What Today’s Abortion Dispute is Not About

Americans after the Civil War had been well trained in a very simple ethical inference. Not everyone accepted it. Not everyone felt its force consistently.  Yes, there was a lot of hypocrisy and contrary social pressure.  “Prejudice” still held sway.  But still the skeleton of the logical inference was in place.  All human beings are created equal.  All are endowed with the right to life.

Suppose, then, there is a “being” who does not look like us – he has dark skin.  But we become clear that he is a human being. Therefore, he shares these rights. He cannot be killed on our whim. He cannot be enslaved. Whatever else happens, he must be left as a free man.

It was not an inference that required equal treatment, but at least ruled out arbitrary violence – in principle.

It was in such a culture that the abortion question first presented itself to Americans, in the late 1800s. That was when the process of conception was discovered.  Physicians were the first to realize it, but others followed along quickly.  The life of a new human being begins at conception, at the very start of pregnancy, and not at some later point such as quickening (as the old law books presumed for the purposes of tort law) or hominization (as Aristotelian biology had set down).

Therefore, this new human being – very different from us, to be sure – was endowed with the same rights as you and I. He cannot be killed for our convenience. Whatever else happens, he must be left as free to develop and grow to maturity.

Again, It was not an inference that required equal treatment, for either the child or the mother, but at least it ruled out arbitrary violence.

So, in the late 1800s, because of what some historians now call “The Physicians’ Crusade,” abortion was made illegal by the states.  It was a crusade of enlightenment.  It was also a simple crusade, because all that was required was that – because of a discovery of fact – we extend the same rights to the unborn that we extend to the born.

In this debate, there was no “right to privacy.” This right would not be postulated for 100 years. It’s perhaps too much to claim that, if someone had presented such a right, it would have been seen right away to be the functional equivalent of Stephen Douglas’s “popular sovereignty” – simply a way of saying (as Lincoln more or less put it) that if one man looks on, as another man kills a third man, he is not permitted to do anything about it. But it does seem correct to say that any claim like that would have been viewed as unprincipled, artificially concocted merely to achieve a desired result.


Some of us have minds formed in the manner of men of the 1800s – or the 1700s, or even the 300s (B.C.). We easily think of the abortion dispute in just this way. We learn that the unborn child is a new human being, and we conclude immediately that it cannot be killed. We see that, if someone claims it has no immunity against violence, then that person is wanting to tear down the entire edifice of human rights. (I mean, human rights as understood to be “endowed” upon us, not of our own making, prior to human decision.)

But today, the abortion dispute does not take this form, because of two major interventions. The first of course is a Supreme Court decision that held sway for fifty years which proclaimed a right to privacy that trumped even any investigation (as it were) into the unborn child’s right to life.

The laws educate, as we like to say. Yes, they have educated, or rather we should say (when what is taught is false) that they malform. In 1972, before Roe v Wade, 47 out of 50 states prohibited abortion, and one of the states that had permitted it was in the process oF reversing that decision as misguided.

Now, fueled by angry rhetoric of claims of justice based on the Supreme Court’s ill-founded vision, states like Ohio boldly enshrine the invented “right to reproductive freedom” in their constitutions.

The other major intervention is, of course, the sexual revolution.  Roe v Wade may be interpreted as the Supreme Court’s endorsement of the sexual revolution, and so maybe there has been only one intervention, with a 50-year upshot in fundamental law.

But sex corrupts practical reason. Aristotle said this. You and I know it – we have seen it, in many of our friends, at many levels, and perhaps have (sadly) experienced it ourselves. To regard the abortion issue as cleanly delineated, isolable, and hinging on a principle, is just about impossible for most of our fellow citizens.

Sex corrupts practical reason: an inebriated couple hooks up after a party; each may not even know the other’s name; she conceives a child.  “You must now raise this child, putting its welfare above your own, for the rest of your life.” How so? We thought sex was for self-expression, a putting on of masks, an entering into a very pleasant force not of our own making, just something you do for release, what dancing leads up to anyway, the proof of a great weekend. . .or whatever.

The reasoning behind this precept is invisible to our peers.  And apparently no one wants to stand behind it – not priests, teachers, administrators, parents. Procreation for human beings is not a matter of merely coming into existence biologically but involves nurturance and education. Therefore, we should engage in procreative acts only in circumstances where we have assurance of being able to procreate in this full sense – which requires holy matrimony, and nothing less.

All of that reasoning was in place in the 1800s, known and taken for granted by everyone.  It makes no difference if people were just as promiscuous then as now (they weren’t): it’s the principle that matters, what was regarded as upright.


*Image: The Scent-seller by Pietro Longhi [Museo del Settecento Veneziano, Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice]

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Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.