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Ross Douthat

The Case Against Abortion

abortion controversial essay against

By Ross Douthat

Opinion Columnist

A striking thing about the American abortion debate is how little abortion itself is actually debated. The sensitivity and intimacy of the issue, the mixed feelings of so many Americans, mean that most politicians and even many pundits really don’t like to talk about it.

The mental habits of polarization, the assumption that the other side is always acting with hidden motives or in bad faith, mean that accusations of hypocrisy or simple evil are more commonplace than direct engagement with the pro-choice or pro-life argument.

And the Supreme Court’s outsize role in abortion policy means that the most politically important arguments are carried on by lawyers arguing constitutional theory, at one remove from the real heart of the debate.

But with the court set this week to hear Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, it seems worth letting the lawyers handle the meta-arguments and writing about the thing itself. So this essay will offer no political or constitutional analysis. It will simply try to state the pro-life case.

At the core of our legal system, you will find a promise that human beings should be protected from lethal violence. That promise is made in different ways by the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence; it’s there in English common law, the Ten Commandments and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We dispute how the promise should be enforced, what penalties should be involved if it is broken and what crimes might deprive someone of the right to life. But the existence of the basic right, and a fundamental duty not to kill, is pretty close to bedrock.

There is no way to seriously deny that abortion is a form of killing. At a less advanced stage of scientific understanding, it was possible to believe that the embryo or fetus was somehow inert or vegetative until so-called quickening, months into pregnancy. But we now know the embryo is not merely a cell with potential, like a sperm or ovum, or a constituent part of human tissue, like a skin cell. Rather, a distinct human organism comes into existence at conception, and every stage of your biological life, from infancy and childhood to middle age and beyond, is part of a single continuous process that began when you were just a zygote.

We know from embryology, in other words, not Scripture or philosophy, that abortion kills a unique member of the species Homo sapiens, an act that in almost every other context is forbidden by the law.

This means that the affirmative case for abortion rights is inherently exceptionalist, demanding a suspension of a principle that prevails in practically every other case. This does not automatically tell against it; exceptions as well as rules are part of law. But it means that there is a burden of proof on the pro-choice side to explain why in this case taking another human life is acceptable, indeed a protected right itself.

One way to clear this threshold would be to identify some quality that makes the unborn different in kind from other forms of human life — adult, infant, geriatric. You need an argument that acknowledges that the embryo is a distinct human organism but draws a credible distinction between human organisms and human persons , between the unborn lives you’ve excluded from the law’s protection and the rest of the human race.

In this kind of pro-choice argument and theory, personhood is often associated with some property that’s acquired well after conception: cognition, reason, self-awareness, the capacity to survive outside the womb. And a version of this idea, that human life is there in utero but human personhood develops later, fits intuitively with how many people react to a photo of an extremely early embryo ( It doesn’t look human, does it? ) — though less so to a second-trimester fetus, where the physical resemblance to a newborn is more palpable.

But the problem with this position is that it’s hard to identify exactly what property is supposed to do the work of excluding the unborn from the ranks of humans whom it is wrong to kill. If full personhood is somehow rooted in reasoning capacity or self-consciousness, then all manner of adult human beings lack it or lose it at some point or another in their lives. If the capacity for survival and self-direction is essential, then every infant would lack personhood — to say nothing of the premature babies who are unviable without extreme medical interventions but regarded, rightly, as no less human for all that.

At its most rigorous, the organism-but-not-person argument seeks to identify some stage of neurological development that supposedly marks personhood’s arrival — a transition equivalent in reverse to brain death at the end of life. But even setting aside the practical difficulties involved in identifying this point, we draw a legal line at brain death because it’s understood to be irreversible, the moment at which the human organism’s healthy function can never be restored. This is obviously not the case for an embryo on the cusp of higher brain functioning — and if you knew that a brain-dead but otherwise physically healthy person would spontaneously regain consciousness in two weeks, everyone would understand that the caregivers had an obligation to let those processes play out.

Or almost everyone, I should say. There are true rigorists who follow the logic of fetal nonpersonhood toward repugnant conclusions — for instance, that we ought to permit the euthanizing of severely disabled newborns, as the philosopher Peter Singer has argued. This is why abortion opponents have warned of a slippery slope from abortion to infanticide and involuntary euthanasia; as pure logic, the position that unborn human beings aren’t human persons can really tend that way.

But to their credit, only a small minority of abortion-rights supporters are willing to be so ruthlessly consistent. Instead, most people on the pro-choice side are content to leave their rules of personhood a little hazy, and combine them with the second potent argument for abortion rights: namely, that regardless of the precise moral status of unborn human organisms, they cannot enjoy a legal right to life because that would strip away too many rights from women.

A world without legal abortion, in this view, effectively consigns women to second-class citizenship — their ambitions limited, their privacy compromised, their bodies conscripted, their claims to full equality a lie. These kind of arguments often imply that birth is the most relevant milestone for defining legal personhood — not because of anything that happens to the child but because it’s the moment when its life ceases to impinge so dramatically on its mother.

There is a powerful case for some kind of feminism embedded in these claims. The question is whether that case requires abortion itself.

Certain goods that should be common to men and women cannot be achieved, it’s true, if the law simply declares the sexes equal without giving weight to the disproportionate burdens that pregnancy imposes on women. Justice requires redistributing those burdens, through means both traditional and modern — holding men legally and financially responsible for all the children that they father and providing stronger financial and social support for motherhood at every stage.

But does this kind of justice for women require legal indifference to the claims of the unborn? Is it really necessary to found equality for one group of human beings on legal violence toward another, entirely voiceless group?

We have a certain amount of practical evidence that suggests the answer is no. Consider, for instance, that between the early 1980s and the later 2010s the abortion rate in the United States fell by more than half . The reasons for this decline are disputed, but it seems reasonable to assume that it reflects a mix of cultural change, increased contraception use and the effects of anti-abortion legal strategies, which have made abortion somewhat less available in many states, as pro-choice advocates often lament.

If there were an integral and unavoidable relationship between abortion and female equality, you would expect these declines — fewer abortions, diminished abortion access — to track with a general female retreat from education and the workplace. But no such thing has happened: Whether measured by educational attainment, managerial and professional positions, breadwinner status or even political office holding, the status of women has risen in the same America where the pro-life movement has (modestly) gained ground.

Of course, it’s always possible that female advancement would have been even more rapid, the equality of the sexes more fully and perfectly established, if the pro-life movement did not exist. Certainly in the individual female life trajectory, having an abortion rather than a baby can offer economic and educational advantages.

On a collective level, though, it’s also possible that the default to abortion as the solution to an unplanned pregnancy actually discourages other adaptations that would make American life friendlier to women. As Erika Bachiochi wrote recently in National Review , if our society assumes that “abortion is what enables women to participate in the workplace,” then corporations may prefer the abortion default to more substantial accommodations like flexible work schedules and better pay for part-time jobs — relying on the logic of abortion rights, in other words, as a reason not to adapt to the realities of childbearing and motherhood.

At the very least, I think an honest look at the patterns of the past four decades reveals a multitude of different ways to offer women greater opportunities, a multitude of paths to equality and dignity — a multitude of ways to be a feminist, in other words, that do not require yoking its idealistic vision to hundreds of thousands of acts of violence every year.

It’s also true, though, that nothing in all that multitude of policies will lift the irreducible burden of childbearing, the biological realities that simply cannot be redistributed to fathers, governments or adoptive parents. And here, too, a portion of the pro-choice argument is correct: The unique nature of pregnancy means that there has to be some limit on what state or society asks of women and some zone of privacy where the legal system fears to tread.

This is one reason the wisest anti-abortion legislation — and yes, pro-life legislation is not always wise — criminalizes the provision of abortion by third parties, rather than prosecuting the women who seek one. It’s why anti-abortion laws are rightly deemed invasive and abusive when they lead to the investigation of suspicious-seeming miscarriages. It’s why the general principle of legal protection for human life in utero may or must understandably give way in extreme cases, extreme burdens: the conception by rape, the life-threatening pregnancy.

