Abortion Advocates Should Claim the Moral High Ground

Maybe we’ve been using the wrong angle when it comes to protecting a woman’s right to choose. Over at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Valerie Tarico has written an interesting piece in which she asks whether abortion can be framed as a blessing.

Tarico claims that pro-choicers have lost the moral high ground in the ongoing debate and that has led to a backlash in women’s rights.

While there are moments Tarico derails from her argument (“In the age of Facebook and Twitter, is there a female under twenty-five in who gives a rat’s patooey about privacy, let alone thinks of it as a core value?” Really?!), she raises some good points about how we can change conversations over this sensitive subject to include the moral issue — something upon which pro-lifers entirely base their arguments.

For example:

They say: Abortion is murder. Abortion kills little babies.

We can say: A person can think and feel. My cat can feel hungry or hurt or curious or content; an embryo cannot. / Thanks to better and better pregnancy tests, over 60 percent of abortions now occur before 9 weeks of gestation. Want to see what they actually look like?”

Even though talking with pro-life advocates can be mentally and emotionally draining, maybe the strategy that Tarico offers can help change a few minds and soften a few hearts to a plight many women have to deal with.

About Lauren Lane

Lauren Lane is the co-founder of Skepticon, the Midwest's largest skeptic student-run conference and remains a lead organizer today. She has not one, but TWO fancy art degrees and is not afraid to use them.

  • rickflick

    Well said!

  • Tom

    Interesting link, but possibly unnecessary – I don’t necessarily need to see that the results of an actual abortion don’t remotely resemble the grotesque shock images and descriptions bandied about by the anti-choice mob; the fact that not one of them seems to remotely resemble any of the others is arguably evidence enough of their dubious nature.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

    anti-choice people “care” about fetus well-being for one, and only one reason: punishing women for having sex. of course they are all also religiously motivated; i’ve never seen an atheist anti-choice pamphlet or website and i probably never will.

    the whole, and only point, of anti-choice activism is to punish women for having sexual freedom and reduce them to baby-making machines who service the men who choose when a woman should reproduce.

    notice how many anti-choice politicians and church leaders are giving every effort and dollar and TV ad time to taking care of the recently born children of the poor. oh, wait…

  • RobMcCune

    I wish I had time to read the article right now, but I agree that it’s time for more pro-choice advocates to stop being defensive about abortion. In the past decade I’ve seen the arguments for gay rights shift emphasis from defensive to positive, it’s well past the point for that to happen with abortion.

  • Dezzydez

    I have no respect for the current “pro-life” crowd. They ignore the woman all together and treat women like they are incapable of making decsions. The moral high ground is trusting women to make their own choices even if it you do not agree.

  • Stuart Resnick

    There are some people who think teenagers should be allowed to legally drive a car at 16. Others think the age should be 18. Would it make sense for either of these two groups to claim a “moral high ground”? Of course not. There’s no age that magically makes one responsible enough to drive. But the law has to draw the line SOMEWHERE. We agree on a legal driving age, but we ought to know that the age we choose is somewhat arbitrary, rather than a moral absolute.

    Similarly, there must be SOME point where the law protects the rights of a human being. We could say we recognize a 2-year-old as a human being, but before that, the baby isn’t enough like us to warrant legal protection. Or we could draw the line at conception. Or at 3 months of pregnancy. Or when the baby is partially out of the womb. Or only when the baby is 100% entirely out of the womb. Arguments could be made for any of these choices. But we should be humble enough to know that any such choice is somewhat arbitrary, and that no side — those that say personhood should be granted at conception, or those who say it should be granted only after birth — can reasonably claim to have moral superiority.

  • A3Kr0n

    I saw Valerie last year at the Freethought Fest in Madison WI (saw Mr. Friendly there, too!). She’s pretty sharp I have to say, and now every morning I get a nice little email called “daily wisbits”. Check out her website and sign up for wisbits today!
    Disclaimer: I was not paid for this endorsement :-)

  • Stuart Resnick

    I wonder how you’ve reach your certainty. Have you been inside the minds of every person who opposes abortion, and experienced their motivations? If you haven’t, then what evidence do you have to know what other people care about?

    Since you claim to know what motivates other people, do you think it’d be OK for people who don’t share your political views to make declarations about what you do or don’t care about?

