Are Abortion Exceptions Ethically Consistent?

Women are asked now more than ever to take sides on one of the most controversial issues of our time: abortion. 

By Joy Stockbauer5 min read
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Anna Zhuk/Shutterstock

If you’re pro-life, you might feel tempted to qualify your belief with conditions that sound more compassionate. Some lawmakers think the same way; that’s why even states that protect life at conception often include exceptions. Are abortion exceptions as compassionate as they seem, though?

Let’s face it: Talking about abortion is uncomfortable. As women, we’re hardwired to people-please (in fact, roughly 70% of us would go to great lengths to avoid conflict). Finding ways to soften or blur the lines around our political views is far less daunting than taking the risk of offending a loved one or – even worse – losing a friend because of our stance. But is making everyone around you happy really worth it if it means backing down from your authentic convictions? Wouldn’t it be better to find a way to articulate even your most controversial political takes in a way that emphasizes compassion and grounds you in logic?

Being pro-life without exceptions might not make you popular in every circle, but you can rest assured that it’s ethically consistent. 

Let's Start With the Foundational Principles

When a state enacts a law that protects unborn children from abortion, there are some automatic underlying assumptions. One of these is that the unborn child is a living human being. That’s a less controversial take than you might think – after all, 96% of secular biologists agree that life begins at conception, when a unique and unrepeatable human being is created. Another assumption is that, because unborn children are living humans, they have the same natural rights as born human beings – including the right to life. 

Building on this foundation, we can confidently say that any legal exception to a law that protects unborn life is trying to justify why that particular unborn child is exempted from being treated like a living human being. Even though the basic idea stays the same, it can look a little different depending on the context of the exception.

Legal exceptions to anti-abortion laws try to justify why that particular unborn child is exempted from being treated like a living human being.

Remember: It’s important to always use compassionate and uplifting language when explaining your stance on abortion. You never know what life experiences other people have walked through, and keeping a classy demeanor can help you avoid unnecessary conflict.

Acknowledging the Trauma of Rape

In 21st-century America, the fear of sexual violence is all but a universal female experience. According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, 1 out of every 6 American women will experience an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Because many women have either faced sexual assault or know a close loved one who has, we instinctively, and rightfully, approach the topic with empathetic caution.

The abortion industry has long perpetuated the idea that women who become pregnant from rape need abortion to heal. Of course, rape is an unimaginably evil crime that necessitates a healing process, but is abortion the solution to the trauma of sexual violence? 

A woman who experiences rape deserves justice; she deserves to know that the perpetrator is behind bars and facing the consequences of his terrible actions. But a child conceived in rape is an innocent third party who took no part in the crime committed against his or her mom. Abortion exceptions for children conceived in rape don’t punish rapists whatsoever; they misplace justice by punishing the innocent for the actions of criminal fathers.

People with pro-life views should be the loudest voices advocating for justice against rapists and empowering women to heal from sexual violence using trauma-informed care. Providing mothers who conceived through rape with the resources they need to make an informed decision about parenting or making an adoption plan is another great way to empower them in the process of choosing life. 

A Disability Shouldn’t Be a Death Sentence

Another common exception to laws against abortion is in cases where an unborn baby has a prenatal diagnosis of a disability. Abortion advocates tend to say that these mothers need the option of abortion because it saves everyone suffering. They highlight stories of children whose disabilities are life-limiting and cause an early death, claiming that it’s merciful to have an abortion because it would save the child from more suffering in the long run.

There's no denying that learning your child may have a disability can be a traumatizing experience. There’s nothing compassionate, though, about discouraging a woman from carrying her baby to term because of fear. Everyone experiences suffering. Knowing your child might suffer someday doesn’t justify ending their life. Yes, having a child with a disability can include unknown trials, but it also includes unknown victories and joys. 

It's also important to call out the way that abortion exceptions for prenatal diagnoses discriminate. Born people with disabilities are protected by laws that prevent discrimination and allow them to participate in their communities more fully. So why would we make laws that specifically make it possible to abort an unborn baby because he or she may have a disability? People with disabilities are just as distinctly human and wonderfully unique as people without disabilities. Ableism doesn’t stop being ableism just because the person is still attached to an umbilical cord. 

