Not all abortions are equal

Andrew L. Urban

Legal, safe and rare … or never, never, never?

Abortion is and always has been a divisive issue largely because it is posited in absolutist terms. The subject – ever current – is always over-heated and always debated without context. This is a recipe for constant unresolvable conflict, dividing us by rage. We humans (with some extreme religious exceptions) hold that killing another human being is morally wrong, perhaps the worst thing a human being can do. Yet we never convict soldiers of murder when they return from killing enemy soldiers. We make a moral exception for that – because ‘that’s different’; the context makes us accept those killings (and they run into many millions) – as terrible but morally excusable. It’s ‘not the same thing’ as murder. But the result is the same. What makes the moral difference is the context.

In the eyes of many, abortion is killing, too, but the range of circumstances in which it is performed is as varied as the human condition. Not all abortions are equal. Failing to recognise that there may be valid humanitarian, compassionate circumstances for abortion is, in my view, unrealistic and morally stubborn. There are certain ‘socially undesirable’ human activities driven by our very nature that laws have never been able to prevent or even manage; prostitution, excessive alcohol and (especially) drug consumption (including tobacco) spring to mind. Abortion is another, but for different reasons.


When people talk about abortion, they invariable talk about ‘choice’ and a woman’s rights versus the sanctity of all life, from conception to death. But these hot shouting matches are far removed from the traumatic circumstances in which some women find themselves. The picture that is painted by the manipulatively named pro-life movement is of a woman going to an abortion clinic for an abortion, but without the context.

Even the equally manipulatively named pro-choice group fails to differentiate in its public utterances between the unwanted pregnancy of a vulnerable teen, the unwanted pregnancy of a rape victim in a war zone, or the unwanted pregnancy of a refugee family stuck in an emergency tent, barely surviving. Or any of the dozens of scenarios where abortion is contemplated, not by middle class mums in the suburbs but in hell holes and shit holes around the world, for a multitude of terrible, unforgiving, life threatening and life altering reasons.

This fundamentalist morality is on show right now in America, where the subject is setting the pro and con camps against each other viciously, on the eve of a Supreme Court ruling on the matter of June Medical Services v. Russo in Louisiana. It is such a divisive and emotionally charged subject that it fuses outrage to the mouth, as we saw last week.

The issue is whether the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit’s decision upholding Louisiana’s law requiring physicians who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital conflicts with the Supreme Court’s binding precedent in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.

Outside the court in a charged-up activist pro-abortion crowd, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer roared threats at Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, the two conservative leaning justices, that they would be “reaping the whirlwind” and of “paying the price”, “they won’t know what hit them” if they voted the ‘wrong’ way on the matter in the view of the pro-life lobby. He earned a rebuke from Chief Justice John Roberts – big deal, the damage was done. Those who insist on abortion on demand will have those words ringing in their ears and on their mobiles.

selective morality

This is the way divisiveness is deepened, even – or especially – by those who claim they want their country to unite. But the issue of legal abortion will never unite either America nor anywhere else, while it is left unbundled as a simplistic issue, pitting incompatible moral concepts against each other.

It is a case of selective morality because it has been framed that way for the sake of keeping it simple for public consumption. A foetus is a human being, so abortion is murder. Not much room for nuance there. And if that is your view, you may brush aside the niceties of context – like the unfortunate refugee mother pregnant in a world so threatening and dehumanising you cannot conceive it (pardon the pun), the underprivileged women who are the sole source of family income in a poor economy without a welfare safety net … and hundreds more.

If abortion is NEVER morally justifiable, then killing on the battlefield should also NEVER be justifiable in a 100% morally pure world. If abortion is justifiable in any ONE circumstance, then it can not be claimed to be an absolute wrong. Limiting abortion to those circumstances that are beyond mere lifestyle choices or personal convenience is to manage unwanted pregnancies as society prefers. Like regulating alcohol consumption.

The conundrum is that all reasonable people surely agree that abortion is undesirable – aborting mothers also no doubt agree. We all essentially agree that life is sacred. And we can’t discuss how to manage unwanted pregnancies if abortion is seen as an absolute: an abortion is an abortion – and inherently evil.

If, however, we accept that there are circumstances which morally justify abortion for humanitarian reasons, we may be ready to abandon the absolutist position. Doing so would encourage both sides to stop demonising each other (dream on, Andrew). Shoving each other into draconian ideological corners is not compatible with the realities and complexities of this subject – indeed, nor with life itself.

Legal abortion should not be obligatory in a modern woman’s life, as some of the extreme pro-choice women seem almost advocating. (See angry abortion advocate and American actress Busy Philipps.) But making abortion an absolute ideological sin and legislating accordingly is always going to be as unsuccessful in its outcome as was prohibition; in any zealous fight against human nature, human nature wins every time.



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