Beyond Slogans: An Abortion Ethic for Women and the Unborn

by James R. Kelley

James R. Kelly is chair of the department of sociology at Fordham University, Bronx, N.Y.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 21, 1990 on pp. 184-186. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The pro-life movement has always known that in order to help the unborn, women must also be helped, but it has not yet found a way to make this moral insight the operative and unquestioned premise of the entire movement.

Never did a waning follow so closely a waxing. On July 3, 1989, the Supreme Court in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services seemed to give the pro-life movement a stunning victory. Sixteen contentious years after Roe v. Wade, the court returned to the states at least some power to rule on abortion. The court implied that the machinery of democracy might be needed to resolve this issue satisfactorily.

The first several months of applying democracy to abortion did not favor the pro-life side. The Florida state legislature -- at least the key committees controlled by Democrats -- refused in a special session called by the governor to consider abortion restrictions. Democrats whose support for abortion rights was central to their campaign won the gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia. Of great significance was the fact that two black Democratic candidates, David Dinkins in New York City and Douglas Wilder in Virginia, used their support for legalized abortion to persuade white voters that their politics were "moderate" and "mainstream." Both Dinkins and Wilder attracted the necessary numbers of Republican voters from Rudolph Giuliani and J. Marshall Coleman, both of whom in the past (but not in these elections) had to some degree opposed legalized abortion. Of most significance over the long range was prominent Republican fund-raisers’ declaration after the Republican mayoral loss in New York City and gubernatorial losses in Virginia and New Jersey that they would not support Republican candidates who opposed legalized abortion. "Stalwart fund-raisers will aid only ‘pro-choice Republicans’," was the caption under a New York Times picture of three wealthy Republican women (Nov. 11) The next day, the Washington, D. C., police estimated that about 150,000 people attended a pro-choice rally at the Lincoln Memorial. Few fresh pro-life initiatives countered these events.

Certain lines of development in the post-Webster world are clear. One is the media’s tendency to describe abortion-rights activists as. "pro-choice" while referring to their opponents as "anti-abortion" rather than by their preferred term "pro-life." This change seems one-sided to me; if most Americans accept this change of terms as fair, the pro-life movement faces certain moral and political defeat. If the debate remains on the level of slogans, pro-choice will win; it is politically more convincing.

Rarely do pro-choice activists any longer describe the fetus as something less than a developing human life or treat the relationship of the fetus to its mother in terms of property rights. Rhetorical simplicity once resided primarily with the pro-life movement, which tirelessly insisted that abortion stopped a human life. But now their opponents have become just as reductionistic. Pro-choice activists now simply ask, "Who should decide, the woman or the government?" This question effectively presumes that some abortions are inevitable and that government coercion in this matter is likely to be ineffective. But the slogan also dangerously implies that government intervention in social problems should always be regarded with distrust.

Before Roe, the arguments of the pro-choice advocates raised difficult questions: When is it morally right to stop a developing human life? How do we know that making abortion legal will not diminish our respect for other forms of sometimes unwanted life, such as the mentally and physically disabled or the infirm old, or for life in general? Can a constitutional amendment protecting unrestricted right to abortion be justified in view of traditional church teaching, common law and 19th-century state laws that condemn abortion? After years of "focus interviews" with a cross section of Americans and careful public relations consultation, abortion-rights advocates no longer address such difficult questions. But others, including those with a Christian conscience, cannot rest as easily with the slogan, "Who decides?" They are obliged to ask the further questions, "Decides what? And with what help from the community?"

Now the pro-life movement faces all the difficult questions, and on its own it seems unable to answer them. For example, since the mid-1970s approximately 1.5 million women annually have procured abortions. Could a legal prohibition stop almost all such abortions? Would a more dangerous "underground" and unregulated abortion industry rise to meet the demand for abortions?

These unresolved questions keep many from embracing the pro-life movement. Still, its central point cannot be evaded. One cannot quiet the inner voice that speaks of abortion as morally significant. To reduce the issue to the question of "Who decides?" is politically shrewd but morally disquieting. Besides, casting the question of abortion in libertarian terms that rely on a strong distrust of government undercuts the many areas where women, the poor and the handicapped ask the community through its government to intervene in the marketplace.

The current strategy of pro-choice advocates seems to further the moral relativism and the survival-of-the-fittest ideology that lurks in our society. Certainly one of the strongest and most evocative values undergirding the belief that a good society cares for all its members is the religious conviction that each human life has a sacred origin and a sacred destiny. Every authentic humanism considers each human life a carrier of an ultimate dignity that warrants respect. The pro-choice assumption that this conviction excludes the developing human life of the fetus is not convincing. Unchallenged, legally unrestricted abortion will in the long run deepen the nihilism that already threatens to engulf other areas of our society. In Roe, the Supreme Court in effect affirmed this moral intuition by ruling that after determining "viability," the community through its laws can exercise its interest in protecting life.

