The Other Side: A Defense of the Pro-Choice Position

In a recent and much-discussed post, Terryl Givens articulates a powerful argument against abortion. His position is well-thought-out, deeply moral, and will no doubt be persuasive to members of a faith that cherishes human life and human dignity. I share many of his concerns about the casualness with which many people–saints and sinners alike–approach the profoundly serious issues that he raises.

Givens begins and ends with a plea for Latter-day Saints to deepen their engagement with these issues so that we can discuss them rationally and openly, the way that people of faith should discuss things in a democracy. I appreciate this invitation and offer the following essay as a counterargument that, I hope, will be read and accepted in the same spirit of openness and charity as the original essay displayed. Givens presents one side of the issue the way that it needs to be presented. I would like to try to do the same with the other side, as a solid understanding of both sides of the argument is vital to any kind of productive discussion.

So, let’s start with this: to be pro-choice, a person of faith need not believe that human life is unimportant or that unborn children are unworthy of our moral attention. I firmly believe that they are and that abortion is a bad thing. But I also believe that it is reductive, and simply incorrect, to view the political question of abortion as a question that involves only a single moral issue. It is not.

When we pass laws that forbid women from terminating their pregnancies, one thing that we are doing is protecting unborn lives, which is a good thing. But the other thing we are doing is employing the coercive apparatus of the state to violate the bodily integrity of some human beings because the state has declared that the life of other human beings is more important. We cannot discuss this as an issue only about the ethic of life. It is also about the ethics of compulision and the morality of how we permit the state to use its monopoly on coercive violence.

We can’t entirely separate these things because, at our current level of technology, and up until a certain point in a pregnancy, there is no practical difference between actively ending a pregnancy and simply removing the mother’s support. These are exactly the same things. The normal distinction between active violence and passive non-support–the distinction that makes it impermissable to kill a terminally ill patient but permissable to remove them from life support and allow them to die–does not apply here. There is not enough of a practical difference to hang a moral distinction on, and it would be foolish to try to turn it into a set of legal rules. Nobody seriously believes that, if it were possible to detach a fetus from a woman’s body and allow it to die of natural causes, the issue of abortion would simply go away. The moral questions surrounding abortion simply do not turn on the exact mechanism used to terminate a pregnancy.

The core question at the center of the abortion debate, then, is, Should the state have the power to compel the use of one person’s body to protect another person’s life? This is not a question unique to abortion. We can imagine, and in fact encounter every day, other scenarios in which the same question is at issue–and we already have laws in place to address them. For example, nobody can be compelled to donate an organ to another person, even if doing so is the only way to save somebody else’s life. Nobody can even be compelled to donate blood, not even to save the life of a close relative. The principle of bodily integrity even applies to dead people. The United States currently uses the “consent model” for organ use, which “prioritizes the rights of the individual (or of the surrogate decision-maker) over the needs of society by requiring authorization or explicit consent prior to deceased organ and tissue recovery.”

We can draw no convincing moral distinctions between compelling a woman to sacrifice her bodily integrity for nine months to protect the life of a fetus and compelling the same woman to spend the next nine months hooked up to a dialysis machine with the same child– if that is what it would take to save the child’s life. I would have enormous respect for a woman who made such a choice, but I don’t want to live in a country where the state has the power to compel that kind of decision. Currently, no state in the union compells organ donations or even blood transfusions in any situation. Yet somewhere around half of the states are poised to compel pregnancies if Roe v Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court.

This is why, I think, abortion opponents are incorrect to compare abortion to “murder.” Even if we grant the fetus all of the rights of a human being, abortion is not the same as murder because no human being has the right to use any part of any other human being’s body for any amount of time–even if they cannot survive without doing so. The rights that would be granted to an unborn child if abortion were criminalized would be greater than the legal protection currently afforded to any child (or adult) who has actually been born.

This is also why I think that the question, “who gets to decide?” is much more important than Givens allows. In what I find to be the most problematic passage in his essay, he dismisses the question with another, presumably rhetorical question:

Pete Buttigieg has scored rhetorical points for his appealing mantra, “The dialogue has gotten so caught up in where you draw the line. I trust women to draw the line.” His approach is powerful because it seemingly empowers women while completely begging the question: Is this a line any human being has the right to draw when another human life is at stake?

