An argument with a straw pro-lifer

Most conservatives I know personally and respect are very religious – if you are “fiscally conservative but socially liberal” my entire argument with you is this tweet – and among them there’s a sense that no matter how bad Republican politicians are otherwise, their efforts to undo the (presumably purely Democratic) scourge of abortion sanctify all the other evil things Republicans do, like starting wars, taking away healthcare, grinding the poor into dirt and trampling the rights of minorities. Abortion, they will happily (if quietly) tell you, is the moral equivalent of the Holocaust and they are willing to do pretty much anything to see it put to an end. Condemnation of people like clinic bomber Eric Rudolph and Scott Roeder, who gunned down a doctor in the sanctuary of his church is slow to come from these corners.

So I thought I would briefly address their arguments as I understand them, and if people think I’ve mischaracterized those arguments I’m interested in hearing from them. Conservatives tend to think of these positions as totally unassailable so I hope if you’re reading this and you agree with them, you’ll have slightly less contempt for people who believe abortion should be legal. That is pretty important to me because contempt is what creates provisions like forcing doctors to describe fetal pain to women who are getting abortions in the third trimester because they are very poor, had no access to basic gynecological care and birth control and didn’t know they were pregnant, and can’t care for a child, largely because of  supply-side economic policies championed by conservatives and supported electorally by Christians.

Me: Abortion should be legal.

Straw pro-lifer: No, abortion is murder.

Abortion is something one woman does by herself, and there are versions of the procedure that are literally 3500 years old. The Bible suggests it to husbands who suspect their wives of cheating in the book of Numbers.

Murder is even older and it’s still illegal.

Murder requires two people, though. There’s only one person involved in an abortion.

Human life begins at conception.

You’ve skipped some steps here, but even then that seems self-evidently false to me. My hair is human life.

No, I mean new, unique human life.

Since each sperm contains the possibility of a new human life, doesn’t that mean that jerking off kills half a billion people every time?

You’re being obtuse. I mean that when an egg is fertilized, that creates a new, unique human life, with its own chromosomes. It’s not going to grow up to be a part of the mother. It’s going to grow up to be a new person.

So your contention here is that the soul is forged at the moment of conception?


Isn’t that a religious argument? What if I don’t believe in the soul?

You believe in some kind of personhood that has to be defined legally. Not too long ago, black people were considered 3/5 of a person.

So a tray of fertilized oocytes prepared during the course of an IVF procedure is the moral equivalent of a kindergarten classroom?

I think it’s important to defend the right to life of the most vulnerable, and your hypothetical clouds the issue. IVF embryos are created artificially and have to be sustained outside the mother by a huge technological apparatus. An abortion proactively goes inside the mother and kills a child that would otherwise likely come to term.

But the mother either doesn’t want or can’t care for a child if she’s trying to get an abortion. What if she’s been raped or molested? Should she have to give birth to a rapist’s baby?

The baby is totally innocent in that situation. Why would you punish the child for the accident of its parentage? That seems incredibly cruel.

There are lots of situations where people die even though they might have lived through heroic sacrifice. I like you fine but we just met and I’m not going to give you a kidney, even if you might die without one.

That’s pretty selfish.

Why? The resources of the body are finite, to say nothing of the resources of time and effort. If I spend those resources in one place I can’t spend them in another. My brother might need a kidney some day. Similarly, a woman might meet a man who doesn’t rape her and want to devote the incredible stress and misery of pregnancy to him in order to have his kid, instead of a kid containing the genetic material of someone who assaulted her.

Every human life is equally valuable.

Is it? Some human lives will end very quickly after birth. Is the totality of a life spent enduring unimaginable pain and ending before even developing the tools to mitigate that pain through description and communication worth the same amount as a happy life of ninety years? Both those lives require a heroic sacrifice to sustain through pregnancy and early childhood. Who are you to say that someone ought to be forced to make that sacrifice?

Those people born into pain that lasts their whole lives still have souls and aren’t somehow less human than you or me.

I’m not calling them less human, I’m saying women have finite resources and ought to be allowed to apportion them as they see fit.


And yet many people abort healthy unborn children. Why are those lives worth less than yours or mine?

Beats me, but they are, at least if you consider honestly the way we treat their deaths. The value every culture throughout history has assigned to human life describes the same parabolic arc based on age, even if we start the arc at the moment of conception. While we console people who have miscarriages, we don’t mourn in the same way and we encourage them to try to have children again. That’s completely different from the way we treat the death of an elderly person, which is by celebrating his or her life. Nobody goes to the funeral of a 90-year-old and says “Maybe the next one will take.” The worst thing that can happen is for a child with a tremendous amount of potential dies before that potential is realized; that doesn’t happen at conception. It probably doesn’t happen for a little while after birth, actually. If you want, we can try to work out empirically what the worst possible moment for your child to die would be.

By that logic infanticide ought to be legal. A six-month-old can’t survive without its parents, either, and would be a less tragic death than a five-year-old.

Sure it can. There are loving families waiting all over the world for six-month-olds. It’s the expenditure of effort during pregnancy we’re talking about, not whether or not adoption is real. Or if we are, good news: adoption is real. We were talking about it because you said all human lives were equally valuable, which they’re not.

They’re equally valuable to God.

God’s resources are infinite; ours are not. We have to spend them the way we think he would want us to, and that includes being conscious of our limitations and humbly submitting to the knowledge that we – Christians – have sinned by not creating a society that values the acts of feeding children and treating them medically, and by ostracizing and shunning from the church women who become pregnant out of wedlock or seek to raise children with same-sex partners. Having done that, we have to acknowledge that healthy children in families with the means to care for them physically are the most likely to thrive and grow up to make the best of this hostile environment, and that women who are mature and brave enough to have abortions rather than further our misery by neglecting their children are in fact making the most moral choice possible among the options with which Christians have presented them.

Author: samthielman

Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in Brooklyn, New York. His blog is, his twitter handle is @samthielman, and if you can't find him you should check The Strand.

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