What About the Woman?

February 4, 2013 | 1 comment

One criticism I have received in a few recent emails is that my arguments against abortion on last week’s pro-choice open forum radio show focused too much on “the baby.” I should have told the callers instead that “abortion hurts women.” Advocates of this approach, like Paul Swope of the Caring Foundation, say the pro-life movement “must show that abortion is actually not in a woman's own self-interest, and that the choice of life offers hope and a positive, expanded sense of self.”

I do appreciate feedback from show fans, and I always look for ways to improve how I communicate the Gospel on the radio. However, here is why I did not use what is called “the woman-centered approach” in my conversations about abortion.

The Battle of the Studies

According to this approach, pro-life advocates should accept that our culture doesn’t care about the fetus. We should instead show women that abortion is not in their best interests because it increases their risk of developing breast cancer, infertility, and clinical depression.

The problem with this approach is that, as a pro-life advocate, my goal is to convince people abortion should be illegal. Even if abortion has negative health consequences, so do tobacco and alcohol. Therefore, this is a poor argument for making abortion illegal, or even for showing that abortion is a serious moral wrong. Outlawing abortion because it allegedly hurts women while ignoring things that hurt men would reek of anti-woman paternalism.

I’m also concerned about this approach because pro-choice advocates love to talk about women’s health. That is because their friends at the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association are more than happy to provide studies that claim abortion does not negatively affect women’s health. Rather than sift through the complexities of peer-reviewed medical research, why not present the simple fact that abortion ends the life of a living human organism?

The “woman-centered” pro-life strategy is like arguing that killing innocent civilians in war is wrong because it causes the soldiers involved to have post-traumatic stress disorder. That is certainly a relevant fact, as well as indirect evidence that innocent human beings are being killed, but that fact is not the reason killing civilians is wrong. Killing innocent civilians is wrong because the act itself is intrinsically evil, and bad effects like PTSD simply flow from the act’s objective evil.

What if the woman doesn’t want our help?

Maybe the woman-centered approach can’t change public policy or public opinion about abortion, but couldn’t it at least persuade some women to not have abortions and thus save some lives? Feminists for Life (FFL) says that a woman should not have to “choose between sacrificing her education and career plans and sacrificing her children,” and that women “deserve better than abortion.”

I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment and have seen many women cancel abortion appointments when given something as simple as help with a car payment. However, many pro-choice advocates would also agree that we have a duty to help women give birth and raise children. In her critique of FFL, pro-choice advocate Katha Pollitt wrote, “It is indeed feminist to say no woman should have to abort a wanted child to stay in school or have a career. . . . The problem is that FFL doesn't just oppose abortion. FFL wants abortion to be illegal.”

How will the woman-centered approach address women who are given all the resources they need to give birth but still want to have an abortion? As Pollitt rightly observes, the goal of outlawing abortion is what separates pro-life feminists from their pro-choice counterparts. Both sides can work together to help women who feel they need abortion but don’t actually want it. But what about the women who just want to have an abortion? The only thing that will deter these women from choosing abortion is either the horror of abortion itself or the fact that abortion is illegal.

Woman-centered advocates may respond that abortion-minded women can be deterred with evidence of abortion’s negative health effects, but this just returns us to “the battle of the studies” I discussed earlier.

Relying on personal testimonies in lieu of studies won’t help much, either. For every testimony pro-life advocates can offer that abortion has hurt a woman, pro-choice advocates can find someone else who is adamant that they do not regret their abortion. This leaves us at a stalemate.

Winning the Battle but Losing the Culture War

Inevitably the woman-centered approach will cause some women to not have abortions. “Celebrity” Kourtney Kardashian explains why she chose to not have an abortion:

I looked online, and I was sitting on the bed hysterically crying, reading these stories of people who felt so guilty from having an abortion. I was reading these things of how many people are traumatized by it afterwards.

If pro-life advocates focus only on discouraging women from choosing abortion because it might cause them pain, then we will abdicate our responsibility to help these women (and the rest of society) to abandon immoral beliefs. Rather than creating a culture that values and makes sacrifices for children, we will instead be fostering a “me-first” attitude that happens to benefit the unborn . . . for now.

After all, pro-choice advocates could admit “abortion hurts women” and rather than discourage abortion they may instead develop treatments to eliminate abortion’s negative side effects. I debated one such pro-choice advocate who says women’s negative reactions to abortions are caused by pro-life rhetoric. According to her, the best way to reduce these negative emotional side effects is to stop saying abortion kills babies!

Putting It All Together

While I have criticisms of the woman-centered approach, that doesn’t mean I think it is without merit. Here’s how I incorporate it into my arguments for the pro-life position.

First, I clarify the moral logic of abortion and show that the only question that matters is whether the unborn are human beings. I then defend that claim with science and philosophy. I also use graphic images of abortion so that my argument has emotional and logical force.

Second, as someone who has spent a weekend at a Rachael’s Vineyard post-abortive retreat, I recognize that we must help women who have had abortions (and the men who were involved in obtaining one) receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. Read the last paragraph of Evangelium Vitae for a great papal statement on that.

After they have found healing, I encourage these women to share their testimonies so people can see firsthand that abortion is wrong because it kills children and bad because participating in your own child’s death is bound to cause emotional problems (not to mention spiritual problems). Rather than rely on anecdotes or contested studies, this approach grounds abortion’s harm to women in the intrinsic wrongness of the procedure itself.

The woman-centered approach is right that we need to meet abortion-minded women’s needs. However, the primary need we must meet is providing women (and the men in their lives) knowledge that abortion unjustly ends the life of a human being. We must also show women and their partners that they are noble and brave enough to reject this inhumane “choice.”


Ever since he converted to Catholicism at the age of seventeen, Trent Horn has had a passion for explaining and defending the Faith. After earning a degree in history from Arizona State University, Trent traveled the country training pro-life advocates on college campuses to engage opponents in...

Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Juanita Q - Chula Vista, California

No woman has an abortion because she wants to. It does help for a woman to understand what women go through because it is a noisy world. It is best to think of a woman and her child as one unit. There is no reason to pick one or the other to focus on and decide who should be the recipient of compassion. Both deserve the same respect and consideration which is why women are torn to begin with, if they are. I am pro-educating women; abortion does hurt women and they should know the risks of an abortion before they make an informed decision. Post-abortion stress syndrome should be a deterrent but it is not well known. The risks of having an abortion hurting women's health cannot be compared to a man affecting his life by smoking cigarettes; these do not compare at all. The idea that abortion is an empowering choice women are afforded is not true; a woman has an abortion because she is forced to choose between herself and a child and she does not have support. Women need to be told how they can be successful and feel safe to bring forth light in a confusing world. Compassion is needed more all around.

August 24, 2013 at 1:56 pm PST

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