So let’s not beg the question anymore. Does any human being have the right to draw a line when another human life is at stake? The answer is yes. We do it all the time. Self-government in a democracy requires a constant balancing of individual life against freedom from state coercion. Every time that we decide whether or not to put up a stoplight, or where to set the legal blood-alcohol level for drivers, or what the speed limit on the highway will be, we are trading a certain level of freedom for a certain number of human lives.

Once again, the core legal and social issues are not unique to abortion. We could, as a society, choose to deploy our coercive mechanisms in ways that would virtually eliminate highway deaths, school shootings, obesity, lung cancer, and sunstroke. We could militarize half the country and make sure that nobody ever ate a donut or went to the beach without sunscreen. We could bring back caning and keelhauling and eliminate due process to make sure that anyone who put themselves or others in danger felt the immediate consequences. There are all sorts of ways to deploy our military and police forces to protect life at the expense of freedom. And there are plenty of examples in the world if we want to follow them.

But of course we don’t. As a people, Americans have frequently erred on the side of protecting individuals from government coercion, even when doing so has cost lives. This is why the “who gets to decide?” question really is important. We cannot accomplish the good thing of protecting unborn life without, at the same time, indulging in the bad thing of coercing women to give up their bodily integrity in the service of the state. As long as we have the technology to end a pregnancy safely, then somebody has to decide how and when that technology will be deployed.

This point is crucial. Unless one believes that it is never, under any circumstances, permissable to terminate a pregnancy–a position firmly at odds with Latter-day Saint belief and practice–then somebody has to have the power to draw lines. The LDS Church recognizes four exceptions to its general guidance against having abortions: rape, incest, danger to the life or health of the mother, or severe birth defects. It doesn’t take long thinking about these exceptions to realize that they are not attended by obvious bright lines.

If we make an exception for rape, for example, do we only permit the exception in the event of a criminal conviction, which occurs in a vanishingly small percent of rape cases? Do we believe women when they say they have been raped? Do we require witnesses? How serious does the threat to the mother’s health have to be to justify an exception? Is a 10% chance of dying enough? 25%? 99? And what about mental health. Givens suggests in his essay that considering mental health makes any health excemption unenforcably broad. This may be so, but having struggled substantially with mental health in my own life, I do not feel comfortable excluding it from the general category of “health” for women.

To have exceptions, we must have lines, and to have lines, somebody has to have the power to draw them. Anyone who believes that abortion should be legal for any reason is therefore “pro-choice”; the question at issue is, “who gets to choose?” Ultimately, there are only two options: 1) the state makes the choice through laws, prohibitions, and punishments (i.e. “the coercive apparatus”), or the woman carrying the child makes the choice. As a political position, “pro-life” means believing that decisions about pregnancy should be ultimately be made by the state, and “pro-choice” means believing that the decisions should be ultimately be made by women. Those who are politically pro-choice simply believe that women have the right to make important decisions and that they are capable of making better decisions involving their own circumstances than any state bureaucracy will make when trying to anticipate every possible circumstance.

The claim to be morally opposed to abortion but politically pro-choice is neither neither hypocritical nor morally incoherent. It is a completely logical, morally defensible position that can be held by people of good faith. When someone says, “I am morally opposed to abortion,” they are taking a position on a question with one moral variable, the right of an unborn child to life. When someone says, “I am politically pro-choice,” they are weighing two moral variables against each other and concluding that giving the state control over a woman’s reproductive decisions–or living in a nation that gives the state control over anybody’s bodily integrity–is a greater evil than permitting an unborn child to be deprived of life.

Those who strike the balance in the other direction–who conclude that depriving an unborn child of life is a greater evil then compelling a woman to carry a pregnancy to term–are weighing exactly the same factors and arriving at a different conclusion, but that does not mean that they cannot rationally claim to be morally opposed to state coercion in other things. Most people who oppose abortion in most cases are not “pro-coercion” or “pro-state power.” It is just as unfair to say that those who do not want the state to have this power are therefore in favor of killing babies. Balancing competing moral claims is what moral reasoning means. We all do it every day, and none of us does in perfectly. Making decisions when only one variable is involved is easy. Weighing multiple moral factors and assigning them the correct relative weight is hard–which is why we don’t outsource “being good people” to computers. Or, I would suggest, to the state.

The ability to make reproductive decisions is absolutely an issue of gender equality. It is impossible to separate the question of bodily integrity from the question of equality when the criminalization of abortion is one of the few areas in which anybody is currently even considering coercing anyone to sacrifice that bodily integrity for the sake of another life. We can concur that abortions should be rare without requiring them to be illegal. And we can take all of the social actions that have been proven to decrease abortion rates without taking political positions that inherently trivialize women and constrain the bodily integrity of other human beings. We just have to acknowledge that women are fully human moral agents with both the ability and the right to weigh multiple, excruciatingly complex factors and make correct decisions about how their bodies will be used by other people, born or unborn as they may be.


