Pro-Life: Expressing the Highest Ideals of the Left


Courtesy of Life Matters Journal. The first installment of this essay was first published, with illustrations, in Life Matters Journal Volume 5 Issue 8 — October 2017.


Thanks to Val for a lot of research, and for the good feedback on the writing.

1. What Happened to Liberals’ Hearts?

“How had I agreed to make this hideous act the centerpiece of my feminism?,” Frederica Mathewes-Green asked in 2016. Just a little later that year, pro-choice advocate Camille Paglia wrote, “Progressives need to do some soul-searching. . . . A liberal credo that is variously anti-war, anti-fur, vegan, and committed to environmental protection of endangered species . . . should not be so stridently withholding its imagination and compassion from the unborn.” Conservatives have sometimes derided the left as “bleeding-heart liberals,” but what happened to liberals’ hearts regarding the unborn?

Explaining the shifting positions of liberals on abortion seems to be a tale of oppression, altruism, and – in the case of many liberal leaders – opportunism.

The oppression I refer to is the horrific oppression of women for millennia, which naturally led to a backlash that was overdue and highly justifiable for the most part, but that in at least one important way—attitudes toward abortion—went out of control. Altruism, or compassion, is a character trait that is stronger in some people than in others; and even between people of equal compassion, some have more tendency than others to try to translate that compassion into governmental responsibility. That tendency leads people to gravitate toward liberal politics. Altruism can be directed both toward pregnant women and their unborn children, but liberals tend to direct it disproportionately toward pregnant women for reasons I will explain below. And opportunism? The opportunism of some pro-choice politicians and other leaders is related primarily to the out-of-control aspect of the backlash and secondarily to money.

Jon Haidt, who researches in moral psychology, likes to list six possible dichotomies that various thinkers have argued about in trying to ground a secular morality. He says that liberals try to ground right and wrong overwhelmingly on the foundation of care/harm, whereas conservatives appeal also to the foundation of liberty/oppression and four other foundations. Whether or not liberals are naturally endowed with any more compassion than conservatives, I think they are much more inclined to try to translate their compassion into governmental responsibility.

In the history of liberal politics, the forces of oppression, altruism, and opportunism played themselves out against the backdrop of what I see as the main psychological source of the divide between pro-lifers and pro-choicers. That sharp divide seems to stem mainly from differing perceptions of the unborn. Are the unborn full-fledged members of our human family, or are they something much less significant? A greater liberal emphasis on caring for the underdog would seem clearly to lead to a pro-life position if liberals see the unborn as full-fledged members of our human family. If, however, they see them as something much less, then understandably their caring would focus instead on pregnant women, they would see no need to pay any regard to the unborn, and they would become pro-choice. I personally am strongly pro-life, but if I were to perceive the unborn as insignificant, I would find it abhorrent to try to restrict what a woman can do with her body.

“The sharp divide seems to stem mainly from differing perceptions of the unborn” is my own conclusion based on countless discussions about abortion with a range of people. And following from that conclusion, I naturally think that in general, the two-thirds (or so) of rank-and-file Democrats who identify as pro-choice must think of the unborn as something fairly insignificant.

When I say that the sharp divide “seems to stem mainly from differing perceptions of the unborn,” some may ask, what about bodily-rights arguments, which concede for the sake of argument that the unborn is indeed fully human, yet claim a right to kill it nonetheless? But I think that the understanding that the preborn is a full-fledged member of our human family is, in fact, virtually sufficient to entail a pro-life position. Viewing the ranks of pro-choice apologists, I get the impression almost always that those who concede for the sake of argument that the unborn is truly a human being, yet claim a right to kill, make that concession only for the sake of argument. Very few of them – perhaps only Camille Paglia, mentioned above, and Naomi Wolf – have made that concession in their hearts. I think that almost anyone who really sees the unborn as our little sisters and brothers, will quickly dig a little deeper and discover the weaknesses in bodily-rights arguments.