At the same time, though, the pro-choice stress on the burden of the ordinary pregnancy can become detached from the way that actual human beings experience the world. In a famous thought experiment, the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson once analogized an unplanned pregnancy to waking up with a famous violinist hooked up to your body, who will die if he’s disconnected before nine months have passed. It’s a vivid science-fiction image but one that only distantly resembles the actual thing that it describes — a new life that usually exists because of a freely chosen sexual encounter, a reproductive experience that if material circumstances were changed might be desired and celebrated, a “disconnection” of the new life that cannot happen without lethal violence and a victim who is not some adult stranger but the woman’s child.

One can accept pro-choice logic, then, insofar as it demands a sphere of female privacy and warns constantly against the potential for abuse, without following that logic all the way to a general right to abort an unborn human life. Indeed, this is how most people approach similar arguments in other contexts. In the name of privacy and civil liberties we impose limits on how the justice system polices and imprisons, and we may celebrate activists who try to curb that system’s manifest abuses. But we don’t (with, yes, some anarchist exceptions) believe that we should remove all legal protections for people’s property or lives.

That removal of protection would be unjust no matter what its consequences, but in reality we know that those consequences would include more crime, more violence and more death. And the anti-abortion side can give the same answer when it’s asked why we can’t be content with doing all the other things that may reduce abortion rates and leaving legal protection out of it: Because while legal restrictions aren’t sufficient to end abortion, there really are a lot of unborn human lives they might protect.

Consider that when the State of Texas put into effect this year a ban on most abortions after about six weeks, the state’s abortions immediately fell by half. I think the Texas law, which tries to evade the requirements of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey by using private lawsuits for enforcement, is vulnerable to obvious critiques and liable to be abused. It’s not a model I would ever cite for pro-life legislation.

But that immediate effect, that sharp drop in abortions, is why the pro-life movement makes legal protection its paramount goal.

According to researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, who surveyed the facilities that provide about 93 percent of all abortions in the state, there were 2,149 fewer legal abortions in Texas in the month the law went into effect than in the same month in 2020.

About half that number may end up still taking place, some estimates suggest, many of them in other states. But that still means that in a matter of months, more than a thousand human beings will exist as legal persons, rights-bearing Texans — despite still being helpless, unreasoning and utterly dependent — who would not have existed had this law not given them protection.

But, in fact, they exist already. They existed, at our mercy, all along.

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Ross Douthat has been an Opinion columnist for The Times since 2009. He is the author of several books, most recently, “The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery.” @ DouthatNYT • Facebook

Princeton Legal Journal

Princeton Legal Journal

abortion controversial essay against

The First Amendment and the Abortion Rights Debate

Sofia Cipriano

Following Dobbs v. Jackson ’s (2022) reversal of Roe v. Wade (1973) — and the subsequent revocation of federal abortion protection — activists and scholars have begun to reconsider how to best ground abortion rights in the Constitution. In the past year, numerous Jewish rights groups have attempted to overturn state abortion bans by arguing that abortion rights are protected by various state constitutions’ free exercise clauses — and, by extension, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. While reframing the abortion rights debate as a question of religious freedom is undoubtedly strategic, the Free Exercise Clause is not the only place to locate abortion rights: the Establishment Clause also warrants further investigation. 

Roe anchored abortion rights in the right to privacy — an unenumerated right with a long history of legal recognition. In various cases spanning the past two centuries, t he Supreme Court located the right to privacy in the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments . Roe classified abortion as a fundamental right protected by strict scrutiny, meaning that states could only regulate abortion in the face of a “compelling government interest” and must narrowly tailor legislation to that end. As such, Roe ’s trimester framework prevented states from placing burdens on abortion access in the first few months of pregnancy. After the fetus crosses the viability line — the point at which the fetus can survive outside the womb  — states could pass laws regulating abortion, as the Court found that   “the potentiality of human life”  constitutes a “compelling” interest. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992) later replaced strict scrutiny with the weaker “undue burden” standard, giving states greater leeway to restrict abortion access. Dobbs v. Jackson overturned both Roe and Casey , leaving abortion regulations up to individual states. 

While Roe constituted an essential step forward in terms of abortion rights, weaknesses in its argumentation made it more susceptible to attacks by skeptics of substantive due process. Roe argues that the unenumerated right to abortion is implied by the unenumerated right to privacy — a chain of logic which twice removes abortion rights from the Constitution’s language. Moreover, Roe’s trimester framework was unclear and flawed from the beginning, lacking substantial scientific rationale. As medicine becomes more and more advanced, the arbitrariness of the viability line has grown increasingly apparent.  

As abortion rights supporters have looked for alternative constitutional justifications for abortion rights, the First Amendment has become increasingly more visible. Certain religious groups — particularly Jewish groups — have argued that they have a right to abortion care. In Generation to Generation Inc v. Florida , a religious rights group argued that Florida’s abortion ban (HB 5) constituted a violation of the Florida State Constitution: “In Jewish law, abortion is required if necessary to protect the health, mental or physical well-being of the woman, or for many other reasons not permitted under the Act. As such, the Act prohibits Jewish women from practicing their faith free of government intrusion and thus violates their privacy rights and religious freedom.” Similar cases have arisen in Indiana and Texas. Absent constitutional protection of abortion rights, the Christian religious majorities in many states may unjustly impose their moral and ethical code on other groups, implying an unconstitutional religious hierarchy. 

Cases like Generation to Generation Inc v. Florida may also trigger heightened scrutiny status in higher courts; The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993) places strict scrutiny on cases which “burden any aspect of religious observance or practice.”

But framing the issue as one of Free Exercise does not interact with major objections to abortion rights. Anti-abortion advocates contend that abortion is tantamount to murder. An anti-abortion advocate may argue that just as religious rituals involving human sacrifice are illegal, so abortion ought to be illegal. Anti-abortion advocates may be able to argue that abortion bans hold up against strict scrutiny since “preserving potential life” constitutes a “compelling interest.”

The question of when life begins—which is fundamentally a moral and religious question—is both essential to the abortion debate and often ignored by left-leaning activists. For select Christian advocacy groups (as well as other anti-abortion groups) who believe that life begins at conception, abortion bans are a deeply moral issue. Abortion bans which operate under the logic that abortion is murder essentially legislate a definition of when life begins, which is problematic from a First Amendment perspective; the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment prevents the government from intervening in religious debates. While numerous legal thinkers have associated the abortion debate with the First Amendment, this argument has not been fully litigated. As an amicus brief filed in Dobbs by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Center for Inquiry, and American Atheists  points out, anti-abortion rhetoric is explicitly religious: “There is hardly a secular veil to the religious intent and positions of individuals, churches, and state actors in their attempts to limit access to abortion.” Justice Stevens located a similar issue with anti-abortion rhetoric in his concurring opinion in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989) , stating: “I am persuaded that the absence of any secular purpose for the legislative declarations that life begins at conception and that conception occurs at fertilization makes the relevant portion of the preamble invalid under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution.” Judges who justify their judicial decisions on abortion using similar rhetoric blur the line between church and state. 

Framing the abortion debate around religious freedom would thus address the two main categories of arguments made by anti-abortion activists: arguments centered around issues with substantive due process and moral objections to abortion. 

Conservatives may maintain, however, that legalizing abortion on the federal level is an Establishment Clause violation to begin with, since the government would essentially be imposing a federal position on abortion. Many anti-abortion advocates favor leaving abortion rights up to individual states. However, in the absence of recognized federal, constitutional protection of abortion rights, states will ban abortion. Protecting religious freedom of the individual is of the utmost importance  — the United States government must actively intervene in order to uphold the line between church and state. Protecting abortion rights would allow everyone in the United States to act in accordance with their own moral and religious perspectives on abortion. 

Reframing the abortion rights debate as a question of religious freedom is the most viable path forward. Anchoring abortion rights in the Establishment Clause would ensure Americans have the right to maintain their own personal and religious beliefs regarding the question of when life begins. In the short term, however, litigants could take advantage of Establishment Clauses in state constitutions. Yet, given the swing of the Court towards expanding religious freedom protections at the time of writing, Free Exercise arguments may prove better at securing citizens a right to an abortion. 

