How the Pro-Life Movement Endangers the Unborn

It is hubris to think that the government can improve on the moral choices of mothers.


Anti-Abortion Man
ianturton / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

The Republican-controlled House voted 242-184 last week to impose a federal ban on late-term abortions. Given that President Obama has already condemned this bill as "disgraceful" and pledged to veto it, the House GOP's main objective seems to be putting in an advance request of a future Republican president.

But there's a more troubling question at play here for Republicans: Given that conservatives routinely argue that government can't regulate anything without making it worse, how could government regulate one of the most tragic choices mothers face without compounding the tragedy?

The fact is, it can't.

The GOP's bill would ban all abortions after 20 weeks, when a fetus allegedly attains viability and can begin feeling pain, both claims that are very much disputed. The bill would make exceptions for rape or when a woman's life is endangered. It would also exempt minors under 18 who are victims of incest, but would require doctors — at the threat of arrest and fines — to report the crime. In such instances, however, the bill dramatically mandates that a second doctor must be present to try and "save" the fetus.

This is hardly the pro-life lobby's first attempt to kneecap Roe v. Wade, the 42-year-old abortion ruling that barred state and federal government from prohibiting abortions before the point of viability. The pro-life camp's first big victory came in 2003 when President George W. Bush banned "partial-birth abortions." (This ban has backfired because mothers are being forced to rely on methods that are even worse for them and their fetus — such as dismembering it in the womb before "extracting" it). And since, Republicans have kept at it, with the House moving two years ago to ban abortions after 22 weeks. That bill didn't get enacted, but now they want to reduce the allowed time another two months weeks. No doubt the pro-life lobby is being emboldened by public opinion that has moved 13 points in its direction between 1995 and 2014, according to Gallup.

It's not hard to see what drives public opinion in the pro-life direction. There is something deeply discomforting about "abortion on demand" — a society in which women can use the procedure as birth control. But that's not really what conservative legislation tries to combat. Nearly all of America's 1.3 million abortions every year — 98.5 percent — take place in the first trimester, when women saddled with an unwanted pregnancy are most likely to use the procedure as birth control. Yet over 60 percent of Americans, even those who call themselves pro-life, have no problem keeping that legal.

Their main problem is with abortions that happen later in a pregnancy when, paradoxically, women are least likely to use abortion as a form of birth control. Indeed, notwithstanding the famous 1997 recanting by abortion-rights advocate Ron Fitzsimmons, it takes a rather dark view of mothers as moral monsters to believe that women in advanced stages of pregnancy casually stroll into a doctor's office and demand an abortion for birth control-type reasons. This is completely divorced from the emotional reality of ordinary women. The fact is that after five months of pregnancy, mothers form very, very deep attachments with their prospective babies, grieving horribly even when they lose them for natural causes.

So why does any woman opt for a second-term abortion? Besides her own health, the main reason is birth defects that can be accurately diagnosed only through comprehensive fetal testing after the 20-week mark. Some of these defects are not life threatening for babies. But many, such as spinal bifida (exposed spine) and anencephaly (malformed brain), are. Given that 2 percent of pregnancies in the United States are complicated by major birth defects and only about 1 percent of women opt for second-trimester abortions, it's clear that some mothers keep the baby even after learning about the defects because they are up for anything and want to give their babies a shot at life, no matter how brief.

Are those who don't acting immorally? Is it not understandable that they can't bear the thought of giving birth to a baby who would have a short life and painful death? Both views are understandable. Both are heartbreaking.

Should the ill-advised House ban ever become law, the most likely result would be to push women to get early abortions on the basis of far less reliable tests, notes Darshak Sanghavi, a pediatric cardiologist. In other words, the ban might save some Downs Syndrome babies, but almost certainly at the cost of sacrificing more healthy fetuses.

This is no way to advance the "sanctity of life." Indeed, the GOP's utopian quest to "save every unborn" by demonizing mothers and using the government to second-guess them will have the opposite effect. It is hubris to think that the government can improve on the moral choices of mothers who have the most direct interest in safeguarding their future children. The human condition does not always allow for perfectly moral outcomes at all times — and the failure to face up to that might make the human fate more — not less — tragic.

A version of this column originally appeared in The Week.