Charles Camosy, relying significantly on the writings of Kristen Day, president of Democrats for Life of America, relates an historical account[1] that I would summarize as follows:

As of the 1968 general elections, neither major party could be called pro-life or pro-choice. Events at the 1968 Democratic Convention led to activist groups of different kinds, in the aftermath of that convention, gaining more control than they had had before over party policies; and pro-choice activists succeeded in initiating their party’s tilt toward the pro-choice position.

This created an irresistible opportunity for the Republican Party to appeal to pro-lifers (just as if the Republican Party had been the first to tilt either way, it would have created an irresistible opportunity for the Democratic Party to appeal to the voters opposite to the tilt). And things have continued to polarize ever since. For his 1972 re-election, Republican President Richard Nixon used pro-life sentiment to successfully begin attracting Catholics away from the Democratic Party.

“In 1976,” according to Daniel K. Williams, author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade, “the pro-life movement was still overwhelmingly Catholic and mostly politically liberal . . . but by 1980, there was a new group of pro-life activists: evangelical Protestants [overwhelmingly Republican].” But as we will see, the biggest spike in liberal conversions from pro-life to pro-choice – which is our focus in pondering what happened to liberals’ hearts – seems already to have occurred in the 1968-1972 period.

Ideologically, the pro-choice movement might have found more affinity with the Republican Party than with the Democratic. A key factor, possibly the key factor, in the way things fell out seems to have been that the pro-choice activists, as activists with a new party policy to propose, simply found the Democratic power structure easier to break into. I won’t insist on this view, but it’s consistent with the contributions of Democrats to the pro-life movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which indicate that as of 1972 the Democratic Party had not long been pro-choice in ideological terms.

In fact the pro-life movement that opposed the late-1960s calls for abortion rights (calls that foreshadowed Roe v. Wade) was led importantly by stalwarts of the civil-rights movement and of the anti-Vietnam War movement, and by liberal politicians. Jesse Jackson was both a civil-rights leader and a politician, and was at first vehemently pro-life. The priests Daniel Berrigan and John Neuhaus were co-founders of Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam; both were pro-life, and Neuhaus was the keynote speaker at the first pro-life rally to be held on the National Mall. Edward Kennedy wrote an open letter in 1971 opposing abortion on demand. Williams finds even more significant the fact that the pro-life movement used the same ideological framework and language of human rights as those earlier movements.

As Democratic Party policies shifted in favor of abortion rights, liberal politicians shifted with them. Nat Hentoff wrote of Jesse Jackson: “But as Jesse Jackson decided to run for president in 1984, his fiery pro-life rhetoric suddenly subsided.” Hentoff didn’t expressly accuse Jackson of hypocrisy, but he concluded his article as follows:

I then asked Jackson about another form of execution. I told him that in speeches I often quote what he wrote as a pro-lifer. He looked uncomfortable. I asked him if he still believed what he said then. “I’ll get back to you on that,” he said. He hasn’t yet.

The opinion of Nat Hentoff, alone, is not enough to convince me that any individual politician is a hypocrite. We can’t know, simply through the images we find in the media, what is in any one person’s heart. But I can see how politics would have a special appeal for those whose ambition overrides their integrity, so I feel sure that in the cases of many politicians, if not in Jackson’s case individually, the conversions to a pro-choice position of Democratic leaders must have been opportunistic. Outside of elected office, also, any movement that offers a chance to become a hero to a large, vocal group or to cash in financially is sure to attract some who have such banal motivations (this would not exclude the pro-life side). The appeal of pro-choice feminists as a huge and motivated voting bloc or audience would have been hard to resist.

While opportunism might explain the shifting positions of Democratic leaders, however, rank-and-file members of the Democratic Party would not have felt the same compulsions of allegiance that politicians did, and it seems that many of the rank and file also must have undergone a conversion to pro-choice. The Washington Post of Aug. 25, 1972, reported that when Gallup asked whether “the decision to have an abortion should be made solely by a woman and her physician,” 59% of Democrats agreed (among Republicans agreement was at 68%), and that “support for legal abortion ha[d] increased sharply” since the previous survey five months earlier. The report did not explicitly say that Democratic (liberal) support had increased since the previous survey, and I could not find earlier surveys asking exactly the same question or giving a breakdown by party. A Gallup poll in November 1969, however, had found only 40 per cent of all Americans in favor of a law “which would permit a woman to go to a doctor and end a pregnancy at any time during the first three months.” Such a huge number of pro-choice converts must have included many who would call themselves liberal.