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Humanities LibreTexts

5.1: Arguments Against Abortion

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  • Nathan Nobis & Kristina Grob
  • Morehouse College & University of South Carolina Sumter via Open Philosophy Press

We will begin with arguments for the conclusion that abortion is generally wrong , perhaps nearly always wrong . These can be seen as reasons to believe fetuses have the “right to life” or are otherwise seriously wrong to kill.

5.1.1 Fetuses are human

First, there is the claim that fetuses are “human” and so abortion is wrong. People sometimes debate whether fetuses are human , but fetuses found in (human) women clearly are biologically human : they aren’t cats or dogs. And so we have this argument, with a clearly true first premise:

Fetuses are biologically human.

All things that are biologically human are wrong to kill.

Therefore, fetuses are wrong to kill.

The second premise, however, is false, as easy counterexamples show. Consider some random living biologically human cells or tissues in a petri dish. It wouldn’t be wrong at all to wash those cells or tissues down the drain, killing them; scratching yourself or shaving might kill some biologically human skin cells, but that’s not wrong; a tumor might be biologically human, but not wrong to kill. So just because something is biologically human, that does not at all mean it’s wrong to kill that thing. We saw this same point about what’s merely biologically alive.


This suggests a deficiency in some common understandings of the important idea of “human rights.” “Human rights” are sometimes described as rights someone has just because they are human or simply in virtue of being human .

But the human cells in the petri dish above don’t have “human rights” and a human heart wouldn’t have “human rights” either. Many examples would make it clear that merely being biologically human doesn’t give something human rights. And many human rights advocates do not think that abortion is wrong, despite recognizing that (human) fetuses are biologically human.

The problem about what is often said about human rights is that people often do not think about what makes human beings have rights or why we have them, when we have them. The common explanation, that we have (human) rights just because we are (biologically) human , is incorrect, as the above discussion makes clear. This misunderstanding of the basis or foundation of human rights is problematic because it leads to a widespread, misplaced fixation on whether fetuses are merely biologically “human” and the mistaken thought that if they are, they have “human rights.” To address this problem, we need to identify better, more fundamental, explanations why we have rights, or why killing us is generally wrong, and see how those explanations might apply to fetuses, as we are doing here.

It might be that when people appeal to the importance and value of being “human,” the concern isn’t our biology itself, but the psychological characteristics that many human beings have: consciousness, awareness, feelings and so on. We will discuss this different meaning of “human” below. This meaning of “human” might be better expressed as conscious being , or “person,” or human person. This might be what people have in mind when they argue that fetuses aren’t even “human.”

Human rights are vitally important, and we would do better if we spoke in terms of “conscious-being rights” or “person-rights,” not “human rights.” This more accurate and informed understanding and terminology would help address human rights issues in general, and help us better think through ethical questions about biologically human embryos and fetuses.

5.1.2 Fetuses are human beings

Some respond to the arguments above—against the significance of being merely biologically human—by observing that fetuses aren’t just mere human cells, but are organized in ways that make them beings or organisms . (A kidney is part of a “being,” but the “being” is the whole organism.) That suggests this argument:

Fetuses are human beings or organisms .

All human beings or organisms are wrong to kill.

Therefore, fetuses are wrong to kill, so abortion is wrong.

The first premise is true: fetuses are dependent beings, but dependent beings are still beings.

The second premise, however, is the challenge, in terms of providing good reasons to accept it. Clearly many human beings or organisms are wrong to kill, or wrong to kill unless there’s a good reason that would justify that killing, e.g., self-defense. (This is often described by philosophers as us being prima facie wrong to kill, in contrast to absolutely or necessarily wrong to kill.) Why is this though? What makes us wrong to kill? And do these answers suggest that all human beings or organisms are wrong to kill?

Above it was argued that we are wrong to kill because we are conscious and feeling: we are aware of the world, have feelings and our perspectives can go better or worse for us —we can be harmed— and that’s what makes killing us wrong. It may also sometimes be not wrong to let us die, and perhaps even kill us, if we come to completely and permanently lacking consciousness, say from major brain damage or a coma, since we can’t be harmed by death anymore: we might even be described as dead in the sense of being “brain dead.” 10

So, on this explanation, human beings are wrong to kill, when they are wrong to kill, not because they are human beings (a circular explanation), but because we have psychological, mental or emotional characteristics like these. This explains why we have rights in a simple, common-sense way: it also simply explains why rocks, microorganisms and plants don’t have rights. The challenge then is explaining why fetuses that have never been conscious or had any feeling or awareness would be wrong to kill. How then can the second premise above, general to all human organisms, be supported, especially when applied to early fetuses?

One common attempt is to argue that early fetuses are wrong to kill because there is continuous development from fetuses to us, and since we are wrong to kill now , fetuses are also wrong to kill, since we’ve been the “same being” all along. 11 But this can’t be good reasoning, since we have many physical, cognitive, emotional and moral characteristics now that we lacked as fetuses (and as children). So even if we are the “same being” over time, even if we were once early fetuses, that doesn’t show that fetuses have the moral rights that babies, children and adults have: we, our bodies and our rights sometimes change.

A second attempt proposes that rights are essential to human organisms: they have them whenever they exist. This perspective sees having rights, or the characteristics that make someone have rights, as essential to living human organisms. The claim is that “having rights” is an essential property of human beings or organisms, and so whenever there’s a living human organism, there’s someone with rights, even if that organism totally lacks consciousness, like an early fetus. (In contrast, the proposal we advocate for about what makes us have rights understands rights as “accidental” to our bodies but “essential” to our minds or awareness, since our bodies haven’t always “contained” a conscious being, so to speak.)

Such a view supports the premise above; maybe it just is that premise above. But why believe that rights are essential to human organisms? Some argue this is because of what “kind” of beings we are, which is often presumed to be “rational beings.” The reasoning seems to be this: first, that rights come from being a rational being: this is part of our “nature.” Second, that all human organisms, including fetuses, are the “kind” of being that is a “rational being,” so every being of the “kind” rational being has rights. 12

In response, this explanation might seem question-begging: it might amount to just asserting that all human beings have rights. This explanation is, at least, abstract. It seems to involve some categorization and a claim that everyone who is in a certain category has some of the same moral characteristics that others in that category have, but because of a characteristic (actual rationality) that only these others have: so, these others profoundly define what everyone else is . If this makes sense, why not also categorize us all as not rational beings , if we are the same kind of beings as fetuses that are actually not rational?

This explanation might seem to involve thinking that rights somehow “trickle down” from later rationality to our embryonic origins, and so what we have later we also have earlier , because we are the same being or the same “kind” of being. But this idea is, in general, doubtful: we are now responsible beings, in part because we are rational beings, but fetuses aren’t responsible for anything. And we are now able to engage in moral reasoning since we are rational beings, but fetuses don’t have the “rights” that uniquely depend on moral reasoning abilities. So that an individual is a member of some general group or kind doesn’t tell us much about their rights: that depends on the actual details about that individual, beyond their being members of a group or kind.

To make this more concrete, return to the permanently comatose individuals mentioned above: are we the same kind of beings, of the same “essence,” as these human beings? If so, then it seems that some human beings can be not wrong to let die or kill, when they have lost consciousness. Therefore, perhaps some other human beings, like early fetuses, are also not wrong to kill before they have gained consciousness . And if we are not the same “kind” of beings, or have different essences, then perhaps we also aren’t the same kind of beings as fetuses either.

Similar questions arise concerning anencephalic babies, tragically born without most of their brains: are they the same “kind” of beings as “regular” babies or us? If so, then—since such babies are arguably morally permissible to let die, even when they could be kept alive, since being alive does them no good—then being of our “kind” doesn’t mean the individual has the same rights as us, since letting us die would be wrong. But if such babies are a different “kind” of beings than us, then pre-conscious fetuses might be of a relevantly different kind also.

