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One of the most eye-opening experiences I ever had as a pro-life advocate was when I attended a tiny seminar given by a faculty member of a university philosophy department. The seminar was called “Life issues in context” (which, as it happened, turned out to be a terrible title because it in no way reflected the content of the seminar). I had attended pro-life seminars before, but they were usually in the context of a religious conference and focused on the human aspect of abortion – the humanity of the unborn baby, and the very human struggles that drive women to abortion.

This seminar was completely different. The speaker led a fairly abstract discussion on when and how we move from acknowledging that something is wrong, to deciding that something should be illegal. Strangely enough, I had never considered this question before, but it is a very important one. Having never studied philosophy, I had a vague notion that philosophers spent a lot of their time dreaming up thought experiments – this turned out to be the case, for this seminar at least.

One of the thought experiments we considered concerned property rights. We were all pretty much agreed that if you found a stranger on your property, you had the right to insist that they leave. We were definitely agreed that you did not and should not have a legal obligation to provide shelter to a trespasser. If someone was fleeing for their life from an assailant, we agreed that it would be a very good thing to provide them with protection in your house, and went so far as to say it would be wrong not to offer them protection, but most of us stopped short of saying you should be legally obliged to shelter someone – that your right to your property trumped their right to use your property. 

Then the speaker threw a spanner in the works – what if your property is an airplane? And what if you discover the trespasser mid-flight, over an ocean? Can you insist they leave your property then? We all agreed that it would be wrong, and should be illegal, to insist that they leave your property in those circumstances – because ejecting someone from a plane mid-flight would lead directly to their death. What if, on discovering the trespasser, you landed the plane in the middle of a large desert? Can you insist that the trespasser leave then? It would certainly be wrong to abandon someone to their almost certain death in this manner, even someone who trespassed on your property. Should it be illegal though? 

This is where the group split. After some discussion, it seemed the main point of disagreement was on whether sending the trespasser from the plane into the desert led directly or indirectly to their death. Those who thought it led directly to the trespasser’s death decided this should be illegal. Those who thought it led indirectly to the trespasser’s death thought it was a very wrong thing to do, but should not be illegal.

I attended this seminar in 2010, but found myself returning to everything I learned there over the years, particularly during and since the 2018 referendum campaign. I realised there was and still is an unspoken assumption in the pro-life movement: once we convince people that abortion is wrong, they will obviously and immediately agree it should be illegal. That seemed almost a foregone conclusion. 

In hindsight, I think this assumption was the pro-life movement’s downfall in Ireland. I don’t think a huge number of people who used to think abortion was wrong now think it is absolutely justifiable (although some people did surely make this shift. We have other posts on how to engage with these people, depending on whether they think this for bodily autonomy reasons, or because they think unborn babies don’t yet have the moral status of a born human). What I think actually happened was that many people moved from thinking abortion was wrong and therefore should be illegal, to thinking abortion is wrong and yet should be legal. For these people, abortion didn’t move from being in the same category as infanticide (very wrong and should be illegal) to being in the same category as ear piercings (nothing wrong with them, go ahead and get one if you want to). Abortion moved into the same category as getting so drunk you’re practically comatose (distasteful, definitely not something I want for myself or anyone I love – but if someone else wants to do it I shouldn’t really stand in their way and neither should the law (1)).

Understanding this distinction requires a mental gear shift for many pro-life advocates, and may take time. Pro-life advocates should try to understand where their pro-choice friends are coming from. Do they think abortion is an ethically acceptable choice to make? Or do they think abortion is wrong, but should nonetheless be legal? These positions are distinct, and require radically different responses. Once we understand why pro-choice people currently hold the views they hold, we stand a far better chance of explaining our own position, and in moving together towards common ground.


(1)  I am not comparing abortion to drinking until you are comatose in any other respect. I do not think women who have abortions are the equivalent of comatose messy drunks. I understand that women have abortions for many complex reasons and often feel they simply have no other alternative, a description which hardly ever applies in the case of a comatose messy drunk. I am only comparing the two in the context outlined: they are both things that many people may not like or want, but don’t think should be illegal.