Let’s try to find the inner reasons why people might have been converting to pro-choice during the years 1968–1972. First, few people would have been converting due to bodily-autonomy arguments. Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” was not published until 1971, and it takes time for academic thinking to trickle down and affect popular opinion. I believe that pro-choice arguments leading up to Roe v. Wade were largely arguments about women’s attaining career equality with men; about controlling population growth; about the fear that if a woman does not have access to a safe abortion she will seek out an unsafe one (the “back-alley abortion” argument); and, for seven Supreme Court justices, about a rarefied argument concerning privacy under the Constitution. Moreover, some people may have come to take the abortion-rights movement more seriously as women took over the leadership that had previously been held by men.

But few people would say that anyone should have the right to kill a full-fledged member of our human family for a job, or to control population, or so that killings of such persons can be carried out in safety, or to protect the privacy of the killer, or because of who recommends that right. Thus the above arguments would not fully explain how Mathewes-Green’s “hideous act” became a cornerstone of liberal politics. I wrote before, “if liberals . . . see [the unborn] as something much less [than full-fledged members of our human family], then understandably their caring would focus instead on pregnant women, they would see no need to pay any regard to the unborn, and they would become pro-choice.” For this reason, I think that many liberals around the 1968–1972 period must have actually found in themselves different intuitive perceptions of the unborn than they had held before.

Would that have been psychologically possible? Well, I get the impression that with people who have not thought much, in an individual capacity, about the nature of the unborn, their perceptions are extremely malleable. After all, except for a few surgeons, no one has ever seen an in utero fetus with their own eyes, and even if we saw an early fetus, that would not help us much to assess its moral value without some deep thinking. So if those who have not thought much about the topic are told repeatedly that the unborn has a soul, they will believe it has a soul. If told in secular terms that it is “a distinct, living and whole human being,” they will believe that. If told it is just tissue, they will believe that. I think that the last of those is what happened to liberals’ hearts – or perhaps not exactly to their hearts but to something in their minds closely related to their hearts.

The above arguments for abortion rights gave people incentives to find in themselves different perceptions of the unborn that led in the direction of dismissiveness. These arguments also gave incentives for the crystallization of a dismissive perception of the unborn where there had been no clear perception before. I think that psychologically such changes would in fact have been possible given two factors that were then present: first, the fact that many people were just beginning to think about the matter for the first time; and second, what seems to have been a concerted effort at dehumanization by pro-choice feminists. People’s still-formative perceptions were influenced in the direction of dismissing the unborn.

Pro-choice advocate Naomi Wolf has explained that “Many pro-choice advocates developed a language to assert that the foetus isn’t a person. . . . An account of a pre-Roe underground abortion service inadvertently sheds light on this: staffers referred to the foetus – well into the fourth month – as ‘material’ . . .”

That would be consistent with the picture that we get from Daniel Williams. Williams relates that in 1967 the National Organization for Women decided to demand women’s full control over their bodies, and that their adherents undertook to justify that control by claiming that the unborn were less than human. (I assume that they chose that course because they then had no other means of justification; Thomson-style arguments that claim to establish such a right to bodily control even if the unborn are fully human were not yet available to them.) Their adherents proceeded to develop what Wolf calls “a lexicon of dehumanization.”

I don’t think that a spike in conversions to pro-choice between 1969 and 1972 following upon an apparent intensification of the push for dehumanization in 1967 was just a coincidence.

In a 1980 article in The Progressive, “Abortion: The Left Has Betrayed the Sanctity of Life,” Mary Meehan wrote:

…it is out of character for the Left to neglect the weak and helpless.