So, in general, this proposal that early fetuses essentially have rights is suspect, if we evaluate the reasons given in its support. Even if fetuses and us are the same “kind” of beings (which perhaps we are not!) that doesn’t immediately tell us what rights fetuses would have, if any. And we might even reasonably think that, despite our being the same kind of beings as fetuses (e.g., the same kind of biology), we are also importantly different kinds of beings (e.g., one kind with a mental life and another kind which has never had it). This photograph of a 6-week old fetus might help bring out the ambiguity in what kinds of beings we all are:


In sum, the abstract view that all human organisms have rights essentially needs to be plausibly explained and defended. We need to understand how it really works. We need to be shown why it’s a better explanation, all things considered, than a consciousness and feelings-based theory of rights that simply explains why we, and babies, have rights, why racism, sexism and other forms of clearly wrongful discrimination are wrong, and , importantly, how we might lose rights in irreversible coma cases (if people always retained the right to life in these circumstances, presumably, it would be wrong to let anyone die), and more.

5.1.3 Fetuses are persons

Finally, we get to what some see as the core issue here, namely whether fetuses are persons , and an argument like this:

Fetuses are persons, perhaps from conception.

Persons have the right to life and are wrong to kill.

So, abortion is wrong, as it involves killing persons.

The second premise seems very plausible, but there are some important complications about it that will be discussed later. So let’s focus on the idea of personhood and whether any fetuses are persons. What is it to be a person ? One answer that everyone can agree on is that persons are beings with rights and value . That’s a fine answer, but it takes us back to the initial question: OK, who or what has the rights and value of persons? What makes someone or something a person?

Answers here are often merely asserted , but these answers need to be tested: definitions can be judged in terms of whether they fit how a word is used. We might begin by thinking about what makes us persons. Consider this:

We are persons now. Either we will always be persons or we will cease being persons. If we will cease to be persons, what can end our personhood? If we will always be persons, how could that be?

Both options yield insight into personhood. Many people think that their personhood ends at death or if they were to go into a permanent coma: their body is (biologically) alive but the person is gone: that is why other people are sad. And if we continue to exist after the death of our bodies, as some religions maintain, what continues to exist? The person , perhaps even without a body, some think! Both responses suggest that personhood is defined by a rough and vague set of psychological or mental, rational and emotional characteristics: consciousness, knowledge, memories, and ways of communicating, all psychologically unified by a unique personality.

A second activity supports this understanding:

Make a list of things that are definitely not persons . Make a list of individuals who definitely are persons . Make a list of imaginary or fictional personified beings which, if existed, would be persons: these beings that fit or display the concept of person, even if they don’t exist. What explains the patterns of the lists?

Rocks, carrots, cups and dead gnats are clearly not persons. We are persons. Science fiction gives us ideas of personified beings: to give something the traits of a person is to indicate what the traits of persons are, so personified beings give insights into what it is to be a person. Even though the non-human characters from, say, Star Wars don’t exist, they fit the concept of person: we could befriend them, work with them, and so on, and we could only do that with persons. A common idea of God is that of an immaterial person who has exceptional power, knowledge, and goodness: you couldn’t pray to a rock and hope that rock would respond: you could only pray to a person. Are conscious and feeling animals, like chimpanzees, dolphins, cats, dogs, chickens, pigs, and cows more relevantly like us, as persons, or are they more like rocks and cabbages, non-persons? Conscious and feeling animals seem to be closer to persons than not. 13 So, this classificatory and explanatory activity further supports a psychological understanding of personhood: persons are, at root, conscious, aware and feeling beings.

Concerning abortion, early fetuses would not be persons on this account: they are not yet conscious or aware since their brains and nervous systems are either non-existent or insufficiently developed. Consciousness emerges in fetuses much later in pregnancy, likely after the first trimester or a bit beyond. This is after when most abortions occur. Most abortions, then, do not involve killing a person , since the fetus has not developed the characteristics for personhood. We will briefly discuss later abortions, that potentially affect fetuses who are persons or close to it, below.

It is perhaps worthwhile to notice though that if someone believed that fetuses are persons and thought this makes abortion wrong, it’s unclear how they could coherently believe that a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest could permissibly be ended by an abortion. Some who oppose abortion argue that, since you are a person, it would be wrong to kill you now even if you were conceived because of a rape, and so it’s wrong to kill any fetus who is a person, even if they exist because of a rape: whether someone is a person or not doesn’t depend on their origins: it would make no sense to think that, for two otherwise identical fetuses, one is a person but the other isn’t, because that one was conceived by rape. Therefore, those who accept a “personhood argument” against abortion, yet think that abortions in cases of rape are acceptable, seem to have an inconsistent view.

5.1.4 Fetuses are potential persons

If fetuses aren’t persons, they are at least potential persons, meaning they could and would become persons. This is true. This, however, doesn’t mean that they currently have the rights of persons because, in general, potential things of a kind don’t have the rights of actual things of that kind : potential doctors, lawyers, judges, presidents, voters, veterans, adults, parents, spouses, graduates, moral reasoners and more don’t have the rights of actual individuals of those kinds.

Some respond that potential gives the right to at least try to become something. But that trying sometimes involves the cooperation of others: if your friend is a potential medical student, but only if you tutor her for many hours a day, are you obligated to tutor her? If my child is a potential NASCAR champion, am I obligated to buy her a race car to practice? ‘No’ to both and so it is unclear that a pregnant woman would be obligated to provide what’s necessary to bring about a fetus’s potential. (More on that below, concerning the what obligations the right to life imposes on others, in terms of obligations to assist other people.)

5.1.5 Abortion prevents fetuses from experiencing their valuable futures

The argument against abortion that is likely most-discussed by philosophers comes from philosopher Don Marquis. 14 He argues that it is wrong to kill us, typical adults and children, because it deprives us from experiencing our (expected to be) valuable futures, which is a great loss to us . He argues that since fetuses also have valuable futures (“futures like ours” he calls them), they are also wrong to kill. His argument has much to recommend it, but there are reasons to doubt it as well.

First, fetuses don’t seem to have futures like our futures , since—as they are pre-conscious—they are entirely psychologically disconnected from any future experiences: there is no (even broken) chain of experiences from the fetus to that future person’s experiences. Babies are, at least, aware of the current moment, which leads to the next moment; children and adults think about and plan for their futures, but fetuses cannot do these things, being completely unconscious and without a mind.

Second, this fact might even mean that the early fetus doesn’t literally have a future: if your future couldn’t include you being a merely physical, non-conscious object (e.g., you couldn’t be a corpse: if there’s a corpse, you are gone), then non-conscious physical objects, like a fetus, couldn’t literally be a future person. 15 If this is correct, early fetuses don’t even have futures, much less futures like ours. Something would have a future, like ours, only when there is someone there to be psychologically connected to that future: that someone arrives later in pregnancy, after when most abortions occur.

A third objection is more abstract and depends on the “metaphysics” of objects. It begins with the observation that there are single objects with parts with space between them . Indeed almost every object is like this, if you could look close enough: it’s not just single dinette sets, since there is literally some space between the parts of most physical objects. From this, it follows that there seem to be single objects such as an-egg-and-the-sperm-that-would-fertilize-it . And these would also seem to have a future of value, given how Marquis describes this concept. (It should be made clear that sperm and eggs alone do not have futures of value, and Marquis does not claim they do: this is not the objection here). The problem is that contraception, even by abstinence , prevents that thing’s future of value from materializing, and so seems to be wrong when we use Marquis’s reasoning. Since contraception is not wrong, but his general premise suggests that it is , it seems that preventing something from experiencing its valuable future isn’t always wrong and so Marquis’s argument appears to be unsound. 16

In sum, these are some of the most influential arguments against abortion. Our discussion was brief, but these arguments do not appear to be successful: they do not show that abortion is wrong, much less make it clear and obvious that abortion is wrong.

