Supporters of abortion sometimes insist that the principal objective of the pro-life movement is not to fight any real or perceived injustice, but rather to control female sexuality. To these critics, restricting abortion access is primarily a means of punishing women who choose to have non-procreative sex.
I can’t blame them entirely. Many prominent organizations in the pro-life movement, such as the Pro-Life Action League and Students for Life of America, also support the chastity movement. Groups like Real Alternatives, a nonprofit that stresses the potential risks of premarital sex and artificial birth control, are a regular presence at student conferences. And well-known anti-abortion advocates like Abby Johnson and Lila Rose often champion abstinence in addition to their pro-life activism.
Of course, abstinence is a valid choice. It certainly provides excellent protection against unplanned pregnancies! But with people generally marrying later in life than they did in generations past, complete abstinence until marriage is a rarity.
Where does that leave people like me? I neither practice nor advocate for abstinence until marriage. I affirm fully the right of every person to express their sexuality in a manner of their choosing. I believe contraception is an acceptable option for those not yet ready for parenthood, and I respect the choice of those who decide to forgo parenthood altogether. But I cannot condone abortion.
Does this mean my position is morally inconsistent?
John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty (1859), wrote: “[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.” This is closely related to the non-aggression principle, which forms the basis of my personal and political philosophy. It states, in effect, that each individual should be afforded the freedom to do as (s)he wishes, even—and this is important—if his or her actions are morally questionable. It is only appropriate to curtail one person’s freedom of choice when that choice would violate the freedoms of somebody else.
Under the non-aggression principle, sex positivity is perfectly compatible with the anti-abortion stance. Assuming participants take the appropriate precautions against disease, sexual activity among consenting adults—regardless of manner, relationship status, or number or gender of partners—has no effect on anyone beyond those involved. In other words, my sex life doesn’t infringe on anyone’s basic rights. One need not approve of my decisions to acknowledge this.
The same cannot be said for abortion, however, as it is the deliberate termination of another human life. To frame the issue exclusively in terms of the woman’s agency is to deny the humanity of the unborn, which I submit is criterion enough to grant it the protection of the law. Fertilization—when sperm meets egg to form a product that is genetically distinct—is the only objective standard for when new life begins. Terms like “personhood,” commonly used by pro-choicers as a benchmark for when life becomes worthy of protection, are dangerously vague: what constitutes “personhood” to A may not constitute “personhood” to B, and so on.
The mainstream pro-life movement does itself a disservice by propagating the myth that opposition to abortion and a liberal attitude toward sexuality are fundamentally irreconcilable. It overlooks the fact that nearly three-quarters of American teens are sexually active by the time they reach college age. It alienates the overwhelming majority of self-professed pro-lifers who have no ethical objections to birth control. And it surely doesn’t foster constructive dialogue with those on the other side of the abortion debate.