  1. This is one of the reasons I am grateful to live in Canada where abortion has been a settled question for decades now. We occasionally have a social conservative want to open the debate, but they shot down by their own party because it is an election killer. Most Canadians believe the laws are working fine.

  2. Kathryn Shirts says:

    Another important consideration is what public policies are actually most effective in preventing abortions. I was impressed by Kaitlyn Brower Dressman’s recent editorial in the Salt Lake Tribune, “Reasons Why a Pro Life Doctor is Voting for Biden,”

  3. I will notice that individuals arguing the anti-abortion position won’t say that they are protecting lives, they say that they are protecting innocent lives. So when faced with the question of whose life is more important they don’t see it to be a difficult question. The not yet alive fetus is more important because it is innocent, but the for sure alive mother is less important because she is not innocent.

  4. jader3rd, this is an important point, I think. The desire to punish women for having unapproved sex is usually at least subtext. Givens made it explicit, with carrying a pregnancy to term being framed as the appropriate consequence for having sex. (Appropriate only for one of the involved parties, of course.)

  5. Givens made it explicit, with carrying a pregnancy to term being framed as the appropriate consequence for having sex. (Appropriate only for one of the involved parties, of course.)

    Bingo. Men can, have, do, and will yet, walk away. We cannot walk away. Ever.

  6. The pro-choice position is one based on wishful thinking rather than on dealing with hard realities. It is a position where one wishes for consequence-free sex, while ignoring the hard realities that pregnancy only results in performing the procreative act. The only choice that is 100% free from pregnancy is abstaining. If a person chooses to engage in sex, they are choosing the potential consequence of that act. The pro-choice position focuses on one side of the equation (the sex act) and tries to run away and hide from the other side of the equation (pregnancy that can result).

    With regards to the state, one of the few valid duties it has is the prevention of harm to life and property. Given that abortion is the unjust taking of innocent human life, the state has as much interest in passing and enforcing strict las laws on abortion as it does in matters related to murder, rape, and theft.

    Given that less than 5% of abortions occur in valid exceptions (incest, rape, and the health of the mother), the other 95% of abortions are essentially a form of birth control. Most often, these people are not married, implying that pro-choice Latter-Day Saints who condone abortion also condone the out of wedlock acts (either fornication of adultery) that led to the pregnancy being terminated. With regard to that, C.S. Lewis had the following to say:

    “It is certainly not wrong to try to remove the natural consequences of sin provided the means by which you remove them are not in themselves another sin. (E.g. it is merciful and Christian to remove the natural consequences of fornication by giving the girl a bed in a maternity ward and providing for the child’s keep and education, but wrong to remove them by abortion or infanticide.)”

    Any Latter Day Saint that who is willing to professes the pro-choice position also reveals to the world that they are 1) morally and intellectually shallow, and 2) do not understand their religion and how it relates to the issue of abortion.

  7. JTH,

    I wonder how you justify your departure from the explicit policy of the church, which is to allow for varying legal and political positions on questions related to abortion?

  8. JTH, in discussing pregnancy as the consequence of sex, it must be acknowledged that this is entirely the man’s fault in any given circumstance and in the abstract as well, simply conceptually. And yet the state that coerces carrying unwanted pregnancies to term places the entire burden of the man’s impregnation on women.

  9. Robert Bennett says:

    It is easy enough to dismiss Terry’s Givens as an authority to speak out on women’s rights when he unqualifiedly refers to Camille Paglia as a feminist icon. If that is as deep as Givens’ understanding of feminism runs it is hard to take him seriously.

  10. “There is no way to draw convincing moral distinctions between compelling a woman to sacrifice her bodily integrity for nine months to protect the life of a fetus and compelling the same woman to give a blood transfusion to the same child five minutes after delivery in order to save its life.”

    This is simply not true. There is an obvious distinction: abortion consists of violence, of intentionally-inflicted trauma. For legal purposes (and this is what we are discussing) there is all the difference in the world between disconnecting from Judith Jarvis Thomson’s violinist, on the one hand, and poisoning her or crushing her head with forceps, on the other: one is violence, the other is clearly not.