Home — Essay Samples — Social Issues — Abortion — Debates on Abortion: Arguments Against and For


Debates on Abortion: Arguments Against and for

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Published: Dec 5, 2018

Words: 487 | Page: 1 | 3 min read

Abortion Argumentative Essay: Hook Examples

  • A Controversial Crossroads: In the heart of one of the most polarizing debates in our nation’s history, the topic of abortion stands as a moral and ethical crossroads. As we delve into this complex issue, we’ll explore the perspectives, the consequences, and the underlying principles that shape the discourse on abortion.
  • The Choice That Divides: Abortion, the deliberate termination of pregnancy, has ignited impassioned arguments on both sides of the aisle. Whether you’re pro-choice, advocating for a woman’s right to choose, or anti-choice, emphasizing the sanctity of life, the abortion debate raises profound questions about human rights, autonomy, and responsibility.
  • Mind and Body: The Toll of Abortion: Beyond the legal and moral debate, abortion carries psychological and physical consequences. Join us as we explore the impact of abortion on mental health, the potential for regret, and the physical risks faced by women who choose this path.
  • The Unseen Pain of the Unborn: While the debate often centers on the rights of women, we must also consider the unborn child’s experience. Recent studies suggest that fetuses can feel pain, adding a layer of complexity to the abortion discussion. Let’s examine the evidence and its implications.
  • Medicine and Morality: Delving into the medical realm, we’ll explore the ethical dilemmas faced by doctors who perform abortions, the potential complications for women, and the broader implications for society as we navigate the contentious terrain of abortion rights.

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  • America’s Abortion Quandary

2. Social and moral considerations on abortion

Table of contents.

  • Abortion at various stages of pregnancy 
  • Abortion and circumstances of pregnancy 
  • Parental notification for minors seeking abortion
  • Penalties for abortions performed illegally 
  • Public views of what would change the number of abortions in the U.S.
  • A majority of Americans say women should have more say in setting abortion policy in the U.S.
  • How do certain arguments about abortion resonate with Americans?
  • In their own words: How Americans feel about abortion 
  • Personal connections to abortion 
  • Religion’s impact on views about abortion
  • Acknowledgments
  • The American Trends Panel survey methodology

Relatively few Americans view the morality of abortion in stark terms: Overall, just 7% of all U.S. adults say abortion is morally acceptable in all cases, and 13% say it is morally wrong in all cases. A third say that abortion is morally wrong in  most  cases, while about a quarter (24%) say it is morally acceptable most of the time. About an additional one-in-five do not consider abortion a moral issue.

A chart showing wide religious and partisan differences in views of the morality of abortion

There are wide differences on this question by political party and religious affiliation. Among Republicans and independents who lean toward the Republican Party, most say that abortion is morally wrong either in most (48%) or all cases (20%). Among Democrats and Democratic leaners, meanwhile, only about three-in-ten (29%) hold a similar view. About four-in-ten Democrats say abortion is morally  acceptable  in most (32%) or all (11%) cases, while an additional 28% say abortion is not a moral issue. 

White evangelical Protestants overwhelmingly say abortion is morally wrong in most (51%) or all cases (30%). A slim majority of Catholics (53%) also view abortion as morally wrong, but many also say it is morally acceptable in most (24%) or all cases (4%), or that it is not a moral issue (17%). And among religiously unaffiliated Americans, about three-quarters see abortion as morally acceptable (45%) or not a moral issue (32%).

There is strong alignment between people’s views of whether abortion is morally wrong and whether it should be illegal. For example, among U.S. adults who take the view that abortion should be illegal in all cases without exception, fully 86% also say abortion is always morally wrong. The prevailing view among adults who say abortion should be legal in all circumstances is that abortion is not a moral issue (44%), though notable shares of this group also say it is morally acceptable in all (27%) or most (22%) cases. 

Most Americans who say abortion should be illegal with some exceptions take the view that abortion is morally wrong in  most  cases (69%). Those who say abortion should be legal with some exceptions are somewhat more conflicted, with 43% deeming abortion morally acceptable in most cases and 26% saying it is morally wrong in most cases; an additional 24% say it is not a moral issue. 

The survey also asked respondents who said abortion is morally wrong in at least some cases whether there are situations where abortion should still be legal  despite  being morally wrong. Roughly half of U.S. adults (48%) say that there are, in fact, situations where abortion is morally wrong but should still be legal, while just 22% say that whenever abortion is morally wrong, it should also be illegal. An additional 28% either said abortion is morally acceptable in all cases or not a moral issue, and thus did not receive the follow-up question.

Across both political parties and all major Christian subgroups – including Republicans and White evangelicals – there are substantially more people who say that there are situations where abortion should still be  legal  despite being morally wrong than there are who say that abortion should always be  illegal  when it is morally wrong.

A chart showing roughly half of Americans say there are situations where abortion is morally wrong, but should still be legal

Asked about the impact a number of policy changes would have on the number of abortions in the U.S., nearly two-thirds of Americans (65%) say “more support for women during pregnancy, such as financial assistance or employment protections” would reduce the number of abortions in the U.S. Six-in-ten say the same about expanding sex education and similar shares say more support for parents (58%), making it easier to place children for adoption in good homes (57%) and passing stricter abortion laws (57%) would have this effect. 

While about three-quarters of White evangelical Protestants (74%) say passing stricter abortion laws would reduce the number of abortions in the U.S., about half of religiously unaffiliated Americans (48%) hold this view. Similarly, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say this (67% vs. 49%, respectively). By contrast, while about seven-in-ten unaffiliated adults (69%) say expanding sex education would reduce the number of abortions in the U.S., only about half of White evangelicals (48%) say this. Democrats also are substantially more likely than Republicans to hold this view (70% vs. 50%). 

Democrats are somewhat more likely than Republicans to say support for parents – such as paid family leave or more child care options – would reduce the number of abortions in the country (64% vs. 53%, respectively), while Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say making adoption into good homes easier would reduce abortions (64% vs. 52%).

Majorities across both parties and other subgroups analyzed in this report say that more support for women during pregnancy would reduce the number of abortions in America.

A chart showing Republicans more likely than Democrats to say passing stricter abortion laws would reduce number of abortions in the United States

More than half of U.S. adults (56%) say women should have more say than men when it comes to setting policies around abortion in this country – including 42% who say women should have “a lot” more say. About four-in-ten (39%) say men and women should have equal say in abortion policies, and 3% say men should have more say than women. 

Six-in-ten women and about half of men (51%) say that women should have more say on this policy issue. 

Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to say women should have more say than men in setting abortion policy (70% vs. 41%). Similar shares of Protestants (48%) and Catholics (51%) say women should have more say than men on this issue, while the share of religiously unaffiliated Americans who say this is much higher (70%).

Seeking to gauge Americans’ reactions to several common arguments related to abortion, the survey presented respondents with six statements and asked them to rate how well each statement reflects their views on a five-point scale ranging from “extremely well” to “not at all well.” 

About half of U.S. adults say if legal abortions are too hard to get, women will seek out unsafe ones

The list included three statements sometimes cited by individuals wishing to protect a right to abortion: “The decision about whether to have an abortion should belong solely to the pregnant woman,” “If legal abortions are too hard to get, then women will seek out unsafe abortions from unlicensed providers,” and “If legal abortions are too hard to get, then it will be more difficult for women to get ahead in society.” The first two of these resonate with the greatest number of Americans, with about half (53%) saying each describes their views “extremely” or “very” well. In other words, among the statements presented in the survey, U.S. adults are most likely to say that women alone should decide whether to have an abortion, and that making abortion illegal will lead women into unsafe situations.

The three other statements are similar to arguments sometimes made by those who wish to restrict access to abortions: “Human life begins at conception, so a fetus is a person with rights,” “If legal abortions are too easy to get, then people won’t be as careful with sex and contraception,” and “If legal abortions are too easy to get, then some pregnant women will be pressured into having an abortion even when they don’t want to.” 

Fewer than half of Americans say each of these statements describes their views extremely or very well. Nearly four-in-ten endorse the notion that “human life begins at conception, so a fetus is a person with rights” (26% say this describes their views extremely well, 12% very well), while about a third say that “if legal abortions are too easy to get, then people won’t be as careful with sex and contraception” (20% extremely well, 15% very well).

When it comes to statements cited by proponents of abortion rights, Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to identify with all three of these statements, as are religiously unaffiliated Americans compared with Catholics and Protestants. Women also are more likely than men to express these views – and especially more likely to say that decisions about abortion should fall solely to pregnant women and that restrictions on abortion will put women in unsafe situations. Younger adults under 30 are particularly likely to express the view that if legal abortions are too hard to get, then it will be difficult for women to get ahead in society.

