Is abortion murder? its opponents claim it is—that’s why they call themselves “pro-life” and abortion providers “babykillers.” That’s why people have bombed and burned down abortion clinics and murdered doctors and staffers—it’s all to “save babies.” But do abortion opponents really believe that an embryo is the equivalent of a baby, a child, a grown-up?
A great deal of ingenuity has been spent by anti-abortion intellectuals like Robert P George and Ramesh Ponnuru to explain why, even though embryos and fetuses are children, abortion should not be punished as severely as homicide. It’s always seemed odd that anti-abortion leaders insist they would never punish women who end their pregnancy, only doctors and staffers, although by their own logic a woman who seeks an abortion is as guilty as someone who hires a hit man. When a politician—George HW Bush, Donald Trump—forgets where he is and says, sure, women should be punished if abortion becomes a crime, anti-abortion leaders express horror and the politician retracts it pretty quickly. Abortion opponents can exempt a woman who terminates her pregnancy only by portraying her as too desperate, irrational, ignorant, or easily led to be held responsible for her decision—it’s all the fault of a boyfriend, or parents, or “the culture of death” that tells her it’s just a clump of cells. Sometimes, although much more rarely, poverty is blamed, or a lack of support for pregnant women and mothers. But similar explanations could be given for many killers—maybe all of them—and nobody suggests we simply leave them alone.
There’s another way to look at the characterization of abortion as murder: Maybe some people who say it don’t really believe it. That is what I take away from a fascinating paper“Discordant Benevolence: How and Why People Help Others in the Face of Conflicting Values,” recently published in Science Advances.
About half of Americans call themselves pro-life and the other half pro-choice—though what people mean by those labels is often unclear. Yet the authors found that, regardless of their beliefs, Americans “extend support” to friends or family members seeking an abortion. Large numbers of people who say they are morally opposed to abortion, many of whom consider it murder, would help someone they know. A majority of 76 percent would offer emotional support. Only 6 percent would help pay for an abortion—actually, it’s surprising that any would—but over 40 percent would help with logistics like giving the woman a ride to the clinic. Why the distinction between money and logistics? Money, as the authors write, is highly symbolic—it feels personal, like a real stamp of approval. When the teenage sister of a friend of mine needed money for an abortion, a friend of hers said he was Catholic and therefore couldn’t give her any—but he gave money to a mutual friend to give to her. The truth is, money is fungible. A neighbor who fronts you gas money to get to the clinic or watches your kids while you’re having your procedure is helping to pay for your abortion, even if they tell themselves otherwise.