    You refer repeatedly to “bodily integrity” as a reason we might justify legal abortion despite the fact that it kills the child. But this reasoning also justifies permitting the distribution of thalidomide and other teratogens to pregnant women. If killing can be justified by a bodily integrity interest, than certainly injuring can.

  11. John F. – Entirely the man’s fault? Really? Women do not want or desire sex? Women have never seduced men? Women have never been involved in hookups? Please think this through a little more before commenting.

    In the conditions where it is clearly rape, then there are exceptions and abortion is permitted…but only after prayerful consideration.

    Kristine – I addressed that issue (somewhat indirectly) already when I mentioned that less than 5% of abortions meeting the criteria where the church states abortion may be permissible (rape, incest, health of mother).

  12. Protecting another human being is not coercing a woman to use her body in the service of the state. This is a patently ridiculous way of looking at it. “The service of the state” implies something akin to taxes. We are talking about the decision to kill a human organism. Whether this should be legal rests entirely on whether that organism is a “person” for legal purposes and, if so, whether there is sufficient justification to kill that person. And that’s exactly what abortion is: killing.

    The problem with the Thompson’s Violinist argument (which you have clearly made without specifically admitting such), is that the donor in that thought experiment hasn’t caused the violinist to need the blood in the first place. This entire analysis ignores the fact that, except in the case of rape, pregnancy is the result of two people’s choices. That two people have made a poor decision hardly amounts to any justification to kill.

  13. Anyone who sees prohibiting a woman from killing her child in the womb as “punishment” is not thinking straight. I understand that they are vastly different things in degree, but does anyone view child support as “punishment”? Or the legal requirement to save someone who you have imperiled as punishment? They are the simple consequences of an action, legally enforced to prevent harm to a third party. There is nothing punitive about it.

  14. Yes, JTH, a pregnancy is entirely the man’s fault. Read the post I linked:

    Under a largely a pro-accountability position like yours (rather than a pro-life position), focusing on making it possible for the state to force women to “live with the consequences” of sexual activity means forcing women to live with 9 months of pregnancy and the childbirth process itself, as well as lifelong effects on the body after childbirth. This approach is more invasive of a woman’s bodily integrity than an approach that focuses on forcing men to allow the state to violate their bodily integrity in order to prevent pregnancy and thus protect the unborn. Turning the focus toward invading men’s bodily integrity to protect the unborn results in coercive state action that invades men’s bodily integrity in a far less severe way.

    Read the linked post. If you’re halfway openminded, you should be able to see how men are at fault for all pregnancies, not women.

  15. @JTH, 100% of men can have sex without getting pregnant. And yet they are the ones making the laws that would require a woman to carry a pregnancy to term.

    Great post!

  16. Dsc, agreed. Putting our two posts together (the violence distinction, which always applies, and the cause distinction, which applies in almost all cases), the situation that is analogous to not giving one’s newborn a blood transfusion is if a child who had been conceived in rape was found to require surgery in utero in order to survive and the mother refused to undergo the procedure. And as far as I know, no pro-lifers are arguing for that refusal to be illegal.

    john f., you’re also concerned about bodily integrity. By your reasoning, men are also fully responsible for morning sickness. Thus, women should be allowed to take thalidomide, right? Thalidomide effectively treats morning sickness. And if killing can be permitted on the grounds of bodily integrity, then certainly injuring can as well.

  17. Elisa,

    I wasn’t aware that women could neither vote nor serve as legislators.

  18. The violation of bodily integrity the state would have to make to men in order to protect the unborn is far, far less invasive than the state coercing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term.

    So, assuming abortion is out of the question because it kills a human being (does it though? The Church doesn’t allow vicarious ordinances for a stillborn baby, so does the church really consider an unborn fetus a person?), let’s take the approach that is least invasive of the bodily integrity of living people. Men, not women, are at fault for all pregnancies, even those that result from sexual activity that a woman very much was willing to participate in. It’s true. Read the linked post:

  19. John f.,

    Posting a link multiple times does not make it true. The logic you are using here doesn’t track. The invasiveness of procedures to prevent pregnancy is irrelevant. Except in cases of rape, pregnancy is the result of a mutual decision made by both a man and a woman. Here, have a different linking breaking down why Gabrielle Blair is just plain wrong:

  20. Michael, a mutual friend asked me to make this comment on their behalf:

    “What separates abortion from your other examples is the fact that pregnancy — the creation of a new life — is a possible/probable result of sex. The problem with our abortion culture is that it tries to separate sex from its relationship to procreation. What drives abortion as birth control is a desire to separate sex and procreation. My suspicion is that much of the argument for abortion elevates sex as the ultimate expression of human autonomy. This is in my view a distorted view of the human self. People want to engage in sex without accepting the responsibility for creating the life that may emerge from sex. In my reading, this is a selfish distortion of who we are at our core and the role sex plays in our identity. Pregnancy created by rape and incest create a different category for analysis. That category raises thornier issues.”

