The Corner

Politics & Policy

Abortion: The Later, the Worse?

An email:

You’ve been writing a lot about late-term abortion but here’s the problem: You guys want to ban all abortion. You say that a one-celled zygote has the same rights as a toddler and for that matter as an adult woman. I can respect that point of view (I don’t share it). But if you think abortions in week 8 are just as bad as abortions in week 30, isn’t all the outrage about late-term ones just cynical politics?

Let me argue back at you on two tracks.

First: Let’s say that I took the view that you attribute to me, that abortions early and late in pregnancy are morally equivalent. I don’t think that there would be anything wrong with pointing out to my fellow citizens who see something wrong with eighth-month abortions that current law permits them and that they ought to work with us pro-lifers to protect babies at that age even if we are going to continue to disagree about earlier abortions. That’s part of how democratic politics works: People try to appeal to others who don’t share all of their premises by finding common ground. We might even try to get our fellow citizens to see that what they have supported has led to something they cannot countenance.

Second: I don’t, in fact, view abortions early and late in pregnancy as morally equivalent. I think the latter are worse. That’s not because I doubt that the just-conceived human embryo has the exact same right not to be deliberately killed that the eight-month-old fetus, the toddler, the teenager, and the adult woman all have. (Obviously no one believes that human beings at these different stages of development all have “the same rights” in some more general sense; I don’t think anyone believes the toddler has a right to vote or serve on a jury, although I have not been keeping up with Vox.)

Rather, I think that people have less excuse for misunderstanding the moral status of an eight-month-old human fetus than they do for misunderstanding the moral status of a human embryo (especially in our era). Holding everything else constant, killing the former or supporting the elective killing of the former shows a deeper corruption of conscience than aborting or supporting the elective killing of the latter. Killing infants or supporting infanticide is worse still.

Pro-lifers thus can, and I think should, hold both that abortion early and late should be proscribed and that abortions late in pregnancy should inspire extra revulsion.

Update: Another correspondent e-mails, “I’d add pain capability to the morality question for later term abortions.  It may very well be that less formed babies don’t feel the pain involved with early term abortion.  But there’s little doubt about later term.   So the brutality of the methods required feeds into morality.  I know you know that.” Yes, there are several reasons one might make a moral distinction between early and late abortions, or between abortions and other kinds of killing, that do not require treating human beings at early stages of development as having a lesser right to life than human beings at later stages of development.

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Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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