The traditional mark of the Left has been its protection of the underdog, the weak, and the poor. The unborn child is the most helpless form of humanity, even more in need of protection than the poor tenant farmer or the mental patient… The basic instinct of the Left is to aid those who cannot aid themselves – and that instinct is absolutely sound.

As we saw earlier, liberals are, if not the voters who care most, then those who try hardest to translate their caring into governmental responsibility. So Meehan is of course right that liberals should be pro-life – if the unborn are perceived as full-fledged members of our human family. If they are perceived as something much less, the contention would not be true. But I have discussed elsewhere why I am confident that the former perception will prevail.

2. The Highest Ideals of the Left

I would call myself a member of the left, if we have to use such simple concepts. I volunteered with the Delta Ministry briefly in Mississippi in the summer of 1965. I was evicted by police from a university building in 1969 in an anti-Vietnam War protest led by Students for a Democratic Society. A few days later I marched to free Huey Newton, defense minister of the Black Panther Party (though I soon came to realize I had little knowledge of whether he was innocent of the charges). I support universal health care, as long as it is real health care and not abortion or other forms of killing. I think that eventually most industry should be owned by cooperatives or by governments.

To explain my view on abortion in relation to the ideals of the left, let me go back to that 1969 Vietnam protest, with the understanding that I don’t want to start an argument about that war. I have much humility about my understanding of history and geopolitics. I have great respect for American Vietnam veterans. All that matters here is what my perception of the war was at the time I protested it. What motivated me to join that action in 1969 and other anti-war events was a sense of outrage at what I perceived as a devastatingly violent onslaught being perpetrated by the strong against the weak, in another part of the world. Entirely innocent and entirely defenseless sisters and brothers of mine in Vietnam seemed to account for untold numbers of the slaughtered, while those who seemed to me the worst aggressors operated with complete impunity.

Abortion, if we don’t euphemize, is a devastatingly violent onslaught by the strong and relatively strong against the very weakest and most innocent of our sisters and brothers, all over the world. Legal abortion is not the moral equivalent of imperialistic aggression (if the Vietnam war really was imperialistic aggression, as I saw it then), but it is by definition slaughter of the innocent and defenseless with impunity, and the numbers of victims are on a scale that cannot be compared with the relatively modest numbers of victims in mere military wars. Abortion is one more human manifestation of might makes right, and it awakens in me much of the same sense of injustice and outrage as did Vietnam. Not only do present laws (which call for a unilateral decision) mandate might makes right, natural circumstances are also conducive to might makes right, because a woman and a doctor alone have the physical capacity to carry out the abortion. I think that if the balance of might were different and therefore state power were required to carry out the death sentence, the unborn would get a much more equitable hearing (a day in court), and therefore many outcomes would be different. The ease of abortion obviates the deeper and more soul-searching assessment of the justice of the situation that would occur if the intended target were someone who could resist. Thus those already born are flatly taking advantage of the helplessness of those not yet born.

I think that the impulse to defend the weak is one of the highest human impulses. Defense of the weak is normally undertaken without thought of personal gain and hence with minimal thought of self. It is altruistic. And as a species, we have gradually been learning that happiness for an individual involves identification with something greater than oneself. As the abstract of a 2008 psychology study said,

. . . we hypothesized that spending money on other people may have a more positive impact on happiness than spending money on oneself. Providing converging evidence for this hypothesis, we found that spending more of one’s income on others predicted greater happiness both cross-sectionally (in a nationally representative survey study) and longitudinally (in a field study of windfall spending). Finally, participants who were randomly assigned to spend money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves.

Atheism advocate and neuroscientist Sam Harris recommends and teaches meditation. Meditation is a technique other than altruistic conduct through which one can lose one’s sense of self. Harris says that through meditative exercises, “[Certain] people have lost their feeling of self, to a great degree, and with that loss [have] come incredibly positive experiences.” He suggests that there is “a connection between self-transcendence and living ethically,” because self-transcendent experiences can involve “forms of mental pleasure that are intrinsically ethical. . . a phrase like ‘boundless love” does not seem overblown.”[2] (See also “Sonder: The Key to Peace?” The word “sonder” has been coined for a state of mind out of which consistent affirmation of life in all one’s actions must inevitably flow.)

