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Safe, rare and legal?

| Monday, February 13, 2017

In Mr. John Gadient’s letter to the editor published Feb. 11, he expressed the opinion that “a woman has a right to make decisions about her own body. … At the same time, I believe that as a society, we should strive to reduce the number of abortions.” This is a familiar formulation: both Presidents Clinton and Obama claimed that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” However, this is a paradox. If abortion is a human right there is no reason that it ought to be rare; if abortion is not a human right, it ought not be legal.

Consider a scenario where abortion is both safe and legal. That is, the procedure produces no harmful physical or mental side effects to the mother and is universally regarded as a constitutional right. Why, then, should abortion be rare? If abortion is as safe as any other medical procedure then there is no medical reason to reduce the number of abortions: No one is calling for there to be less hip replacements. Nor can it be any legal issue with abortion: Calls to reduce constitutional rights on purely legal grounds are self-defeating. No, if abortion is to be a constitutional right — or a human right as called for in the 2016 Democratic Presidential Platform — then there is no reason for it to be rare. Rather, it ought to be celebrated just as much as freedom of religion.

Calls to make abortion rare can be justified only on moral grounds. To claim that abortion should be rare one must necessarily levy a negative normative judgment independent of its medical or legal status, and to admit that we ought to “strive to reduce the number of abortions” as Mr. Gadient does is to acknowledge a certain moral queasiness about abortion.

This moral queasiness cannot coexist with the assertion that abortion is a human right. I cannot speak for Mr. Gadient’s views on the issue, but the moral objection to abortion generally arises from the belief — though perhaps fear is a better word — that a fetus is a person and so abortion is tantamount to murder. To call for abortions to be rare is to acknowledge the moral imperative ‘thou shalt not kill.’ However, this imperative cannot coexist with the idea that abortion is a human right. If one is concerned enough by the moral objections to abortion to the extent that one believes the number of abortions should be suppressed, one ought not assert that “a woman has a right to make decisions about her own body.” If one thinks that the fetus might be a human and that abortion might therefore be morally objectionable, one should not support abortion at all except perhaps in extenuating circumstances such as danger to the mother.

More broadly, we can state that if abortion is a human right then there can be no moral objections to it. After all, what sort of moral objections can one mount against a human right? However, to call for abortion to be rare is to levy a charge against it which must be primarily moral in nature. Then abortion cannot be a right and the moral case against it is serious enough to warrant banning it in typical cases. Thus, the formulation of “safe, rare and legal” is incoherent. If abortion ought to be legal, then there is no reason for it to be rare. If abortion ought to be rare, then the moral case against it is strong enough that it ought not be legal.


Patrick LeBlanc


Feb. 12

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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