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A new approach to pro-life arguments in a post-Roe world

Ever since the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade was first leaked in May, members of the pro-life movement have been discussing its next steps, with debates over family-friendly public policy and discussions of how to best make political progress at the state level.

1995 March for Life in Washington, DC. Credit: Mark Reinstein / Shutterstock.

But in addition to the question of political battles, there is also the question of changing minds and hearts - how to dialogue with a culture that has for decades viewed abortion as an essential right.

Pro-life arguments often center on the humanity of the unborn child. While these ideas will continue to have a prominent place in public discourse, there is also a need to approach the topic from a different angle - the numerous ways legal abortion has hurt women, families, and society as a whole, argue authors Ryan Anderson and Alexandra DeSanctis.

Anderson and DeSanctis, who are president and visiting fellow, respectively, at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, have recently released a new book entitled “Tearing Us Apart: How Abortion Harms Everything and Solves Nothing.” The work focuses on the social, familial and political ramifications of half a century of legal abortion.

This week, Charles Camosy spoke with Anderson and DeSanctis about their book and their hopes for a post-Roe world.

I just listened to the last public lecture ever given by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, which you currently have up on your new "Life After Dobbs" podcast.

I have to agree with Robby George when he said that it is the greatest pro-life speech ever given. You can almost feel, somehow, the weight of decades of work for prenatal justice drip off his words--and even in his pauses when he's not using words at all.

It was quite dramatic to think about what his reaction would be to our current moment, with Roe/Casey having been rightly cast into the dustbin of history. Maybe particularly in light of his reflections, how are you both feeling about this current moment?

Anderson and DeSanctis: We're grateful to all of those pro-life leaders such as Fr. Neuhaus who labored for so long to bring us to this moment, and especially to all those whose names we'll never know who prayed, sacrificed, and worked with this day in mind. We're also relieved that finally we can protect babies and mothers from lethal violence of abortion—but now there's an obligation for us to get to work.

We wrote our book precisely for this moment, compiling and building off of all the best pro-life arguments from the past 50 years, and putting them all in one place, to equip readers so they can to bear witness to the truth.

The subtitle of your new book is "How Abortion Harms Everything and Solves Nothing." And while in our circles this may seem clear and even obvious, I wonder if you'd like to respond to some of the critiques you've already seen from folks who don't see it quite this way?

Anderson and DeSanctis: Thankfully, we've received only one critical review so far, and much of it was in bad faith. But in general, the aim of the book was to help readers who are on the fence or who support abortion to realize how bad abortion is by broadening the frame.

The pro-life argument that it's wrong to kill an unborn human being is well-known and of course essential. But we hope that illustrating how abortion has harmed our entire society could be an entry point to the pro-life case for people who don't already agree with us.

It's also our hope that this argument will help motivate and inspire readers who might think of abortion as a "sit on the sidelines issue," something that doesn't really matter for them or affect them or the people they love. We make the case that abortion has harmed everything it touches, and, at least indirectly, each one of us.

You have a very important chapter focused on women and families, especially given that this may be where your argument may seem most counter-intuitive for folks.

Huge numbers of abortions are had by vulnerable women who already have children and who think they are acting on the best interests of their families. Obviously it is never permissible to kill one of your children so that the others can benefit, but that seems more of a rule- or dignity-based objection, while your book is focused on harm.

How does abortion harm women and families, especially women and families in economically vulnerable situations?

Anderson and DeSanctis: We aimed for the book to broaden out from the typical “rights” framework, which, although important, needs to be complemented by a consideration of duties, virtues, and goods. We argue that abortion and its logic has undermined the duties and goods of marriage and family life, and it enables a lack of virtue.

But abortion also causes a number of concrete harms, including immediate and long-term physical damage to women who have abortions, psychological harm to women who suffer from guilt and regret after having had an abortion, and the broader social and cultural harms to all women of living in a society that has embraced abortion. The widespread availability and societal acceptance of abortion sends the message to those who are already marginalized, such as the economically vulnerable, that they're on their own and can "save themselves" by choosing abortion.

This is the twisted logic of abortion: It's "your body, your choice" and your "right," but this language actually suggests that we no longer owe any duties to children, to women and families, to the vulnerable and needy. Abortion has created a culture in which we no longer focus on or fulfill those sorts of obligations. Abortion discourages a pro-marriage culture, and it facilitates the logic of the Sexual Revolution by helping to render sex sterile and recreational rather than fruitful and relational, thus serving essentially as emergency contraception that preserves the possibility of having sex and erasing the consequences in order to avoid responsibility.

Our opponents have predictably tried to take the focus off the overwhelming majority of abortions by drawing a tight focus on the so-called exceptional cases: abortion in the cases of sexual violence and in cases when the mother faces serious bodily harm or even death.

From the standpoint of prudential judgment, and particularly in light of Fr. Neuhaus' reminder that we have miles and miles to go (often in a culture which finds our views obviously wrong and even evil), how do you think laws should be crafted in light of our opponents' very public focus on these exceptional cases?

Anderson and DeSanctis: As we argue in the book, pro-lifers should pursue a strategy of prudence and incrementalism, always in service of our ultimate goal of the total abolition of abortion.

We should certainly be honest and clear-eyed about the principle of double effect, which comes into play in situations where a mother's life is at risk, such as when a woman has an ectopic pregnancy or uterine cancer. But we should also be clear-eyed about the limits of so-called "health" exceptions, especially considering that treatment for ectopic pregnancies, for example, isn't an abortion at all, properly speaking—though abortion supporters, including the Biden administration, have attempted to muddy the waters and cause confusion about these important distinctions in service of preserving abortion on demand.

Perhaps in a related story, what I deeply fear happening in many U.S. states (and perhaps in the country overall) is what happened to Ireland after pro-abortion forces cynically manipulated the death of a pregnant woman named Savita Halappanavar.

They lied about the real reasons for her death, but they won the PR battle and ultimately defeated perhaps the most beautiful pro-life law anywhere in the world.

How do we avoid this happening here?

Anderson and DeSanctis: One of the main things we can do is work with honest mainstream journalists to report the truth and support the work of alternative news sites such as National Review and The Pillar to correct the mainstream establishment outlets when they lie and to cover the truth for readers. We can't allow these falsehoods and media narratives to cow us into silence.

Supporters of legal abortion have spent the weeks since Dobbs stirring up fear and confusion about whether women suffering from ectopic pregnancies or miscarriages will be able to receive necessary treatment in states with pro-life laws. There are no pro-life laws that forbid this type of treatment, and while of course all relevant laws should be written as clearly as possible, we all know that these sorts of situations have nothing to do with elective abortions, which aim to kill an unborn child.

This is one way in which we hope our book will help readers. We want to equip pro-lifers to respond to the most common falsehoods and pro-abortion arguments.

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