Understanding Pro-Lifers: An Open Letter to Una Mullally

Understanding Pro-Lifers: An Open Letter to Una Mullally September 14, 2015

I don’t want this to become just “Ben’s pro-life blog”, and I’ve got a post on the refugee crisis coming soon. But Una Mullally, a pro-choice Irish Times columnist who I’ve debated with several times in the past, just wrote a piece about abortion, and I wanted to write in response it. I’m not generally a fan of “open letters”, but it seemed to be the best way of writing this.

Dear Una,

You’ve just written a passionate piece in the Irish Times in defence of abortion, and in favour of repealing Ireland’s eighth amendment, which recognises the equality of the unborn to the born. In the article, you call for an end to horrible arguments, and for a culture of listening and understanding. I want to help you build that kind of culture: and I think that to even begin to listen to people or engage in a real conversation with them, you have to understand them.

Reading your article though, I don’t think you understand pro-life people at all, and I think we’d be able to have a better conversation, to listen better, to disagree better, if you understood where we were coming from. So I’m going to try to explain, as best I can. 

Una, pro-life people oppose abortion because we think unborn children are the same as born children. Please, trust me on that. That is the reason. You may disagree with it, but that’s what we think: and here’s the gist of why:

We know as a matter of fact that the being inside a woman’s womb, the being that you never mention in your article, is alive. It is, after all, growing, and not into a tumour or an elephant but into a newborn, a child, a teenager, an adult.

We know that the being inside a woman’s womb is human, because that being has human parents. So the being inside a woman’s womb is a living human, a very young one. In other words, a child.

Civilised societies generally tend to look unfavourably on the killing of children, and people tend to be horrified by it. Any understanding of “human rights” that leaves some humans out of the circle of protection, denying them even the basic right to life, is a scandal. Therefore – or so our thinking goes – human abortion should be abolished.

Now, that’s the very basic version: there are countless objections you could make (this piece by Kristine Kruszelnicki of Pro-Life Humanists is a more detailed response to some of the common ones). In most of the conversations I’ve had with pro-choice people about this, they generally argue that there’s something about an unborn child that makes them not a child with dignity and rights; or else they argue that the child is fully human but that the woman’s bodily rights allow them to be killed anyway.

In your article, you didn’t do either. You didn’t present any evidence, a single line of argument, other than that abortion is a “routine medical procedure”, and that lots of them happen. Infanticide was reasonably common in ancient Rome, and sending women who had children outside of marriage to magdalene laundries was fairly routine in the Ireland of a few decades ago. Regularity is not evidence of goodness, or justice, or kindness.

It must be very easy to be pro-choice, seeing the world that you see. Honestly, if I saw that world, I’d be pro-choice too. A world in which pro-lifers wake up every morning thinking how much they hate women and want to control them. A universe in which the simple, three-paragraph argument at the top of this blog, or the case put forward by Kristine Kruszelnicki, is indicative of “warped attitudes” or deep cynicism; where no-one really thinks that abortion is killing a child, but they still use that excuse to keep women down. Where, presumably, there are no pro-life women, never mind more of them than there are pro-life men.

But that is not the world we live in. Let me appeal to you: Una, there is almost nobody real like that.

There may be a few genuinely mentally disturbed people who think that way. I have never met one. Again – pro-lifers just think abortion is killing a child. I genuinely have no idea as to why you can’t accept this. Is the idea just incomprehensible to you? You mentioned reservations about abortion in your article – what are they? Is there any point in a pregnancy at which you would consider “killing a child” to be an apt description of abortion?

At 16 weeks?



None of those images are anything graphic. They’re just the famous endoscope images of children at various stages of pregnancy, taken by photographer Lennart Nilsson. They’ve been around since 1965. Surely just looking at them won’t hurt. As you write:

We need to open up a caring conversation, not more horrible arguments. We need to make the issue visible. We need to talk.

I sincerely hope that looking at those images, you could come to recognise that there is nothing cruel about not wanting those beings to be killed. I would love if you could acknowledge that at least some abortions are moral horrors, and I’d be delighted to talk to you about why I think no direct killings of unborn children are compatible with a truly compassionate understanding of human rights and equality.

You want us to listen to the stories of women who’ve had abortions. I see that situation very differently to how you do, but I think listening is always good – I think it’s crucial to better understand why individual women feel like they need to have an abortion, and to do a far, far better job of getting rid of those reasons.

I hope that you would want, at least, for us also to hear the stories of women who were prevented from having abortions and are so glad they were, because their child is alive. I hope you’d want to hear from women who had an abortion, and regretted it: women who think that no other woman should be confronted by or tacitly nudged towards that terrible choice. I hope you wouldn’t condemn them to the cold treatment I’ve often seen these women receive from pro-choice campaigners, whose response often amounts to little more than “you’ve made your choice, now face the consequences.”

Finally, I hope you’ll be OK with people like me trying to tell the short stories of the people you didn’t once mention in your article. They are, like most babies, unable to talk.

Well, I said finally, but that’s not quite my final hope here. Because – and I know it’s probably a long shot – I hope that some day you’ll realise what it is you’re supporting.

And I hope you’ll change your mind.

All the best,


EDIT: Some on twitter have been pointing out that many pro-choice people do in fact understand pro-life arguments, and just disagree with them. I don’t doubt it for a second – I know many of them myself, and mentioned them in the letter! But there are also a lot of writers, particularly in the Irish media, who never address or engage with the actual pro-life position. This is either due to misunderstanding or to wilful misrepresentation, and I’d always prefer to assume the former.

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