A chart showing most Democrats say decisions about abortion should fall solely to pregnant women

In the case of the three statements sometimes cited by opponents of abortion, the patterns generally go in the opposite direction. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say each statement reflects their views “extremely” or “very” well, as are Protestants (especially White evangelical Protestants) and Catholics compared with the religiously unaffiliated. In addition, older Americans are more likely than young adults to say that human life begins at conception and that easy access to abortion encourages unsafe sex.

Gender differences on these questions, however, are muted. In fact, women are just as likely as men to say that human life begins at conception, so a fetus is a person with rights (39% and 38%, respectively).

A chart showing nearly three-quarters of White evangelicals say human life begins at conception

Analyzing certain statements together allows for an examination of the extent to which individuals can simultaneously hold two views that may seem to some as in conflict. For instance, overall, one-in-three U.S. adults say that  both  the statement “the decision about whether to have an abortion should belong solely to the pregnant woman” and the statement “human life begins at conception, so the fetus is a person with rights” reflect their own views at least somewhat well. This includes 12% of adults who say both statements reflect their views “extremely” or “very” well. 

Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats to say both statements reflect their own views at least somewhat well (36% vs. 30%), although Republicans are much more likely to say  only  the statement about the fetus being a person with rights reflects their views at least somewhat well (39% vs. 9%) and Democrats are much more likely to say  only  the statement about the decision to have an abortion belonging solely to the pregnant woman reflects their views at least somewhat well (55% vs. 19%).

Additionally, those who take the stance that abortion should be legal in all cases with no exceptions are overwhelmingly likely (76%) to say only the statement about the decision belonging solely to the pregnant woman reflects their views extremely, very or somewhat well, while a nearly identical share (73%) of those who say abortion should be  illegal  in all cases with no exceptions say only the statement about human life beginning at conception reflects their views at least somewhat well.

A chart showing one-third of U.S. adults say both that abortion decision belongs solely to the pregnant woman, and that life begins at conception and fetuses have rights

When asked to describe whether they had any other additional views or feelings about abortion, adults shared a range of strong or complex views about the topic. In many cases, Americans reiterated their strong support – or opposition to – abortion in the U.S. Others reflected on how difficult or nuanced the issue was, offering emotional responses or personal experiences to one of two open-ended questions asked on the survey. 

One open-ended question asked respondents if they wanted to share any other views or feelings about abortion overall. The other open-ended question asked respondents about their feelings or views regarding abortion restrictions. The responses to both questions were similar. 

Overall, about three-in-ten adults offered a response to either of the open-ended questions. There was little difference in the likelihood to respond by party, religion or gender, though people who say they have given a “lot” of thought to the issue were more likely to respond than people who have not. 

Of those who did offer additional comments, about a third of respondents said something in support of legal abortion. By far the most common sentiment expressed was that the decision to have an abortion should be solely a personal decision, or a decision made jointly with a woman and her health care provider, with some saying simply that it “should be between a woman and her doctor.” Others made a more general point, such as one woman who said, “A woman’s body and health should not be subject to legislation.” 

About one-in-five of the people who responded to the question expressed disapproval of abortion – the most common reason being a belief that a fetus is a person or that abortion is murder. As one woman said, “It is my belief that life begins at conception and as much as is humanly possible, we as a society need to support, protect and defend each one of those little lives.” Others in this group pointed to the fact that they felt abortion was too often used as a form of birth control. For example, one man said, “Abortions are too easy to obtain these days. It seems more women are using it as a way of birth control.” 

About a quarter of respondents who opted to answer one of the open-ended questions said that their views about abortion were complex; many described having mixed feelings about the issue or otherwise expressed sympathy for both sides of the issue. One woman said, “I am personally opposed to abortion in most cases, but I think it would be detrimental to society to make it illegal. I was alive before the pill and before legal abortions. Many women died.” And one man said, “While I might feel abortion may be wrong in some cases, it is never my place as a man to tell a woman what to do with her body.” 

The remaining responses were either not related to the topic or were difficult to interpret.

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The Abortion Fight Isn’t a ‘War on Women.’ It’s a War on Poor Women

An activist seen holding a placard that says Stop The War On

O n April 9, Arizona’s supreme court ruled that its 1864 almost total abortion ban remains in place. That came a week after Florida’s supreme court upheld an abortion ban, triggering an even stricter six-week ban. The onslaught of anti-abortion laws and court decisions has led liberals like California Governor Gavin Newsom to assert that the political right has declared “a war on women .”

This concept isn’t new, but it actually distorts the history of anti-abortion legislation. Abortion regulations have never applied equally to all doctors or all women. Understanding this history reveals that today — as in the past — abortion bans affect both women and providers differently depending upon factors like their race, class, and social standing. The people impacted most have changed over time, but one thing has remained consistent: abortion restrictions are less a war on women than a war on poor women.

The conditions that created these class and social dynamics began to emerge almost two centuries ago. In 1829, for example, New York State enacted a law defining abortion as second-degree manslaughter — but only if the woman was “pregnant with a quick child,” that is, if she’d felt the fetus moving inside of her, something that typically happened around 20 weeks. 

In the late 1850s, that law — and others like it — came under attack by Boston doctor Horatio R. Storer. In an 1859 essay, he argued that these laws defined the crime of abortion too leniently. “By the Moral Law, THE WILFUL KILLING OF A HUMAN BEING AT ANY STAGE OF ITS EXISTENCE IS MURDER.” He also argued, without evidence, that women could face dire medical consequences from an abortion, including, on occasion, death. 

But Storer wasn’t just worried about women as a universal class. He reserved his greatest scorn for white middle- and upper-class women, whom he claimed were seeking abortions in greater numbers than poor and immigrant women. He claimed that middle-class women boasted to each other about their successful abortions, in the same way they might brag about a new dress or a social coup. In Storer’s view, these women who sought abortions were not just victims of a purportedly dangerous medical procedure, but dangerous criminals who were outside the reach of the law.

Read More: What to Know About the Arizona Supreme Court Abortion Ban Ruling

Storer’s anti-abortion activism occurred at a time when he and other “medical men” of similar social standing were attempting to professionalize medicine by implementing rigorous educational and training standards. As part of this push, these doctors hoped to take over what would become the lucrative fields of obstetrics and gynecology from female midwives and other providers they considered untrained and dangerous — those who Storer claimed “frequently cause abortion openly and without disguise.”

In Storer’s view, white, educated “medical men” like him had to seek justice as “the physical guardians of women and their offspring.” It was their responsibility to “stand… in the breach fast making in the public morality, decency, and conscience.” Behind these righteous pronouncements, though, lurked Storer’s unspoken fear: that if men like him did not intervene, middle-class wives would shirk their childbearing duties, leaving their husbands without heirs while poor and immigrant families swelled their ranks. 

Storer spent the latter part of the 1850s, and much of the 1860s, organizing letter-writing campaigns by new professional medical societies, including state affiliates of the American Medical Association (AMA). He hoped to pressure states into passing ever-stricter abortion bans. In New York, the effort paid off in 1869 when the legislature made abortion second-degree manslaughter at any stage of pregnancy if it resulted in the death of the mother or the termination of the pregnancy.

In the fall of 1871, the new statute led to the conviction of abortion provider Jacob Rosenzweig for manslaughter in the death of Alice Bowlsby in New York City. Railway officials had found Bowlsby's body in a trunk bound for Chicago only days after the New York Times had published an exposé on abortionists, including Rosenzweig, titled “The Evil of the Age.”

The paper had described Rosenzweig as having a $40 degree, and purportedly knowing “more of the saloon business than of medicine.” Nonetheless, he did “a large business” — part of a “frightful profusion” of discreet abortions performed by untrained practitioners. 

It took less than two hours for a jury to find Rosenzweig guilty, and a judge sentenced him to seven years’ hard labor in the Albany State Penitentiary, the maximum sentence possible.

Meanwhile, just weeks after Bowlsby's death, a young Albany waitress named Margaret Campbell died from an abortion performed by “Mrs. Dr. Emma Burleigh,” a well known abortionist. After colleagues of Burleigh’s tried to cover it up — including spiriting Campbell’s body away to an unmarked grave in the local cemetery — a second autopsy revealed that the young woman’s abdomen was inflamed, her uterus was missing, and her breasts were full of milk. A laceration was found in her vagina, “occupied by a clot of blood.”

