Questions on Abortion and the Struggle Against Tyranny

This essay was published in The Crucible: A Journal for Christian Graduate Students 3 (1992): 3-8. Used by permission of the author.


This article questions the commonly held assumption that the pro-choice and pro-life camps inhabit completely different philosophical and moral worlds. Both sides see themselves as struggling against tyranny. The two camps diverge by maintaining differing intellectual conceptions of the tyranny against which they are fighting.

The participants in the abortion debate seem, most of the time, to presuppose that the beliefs (moral/ scientific/ religious/ legal/ philosophical) of the pro-choice and pro-life camps are widely divergent at many points. The fact that a great cultural conflict is taking place over abortion seems to be a prima facie justification of this assumption. Yet this assumption, which to a large extent is undeniably true, may be serving to hinder a clear understanding of the nature of the conflict, as long as it remains what it is: an (unquestioned) assumption. I would like to pull this presupposition out of the shadows and into the light of day, so that a critique of it can lead to a valid perception of the actual outlines of the conflict.

In this essay I will examine the arguments of a pro-choice author and a pro-life author. I will try to understand the basic motivations which seem to drive them to adopt their philosophical stances and argumentative positions. I will not presuppose that they live in totally different intellectual worlds; instead I will listen to their arguments with an ear for possible unrecognized similarities between them. In this way, we will arrive at a clearer understanding of the political passions which drive the continuing debate over abortion.

In 1966 pro-choice activist Lawrence Lader published a book entitled Abortion, in which he anticipated the essentials of the reasoning behind the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. Lader described the pre-Roe social situation in which a relatively small number of abortions were performed legally in hospitals, while a large number were performed illegally in underground abortion mills. Legislation regarding abortion was inconsistent from state to state, and some women who sought abortions went to other countries to have them. Lader argued that since early abortions are statistically safer for the woman than childbirth, and since the morality of such abortions is a matter of religious and philosophical dispute, the state ought not to prevent women from having legal access to abortion services:

A hospital abortion is as safe and simple as any other operation, requiring fifteen or twenty minutes of surgery and rarely keeping a patient hospitalized more than overnight. Yet a million or more women each year, automatically excluded from the realm of legality, are forced to seek out a private abortionist, to attempt abortion on themselves, or, if they are unmarried, to bear the child illegitimately. They may well wonder what bitter twist of medical logic, legal hair-splitting, or legislative inhumanity denied them the right to a safe and sacrosanct hospital abortion. [1]

Lader argued that the original intent of the anti-abortion laws which were passed in the 19th century was to protect the health of women from the dangers of quack abortionists, but since legal abortions had become so safe, the continued presence of these laws had the opposite of their intended effect, forcing women into a dangerous back-alley underground. [2]

At that time, Lader was clearly in favor of a complete liberalization of abortion laws, and he repeatedly suggested throughout the book that the main impediment to such a liberalization was the power of the "Roman Catholic hierarchy." He spoke of situations in which "one Catholic doctor" on a hospital abortion review committee was able to veto women's requests for abortions. [3] He described the idea that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception as a "minority dogma" by which the majority of Americans was being "tyrannized." [4] He summed up what can be called the standard pro-choice "argument from pluralism" in this way:

Every shade of belief must be protected under our democratic system, including the belief of the Catholic or anyone else that life starts at the moment of conception. The whole basis of abortion reform is to insure that all rights are respected. No religion or group, on the other hand, should impose its position on the rest of the nation. No religion, by demanding adherence to the status quo, by refusing to allow the slightest legal reform, should use the power of the law to force its belief on others.... Richard Cardinal Cushing, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston, has already proclaimed in eloquent language: "Catholics do not need the support of civil law to be faithful to their own religious convictions and they do not seek to impose by law their moral views on other members of society." Unfortunately, the Cardinal's pronouncement remains unheeded by most of the Catholic hierarchy. As long as the Catholic Church, or any faith, continues to block legislation allowing individual conscience and free choice in abortion, the core of our democratic system is crippled. The right to abortion is the foundation of Society's long struggle to guarantee that every child comes into this world wanted, loved, and cared for. The right to abortion, along with all birth-control measures, must establish the Century of the Wanted Child. [5]