  • Glasofruix

    Morality by itself is quite arbitrary, it depends on the moment and location, so i find it a bit silly for someone to be claiming a moral high ground.

  • Dezzydez

    Most abortions happen in the first trimester. Anything after that is usually for the health of the mother. The line is were the woman’s complete rights are upheld. My rights do not disappear just because I am pregnant.

  • Patterrssonn

    “Partially out of the womb”

    If you have to resort to absurdity to make your argument, then you don’t have much of an argument.

  • jose

    I particularly agree with points 2, 9 and 10. About 2, challenging personhood again is vital. The violinist’s approach hasn’t had a lot of success. It’s an “even if it is” argument, and those scenarios should only be used after we have made unquestionably clear that “it is not so” first. The focus on choice, privacy and “even if it is” has allowed dozens of personhood bills all across America… nobody is challenging personhood these days, so they push for it.

    About 9 and 10, I can’t believe abortions aren’t performed in hospitals in America, and instead you have to go to a “cave of shame” specialized clinic. And then all this privacy talk. You have no problem if people learn you went to a hospital for whatever surgery. It’s not shameful. Likewise doctors, shunned away in those isolated clinics as if they aren’t good enough for a hospital. We keep saying abortion is healthcare, but it sure doesn’t look like it if we compare it with the rest of health services.

  • C Peterson

    I think we need to be more careful to distinguish between those who are morally opposed to abortion (which is certainly an ethically acceptable viewpoint) and those who are opposed to the legal right to obtain an abortion (which arguably is not). There are obviously quite a few of the former who still favor choice, given the recent report that while more than half of Americans consider abortion morally wrong, around two-thirds support Roe v. Wade.

    Turning this discussion into the morality of choice versus no choice allows for a much more reasoned approach than the morality of abortion versus no abortion.

  • RobMcCune

    It’s common practice for people who identify as pro choice to frame arguments for abortion in terms of necessity and how unfortunate circumstance on the part of mother drove her to it. These arguments implicitly concede that there is something intrinsically wrong with abortion, but that it’s outweighed by a more pressing need. Claiming the moral high ground means arguing that a woman who has an abortion is within her rights and making the right choice, rather than being defensive.

  • Carmelita Spats

    I don’t know about CD, but I would never want to go inside the mind of ANY SICKO who thinks a nine-year-old rape victim in Brazil should have been forced to birth…It would be like eating Kumbaya pie with Charles Manson and try to figure out his “motivations”…The thought of an impregnated nine-year-old being LEGALLY obligated to a C-section is so grotesque that it triggers the gag reflex, like watching flies feed…Those who wanted the third grader to birth are Catholic sadists…Slicing open a nine-year-old’s uterus and leaving a scar to remind her of her rape is beyond evil…This caused a stir in the Catholic Church…The mother and doctors who supported the child accessing an abortion were excommunicated…The only adult who was not excommunicated was the rapist, the stepdad…


  • C Peterson

    I agree that morality is quite arbitrary. Nevertheless, there is a societal ethos, which defines how we must assign ideas like “right” and “wrong”. Certainly, the ethos that is in place at any particular time allows for a high moral ground in most discussions of morality.

  • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

    Because studies show, time and again, that outlawing abortion does not prevent abortion. Abortion rates are lowest when abortion and birth control are easily and universally available. But despite these studies, people who oppose abortion also oppose birth control.

    If you are really against abortion, you do the things that have been shown to reduce the number of abortions. Period, end of story.

  • StarStuff

    Why is it that when children are killed by a crazed gunman, it’s all “Jesus is calling his children home” but if a woman chooses to have an abortion, Jesus isn’t calling the blastocysts home? Oh yeah. Patriarchal fundies. Hypocrisy is thy name.

  • http://twitter.com/TychaBrahe TychaBrahe

    The Bible says clearly that a person is not a person until it breathes. That is the basis of the law of New York state, which says that if a fetus has not breathed it is not a person and its death cannot be classed as a homicide.

  • J-Rex

    This is good reading on the subject. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2012/10/how-i-lost-faith-in-the-pro-life-movement.html#comments
    People who believe that a fertilized egg is of the same importance as a full grown human would act a lot differently. They care most about bringing down abortion rates by doing whatever works best. Sex education and availability of birth control are proven to help, yet they oppose those things, making abortion rates worse.
    They would look at other ways to bring abortion rates down, such as help for young, struggling women and poor children, so that women who wanted to continue their pregnancy would feel like they could afford it. But instead they hand scared women some baby clothes and a crib, as if that comes close to covering the cost of raising a child.