The outcome for Burleigh, however, was very different than for Rosenzweig. Under cross-examination at the coroner’s inquest, she got the doctors who performed the autopsy to admit that alternate explanations existed for all of their findings. There was no definitive proof that Campbell had been pregnant, that she’d had an abortion, or that the operation had caused her death. The jury agreed that the cause of death was simple peritonitis , and Burleigh walked free. 

The disparity between the two cases was no accident. The abortion statute really wasn’t about protecting women from unqualified practitioners, nor was it a war on women, as Storer might have hoped. Instead, it was a weapon of class warfare. 

Rosenzweig was a Jewish immigrant — a dangerous outsider. Meanwhile, Burleigh — who lied about having a medical degree in advertisements, but had taken medical classes — was an educated white woman. That made her less of a threat to the native-born doctors like Storer who were working to consolidate medical authority under their own control. 

Class also separated the two victims: Newspaper accounts of Bowlsby’s death painted her as a young lady from “respectable society,” with “relatives in the highest circles.” In other words, she was an ideal victim for the villain of the immigrant doctor. Campbell, by contrast, was, in the words of one prominent abortion opponent, an obscure Irish waitress who was “evidently…not of correct moral habits.”

Read More: How Ronald Reagan Helped Abortion Take Over the Republican Agenda

In 1872, New York toughened the law further, defining abortion as a felony with a possible sentence of 20 years in prison. Yet even under this law, wealthy, typically white women continued to seek and receive safe abortions. Often, it was trained male physicians of similar social and class standing who performed them without legal penalties. Strict enforcement of abortion laws didn’t ramp up until the mid-20th century , when medical care moved from private offices exclusive to a well-off clientele into public hospitals and clinics serving the poor along with the wealthy. 

Understanding how New York’s abortion laws functioned in the 19th century creates a new perspective on abortion bans in 2024. 

They, too, are far more of a weapon of class warfare than a war on all women.

Strict abortion bans are more likely to exist in states where a high number of women of childbearing age have incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line. Of the five states with the highest levels of poverty among women of childbearing age —  Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, West Virginia, and New Mexico — all but New Mexico fall into the Guttmacher Institute’s  “most restrictive” abortion law category. Poverty strengthens the effects of abortion bans, since poor women can’t afford to miss work, book travel, arrange childcare, and pay out of pocket for procedures if they do not have health insurance. 

Abortion bans also exacerbate poverty. A University of California San Francisco study found that women denied an abortion saw an increase in poverty for at least four years and were more likely to see drops in their credit scores . These impacts don’t hurt poor women in isolation: abortion bans also put their children, their husbands, and their wider communities at a disadvantage by making the cycle of poverty harder to escape.

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By contrast, just as in the 19th century, wealthier women — those who have health insurance, who can afford a pharmaceutical or surgical copay, and who have the means to take time off work and travel to a state with more lenient regulations — are far more insulated from the most potent and cascading impacts of abortion bans. So, too, are their families and communities.  

As in the 19th century, class, hand in hand with race, provides a more useful lens of analysis for understanding abortion legislation in the U.S. In restricting abortion, “medical men” like Storer worked to consolidate medical authority among the white upper classes. Today, it is often men from a similarly high social and class standing, serving in state legislatures and on courts, who are once again pushing for abortion restrictions that most adversely impact Americans with less social and economic capital.

R.E. Fulton is an independent historian of medicine, gender, and crime whose work focuses on abortion practitioners in 19th-century New York. Their book The Abortionist of Howard Street , out May 2024 from Cornell University Press, studies the life and career of Josephine McCarty, alias Emma Burleigh.

Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here . Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors .

More Must-Reads From TIME

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Write to Made by History / R.E. Fulton at [email protected]

Trump says it’s up to states whether to punish, monitor women for abortions

Former president Donald Trump said in an interview published Tuesday that he would not intervene in state decisions on abortion policy, including in situations where states seek to monitor women’s pregnancies and prosecute those who violate abortion bans.

Trump also declined during the interview with Time magazine to commit to veto any additional federal restrictions if they were to come to his desk upon a possible return to the White House.

Asked by Time if he would be comfortable with states prosecuting women for having abortions outside limited periods permitted by state laws, Trump suggested the federal government should have no role.

“It’s irrelevant whether I’m comfortable or not,” Trump said. “It’s totally irrelevant, because the states are going to make those decisions.”

Trump’s comments highlight the fraught politics of the stance on abortion that he outlined earlier this month.

Trump announced on social media that policy should be left to the states, after months of mixed signals about his position. Trump has consistently taken credit for overturning Roe v. Wade — three of the justices who ruled on the case were appointed by him — yet has distanced himself from the political repercussions of the decision.

Shortly after Trump articulated his states-rights stance this month, Arizona’s Supreme Court revived an 1864 law passed before it was granted statehood that forbids abortions except to save a mother’s life and punishes providers with prison time. In that case, Trump said the state had gone too far.

During the Time interview, however, Trump repeatedly emphasized his support for state autonomy, at least in concept.

When asked, for instance, about the federal Republican-sponsored Life at Conception Act, which would grant “full legal rights to embryos,” Trump said: “I’m leaving everything up to the states.”

He declined to say whether he would veto such a bill, suggesting he wouldn’t be presented with that decision.

“I don’t have to do anything about vetoes,” Trump said, “because we now have it back in the states.”

Asked by Time if states should monitor women’s pregnancies to detect whether they get abortions after a ban takes effect, Trump said: “I think they might do that.”

“Again, you’ll have to speak to the individual states,” he said. “Look, Roe v. Wade was all about bringing it back to the states.”

Democrats have sought to make abortion the dominant issue in the 2024 elections, highlighting Trump’s role in appointing the three conservative Supreme Court justices who helped overturn a constitutional right to abortion in 2022, and legislation pushed by Republican lawmakers to ban or severely restrict access to the procedure.

President Biden’s campaign seized on the Time interview after it was published Tuesday.

Biden campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez said Trump’s latest remarks are proof that reproductive health care is at stake in the election.

“Donald Trump’s latest comments leave little doubt: if elected he’ll sign a national abortion ban, allow women who have an abortion to be prosecuted and punished, allow the government to invade women’s privacy to monitor their pregnancies, and put IVF and contraception in jeopardy nationwide,” Rodriguez said in a statement. “Simply put: November’s election will determine whether women in the United States have reproductive freedom, or whether Trump’s new government will continue its assault to control women’s health care decisions.”

Trump declined to answer directly when asked by Time if he thinks women should be able to obtain the abortion pill mifepristone .

“Well, I have an opinion on that, but I’m not going to explain. I’m not gonna say it yet.” He said he would announce his position “probably over the next week.” When pressed for an answer, Trump sought more time. “I will be making a statement on that over the next 14 days.”

Trump spoke with writer Eric Cortellessa at his home in Florida on April 12 and had a follow-up phone interview April 27, the magazine reported. On Tuesday it published a story about the interview along with a transcript .

The interview comes as Republicans brace for fallout from their newly pushed restrictions.

Florida’s ban on abortion after six weeks of pregnancy takes effect this week, one of the strictest in the nation.

The Republican-led Arizona Senate is expected to vote on a repeal of the state’s near total abortion ban after the state Supreme Court ruled a Civil War-era bill can take effect following the overturning of Roe v. Wade . Arizona’s House last week voted to repeal the law, after prominent antiabortion Republicans such as Senate candidate Kari Lake reversed course on the issue .

Trump, who once described himself as “very pro-choice,” said in 2000 that he would “indeed support a ban.” As a candidate, Trump struggled to adopt a position to fully satisfy leading members of the antiabortion movement while shielding himself and Republicans from blowback at the ballot box.

During the GOP nominating contests, Trump declined to take a firm stance on federal legislation and criticized Florida’s six-week abortion ban as a “terrible mistake.” In a CNN town hall last year, Trump would not say whether he would sign a federal abortion ban. Instead he said the antiabortion movement was in a “very good negotiating position” after the Supreme Court overturned Roe.

As president, Trump backed a 20-week abortion ban that did not have the votes to pass Congress and at the time conflicted with Roe, which gave Americans nationwide a right to abortion until a fetus was viable outside the womb, often pegged at roughly 24 weeks of pregnancy.