Ableism doesn’t stop being ableism just because the person is still attached to an umbilical cord.

Likewise, there’s always more work to be done to strengthen laws that empower people with disabilities to participate in society – and pro-life people should be at the forefront of this fight.

What About the Life of the Mother?

Possibly the most intimidating abortion exception is the life of the mother, but mostly because the entire concept is built on a lie. When you hear “life of the mother exception,” you probably hear the underlying implication that there are cases where a woman will die if she doesn’t have an abortion. This is a lie. 

There’s a difference between ending a pregnancy and intentionally ending a child’s life. In cases when a mother’s life would be endangered by remaining pregnant, doctors can medically end her pregnancy through a premature delivery or C-section – meaning, the doctors end her pregnancy with the goal of keeping the baby alive, too. This is totally different from allowing induced abortion during a medical emergency, which would mean that doctors intentionally and directly end the baby’s life rather than trying to save him or her and, at minimum, treating his or her body with respect.

This part is important: A baby dying from an emergency premature delivery is not an abortion, because the intention wasn’t to directly kill the baby. It’s true that sometimes doctors perform premature deliveries knowing that the baby is too early in gestation to survive outside the womb. But a baby tragically dying despite all efforts made to save his or her life is different from intentionally and directly ending his or her life in an abortion.

Abortion is never medically necessary to save the life of a mother because abortion isn’t the only way to end a pregnancy early. Don’t take my word for it. Take the word of thousands of anti-abortion physicians from the American Association of Pro-Life OB-GYNs, who affirm the Dublin Declaration, which states that “direct abortion – the purposeful destruction of the unborn child – is not medically necessary to save the life of a woman.” 

Ectopic Pregnancy Treatment

It’s important to distinguish premature deliveries from another medical emergency that also doesn’t constitute an abortion: ectopic pregnancy treatment. 

Ectopic pregnancies are tragic complications where the fertilized egg implants in a location outside the uterus, making it impossible for the baby to gestate long enough to reach viability. If left untreated, ectopic pregnancies are fatal to the mother. Treating an ectopic pregnancy isn’t the same thing as an abortion, though. Again, the goal isn’t to end the baby's life – and, 90% of the time, the unborn child has already died by the time the ectopic pregnancy is discovered. 

Most of the time, ectopic pregnancy treatment is more akin to miscarriage management. In the rare instances where the embryo still has a heartbeat, doctors can treat the ectopic pregnancy without directly acting to end the child’s life.

But It's Just a Clump of Cells

We hear this all the time from abortion advocates: Embryos are "just a clump of cells." And it's clear why they do this; it creates an emotional distance from what is, in truth, a human life. But it's also a fallacy that you can see quite clearly once you understand the science behind fetal development. From the moment fertilization occurs, for instance, the complete genetic material of a human being is created. In the fourth week of pregnancy, when most women first experience symptoms of pregnancy (and it happens to be the earliest that a home pregnancy test is effective), the heart and other organs are forming, and small buds have appeared that will grow into arms. And by the sixth week, you can detect a heartbeat.

It's clear that the idea that an embryo is just "a clump of cells” doesn't hold water when you see the vast number of Instagram Reels and TikTok videos that feature abortion regret. And it's truly heartbreaking.

Gaslighting women into thinking that they're just removing a clump of cells from their body leaves them struggling with the aftereffects, which is painfully clear in these videos. The psychological health of women who have abortions is completely ignored by those who push them so aggressively. They are left feeling the pain, heartache, grief, and guilt associated with their loss. And while this "clump of cells” idea may make the concept of abortion more palatable, physically and emotionally it's simply not supported by science.

Closing Thoughts

One of the most controversial takes a woman can have today is being against abortion – even more so if she’s not willing to compromise for extreme cases. Thankfully, you can confidently be pro-life without exceptions because they're not ethically consistent. As long as you communicate your convictions with compassion and grace, you will find others who can agree with – or at least respect – your beliefs.  

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