Things I Care Deeply About That Cannot Be Changed Through Law

My heart breaks over the knowledge that more than a million abortions occur annually in the US alone.  Yet I do not believe changes in the legality of the practice are the best way to improve the situation.

Let me state at the outset that the entire issue of the morality abortion comes down to one thing only, and that is whether or not one believes that a fetus is a human life, and at what point it becomes one.  I’ve never met someone who believes that killing an innocent child is moral.  Yet a great many people believe that abortion is moral.  This does not mean they are evil or unprincipled.  They believe that a fetus is not yet a human.  I do not attempt here or anywhere else to convince people otherwise.  I don’t pretend to have knowledge of some clear-cut point in the biological process when a fetus becomes a human.  I am only writing about why I, as someone who does believe a fetus from the earliest stages is a human life, do not believe that outlawing the practice of abortion is the best thing to advocate.

In other words I believe abortion is a tragic act, but not all tragedies are best reduced through law.

Government Failure

I am skeptical of the ability of governments to enforce laws in general, but especially those with which a huge part of the population disagrees.  Even laws most people agree on, like those against drunk driving, are enforced poorly and often with more hassle and harassment of innocents than actual curbing the activities of the perpetrators.  Anti-abortion laws do not seem to me a likely way to reduce the number of abortions significantly and they do seem likely to produce a great many other ill-effects.  Illegal abortions that pose a greater risk to the mother would boom, and entire black markets around them.  Attempts at enforcement would doubtless cost billions and open up a bevy of privacy violating medical and personal interventions affecting millions of people who were not even attempting to abort.

But there’s another thing.  For those who feel this is a deeply moral issue, the practical aspect is perhaps less important than the ethical one.  Many people believe that consumption of alcohol is immoral, yet even they will admit that the prohibition era did nothing to improve the moral fiber of individual Americans but had the opposite effect.  AA and rehab programs are far more effective at getting to the core of alcohol related problems.

So if I believe abortion to be a tragic ending of a beautiful human life, what kinds of activities do I think might reduce it?

Keep Innovating

Abortions in the US have dropped every year for some time now.  I suspect the main reason is myriad forms of birth control are better, cheaper, and more accessible.  No one wants to abort.  Those who do would prefer to not have gotten pregnant in the first place.  Where there is a need in a free market, there is an incentive to meet it.  Companies big and small have continued to produce more, better, and cheaper technologies for preventing unwanted pregnancies.  This will continue, and could happen even more if regulatory barriers were eliminated and markets freed more generally.

Open Up Markets in Adoption

Currently, those who want to adopt have to pay for it.  In this sense, there already is a market for children without parents.  The problem is it is illegal for the birth-parents to receive this money.  Pregnancy and labor is emotionally, mentally, and physically taxing.  It reduces ability to earn money and increases risk of health problems.  It’s a full-time job.  Yet women with unwanted pregnancies who don’t feel comfortable ending them have no real way to make up for this cost.  Carrying a baby to term and having another couple adopt puts tremendous cost on the birth mother.  Removing the laws against payment to birth mothers would dramatically reduce the number of abortions.  Getting government agencies and regulations out of the adoption market altogether would do more still.

Imagine the power of pro-life activists and philanthropists if they channeled their energy and resources away from protest signs at clinics and towards funds to pay pregnant women to carry to term and choose adoption?  Many organizations do as much as they legally can in this direction today, but the legal and moral resistance most people have to open markets severely constrain this option.

Care and Support

I would venture to guess most women who abort do not do so easily or impulsively.  Regardless of their beliefs on the morality of it, it’s a hard decision.  A woman faced with this decision is likely to be pushed away by loud yelling about the immorality of abortion or attempts to make it illegal.  It is impossible to advocate making abortion illegal without putting mothers with unwanted pregnancies on the defensive.  They feel condemned and hated, which is not a recipe to get someone to reconsider.  Even the suggestion of judgement will push people into secrecy, where they are likely to suffer more during the process.

Those who are deeply moved and saddened by the act of abortion would do better to come alongside those with unwanted pregnancies and help them in a nonjudgmental way.  Offer emotional, spiritual, and material help without being pushy or manipulative.  This works best with someone you have established some kind of relationship with, and on a one-on-one level.  Yet organizational efforts could do the same (and many do).

Many might call this moral suasion.  I suppose it is in a way, but it is very difficult to convince someone that their idea of morality is wrong by simply telling them so.  The thing is, you don’t even need to convince someone that something is immoral if you can show them a better way.  Show a course of action that is better for them even given their current moral beliefs.  If they have an environment that won’t judge but will support them every step of the way, even offering to help with parenting or to adopt the child, the chances of an abortion will decrease.

The Nirvana Fallacy

There are a great many horrible things in the world.  Murder, theft, sickness, poverty.  It’s easy to get righteous and proclaim support for laws and institutions that do not tolerate these things.  Such posturing is pretty empty though, because there is no system or law that can eliminate them.  The important question is not, “Which system is right?”, because we’d all choose perfection.  The important question is “Which of the possible systems is preferable?”  It is not enough to condemn the status quo compared to an imaginary world where none of the things you dislike occur.  When condemning the status quo it behooves us to ask, “Compared to what?”

I think a change in abortion laws is a distraction from better methods to reduce the practice.  Pro-life advocates, to the extent they outsource their energy to lobbying and politics, feel good enough about their efforts to slack in other, more practical ways that do more.  What happens if abortion is made illegal?  If the pattern follows similar policy battles the winning side will feel really good about themselves and probably do less of the more valuable kind of work.  Think of those who fight for government efforts to end poverty and the way it crowds out more effective private efforts.

The Takeaway

I don’t normally talk or write about abortion, but I think it’s an important example of how even things that some find fundamentally wrong are not always best met with the ham-handed approach of policy.  Our tendency to idolize law as a means for achieving our ends, no matter how moral they might be, is to our detriment.

Abortion and the Idolatry of Law

After Roe v. Wade, something amazing happened.  New organizations, care centers, adoption services, and support networks for pregnant mothers popped up all across the country.  There’s a powerful lesson here about the corrosive effect of law.

Whatever you feel about the morality and legality of abortion, more help for women with unwanted pregnancies is a good thing.  Today, there is a vast network of privately funded crisis pregnancy centers, counseling, even housing and food for mothers who fear retribution because of their pregnancy.  What’s startling is how recent this support network is.  Why did it take the Supreme Court ruling that abortion was legal before all of these alternative services became so widely available?  Because often those who feel most strongly about their beliefs are the first to do nothing once the state gets involved.

Surely unwanted pregnancies took place before the Roe decision.  Abortions also took place.  With greater medical and personal risk, and fewer places to turn to talk over the situation.  As long abortion was illegal, those who wanted mothers to choose not to abort, or even just to have someone with them during the pregnancy, did very little to help.  Instead of offering comfort and assistance to those in a tough spot, courts and cops were relied on to prevent and punish.

There is a serious moral decay that comes with law.  When the state says you can’t do drugs, drink alcohol, gamble, pay for sex, eat unhealthy foods, or engage in any other activity commonly deemed dangerous or immoral, the very people who worry most about those activities largely give up on trying to help those who engage in them.  Whether or not any of those things are bad, without freedom to choose, people’s preferences and often their struggles are pushed under the rug, into the back alleys, and out of the public consciousness.  The problems that can arise are no less acute, but the availability of help and alternatives vanish.

Even if you think abortion should be illegal, the fact that almost none of the crisis care, counseling, and adoption services available today existed when it was ought to give you pause.  Where else are you failing to live up to your own moral standards, but instead letting the clumsy coercion of law do the work for you?

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