Personally pro-life, publicly pro-choice?

By Paul Stark

“I’m prepared to accept as a matter of faith … that at the moment of conception there’s human life and being, but I’m not prepared to say that to other God¬-fearing [and] non-¬God¬-fearing people that have a different view,” former vice president Joe Biden said in a 2015 interview.

“Abortion is always wrong,” he continued. “But I’m not prepared to impose doctrine that I’m prepared to accept on the rest of [the country].”

This is a common view among both politicians and everyday Americans. Some people personally oppose abortion but don’t want to apply that rule to others. And many abortion defenders tell pro-life advocates that they shouldn’t force their individual beliefs on everyone else.

It’s an understandable—yet fundamentally mistaken—perspective. Here are three varieties of this position and why they don’t work.

The religion dismissal

First, some suggest, as Biden does, that the pro-life view is merely a “religious” doctrine that may not be imposed on a pluralistic society. But this is flat-out wrong (as Biden’s own Catholic Church teaches).

The pro-life position is about justice, not theological dogma. It is rooted in the empirical science of embryology (which establishes that human embryos and fetuses are living human organisms) and the basic moral principle that all members of our species have an equal dignity and right to life. Opposition to killing human beings in utero is no more inherently “religious” than opposition to killing teenagers (or anyone else).

Of course, religion can influence, inform, or motivate a person’s pro-life position, but that fact should not disqualify it from public consideration. Religion has played a central role in the work of social reformers throughout history.

Just as religious Americans who campaign for government anti-poverty programs are free to pursue their policy goals, so too are the religious pro-lifers who only wish to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” (Proverbs 31:8) and “rescue those being led away to death” (Proverbs 21:11).

The morality confusion

Second, some people treat the pro-life position, religious or not, as if it were simply a matter of individual opinion. Abortion is wrong for me but not necessarily for you. This attitude is expressed in the bumper-sticker slogan “Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one.”

But the pro-life position is not that pro-lifers don’t like abortion. It’s that abortion is wrong, whether we like it or not. As philosopher Francis J. Beckwith observes, we are not making a preference claim, like which genre of movie we enjoy most. We are making a moral claim about right and wrong.

The confusion stems from a philosophy called moral relativism, which holds that no objective standard of right and wrong exists. Moral claims are really just preference claims that are relative to each individual or culture.

But this view is not plausible. No one would say, “I’m personally opposed to human trafficking, but that’s just my view. If you want to traffic human beings, that’s your business.” No bumper sticker proclaims, “Don’t like spousal abuse? Then don’t abuse your spouse.”

Human trafficking is objectively wrong. Spousal abuse is objectively wrong. Is abortion also wrong? That’s the question.

The legal subversion

Finally, some argue (for various reasons*) that abortion should be permitted as a matter of public policy even if it is morally wrong. After all, not every unethical act should be illegal. Swearing at your mother may be immoral, but it’s not criminal.

Abortion, however, is something altogether different. What is it that makes abortion wrong? It’s wrong because it unjustly takes the life of an innocent human being. And the state—whatever else it may or may not do—ought to at least protect basic human rights and prevent violence against the innocent.

This is a foundational and uncontroversial purpose of government. People have a right to the protection of the law against unjust killing. That’s why abortion should be illegal.

At its core, then, the “personally pro-life, publicly pro-choice” position is incoherent. The reason to personally oppose abortion is the very same reason that it should not be publicly permitted.

Because it is the killing of a defenseless human person.

* The different arguments for this view cannot be individually addressed here. Some (those that contend that there would be unacceptable consequences if abortion were prohibited) are addressed elsewhere.

Editor’s note. This article first appeared in MCCL News.