Earlier, Lader had written a book entitled, The Bold Brahmins: New England's War Against Slavery: 1831-1863. In Lader's mind there was a very definite connection between the struggle to abolish slavery in the 19th century and the struggle to abolish legal restrictions on access to abortion in the 20th. The last chapter of his book on abortion is entitled, "Legalized Abortion: The Final Freedom," and on the last page of the book one finds these paragraphs:

"When rulers have inverted their functions and enacted wickedness into a law which treads down the inalienable rights of man to such a degree as this," abolitionist minister Theodore Parker of Boston declared after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Bill in 1850, "then I know no ruler but God, no law but natural Justice." What rulers are we to acknowledge today? We have remained silent too long. We pay obeisance on the surface to laws we disregard in secret. We maintain a system by hypocritical silence when the time has come to seek natural justice. If men and women are going to break U.S. abortion laws at least a million times a year, let them declare their freedom boldly. Let them announce it at their clubs and town meetings and proclaim it in the press. Let them affirm with conviction: No law is a real law that prohibits the inalienable rights of human beings. [6]

I will now pose the question: "What motivates pro-choice activists to think and act as they do?" It would seem that Lader is motivated by (a) a concern to end back-alley abortions, because they harm women, and (b) a concern to abolish laws which restrict access to abortion, because they are a product of the tyrannical imposition of the moral beliefs of some citizens on others, and result in a diminishment of a woman's freedom to make decisions about the course which her life will take.

We will now consider the story of Bernard Nathanson, an obstetrician/ gynecologist who was one of the main leaders of the pro-choice movement in the late '60s and early '70s. Since that time he has changed his mind about the morality of abortion and has become a leader of the pro-life movement.

In the late '60s, Nathanson was a close associate of Lawrence Lader. They, along with others, founded NARAL, the National Association for Repeal of Abortion Laws (later changed to the National Abortion Rights Action League). The lobbying efforts of this group contributed to the liberalization of abortion laws in the State of New York before Roe v. Wade, and no doubt had an indirect effect on that decision itself. Nathanson told the story of his involvement in this group in his 1979 book, Aborting America. Nathanson described the various characters which he met during that era, and recreated the atmosphere of the pre-Roe days with accounts of the illegal abortion subculture, the appearance at hospitals of women who were suffering the after-effects of botched abortions, the under-the-table referral of women to abortionists in Puerto Rico and elsewhere, and the way in which hospital abortion committees were used to rubber stamp requests for "therapeutic" abortions.

Nathanson was a respected physician in New York City, but he had, in effect, one foot in the abortion subculture through his contacts and his involvement in pro-choice activism. Nathanson served as the director of a large abortion clinic in New York City for a period of a year and a half. In the years which followed his resignation from that position, he began to reflect on the social revolution in which he had been involved, and came to have doubts about the morality of unrestricted access to abortion. In 1974 he published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled "Deeper into Abortion," in which he expressed in public his growing doubts about the ethical legitimacy of the pro-choice cause which he had been championing for years. The following are excerpts from this important article.

Some time ago--after a tenure of a year and a half--I resigned as director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual Health. The Center had performed 60,000 abortions with no maternal deaths--an outstanding record of which we are proud. However, I am deeply troubled by my own increasing certainty that I had in fact presided over 60,000 deaths. There is no longer serious doubt in my mind that human life exists within the womb from the very onset of pregnancy, despite the fact that the nature of the intrauterine life has been the subject of considerable dispute in the past. Electrocardiographic evidence of heart function has been established in embryos as early as six weeks. Electroencephalographic recordings of human brain activity have been noted in embryos at eight weeks. We must courageously face the fact--finally--that human life of a special order is being taken. And since the vast majority of pregnancies are carried successfully to term, abortion must be seen as the interruption of a process that would otherwise have produced a citizen of the world. Denial of this reality is the crassest kind of moral evasiveness. Somewhere in the vast philosophic plateau between the two implacably opposed camps--past the slogans, past the pamphlets, past even the demonstrations and the legislative threats--lies the infinitely agonizing truth. We are taking life, and the deliberate taking of life, even of a special order and under special circumstances, is an inexpressibly serious matter. [7]

