Pro-Both      Preserving Life by Promoting Choice

The Case for Pro-Both

There are in the neighborhood of 1.3 million abortions performed each year in the United States. That's more than double the number of deaths caused by cancer. It is a national tragedy. Abortion is a problem that our nation needs to address.

But it should never be forgotten that every one of those abortions was the result of a decision by a woman who found herself in an untenable situation. Who found herself pregnant in circumstances where having a child was, for her, not only unwelcome, but unthinkable. So unthinkable that terminating her pregnancy with an abortion seemed like the only option. That there are more than 1.3 million women each year placed in the situation of being pregnant with a child they cannot want is also a national tragedy.

Many people think of the choice of whether to be pro-life or pro-choice as a question of which is worse: terminating the life of an unborn child, or forcing a woman to bear a child she does not want. Shall we ban abortion, saving 1.3 million unborn children per year, and drastically worsening the plight of 1.3 million adult women, or shall we keep it legal, sacrificing the unborn children to give some measure of relief to women in difficult circumstances?

To make this choice is to try to choose the lesser of two evils. Sometimes we have to do that. But when we do, we necessarily make arguments that say that something bad is maybe not so bad after all. Maybe "life" doesn't begin until later in pregnancy, so terminating an unborn child in the first trimester isn't really a killing. Maybe we don't need to feel sympathy for women who get pregnant when they don't want children, because they are only suffering the natural consequences of their own actions. We cannot fully accept arguments like this without tainting ourselves with the lesser evil we have chosen. These are the kinds of arguments we should consider only when we have no alternatives.

But there are alternatives.

"Choice" and "life" are not opposites. There exists a political agenda which could do at least as much to reduce abortion as illegalizing it could, and which increases rather than decreases the capacity of people to control their own reproductive destiny. This agenda is not new. Elements of it have been actively pursued for a long time with substantial success by people on both sides of the abortion issue. But these efforts receive little public recognition, and have been mired in the controversy over the legality of abortion. What we need to do is put that agenda on the top of our list. That is the way to be pro-both.

Science Fiction Story One: The Perfect Contraceptive

To help break out of the the trap of pro-life/pro-choice thinking, let's travel to an imaginary world where WonderDrugs Incorporated has just announced the availability of a new contraceptive - The Perfect Contraceptive. Let's suppose that there are two pills. Take the red pill, and you are 100% infertile until you take the green pill, which will restore your fertility entirely to normal in 24 hours. The pills are cheap, readily available, have no side effects. They work for both men and women, come in pretty colors, and taste OK. You can hand your kids a red pill before puberty, and they can take the green one when they are ready to have kids.

Implausible, of course, but let's just run with it and see where it goes. One would presume that the number of mothers having to decide what to do about an unwanted pregnancy would be much decreased. People could readily and conveniently choose whether or not to get pregnant, so many fewer would do it by accident. Fewer unwanted pregnancies would mean fewer abortions. The whole abortion problem almost vanishes, with no reduction in the freedom of women to control their reproduction. In fact, women's ability to choose increases.

Of course, the lives of all those aborted babies haven't exactly been saved. Now instead of being killed a few weeks after conception, they just aren't being conceived in the first place. From the baby's point of view, this may not be much of an improvement, but frankly, asserting that someone who hasn't ever been conceived even has a point of view is rather far-fetched. Ensuring conception for all conceivable people is not a sensible goal.

What this science fiction story highlights is that, at least in theory, it is possible to virtually eliminate abortion without restricting choice. Pro-life and pro-choice are not essentially contradictory positions.

The key to the pro-both stance is recognizing that abortion is a secondary problem. It is a symptom of the unwanted pregnancy problem. The goal of the pro-both agenda is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. If that is done, abortions will automatically be reduced as well.

Science Fiction Story Number Two: A Crack Down on Abortion

For comparison, let's try a second science fiction story. Let's imagine a future where the government gets whole-heartedly behind the idea of ending abortion by illegalizing it. What happens when the ban goes into effect?

Well, there is going to be some problems. Women don't seek abortions casually, as a way to pass an idle afternoon. Most are in situations where an abortion seems much more necessary to them than a drink seems to an alcoholic. Banning alcohol didn't stop people from drinking, and banning abortion won't stop people with unwanted pregnancies from seeking abortions. If a ban on abortions is going achieve a significant reduction in the number of abortions, the police are going to have to find ways to prevent all the different methods women might use to get abortions.

Women might seek to travel to another state, or another country where abortion is legal. Should that be allowed, or should pregnancy tests to be administered to all women seeking to travel to such places?

A black market in abortion drugs like RU-486 would, of course, appear immediately. Such drugs would quickly become as readily available as marijuana is today. Probably new aborticants of dubious safety would be cooked up in underground labs, just as designer drugs are today. In fact, this is already happening. To effectively crack down on this trend, the police would have to substantially step up the current war on drugs.

Information on different techniques for performing abortions would quickly appear on the Internet. Step-by-step descriptions of do-it-yourself procedures that can be performed in the home are already available. The police could try to censor that information, but it would get around anyway.

