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Is Childbirth Too ‘Dangerous’ to Ban Abortion?

Giving birth to a child is a dangerous affair. A woman can die in childbirth, or even before. So why not allow abortion for self-defense?

I once received an e-mail in response to a segment I had done on Catholic Answers Live where I discussed the topic “Why are you pro-choice?” This gentleman wrote, “You said if anyone has any salient arguments why [abortion] should not be considered the same as ‘killing a person’ to let you know what they are.”

Exciting! It’s always preferable to engage someone who has an argument in defense of his position instead of just an assertion that he is right.

This man’s first argument was an argument from silence: that abortion should be legal because nowhere in the Bible is it explicitly condemned. However, just because the Bible does not condemn an action, it doesn’t follow that it condones it. For example, the Bible never says it is wrong not to report extra taxable income to the IRS, but that act still is wrong, and we use reason to see that it is prohibited under the seventh commandment: “You shall not steal.”

The Bible may not condemn abortion, but it does condemn the killing of the innocent, which would apply to abortion. Pope John Paul II wrote in The Gospel of Life, “The texts of Sacred Scripture never address the question of deliberate abortion and so do not directly and specifically condemn it. But they show such great respect for the human being in the mother’s womb that they require as a logical consequence that God’s commandment ‘you shall not kill’ be extended to the unborn child as well.”

Finally, the laws in our country must be religiously neutral, so even if the Bible explicitly condemned abortion, that would not in itself justify outlawing abortion.

The argument from biblical silence is interesting, but this gentleman’s other argument had much more potential:

I think the reason why [abortion should be legal] is because, obviously, giving birth to a child is a dangerous affair. A woman can die in childbirth, or even before. . . . Should it be considered “killing” to get a fetus removed such that it dies? Of course. Is it a human life? Definitely. Are there plenty of convincing arguments why it’s morally wrong? Yes. However, it should still be legal and be the right of the woman. Just like it’s my right as a homeowner to shoot and kill a trespasser on my property, and it’s legal to shoot someone in self-defense in Florida, and it’s legal for a cop to shoot an unarmed man who reaches into his pocket, and it’s legal for soldiers to shoot each other in war.

Here are the problems with this argument.

First, this argument would justify only a fraction of abortions. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, only 12 percent of abortions are obtained each year because a woman’s health was in danger, and only a fraction of those cases involve fatal threats to the mother. While the United States’ maternal mortality rate is alarmingly high for a developed nation, most severe pregnancy complications can be resolved with early-term delivery or medical interventions that indirectly result in the child’s death but do not intend it. In short, this argument cannot justify widespread elective abortion.

Second, just because someone has a right to live does not mean it is always wrong to kill him. Humans who threaten the lives of other humans may be killed under the principle of double effect. The Catechism states, “The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not” (2263).

However, the argument from self-defense doesn’t apply to abortion, because the child is neither an aggressor nor a trespasser. He is instead a human being created by two people through an act that is designed to place him in the environment he needs to survive—namely, the uterus.

Now, if an unborn child were self-aware and concocted a plan to kill his own mother while he was in the womb (which would be a rather foolish plan), then he would be like an enemy soldier we are allowed to kill. Of course, this is not the case, as the child has no intentions at all and is simply an innocent person. If this child has a right to life, then it is violated when the child is killed by abortion just because he is unwanted. We know this is wrong because we don’t kill born human beings for that reason, who are just as human as unborn human beings.

A critic could respond that the child is not like an enemy soldier and is more like an innocent hallucinating person who might hurt us. Therefore, we can use deadly force to remove the child from the uterus in order to protect the mother. The critic might say, “After all, no one knows which pregnancies will become fatal, so all abortions should be legal. With this approach a woman has the maximum ability to protect her own life in case her pregnancy should go awry.”

But this argument proves too much.

You see, about 700 pregnant women die every year in the United States due to complications, but the FBI counted about 1,000 women murdered by their intimate partners in one year (2015). In fact, a 2011 article in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology has led several media outlets to say, “Expectant mothers are more likely to die from murder or suicide than several of the most common pregnancy-related medical problems” (Reuters).

Should women have the right to kill their husbands and boyfriends? A critic might say, “After all, no one knows which intimate partners will become fatal, so all partner killings should be legal. With this approach a woman has the maximum ability to protect her own life in case her relationship should go awry.”

Clearly, this argument fails, because the woman’s intimate partner is an innocent human being with a right to life. If a woman may not kill her husband or boyfriend because he might murder her in the future, then surely a woman may not kill her unborn child because he might be part of a sequence of events where her pregnancy becomes dangerous. In both cases, the threat is too remote to justify using lethal force.

The pro-life position is simple: all human beings have a right to life; unborn children are human beings; therefore, unborn children have a right to life. This doesn’t mean it is never permissible to perform an act that results in an unborn child’s death. Just as we might choose to save a drowning mother and let her two-year-old die because we can’t reach him, we might save a pregnant woman and fail to save her unborn child (such as by administering a cancer treatment to save a pregnant woman’s life that indirectly kills her child). But this does not mean we should be allowed to directly kill innocent human beings in order to help other human beings. This principle simply applies to both born and unborn humans.

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