In 1983 Nathanson published a second book called The Abortion Papers: Inside the Abortion Mentality. In this work he discussed coverage of the abortion issue in the media, the ongoing developments in fetology, and the "anti-Catholic strategy" of the pro-choice movement, which Nathanson claims was formulated chiefly by his former associate, Lawrence Lader. Nathanson has very harsh words for his former colleague. Referring to Lader's book on the abolitionists, Nathanson says:

For Lader to have equated himself with these great men, even by implication, and drawn parallels between the abortion monster and the ineffable purity of the Brahmin cause, is a despicable claim in itself. I believe the abortion ethic is fatally and forever flawed by the immorality of the means of its victory. A political victory achieved by such odious tactics is at best an unstable tyranny spawned by an unscrupulous and unprincipled minority. At the very least this disclosure of those odious tactics should compel those who are uneasy with permissive abortion to re-examine the issue. I believe that an America which permits a junta of moral thugs to foist an evil of incalculable dimensions upon it, and continues to permit that evil to flower, creates for itself a deadly legacy: a millenium of shame. [8]

In the Epilogue to The Abortion Papers, Nathanson placed the abortion debate within the broader context of American history in this way:

Abortion is the most bitterly contested civil rights issue of our time. The nature of the oppressed, a defenseless, mute, and invisible minority (though increasingly less so with the advent of realtime ultrasound and other technologies) sets it apart from all other civil rights conflicts. The most eloquent angry spokesmen for the black civil rights movement were black themselves. Women speak and write passionately for the feminist cause. Gays parade through the streets of our cities decrying sexual prejudice and demanding the nation's approval. The human unborn is the ultimate civil rights victim. It cannot be heard; it cannot be read; it cannot demonstrate or parade through the streets. It cannot even be arrested and thrown into jail for civil disorder. The victim's silent anguished pleas are heard only by the pro-life cause. Paradoxically, Americans who have historically been deeply sympathetic to the plight of the oppressed and the downtrodden turn a deaf ear to these pleas. Congressman Henry Hyde, that lion of pro-life, has characterized the movement as one of the most admirable in history since those who labor in this cause reap absolutely no material gain from its success. It is a movement distinguished from all others in this nation's history, excepting perhaps the Abolitionists, by its pure and perfect altruism. Compare the crystalline selflessness of the pro-life cause to the shabby materialism of the abortion industry and the ruthless self-gratification of the Abortion People. [9]

When Nathanson was a pro-choice activist, it seems that his primary motivation was a concern for the health of women who were involved in the illegal abortion underground. But as his thinking on the morality of abortion gradually changed, he began to see the fetus as a very important being whose life ought not to be ended except under extraordinary circumstances. He came to see the pro-choice platform as morally inadequate and tyrannical since it did not grant any real ethical importance to the existence of the fetus. It seems that he, as a doctor motivated to protect the health of his patients, came to acknowledge the fetus as another patient alongside its mother.

I have briefly summarized the arguments concerning abortion which have been put forward by two authors. We have seen that the idea of struggling against tyranny is a vital component of each author's self-understanding. Further exploration of essays and books on abortion, by both male and female authors, would serve to strengthen this observation--that both camps see themselves as fighting against oppression and for freedom. [10] It seems that there is a tacit agreement between pro-choice and pro-life activists on the idea that tyrannical conditions exist or could possibly exist, and that there is a moral imperative to struggle against these conditions. We can attempt to articulate this tacit understanding by suggesting that both camps are working with the inchoate idea that tyranny is present when a law or a governmental policy or a social practice in some way harms human beings by adversely affecting the developing course of their life. The two camps diverge in that they focus their vision on different "objects" which are ostensibly being tyrannized--either the woman or the unborn child.

When we think about the abortion debate as it has developed in the context of American cultural history, the preceding analysis makes sense. What did the American colonists do at the time of the Revolution? They threw off the tyranny of the King of England. What was at the heart of the Civil War? Was it not a struggle between those who saw slavery as tyrannical and those who saw the power of the federal government to interfere with the states as tyrannical? Have not Americans in this century struggled against the "tyranny" of the Germans, the Japanese, the Communists, and Saddam Hussein? It is clear that Americans want to see themselves as people who are active participants in an ongoing struggle to overcome tyranny and expand the sphere of human freedom.