After publication of the Time interview Tuesday, Trump celebrated the piece while speaking to reporters outside the courtroom in New York, where he is on trial.

“I want to thank the Time magazine,” he said. “They did a cover story, which is very nice.”

“It’s at least 60 percent correct, which is all I could ask for,” Trump said, without identifying anything that he might say were inaccuracies. Trump walked away and ignored questions shouted by reporters.

Isaac Arnsdorf contributed to this report.

U.S. abortion access, reproductive rights

Tracking abortion access in the United States: Since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade , the legality of abortion has been left to individual states. The Washington Post is tracking states where abortion is legal, banned or under threat.

Abortion and the election: Voters in about a dozen states could decide the fate of abortion rights with constitutional amendments on the ballot in a pivotal election year. Biden supports legal access to abortion , and he has encouraged Congress to pass a law that would codify abortion rights nationwide. After months of mixed signals about his position, Trump said the issue should be left to states . Here’s how Biden and Trump’s abortion stances have shifted over the years.

New study: The number of women using abortion pills to end their pregnancies on their own without the direct involvement of a U.S.-based medical provider rose sharply in the months after the Supreme Court eliminated a constitutional right to abortion , according to new research.

Abortion pills: The Supreme Court seemed unlikely to limit access to the abortion pill mifepristone . Here’s what’s at stake in the case and some key moments from oral arguments . For now, full access to mifepristone will remain in place . Here’s how mifepristone is used and where you can legally access the abortion pill .

  • States where abortion is on the ballot in the 2024 election April 15, 2024 States where abortion is on the ballot in the 2024 election April 15, 2024
  • States where abortion is legal, banned or under threat May 1, 2024 States where abortion is legal, banned or under threat May 1, 2024
  • Texas man files legal action to probe ex-partner’s out-of-state abortion May 3, 2024 Texas man files legal action to probe ex-partner’s out-of-state abortion May 3, 2024

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Kamala Harris says another Trump term would mean ‘more suffering, less freedom’ as six-week Florida abortion ban goes into effect

V ice President Kamala Harris traveled to Florida on Wednesday just hours after a controversial ban on most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy goes into effect in the state, as the Biden campaign ratchets up its strategy of blaming former President Donald Trump for abortion restrictions being adopted across the country.

Harris, who has been leading the charge for the Biden White House and campaign on the issue of reproductive rights, needled Trump repeatedly during her remarks at a campaign event in Jacksonville, mentioning the former president 21 times and setting into stark terms what a second Trump administration would mean for women across the country: “More bans, more suffering, less freedom.”

“But we are not going to let that happen,” Harris said. “Because we trust women. We trust women to know what is in their own best interest. And women trust all of us to fight to protect their most fundamental freedom.”

The vice president explicitly blamed Trump for the Supreme Court’s historic overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022 and for a slew of abortion bans that some states have adopted since.

It was the most times she had mentioned Trump at an event so far this year, according to a Biden campaign official.

“As of this morning, 4 million women in this state woke up with fewer reproductive freedoms than they had last night,” Harris said. “Starting this morning, women in Florida became subject to an abortion ban so extreme it applies before many women even know they are pregnant.”

“Which, by the way, tells us the extremists who wrote this ban either don’t know how a women’s body works, or they simply don’t care,” Harris added.

She also mentioned how abortion bans like the one going into effect in Florida on Wednesday threaten medical providers with criminal prosecution.

Harris also addressed Trump’s recently published comments to Time magazine, in which he did not object when asked whether he was “comfortable” with states punishing women who undergo abortions where it is banned.

“I don’t have to be comfortable or uncomfortable,” Trump said. “The states are going to make that decision. The states are going to have to be comfortable or uncomfortable, not me.”

She said in response: “So Florida, the contrast in this election could not be more clear: Basically under Donald Trump, it would be fair game for women to be monitored and punished by the government, whereas Joe Biden and I have a different view. We believe the government should never come between a woman and her doctor.”

Florida House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell told CNN at the Jacksonville event that women in Florida woke up Wednesday morning with “fewer rights than their mothers and their grandmothers had.”

“We advocated as hard as we could against the six-week ban, because most women don’t even know that they’re pregnant,” Driskell said. “So, this is as close to an outright ban as you can get, and it’s not just that the state of Florida has fallen, this actually has broad implications for women all throughout the southeast who have come to Florida seeking abortion care.”

The vice president’s trek to Florida comes just one week after President Joe Biden visited Tampa – also to shine a spotlight on the state’s six-week abortion ban.

During remarks to supporters Wednesday, Biden called the Florida abortion ban one of the “most extreme” in the country and squarely pinned the blame on his GOP rival.

“The most extreme abortion bans in the country, one of them,” Biden said, according to the pool. “It’s only one person, one person responsible for it: Donald Trump.”

Biden advisers are hoping the political saliency of the reproductive rights issue can help galvanize voters ahead of Election Day and make Florida – a state that Trump won in 2016 and 2020 – more competitive. In addition to ringing the alarm bell on the six-week abortion ban, Democrats are also seizing on the fact that a constitutional amendment that would  codify abortion protections in the state  will be on the ballot in the fall, hoping that measure can help drive turnout.

The campaign has been keeping close tabs on Jacksonville, the fast-growing, most populous city in Florida. No Democratic presidential candidate had won Duval County – home to Jacksonville – since Jimmy Carter in 1976; Biden broke the losing streak in 2020 by defeating Trump there.

National Democrats hope that some of the key dynamics that delivered Duval County for Biden in 2020, including a boost in Black voter turnout and the rejection of Trump by suburban women, can be replicated in swing areas across the country.

“Donald Trump may think he can take Florida for granted,” Harris said. “It is your power that will send Joe Biden and me back to the White House.”

A key role for Harris

The vice president has emerged as the Biden campaign’s most prominent messenger on abortion rights since the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision overturning Roe v. Wade. In remarks last month from Tucson, Arizona, she issued a blistering rebuke of the state’s Civil War-era ban while warning a second Trump term could see a possible federal abortion ban.

“What has happened here in Arizona is a new inflection point – it has demonstrated once and for all that overturning Roe was … just the opening act of a larger strategy to take women’s rights and freedoms,” she said at the time. “Part of a full-on attack, state by state, on reproductive freedom – and we all must understand who is to blame. Former President Donald Trump did this.”

While Trump has spent the bulk of the last month in a New York courtroom over alleged hush money payments , Harris and Biden have kept a far busier campaign schedule. In April alone, the vice president made stops in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Los Angeles, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Georgia – all states that may prove crucial to delivering Biden a reelection victory in November.

In a memo last month, campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez called Florida “winnable,” specifically pointing to the issue of abortion as “mobilizing a diverse and growing segment of voters to help buoy Democrats up and down the ballot.”

As the ban is set to take effect Wednesday, the national Democratic Party purchased billboards in Spanish and English tying Trump to abortion bans and targeting high-traffic areas in Gainesville, Miami, Tampa and Orlando.

The DNC on Wednesday afternoon also launched a sky banner over Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach that reads: “Trump’s Plan: Ban Abortion, Punish Women.”

Capturing the level of alarm that national Democrats are raising, Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Nikki Fried warned Tuesday in a call with reporters that the Florida law’s implementation would mean “access to reproductive care is now effectively eliminated.”

“The Democratic Party is really energized by the fact that the attention that we are receiving from the administration, and they understand that if you want to protect democracy and freedom across the entire country, that you have to come to the belly of the beast, which is here in the state of Florida,” Fried said.

This story has been updated with additional developments.

CNN’s Sam Fossum contributed to this report.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks Wednesday, May 1 at the Prime Osborn Convention Center in Jacksonville, Florida.

Political Wire

Most Think Trump Would Ban Abortion Nationally

May 8, 2024 at 9:18 am EDT By Taegan Goddard Leave a Comment

Donald Trump thought his “let the states decide” position on abortion was threading some imaginary middle ground on the controversial issue.

A new poll suggests its backfiring badly.

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Goddard earned degrees from Vassar College and Harvard University. He lives in New York with his wife and three sons.

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