Up to 20 percent of all pregnancies end in natural miscarriages. This is often a traumatic experience for parents. If we wish to seriously enforce a ban on abortion, women who have just had a miscarriage will have the added pleasure of having the police arrive on their doorstep. With the police investigating millions of miscarriages annually, some women who had natural miscarriages would undoubtedly find themselves unjustly accused of murdering their own babies.

How many abortions would actually be prevented by a ban on abortion would depend on how severely you choose to enforce that ban. The more severely you enforce it, the more outrageously you need to intrude on citizen's basic rights to privacy, free speech, and freedom of movement. Huge sums of taxpayer money would have to be spent on enforcement. Many women would die in attempted abortions.

The lesson of this science fiction story is that there is no magic wand that we can wave that would make abortion entirely disappear from our society. Any effort to even reduce it is going to cost us something. Fighting abortion is a worthy goal, and we need to accept that it is going to cost us some money, but it shouldn't have to cost us our freedom. There are other ways to fight abortion. Ways that, yes, cost money, but don't cost us our freedom. Ways that, in fact, yield many other benefits to our society.

A Pro-Both Agenda

The problem with fighting abortion by banning it is that it places society in opposition to women. We would be trying to stop certain women from doing something they want to do. If instead we fight abortion by preventing unwanted pregnancies, then we make ourselves allies of women. We would be trying to help certain women to do something they want to do. It's easier to push the cart downhill than uphill, and you don't have to curtail anyone's freedom to do it.

That doesn't mean that fighting unwanted pregnancies is easy though. People are very diverse and their situations are very diverse. The factors that cause people who don't want to have babies to get pregnant anyway vary widely. No single solution will work for all people, or even most people. We need a very broad, multi-pronged approach if we are going to be effective in helping all these different people in all their different situations.

Furthermore, nature wants us to reproduce. In most everyone there is something that wants a baby. People usually have abortions not because they are entirely opposed to the idea of babies, but because they feel their circumstances aren't right for having a baby. So there are opportunities for society to help in two ways. First, we can look for ways to make it easier for people who don't want babies to avoid pregnancy. Second, we can look for ways to change the circumstances of people who do want babies to make that possible for them.

A fuller discussion of a pro-both agenda is given in a separate article. Some of the kinds of programs that could fit into a pro-both agenda are listed below.

  • Information Gathering. To design and evaluate policies to reduce abortion, we need better statistical knowledge about who has abortions and why.

  • Factual Education. Poor factual knowledge about reproduction and contraception are frequent contributers to unwanted pregnancies. Many people have sex without contraceptives because they think there is no risk of pregnancy or because they are confused about contraceptive risks and options. Many people who do use contraceptives, use them incorrectly or inconsistently or choose contraceptive options that are not well suited to their needs. We should work harder to educate people about things like how to assess fertility, ranges of contraceptive options, and how to obtain advice and assistance in their communities.

  • Values Education. Factual education should always be combined with values education. Key messages about values should be that our sexual choices should never be coerced, and that we are personally responsible for the consequences of those choices. Having sex without considering the possibility of conceiving a child or transmitting diseases is irresponsible. For teens especially, abstinence should be emphasized, and practical training in saying "no" in the face of pressure should be included.

  • Lifelong Education. Education does not end on graduation day. People's situations change greatly during their lives and they need continuing support. Television and other broadcast media should be used to promote values of personal choice and personal responsibility, together with giving general factual information, and pointers on how to get detailed personal assistance from community organizations and physicians, in person or via media like the Internet.

  • Contraceptive Technology. We've discussed how a "Perfect Contraceptive" might reduce the need for abortion. Probably a contraceptive that good is a fantasy, but there is certainly room for improvement. Contraceptive research has been slow in recent decades. Pharmaceutical companies have been reluctant to invest in contraceptive research because of high development and testing costs, and high risks of non-approval and lawsuits. The government should provide more funding for non-profits to do contraceptive research and more incentives for private corporations to develop them.

  • Contraceptive Availability. Many contraceptives options are expensive or difficult to obtain, so not all options are available to all people. Further expansion of the coverage of contraceptives by health insurance polices and expanded subsidies to help pay for contraceptives would advance the pro-both cause.

  • Parent Support. Many people choose abortions not because they don't want a baby, but because they can't afford one. So another way public policy could reduce abortion would be to provide assistance to parents. Possibilities could include larger tax breaks for parents, more affordable day care options, more affordable college options, or a higher minimum wage. It would also help for workplaces to be more accommodating to working parents.

How much would all this cost? I couldn't say, but by government standards many of these would actually be fairly modest projects, vastly cheaper than things like the Medicare Perscription Drug Plan recently passed. Still, there is a real question whether it will be possible or desirable for America to continue to use government spending to solve our problems. This is another place where the pro-both approach to addressing the abortion problem has important advantages over illegalization of abortion. Enforcing a ban on abortion would have to be done almost entirely by the government, using taxpayer money. In contrast, many of the programs listed above not only could be implemented by non-governmental organizations, but in many cases, already are being pursued by such organizations. To a considerable degree the role of the government would be to focus, facilitate, and coordinate efforts.