How can we develop a moral stand on a debate that seems to be polarized by those who consider abortion simply a matter of private choice and those who support no legal abortions save those very rare ones necessary to save a mother’s life? All of us, even those who lean toward the pro-choice side of the issue, should question whether the choice to abort is truly a choice. Freedom requires more than one true option. Society must provide women enough help so that none feels that she has no choice but abortion.

The prolife movement rightfully fears that in time "pre-choice" will become, especially for poor women, less a choice of moral freedom and more an act compelled by economic necessity. The very first argument advanced in the first congressional debates over extending Medicaid funding to abortion referred to the many millions of dollars in future welfare costs that abortion would save. At political debates in the New York City area I have often heard angry voices mock pro-life activists with the question, "But who is going to support all those welfare babies?"

I wonder how many high school and college counselors have heard young women say that their male friends insisted that love required sex, and that if contraception failed, there was always abortion. In a society hungry for ever more affluence, where resources will seem permanently scarce, the decision not to abort might in time seem a willful act of self-indulgence whose costs should be borne only by the self-indulgent woman herself.

Not only the young and the poor confront severe social pressures to abort. Lower-middle income women have felt similar coercion. The New York City Department of Investigation disclosed last fall that their supervisors urged pregnant women correction officers in New York City -- mostly minority women -- to obtain abortions ("Women Given Cruelest Choice Now Fight Back," New York Times, Oct. 21, 1989) The lower levels of the criminal justice system receive little funding, and New York City prisons are crowded. Where resources are scarce, management’s pursuit of efficiency can clash with the needs of pregnant women.

Women on the fast track in white-collar careers learn that male competitors consider pregnancy an indication that women are not seriously seeking corporate advancement. Kristin Luker, in Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (University of California Press, 1984) , found that the desire to eliminate barriers to success in a male-dominated world was a major motivation behind pro-choice advocates.

I think the most powerful arguments against unrestricted legal abortion are made by Feminists for Life, which organized in 1972 when the National Organization for Women would not reconsider its official position on abortion. Although they receive little funding apart from membership dues and attract little media attention, FFL has almost 2,000 members, and chapters in every state. Members support all the mainstream feminist positions except legalized abortion, arguing, as 19th-century feminists did, that abortion requires women to adapt themselves to the economics and the politics devised by men. It is significant that statistically the strongest supporters of unrestricted legal abortion are affluent white men.

The phrase "pro-life" does not express a unified philosophy shared by all abortion opponents. The pluralism usually unacknowledged within the pro-life movement is such that those with a troubled conscience, uneasy with slogans and moral simplicities, can find some pro-life group that mirrors their view. For example, the first national pro-life organizations were not political but service groups that sought to provide direct aid to women who would otherwise be tempted to abort. Birthright was founded in 1970 and Alternatives to Abortion International the following year. In the U.S. there are at least 3,000 emergency pregnancy centers, 20 percent of which offer not merely counseling and emergency funds but also hospital coverage, housing, job training and postnatal care. Several other groups, such as Women Exploited by Abortion and American Victims of Abortion, support women who years after having an abortion are confronting loss and guilt.

Many pro-life advocates have moved the social-service approach to embrace the "consistent ethic" or "seamless garment" position. In their November 1975 "Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities," the Roman Catholic bishops in the U.S. proposed that opposition to abortion morally requires a consistent and comprehensive approach: "The program must extend to other issues that involve support of human life. There must be internal consistency in the pro-life move-ment." Among the groups seeking a consistent approach to abortion, poverty, inequality and violence are Prolifers for Survival, American Citizens for Life, JustLife and Evangelicals for Social Action. Influential Christian pacifist groups such as Sojourners and Pax Christi have characterized abortion as a violent solution to the problem of an unwanted pregnancy. The frequent soul-searching letters and articles in the magazine Religious Socialism also indicate that many religious groups committed to nonviolence and equality question arguments that try to justify abortions in cases that are not life-threatening. The position these groups take could better inform a comprehensive and consistent argument about the rights of the unborn and the rights of women than can the simplistic debate of the sloganeers.

Most Americans probably support the implicit moral position of mainstream Protestantism and perhaps of America’s religious traditions in general: permit as few legal abortions as possible without damaging women’s rights and without making it necessary for women to perform abortions on themselves or seek clandestine and possibly dangerous abortions. But this magical solution, one not affirmed by either the pro-choice or pro-life movements as presently constituted, is not likely to develop without a deep collective conversion to the principle that even the developing pre-born person is part of the human family and deserves our welcome.

That welcome must be expressed in part in the world of work, by no longer letting pregnancy detract from a woman s opportunities for prestige, power and advancement. A moral strategy would explicitly relate how the law treats fetuses to how it treats mothers. Any change in the abortion law should be accompanied by changes in health-care benefits for women and children, in child care, in job protection, in comparable worth and in career advancement. Every gain for the unborn should be accompanied by greater gains for women. The pro-life movement has always known that in order to help the unborn women must also be helped, but it has not yet found a way to make this moral insight the operative and unquestioned premise of the entire movement. Perhaps mainstream Protestantism could bring this contribution to the pro-life movement. Without it, any satisfactory end to the social conflict over legal abortion is hard to envision.