Driving and Abortion
It is legal to drive. But driving causes death. So if we are pro-life, we should be anti-driving. Therefore driving should be made illegal. Moreover, drivers know the risks they run by driving—there is a non-zero probability that they will kill someone in an accident—so it is unethical of them to drive. The people who might be killed are adults, children, and sometimes the unborn (pregnant women can be involved in fatal accidents). The probability of killing one’s own unborn baby by driving is finite and even calculable (let’s say it’s 1 in 10,000). In imaginable cases the probability of a fetus dying by car accident might be equal to the probability of its dying by abortion. We could eliminate the risk by making driving illegal, or at least we could reduce the risk. Of course, people might still drive illegally, given the advantages of driving, but we might hope to reduce the number of accidents by making it illegal; at any rate, the law would then be moral, which it is not as things stand. So should we make driving illegal?
It is legal to have an abortion. But abortion causes death (trivially). So if we are pro-life, we should be anti-abortion. Therefore abortion should be made illegal. Of course, people might still have illegal abortions, but we might hope to reduce the number of abortion-related deaths by making it illegal; at any rate, the law would then be moral, which it is not as things stand. Why isn’t this argument just like the anti-driving argument? It might be said that they differ in that in the case of abortion death is certain but not in the case of driving. That is quite true, given the current state of medical technology, but it doesn’t undermine the parallel, because driving is still a case of knowingly risking the lives of other people—including unborn babies. If the abortion procedure only sometimes led to the baby’s death, it would still involve knowingly causing death in a non-zero number of cases (suppose that 1 in 3 abortion procedures resulted in the death of the fetus). The difference between driving and abortion is quantitative not qualitative. And bear in mind that current speed limits substantially increase the risk of fatalities—yet we don’t insist that no one drive at more than 20 miles an hour. We don’t generally think that any activity that predictably leads to death should be made illegal, or is ipso facto unethical. We weigh things up and then formulate guidelines taking everything into account. The same goes for swimming, diving, flying, motorcycling, climbing, or just going out for a walk. We could eliminate all deaths by abortion simply by making sex illegal and slapping serious penalties on breaking the law (or we could substantially reduce the number of abortions this way), but no one thinks this would be a sensible way to proceed. It makes perfect sense to restrict abortion in certain ways—say, by limiting it to the first few months of pregnancy—but a total ban on it is too much like a ban on driving simply because it predictably leads to death. So even if we are pro-life it doesn’t follow that abortion should be illegal, or that it is intrinsically unethical. It’s just that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages—as in the driving case. There is room for disagreement about detail in both cases (What should the speed limit be? When is abortion not acceptable?), but as a matter of principle the cases are alike. And this is accepting that the fetus qualifies as an instance of “life”: the mere fact that lives are lost because of a certain activity does not imply that that activity should be made illegal or is intrinsically unethical.
Of course, it is highly relevant to the abortion issue whether the fetus qualifies as a being with a full-fledged right to life, but the point I have been making is that being pro-life is not in itself a sufficient reason to ban abortion—any more than it is a sufficient reason to ban driving (etc.). In both cases we are dealing with a regrettable necessity.