Can a pro-both agenda eliminate the need for abortion? No, of course not. Unwanted pregnancies will always happen. Even eliminating all unwanted pregnancies would not eliminate the desire for abortion. Sometimes women's circumstances change after they get pregnant, or tests reveal a disorder like Down Syndrome, and a wanted pregnancy becomes unwanted. Still, very substantial progress can be made, at no greater financial cost and with much lower human cost than could be accomplished by illegalizing abortion.

Side Effects

Obviously a pro-both agenda would have impacts on society that go beyond reducing the number of abortions. Most obviously, there would be fewer babies born. In America today about half of all pregnancies are unintended, and about half of those are terminated by abortion. Reducing the unintended pregnancies that lead to abortion, will, of course, also reduce the number of unintended pregnancies that get carried to term.

Though pro-both policies would lead to a reduction in the number of births, it would not be as large as the reduction in the number of abortions. First, many couples who are "careless" about birth control have already decided that they would be willing to raise a child if one is conceived. There is no reason to think that pro-both policies would or should cause them to do any differently. Second, many of the parents who would have chosen to keep an unplanned child, would otherwise have planned a child sometime later. So better use of contraceptives would result not in their having fewer children, but in their having children a bit later.

But there would be some reduction in the rate of population growth. Which is, frankly, not a bad thing. In the short term slower population growth causes some problems because there are fewer children to support more elderly people, but in the longer run slowing population growth is vital to the continued prosperity of the nation and the world. What more benign way could there be to slow population growth than for people who don't want children to have fewer of them?

Another side effect would be that a greater proportion of children would be born to parents who felt prepared to take care of them. Many of the "parent support" programs mentioned above would also help ensure that children get better care, education and support. This is likely to lead to reduced crime rates, health care costs, and so forth. There are few better things that our society can do for its own benefit than invest in improving the circumstances of our children.

The core message of the pro-both agenda is in the values that it is rooted in. It sets a high moral standard for people to meet. It is pro-choice and pro-life. Its choice face emphasizes the importance of individual freedom. Women and men must be allowed the freedom to control their own lives. Society must respect their personal choices. Its life face emphasizes the responsibility that comes with that freedom. It sets an expectation that people will make sensible choices with their eyes open to possible consequences, even in areas where passions run high. It takes a view of freedom that is not about lazy self-indulgence, but about personal strength, responsibility, and self-determination.

In this sense, the pro-both message goes far beyond the question of abortion. It defines an ideal for adult behavior in a free society. Its not just about getting away with as much as you can without getting punished. Its about taking personal responsibility to ensure that the consequences of your actions are good. That requires seeking out knowledge and understanding of the world, and not shying away from subjects, like sex and reproduction, that might seem a little uncomfortable. Pursuing the narrow, but important, goal of helping people avoid unwanted pregnancies is actually an ideal avenue toward helping people become better, wiser, freer citizens of our nation.

Roe vs. Wade

Let's suppose that the whole pro-both agenda did get implemented. The abortion rate does fall, but not, of course, to zero. When everything else has been done, when we've gone as far as we can with methods that both promote choice and preserve life, then shall we or shall we not illegalize abortion?

For many readers of these pages, that is the question whose answer you have been waiting for. We have for so long focused on the question of legality as the defining question in the abortion debate, that we have fallen into the habit of thinking of it as the single most important question in the debate, overriding all others. There are only two possible answers. Illegalize or not? Pro-life or pro-choice? In the end, which does pro-both really boil down to?

Neither. There is, in fact, always at least one other answer to a yes/no question. And that is "wrong question." One of the key ideas behind pro-both is that the question of legality is the wrong question to be focusing on. We need to broaden the question. We need to ask, "what is the best way to address the problem of abortion?" In our agenda, we described a few of the many possible ways our society could reduce the abortion rate. Which are the ones most likely to have the greatest positive effect, and the fewest negative side effects?

Illegalizing abortion lies pretty far down from the top of the list. If it is not stringently enforced, it would be ineffective. If it is stringently enforced, it would be oppressive. We can do better. There are countless better things that can be done. Things that liberate women instead of restricting them. Things that make better lives for our children. Things that encourage our citizens to be upstanding and responsible.

Pro-both says we should fight abortion, but we should fight smart. Illegalization is not smart.

I think we will always be able to find ways better ways to address the abortion problem than illegalization. As we make progress against abortion by pro-both means, illegalization will only grow less attractive, not more. If we had only a tenth of the current abortion rate, illegalizing abortion would save fewer lives, but its cost and oppressiveness would not be reduced. The police would still have to investigate every miscarriage. I believe that if we put our minds to it, we will always be able to find better ways to deal with abortion than illegalization.

So illegalization of abortion has no place in a pro-both future, but fighting abortion does. Pro-both accomplishs the goal of the pro-life movement, by means entirely compatible with the ideals of the pro-choice movement. It's the right way to go.

Copyright April 2005 - Jan D. Wolter