I am suggesting that if we consider the abortion debate as a clash between two philosophically divergent camps, who live in completely different intellectual worlds, then we are failing to recognize a crucially important element of the debate. In fact, the two camps are products of the same "world" that is American history. Perhaps this fact is so obvious that it is too painful to look at squarely. When one is attempting to separate oneself from "tyranny" it is very difficult to see one's opponents as one's philosophical siblings.

My primary purpose in this essay is not to provide answers for the abortion debate, but to facilitate its advancement by suggesting thought-provoking questions. Too often the way in which people think about the problem of abortion is like a broken record or a repeating tape loop. The same arguments get hurled at the "opponents" day after day, protest after protest, year after year. If my thoughts can serve to break this tape loop and challenge people to ask new questions, then I have succeeded in my purpose.

1) Why do different people have different understandings of the tyranny against which they are struggling? This question opens up problems of personal biography which can be approached from the perspectives of education, psychology, sociology, philosophical anthropology, and religion. For instance, we can ask: How did the social/ philosophical/ religious environment in which a person was raised affect the way in which that individual thinks about tyranny in general, and the problem of abortion in particular? If a person was raised in a particular environment and has rejected that upbringing and "gone over to the other side," what are the main factors which contributed to this "conversion"? Why are some articles or books which an individual may read influential in shaping that person's thought? How does "peer pressure" shape a person's moral views? How has an individual's study of history in high school and/or college affected his or her perception of social injustice and the current political groups which are struggling on behalf of "freedom"?

2) What is the significance of the language of "rights" in the abortion debate? When one camp argues that women's "reproductive rights" must be protected and another camp argues that the fetus' "right to life" must be protected, we seem to have reached an impasse which the language of rights, in and of itself, cannot lead us out of. [11] We are now led to ask, who is right about rights? Where do rights come from? The Constitution? The Creator? The social contract? The human will to power? Is access to health care a right? Is employment a right? Is housing a right? How do we know what rights "exist"? How do we know that "rights" exist at all? Alasdair MacIntyre is one contemporary philosopher who has argued that the language of rights is a grand philosophical mistake which has been foisted upon us by the Enlightenment. He argues that the rhetoric of rights is an intellectual cul-de-sac which was created in the wake of modernity's rejection of the Greek understanding of virtue and the Christian understanding of charity. How would one answer MacIntyre's claim that rights have as much reality as do unicorns and witches? [12] These are the sorts of questions which rarely if ever enter the minds of the activists, who seem not to be fully aware of the profound historical, ontological, and epistemological problems which are generated by the language of rights.

3) How ought we go about the task of defining (understanding) tyranny? How should we apply ourselves to the problem of developing a more adequate and rationally coherent understanding of tyranny? Should we read Plato and allow ourselves to be tutored by him concerning the tyrannical personality? Would we have to have attained a certain degree of intellectual maturity in order to understand what he was saying? Would we read the Bible and treat it as a source of enlightenment concerning the problem of tyranny? Would we have to be a Jew or a Christian in order to understand the vision of human nature and society which was being communicated there? Would we study the understandings of tyranny which can be found in various cultures at various times and places and somehow gain an understanding of tyranny through this study? In other words, is there some basic methodology for going about the process of thinking about a fundamental philosophical problem such as the nature of tyranny?

4) Why do people struggle against tyranny at all? This question may seem too simplistic to ask. One could say that people naturally struggle against tyranny whenever they feel that they are being oppressed. This is basic common sense, and is fine as far as it goes, but it does not explain why pro-life advocates would struggle against easy access to abortion when they are not being personally oppressed by it, or why some men would hold pro-choice views when they cannot become pregnant. Pro-life advocates see themselves as acting on behalf of unborn children, who cannot protect themselves. Why is there this concern for the unseen fetus? Is the basic motivation a desire to feel self-righteous in relation to others who are seen as morally inferior? Is it a concern for the moral progress of the human race, as with the Abolitionists? Is it a belief that abortion on demand is a form of legal anarchy which is eroding the moral fabric of Western civilization? Is it a concern to prevent women from harming themselves psychologically by deciding to end the lives of their own children? On the pro-choice side, is the basic motivation a desire to feel self-righteous in relation to others who are seen as politically and philosophically "backward" in our modern liberal society? Is it a concern for the moral progress of the human race, as with the Abolitionists? Is it a belief that abortion on demand is a triumph of respect for individual moral autonomy? Is it a concern to relieve the suffering of distressed women?