The loss of the sense of self, however it is achieved, will have some of the same effect for ethical living that Harris claims for meditation.

Harris and most other scientists are confident that such mental states must have an adequate neurological explanation and do not require the religious explanations formerly ascribed to them. Whatever explanation for them may eventually be found, I think of states of transcendence, self-sacrifice and universal love as the highest good that human beings can aspire to. And I think that whatever may be the failings of liberal politics, the liberal principle of defending the weak is the one principle, not only on the left, but anywhere on the political spectrum, that is most conducive to going beyond our normal pettiness and our ordinary boundaries.

Some voices will say that while the unborn are indeed weak and defenseless, they are not human beings, or not persons, and are not deserving of our compassion. But I think those voices have been sufficiently dealt with elsewhere. However great the tragedy of the abortion issue, it is a transformative opportunity for society.

We need to be clear: The quality of a civilization can be measured by the respect it has for its weakest members. (Jerome Lejeune, “the father of modern genetics”)


[1] Charles C. Camosy, Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), hardcover, pp. 22-24.

[2] Sam Harris, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), p. 14.


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Some future posts:

Life Panels

A Trade-Off of a Sensitive Nature

Unborn Child-Protection Legislation, the Moral Health of Society, and the Role of the American Democratic Party

The Motivations of Aborting Parents

Why Remorse Comes Too Late

The Kitchen-Ingredients Week-After Pill

Unwanted Babies and Overpopulation

The Woman as Slave?

Abortion and the Map of the World

The Psychological Morass of the Abortion Issue


This essay was first published, with illustrations, in Life Matters Journal Volume 4 Issue 3 — February 2016.


morass: 2. a complicated or confused situation


Think of all the array of views related to abortion that you have ever encountered. It’s a lot, isn’t it? And now let’s try to imagine all the array of contradictory views related to abortion as they have inhabited all the minds of all people through all of history. That array must be staggering. How could such a plethora of mutually exclusive ideas have originated? I think it is largely explained by the psychological morass on moral issues in general, and this issue in particular, that the human race somehow goes on living with. Recognizing and trying to escape this psychological morass can allow us to find the truth about the morality of abortion.



In making this assertion, I am assuming that there are indeed moral truths to be found about abortion and other moral questions. Certain answers to the question of whether abortion is right or wrong, just or unjust, can be identified as truer or better than others. Further, I would argue that the answers to moral questions—the moral truths—must ultimately be found through our intuition rather than through intricate arguments or philosophies (although these are certainly a useful part of the process).



Psychology professor Paul Bloom, author of the recent Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, has offered some justification for an intuitive basis of morality.  In an interview, he commented that while some moral values “are the product of culture and society” and “not in the genes,” “there also exist hardwired moral universals – moral principles that we all possess. And even those aspects of morality . . . that vary across cultures are ultimately grounded in these moral foundations.”[i] With this kind of psychological understanding as a basis, I will make one further assumption to start with: that not only are there indeed moral truths to be found, but that identical truths are to be found deep within all of us. (I discussed this in “Moral Intuition, Logic, and the Abortion Debate.”[ii]) In a similar vein, the journalist Christopher Hitchens described his understanding of human moral intuition in his work God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything:


Like murder and theft, this [incest] is usually found to be abhorrent to humans without any further explanation. . . . [the Golden Rule is] a sober and rational precept, which one can teach to any child with its innate sense of fairness . . . . [The Rule] is gradually learned, as part of the painfully slow evolution of the species, and once grasped is never forgotten. Ordinary conscience will do, without any heavenly wrath behind it. . . . [C]onscience is innate. . . . Everybody but the psychopath has this feeling to a greater or lesser extent. . . .[iii]



Despite this conscience, or intuitive moral sense, that humans possess, an array of psychological factors obstruct our intuitive grasp of moral truths. This is a vast topic, but in this article I have selected twelve psychological factors that might work against our finding moral truth on any issue, as well as three factors that are specific to the abortion issue. I think of this article as sketching the broad outlines of how psychological factors interfere with moral intuition. My aim is to provide a basic framework to be filled out by further research. 



