion and the law. It has absolutely nothing to say about question 1.

Now, as it happens I think talking about ‘forced pregnancy’ is mistaken even if discussing abortion’s legality, for reasons that the Equal Rights Institute lays out ably here, ( and which I’ll hopefully discuss more in another blog. But put that aside for now.

With significant legal restrictions off the table in Ireland, it’s question 1. that’s most relevant to us in the near future. Let’s say the laws stay as they are, or even get more permissive. There’s still a crucial ethical question for pregnant people about what to do with their legal right to have an abortion. It’s not good enough to say “I have a legal right to do this” – there’s also the more fundamental question of “should I do it”. And this question has nothing to do with legal restriction, never mind force. An argument about ‘forced pregnancy’ is just completely irrelevant to the question of whether abortion is morally permissible.

It brings to mind another common pro-choice statement: “if you don’t want an abortion, don’t have one”. It’s a silly argument that we’d never apply to any other human rights issue (if pre-born children are actually the moral equals of born ones, then it stands to reason that people would oppose them being killed, whoever’s children they are). But it also points to one possible way that abortion could end as a social practice. If everyone decides that they don’t want to have an abortion, because they are convinced that it’s morally wrong, then abortion could become as uncommon as infanticide is now.

The thing is, people decide to do things for *reasons*. And one of the major reasons why people choose not have abortions is because they believe in the equality of the pre-born. If I have a conversation with someone, as a result of which they change their mind about the ethics of abortion, the question of anything that could even vaguely resemble force doesn’t arise. By dodging the question of the morality of the abortion and focusing exclusively on the law – and in particular on a particular legal regime involving punishing women – people who talk about ‘forced pregnancy’ are subtly but effectively shifting the ground onto territory that favours them at the expense of having a conversation about the central issue: is abortion right or wrong? Everything else, including your attitude to the law, should be discussed once you’ve decided what you think on that critical question.

But that’s exactly the conversation that we need to have, and here at the Minimise Project we’re interested in having it.