These are the sorts of questions which will have to be asked and wrestled with if our society is ever to make any progress toward a solution to the problem of abortion. They are very profound philosophical and religious questions which shake the foundations of our understanding of ourselves, our society, and the natural order. Most of us are ill prepared by our high school and/or college educations to even be aware that such questions exist. And the most highly educated among us are certainly not in agreement as to how they ought to be answered. This means that we live in an environment of de facto moral and intellectual disorder. But there is always the possibility that order will be brought out of this chaos. It will be an arduous process taking many years of struggle. We need to begin, however, with a recognition that the problem of abortion is a moral civil war which has arisen out of the unclarity of the concept of tyranny in American legal, philosophical, and religious thought.


[1] Lawrence Lader, Abortion (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966), 4. [2] Lader, 92. [3] Lader, 25. [4] Lader, 145. [5] Lader, 166. [6] Lader, 175. [7] Bernard Nathanson, Aborting America (Garden City: Doubleday, 1979), 164-166. [8] Nathanson, The Abortion Papers: Inside the Abortion Mentality (New York: Frederick Fell Publishers, 1983), 208-209. [9] Nathanson, The Abortion Papers, 216-217. [10] In the bibliography below, see, for example, on the pro- choice side: D. Callahan, D. Richards, B. Harrison, and J. Thomson; on the pro-life side see: J. Garton, J. Wiley, S. Callahan, and G. Grant. For an objective overview of the abortion debate in a vein which parallels the present essay, see M. Vanderford. [11] For an interesting discussion of rights language, see Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (New York: The Free Press, 1991). [12] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1981), 69-70.


Callahan, Daniel. Abortion: Law, Choice and Morality. New York: Macmillan, 1970.

Callahan, Sidney, and Daniel Callahan, eds. Abortion: Understanding Differences. New York: Plenum Press, 1984.

Dumond, Dwight Lowell. Antislavery Origins of the Civil War in the United States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1959.

Garton, Jean Staker. Who Broke the Baby? Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1979.

Glendon, Mary Ann. Abortion and Divorce in Western Law. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1987

______. Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse. New York: The Free Press, 1991.

Grant, George Parkin. English-Speaking Justice. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985.

Harrison, Beverly Wildung. "Theology of Pro-choice: A Feminist Perspective," in Edward Batchelor, ed., Abortion: The Moral Issues. New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1982.

Hunter, James Davison. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. BasicBooks, 1991.

Jung, Patricia Beattie and Thomas A. Shannon, eds. Abortion and Catholicism: The American Debate. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1988.

Lader, Lawrence. Abortion. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966.

______. The Bold Brahmins: New England's War Against Slavery: 1831-1863. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1961.

Luker, Kristin. Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.

Mohr, James C. Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, 1800-1900. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Nathanson, Bernard N., with Richard N. Ostling. Aborting America. Garden City: Doubleday, 1979.

Nathanson, Bernard N. The Abortion Papers: Inside the Abortion Mentality. New York: Frederick Fell Publishers, 1983.

Noonan, John T., Jr., ed. The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Noonan, John T., Jr. A Private Choice: Abortion in America in the Seventies. New York: The Free Press, 1979.

Powell, John. Abortion: The Silent Holocaust. Allen, Texas: Argus Communications, 1981.

Richards, David A. J. "Constitutional Privacy, Religious Disestablishment, and the Abortion Decisions," in Jay L. Garfield and Patricia Hennessey, eds. Abortion: Moral and Legal Perspectives. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.

Thomson, Judith Jarvis. "A Defense of Abortion." Philosophy and Public Affairs 1/1 (1971): 47-66.

Vanderford, Marsha L. "Vilification and Social Movements: A Case Study of Pro-Life and Pro-Choice Rhetoric." The Quarterly Journal of Speech 75/2 (1989): 166-182.

Wiley, Juli Loesch. "Solidarity and Shalom," in Phyllis Tickle, ed. Confessing Conscience: Churched Women on Abortion. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990.



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