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Imposing Morality: The Fallacy of Pro-Abortion Rhetoric

Res Publica

July 2001

by Michael Donatini

For true abortion foes, the statistics should have been a shocking call to a new kind of action.

On June 18, 2000, the Los Angeles Times released the results of a poll stating that, even though 57 percent of Americans believe that abortion is murder, only 27 percent of Americans would support a Constitutional amendment to ban abortion.

The people have spoken. Americans know that an unborn baby is alive. They know that the baby’s heart is beating and the brain is working and pain can be felt by the time a mother is ready to have an abortion. They believe that abortion is a grave injustice, akin to homicide. But they quickly add that the government shouldn’t interfere with a woman’s purported right to commit that homicide. Or, as Susan Carroll of the Center for American Women and Politics explained in the Times article, “Americans, in terms of their own code of morality, may view abortion as murder and may be comfortable with it being illegal, but most Americans don’t want to impose that on other people.”

Few will deny that a law restricting abortion is a law of morality, but in the minds of Americans, the word morality almost always conjures up images of good personal behavior that doesn’t really affect anybody else – sexual modesty, for example. Abortion, too, looks to some like a personal sexual matter rather than the human life violation that it really is — and Americans more than ever are shying away from regulation of “personal” matters. Nowadays, whatever a liberated woman does with her reproductive system is supposed to be her own moral decision; the exercise of her sexual freedom.

Pro-abortion propagandists piercingly proclaim this half-baked libertine reasoning, saying that regulation of any reproductive issues strips women of their precious civil liberties. Recent advertising by the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), for example, has touted the American principle of freedom to choose. The news media, either through accident or through bias, carefully identify activists as supporters of abortion rights or women’s rights, which is more flattering (though less accurate) than calling them supporters of legalized abortion. And NARAL president Kate Michelman shows up frequently in news articles criticizing “anti-choice” activists. When all else fails, pro-abortion advocates deliver the nihilistic question that few people can answer: “Who are you (finger pointing at pro-lifers) to say what I can and can’t do with my body?” These rhetorical tactics have conditioned Americans to believe that abortion is truly a natural right implicit with human sexuality and the property of one’s own body, suggesting that a morality-based law banning abortion would spell the end of American freedom.

Sure, it sounds good to give the individual as much liberty over herself and her body as possible. But here’s the catch: The principles of American government dictate that no personal liberty should be a license to attack somebody else’s fundamental rights. Legislating according to morality doesn’t just mean restricting personal “victimless” behavior. Government has its own set of moral obligations: the preservation of natural rights. The government’s obligation to protect human life is neither subjective nor conditional; it is the most basic moral premise behind our government. If the law allows human rights to be denied, the law is immoral and the government is failing in its duty.

In fact, virtually all criminal laws are based on moral reasoning. The law dictates that all citizens must exercise control over their own behavior to maintain the rights of others. We have laws against murder, rape and robbery — all of which are laws based on the morality of preserving human rights. Abolitionists in the slavery era, too, charged that slavery was immoral because slave owners deprived their slaves of natural rights. A Constitutional amendment banning slavery emerged from that moral argument. This is the moral basis for the law — that our personal freedom must never deprive others of life, liberty, or property. This is what most Americans fail to understand. It’s clear to many that abortion is the willful taking of a human life. But when the word “morality” is used, few people seem to realize that government’s moral responsibility can trump personal liberty — including the individual’s freedom to make decisions based on personal morality — when the human rights of a third party are at stake. This is what is really meant when we say that a law is based on morality, which is why abortion restrictions are both necessary and proper in a free society.

Pro-life organizations, then, must assume a new duty if they are to succeed in their political mission. Not only must they continue to educate people in the truth that human life begins at conception; they must also convince many individuals who agree that abortion is immoral to reconsider the purpose of government; to understand the meaning of a law based on morality and the circumstances that warrant government action.

Pro-abortion groups have been successful in telling the American people that, like it or not, abortion is a human liberty that government is obligated to protect. Now is the time for pro-life groups to fight false logic with good logic. If the pro-life movement is to survive, pro-lifers must explain how the preservation of human life — beginning at conception — fits into the scheme of American government.

Michael Donatini is a sophomore from Ashland, Ohio, majoring in political science and journalism/English. He is co-founder of AU’s Right to Life chapter.

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