The psychological factors are as follows:



1. The mental longing for simplicity. No elaboration is needed here. (I can keep it simple!)


2. Upbringing. In the long-standing nature-nurture debate, I would take the following position: we are born with intuitions of certain moral truths already within us in latent form, but various actions or inactions by parents and teachers can undermine the development of those moral intuitions, or create an overlay of false values, or both. Even a casual look is enough to show us the importance, in the development of our attitudes, of background and upbringing.


3. Tribalism.Even someone who switches, for example, from pro-choice to pro-life or vice-versa may immediately start demonizing the side they had just been on.


4. Projection.We expect others to view some things and value some things just as we do.


5.  Neurotic emotional needs. Such needs can affect one’s moral and political views in a number of ways. One way – certainly not the only way – is when the needs result in commitments, sometimes fanatic commitments, to groups or ideologies.


6. Denial. We see only what we want to see. Or sometimes we see something, but compartmentalize it away from the part of our mind that would reject it.


7. Lack of introspection.If it is true that intuitions of moral truths exist within us and that they began to form in us before we were capable of rational analysis, then it should be clear that to find them we must look within and that this search within will not be a process of thinking up new ideas, but of rummaging through what is already there. We may need to make such efforts frequently, and with patience, over a period of time.


8. An excessive faith in the efficacy of logical argumentation to resolve moral issues. This faith seems to be borne out of a psychological need for an orderly understanding of our environment, perhaps borne in turn out of an illusion that such conceptual order gives us some kind of control over our environment.


(This is certainly not to say that there is no place in moral investigations for logic. I think that all the thought experiments and probing for inconsistency and arguments that go on are indispensable, but they are indispensable because they nudge us toward more accurate moral intuitions, which are not essentially based on logic.[iv])


9. The manufacture of perceptions.  As just one example, if you hear “My body, my choice” enough times, and are not presented with alternative views, after a while you will come to really believe that there is only one body involved in an abortion.


10. Doctrinal baggage that comes along with the valuable elements of a religion.  Atheism advocate Sam Harris has described a transcendent experience that he once underwent sitting by the Sea of Galilee. He writes:


If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms. . . .  If I were a Hindu, I might think in terms of Brahman. . . . If I were a Buddhist, I might talk about the “dharmakaya of emptiness.” [v]


The meditative and devotional techniques of various religions can bring about in us these transcendent states, arguably the most wonderful states we have ever experienced. Although Harris and others strive for totally non-religious forms of meditation, it must be admitted that religions are, today, still ahead of conventional science in the knowledge of such techniques. As a result, when someone experiments with such “religious” practices and discovers that they constitute a certain specialized wisdom that science seems to be lacking and that most directly leads to happiness, they are likely not only to adopt that valuable meditative practice, but also to buy the whole religious package, including whatever that religion teaches about astronomy and evolutionand the ensoulment of a newly-conceived baby. If the religion teaches that ensoulment does not take place for the first three months, for example, and that abortion before that point is permissible, then even if that teaching happens not to be correct, they will believe it.


This psychological factor is different from factor 5 above, in that I think it can occur even in a psychologically very healthy person.


11. Limited human intelligence.


12. Unlimited human ego. A big percentage of discussions about moral issues comes down to a garden-variety contest of egos. Discussions become more about winning, belittling, and mocking than about trying to understand clearly. People write on any topic partly because they want attention. It has been said, “More people write poetry than read it.” Similarly, it may be that more people talk than listen.


Most of the 12 factors listed above can contribute to different forms of cognitive dissonance: we sense a contradiction or incompatibility between the beliefs psychological factors move us toward and the beliefs our moral intuitions move us toward. We cope with cognitive dissonance by adopting ideas that violate our natural intuitions, and then shoring those ideas up with techniques such as confirmation bias.