  21. @DSC let me know if you find a legislature in the US, state or federal, with more than 50% women legislators. I won’t hold my breath.

    (And no, not impressed with a “but women get to elect their legislators” response. Female candidates face uphill battles on multiple fronts and it’ll be a long time before they have an equal shot at representation. That’s a debate for another day but the point stands that currently we have men making decisions that exclusively impact women and they hold enough of a majority everywhere that they could make those decisions without a single female vote.)

  22. Michael,

    Thompson’s argument certainly isn’t unique, but it is a good summary of many of the arguments made in favor of abortion. It is wrong for the same reason those other arguments are wrong: it pretends that women just wake up pregnant, and that their own choices are not the cause of the pregnancy.

    At this point, I must reiterate that men’s choices are also the cause of pregnancy. The fact that men cannot become pregnant despite their role in the pregnancy may not satisfy some people’s sense of fairness, but killing a person is hardly an appropriate remedy for that. Some other novel ideas such as requiring fathers to shoulder the financial burden of pregnancy in addition to parenthood may help, but that’s a separate issue altogether.

  23. Michael, your new hypothetical is still distinct from refusing to give a blood transfusion. Removing the child from a safe environment with the direct intent to kill it is still violence.

    “even though it survives in some legal codes”

    It’s present in almost all legal codes (I can think of very few exceptions)–and it’s consistent with virtually everyone’s intuition. You practically made the point yourself. It’s not criminal to decline to donate organs, but it is criminal to intentionally cause someone to be in need of an organ donation. Violence/intent is a central element in criminal law. I agree that it is less important for ethics (for example, I think parents would have an ethical responsibility to give a blood transfusion to their child if it were required and they were able to).

    I would also be interested in your response to Dsc’s point–the violinist scenario is only analogous to situations of rape.

    I also want to hear your thoughts on what I said earlier: “You refer repeatedly to “bodily integrity” as a reason we might justify legal abortion despite the fact that it kills the child. But this reasoning also justifies permitting the distribution of thalidomide and other teratogens to pregnant women. If killing can be justified by a bodily integrity interest, than certainly injuring can.”

  24. @marc, for your friend, this is a whole separate can of worms but the way LDS teachings have elevated sex to the end-all be-all of our existence (which must therefore be carefully controlled and regulated) is … well I just think it’s totally incorrect and sets us up for extreme sexual dysfunction. Sex is a normal natural biological thing that can be great and fun and not great and not fun and everyone just needs to calm down about it. And I do think we can separate it from procreation.

    I swear sometimes I feel like Mormons literally worship heterosexual sex. It’s weird.

  25. Thanks for this excellent post, Michael.

  26. Elisa,

    I had an earlier response, but it looks like a link caught it in a filter. There are a number of states that have a majority or close to a majority of women in the legislature (e.g., Nevada). But the notion that legislatures can’t legislate on a topic unless the legislature’s composition is proportional to the population being legislated is…odd. Legislatures are disproportionately upper-middle class. Can they not pass laws affecting the poor?

    More importantly, if legislatures were more proportionate in gender representation, there’s no evidence that they would pass different laws. Men and women have statistically identical views on abortion, except that, based on some surveys, more women than men identify as pro-life.

  27. I get the distinct feeling that some are arguing the pro-birth point of view assuming that everyone on Earth holds LDS values. Only a tiny minority, worldwide, do, but I hope I’m stating the obvious. This is a topic that requires one to remove their LDS blinders.

  28. Outstanding post. I had never looked at abortion that way before.

    And I also really like that designmom post that you linked to, John F. I wish that more men would read it with an open mind.

  29. I write my own thoughts about this recently, to try and explain to friends and family why I could feel comfortable voting for Democrats who support abortion rights.

    I went to the church handbook to try and point out how much current church policies are actually supported by Roe v. Wade.

    I quoted liberally from the Salt Lake Tribune article that Kathryn mentioned.

    Here’s my post. Feedback welcome:

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