  • Pseudonym

    I actually disagree. I think that “choice” is completely the wrong frame.

    The issue of abortion is multifaceted, but I think that one key underlying ethical point is “access to medical care”. Anyone may refuse a medical procedure that they wish not to have (e.g. “no not resuscitate”), but they should not be allowed to prevent others from accessing whatever medical care they need.

    Nobody has the right to “choose” antibiotics or chemotherapy, but nobody can be legally prevented from accessing it if that is what fits their medical needs.

  • Pseudonym

    About 9 and 10, I can’t believe abortions aren’t performed in hospitals in America [...]

    That makes sense to me. Hospital places are scarce, and priority should be given to sick people.

    BTW, abortions almost certainly are performed in hospitals, if the woman’s health is at risk. They just don’t talk about it a lot because it’s none of anyone’s damn business.

  • Pseudonym

    These arguments implicitly concede that there is something intrinsically wrong with abortion [...]

    I don’t think there’s anything “wrong” with abortion any more than there’s something “wrong” with amputation, but in both cases they are a procedure of last resort. I don’t think it’s wrong, but I do think it’s unfortunate.

    There would be fewer abortions if we had (say) better sex education, better access to contraception and a lower incidence of sexual assault. Similarly, there would be fewer amputations if we had better workplace safety. If we had fewer abortions (and amputations), it would be better (even if only cheaper) for everyone.

    Claiming the moral high ground means arguing that a woman who has an abortion is within her rights and making the right choice, rather than being defensive.

    On the contrary, I don’t know if a specific instance of a woman having an abortion is making the right choice, and it would be presumptuous for me to express an opinion on the matter either way.

  • Miss_Beara

    That was such a sad story. Heartbreaking. The health, well being and overall future of a 9 year old girl was not nearly as important as a fetus (or whatever stage the cells were in). She could have died. And the one who actually did the crime wasn’t punished by the church but the poor girl, her mother and the brave doctors were. Sickening. Similar reason behind the “gays are evil and shouldn’t adopt children because that equals to violence against them!!!” and the systematic relocation of pedo priests. Look the other way on the real violence and punish the ones that are innocent.

  • Miss_Beara

    People don’t seem to understand that. Women died while seeking out unsanitary abortion clinics or performed it themselves. Do these people think the women deserve to die?

  • allein

    I agree. People tend to think of abortion as something separate from medical/health care, and it is not.

  • Artor

    Yes, I think most of them do. Let’s also not that those screaming the loudest about stopping abortions also scream about birth control, which is by far the most effective method of reducing abortions, bar none. If someone holds both of those positions, you have to conclude they aren’t concerned about the well-being of women, but rather are obsessed with punishing women for whatever reason they can lay claim to.

  • Artor

    Who the fuck downvoted Carmelita’s comment? Care to explain your reasons? I’m sure everyone here would like to hear what you have to say.

  • C Peterson

    The problem is always going to be with what constitutes a “need”. As you say, we quite correctly deny people access to antibiotics based on their own assessment of “need”. And most abortions are elective, not performed for any medical need. Those of us who don’t consider abortion to be immoral will never convince those who do to change their minds. Because neither side is right or wrong on that matter. It isn’t a question that is particularly open to rational analysis. We’ll argue forever, and get nowhere. There simply isn’t a societal consensus to define a widely held ethical view.

    On the other hand, the issue of choice is much more amenable to solution, because it’s a very different ethical question: what should a society do in the case of conflicts in subjective ethical opinions in the absence of any kind of consensus? This question is much broader than just abortion, but goes to the heart of how a free society handles all sorts of conflicts. I think a strong case can be made that the most ethical solution in the absence of a consensus is the one that maximizes individual freedom.

  • Sindigo

    The downvotes have been coming thick and fast recently. It’s best to ignore them, I think.

  • slawq

    They don’t care. For them, God gives the zygote a soul upon the moment of conception. That’s why this argument will never work for them

  • Thackerie

    “Similarly, there must be SOME point where the law protects the rights of a human being.”
    Well, according to the Bible (Leviticus 27:6, Numbers 3:15-16), that point is when a male infant passes the age of one month. (No mention of female infants.)