Among the psychological factors that work against intuitively finding the moral truths within, there are also some differences of perception that do not come into play in relation to most moral issues, but do come into play in relation to the abortion issue:


13. Incorrect intuitions about the unborn.Some people see the unborn, especially the early unborn, as a snapshot, and some see it as part of a process. If a small embryo were to remain just as it is, frozen in time (a snapshot) we would have to say quite fairly that its life would not have much value.


Both ways of looking at the unborn are scientifically useful for different purposes. It is not science, but only pre-logical intuition, that identifies the unborn as an organism with little moral value or an organism with great moral value. If there are indeed moral truths to be found, however, one of these two intuitions must be less correct than the other.


14. Incorrect intuitions about the importance of bodily rights. One important source of variations in intuitions about the importance of bodily rights is different cultural senses of the relative weights to be given to the individual and to the collective. Almost the greatest relinquishing of bodily right imaginable is when a person submits to being conscripted into an army, where he or she will risk all his body organs being blown to bits. Different cultures vary greatly in their acceptance of military conscription. Yet if there are indeed moral truths to be found, one particular moral truth about bodily rights must be correctnot all of the diverse intuitions about bodily rights can reflect that truth. (I have written elsewhere about bodily rights.[vi])


15. Incorrect intuitions about what’s wrong with killing.Among all who get involved in discussions about moral issues, killing and violence seem to have, in general, a bad name. One would think that that would give us some common ground. But it turns out that although killing is universally disreputable, it’s disreputable in a nebulous way. We disagree on exactly what is wrong with killing.


My moral intuition is that what is most wrong with killing is that it deprives an organism of its future life. But in discussions about abortion, I have often encountered expressions such as this one: “I can’t imagine caring one way or the other being aborted if I didn’t possess a fully functional nervous system.” Here any harm to be done by killing seems to depend on the organism’s caring, at the time of the killing, about its future life (this view does not, after all, contest the fact that a currently unconscious embryo will have a fully functional nervous system soon and will eventually care about its future life). This view seems to exclude the possibility that any harm can be caused by depriving an organism of its future life, whether the organism deprived of life cares about it at this moment or not. Thus the only real harm that this view is willing to consider is the harm of frustrating a desire, on the part of the organism, to live.[vii]


This is one example of how there are different intuitions about what is wrong with killing. Yet if there are real moral truths to be found, then not all the intuitions can be correct.


By identifying 15 different psychological factors that interfere with moral intuition, I have tried to develop a kind of checklist. I think that if anyone can go through the checklist and neutralize in themselves each of the above-mentioned psychological factors, their thinking will become clear. Their minds will become cleared of endless clutter. And when other people encounter a clear mind like that, they in turn become forced to clear their own minds.


This clarification process (along with scientific progress) will decide the abortion issue. The grip of all the psychological factors enumerated above will be loosened. Arguments, thought experiments, and other philosophical approaches will play a part in breaking their grip; I think that the part that they will play will be a significant one, but not, alone, a decisive one.


Personally I expect that the truth that we will find through moral intuition will be mostly a pro-life truth. I expect that the issue will be decided to an important extent by the fuller recognition of the humanity of a previously dehumanized group. (The importance of psychological factor 13 above cannot be overestimated.) Do I expect all this due to some psychological blinders of my own? Time will tell.

[i] Sam Harris, “The Roots of Good and Evil: An Interview with Paul Bloom,” Sam Harris (blog), November 12, 2013,

[ii] Life Matters Journal 4 Issue 1 (June 2015): 24-29, also available at

[iii] Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2008), 53, 213-214, 256.

[iv] “Moral Intuition, Logic, and the Abortion Debate” in Life Matters Journal, Volume 4 Issue 1 (June 2015): 24-29, and

[v] Sam Harris, Waking Up (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 81-82.

[vi] “Dismantling the Bodily-Rights Argument without Using the Responsibility Argument,” July 8, 2014,

[vii] For a discussion of this issue, see Kelsey Hazzard and Acyutananda, “What Babies Don’t Know Can’t Hurt Them, Right?,” Secular ProLife (blog), January 4, 2016,


Further thoughts on the above LMJ essay:

1. Psychological factor 4 above is “Neurotic emotional needs. Such needs can affect one’s felt or at least expressed moral and political views in a number of ways. One way – certainly not the only way – is when the needs result in commitments, sometimes fanatic commitments, to groups or ideologies.”