  • baal

    I’m somewhat sympathetic to the “no mind readers” mindset but it doesn’t apply in this case. The folks who promulgate all the anti-abortion bills are from religiously funded organizations. The very same orgs stop effective sex ed in schools, condom distribution programs world wide (literally) and also work against food stamps and other government food for the poor. Formally, these positions don’t need to be linked but in the U.S., that slate has been solidly supported by the same people for 30 years now.

    The same orgs will support adoption efforts(as their sole pro-social welfare activity) but they then go on to prevent gays and atheists from adopting.

  • rwlawoffice

    There have been fifty million abortions in the Us since Roe v. Wade. Are you trying to say that in the forty years prior to that point there were over 50 million abortions? Do you have any proof of that?

  • rwlawoffice

    So when does ending one human life in the name of choice ever considered moral such that you can attempt to claim the moral high ground?

    In order for you even to attempt to make this argument, you must ignore that the life you are ending, regardless of its size or what you call it at the stage of development, is a human life. That is why pro choice people scream and holler all the time about pro life people reminding them of that undeniable fact. Call it what you want, but it is an innocent human life. Saying you have the choice to end it for whatever reason you want will never be the moral high ground.

    The same delusion goes for attempting to simply calling an abortion a medical procedure. It ignores what is really happening. The first rule of medicine is to do no harm. An abortion that kills another human is much more than a medical procedure and requires a different level of moral justification than simply calling it one.

  • Antinomian

    Yes. Yes they do. They also smugly believe that these same women are sinners and will die and then serve an eternal punishment.

  • Antinomian

    Are you saying there weren’t? Were you there?

  • Antinomian

    We’re ignoring nothing. You however, are ignoring science. Medical science does not recognise an embryo, zygote, blastocyst or fetus as a human life. Potential? Maybe? You can continue framing the argument any way you and your ilk want, but we’re not buying it.

  • kaydenpat

    Does anyone really believe that he/she can “win” an argument against an anti-choicer? Can’t be done. If someone believes that ending an abortion is sin or immoral, and therefore ALWAYS wrong, how would you argue with him/her?

  • kaydenpat

    Wouldn’t the decision be up to the woman and her doctor? It’s not up to me or you to make a decision on whether a woman should end or continue her pregnancy. Respect her choice.

  • kaydenpat

    You are a perfect example of why I don’t believe people should waste time arguing with anti-choicers about women’s reproductive rights, which include abortion and contraception.

    But what you’re missing is that pro-choicers don’t have to live according to your definition of morality.

  • Pseudonym

    And most abortions are elective, not performed for any medical need.

    This is only true for a very narrow definition of “medical need”.

    Pretty much every elective medical procedures is, of course, not “needed” in the sense that you won’t die if you don’t get it done. But apart from some instances of cosmetic surgery, nobody elects to do them for no medical reason at all.

  • C Peterson

    I disagree. Something like 10% or less of abortions are for even marginally medical reasons. Most are for economic reasons or for social reasons. By a huge margin. That’s fine… I think a woman should be able to get an abortion for any reason she wants. But don’t pretend it is something primarily performed for medical reasons.

  • Foster

    Thanks for defending infanticide. I think what you have said above is monstrous: “We could say we recognize a 2-year-old as a human being, but before that, the baby isn’t enough like us to warrant legal protection.” Conception is the most logical point, scientifically speaking, to draw the “arbitrary” line in the sand. To do so is playing it safe, assuming we do not know when the organism should be properly called a human with the right to live.

  • Pseudonym

    That’s true, but it’s very misleading. Medical science doesn’t have a concept of “human life”, and it would be difficult to see how you could test such a concept anyway.

    Medical science can inform and influence the debate (e.g. when the central nervous system develops, or the question of viability outside the womb), but it doesn’t help in deciding what constitutes “human life”. That’s a question of linguistics, not medicine.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004333896609 Chris T. Smith

    Religion is the only real antidote to moral relativism. You know, if
    it’s true that morality and ethics can evolve over time and be
    different from place to place, then who or what is “in charge” of
    defining morality and ethics? Is it the federal government? Is it the New York Times? Is it Rachel Maddow? Is it the culture and society? See my post on the “downside” of moral relativism here (not just about abortion, but the violence we’re seeing in Sandy Hook for example): http://www.know7things.com/holiness.html