I think it would be safe to say that in the context of the abortion issue, the groups or ideologies most concerned in this way are the Catholic Church and evangelical churches on the pro-life side, and the pro-choice feminist movement on the pro-choice side. My point here is not to take issue with any Christian teachings as such, or with pro-choice feminism as such; and certainly not to say that commitment to either can stem only from neurosis. My point concerns unquestioning belief. I think that it is human nature always to question, but that those Christians who happen to be fanatic about their religion due to some psychological need, will be prone to believe that abortion is wrong without further examination, just because their religion says that that is God’s command. And I think that those pro-choice feminists who happen to be fanatic about their ideology due to some psychological need, will be prone to believe that protection of the unborn is wrong without further examination, just because their ideology teaches that it is somehow part of a system of oppression of women. (By the way, pro-life feminists have offered at least some clues as to how that belief became the majority belief within the feminist movement, which, apart from the embrace of abortion rights by its majority, must be the most inspiring revolutionary movement the world has ever seen. See Serrin Foster’s speech “The Feminist Case against Abortion.”

Again, to say that people who have neurotic emotional needs (more so than the fairly neurotic average in society) – angry people for instance – gravitate toward a particular movement does not necessarily reflect at all on the movement itself. Many of the most psychologically healthy, or even radiantly healthy, people I have met are to be found among the ranks of Catholics and evangelicals; and it’s likely that some of the finest people may be found in the ranks of pro-choice feminists also. The position of the latter on abortion rights may be based not on moral blindness, but simply on blindness about the reality of the unborn. And regarding Catholics and evangelicals, I am awed by what they have done in holding the line against abortion, as much as it could be held, for all these years.

2. Above I said, “I will make one further assumption to start with: that not only are there indeed moral truths to be found, but that identical truths are to be found deep within all of us.”

Slavery in the US was never proved to be morally wrong. If after all the years of harsh exploitation of the slaves and bitter strife among the whites, a formal paper in some philosophy journal had finally convinced everybody that slavery was wrong, that document and its philosophical proof would now be more famous than the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, or the Thirteenth Amendment. But there was no such paper; rather, undoubtedly there was a multiplicity of contradictory papers, all of which together played only a modest role in the process. The collective moral sense simply evolved. Uncle Tom’s Cabin probably played a bigger role than any formal proof.

The politics – not least war, that “continuation of politics by other means” – and economics involved in the end of slavery were very complex. But moral evolution must have played its part. The chains of people’s psychological complexes faded over time so that the chains of slavery could more readily be broken. People who were incorrigible vessels of outmoded thinking died off.

And I said above:

“A similar process (along with scientific progress) will decide the abortion issue. The grip of all the psychological foibles enumerated above will be loosened. Logical syllogisms, thought experiments, and other philosophical approaches, within or without formal papers, will play a part in breaking their grip; I think that the part that they will play will be a significant one, but not, alone, a decisive one.

“Personally I expect that the truth that we will find will be mostly a pro-life truth. I expect that, as in the case of slavery, the issue will be decided to an important extent by the fuller recognition of the humanity of a previously-dehumanized group. (The importance of 13 above cannot be overestimated.) . . .”

Dismantling the Bodily-Rights Argument without Using the Responsibility Argument


Clinton Wilcox of Life Training Institute was kind enough to read the semi-final draft of this post and provide a brief but insightful critique. This does not mean that he necessarily endorses any of the final contents. However, I wish to take this opportunity to thank him.


The strongest argument for abortion rights is usually considered to be the bodily-rights argument. Perhaps the most effective variation of it that I have seen appeared in a (negative) comment under Kristine Kruszelnicki’s March 11, 2014 guest post on the Friendly Atheist blog:

They [both mother and unborn child] are entitled to their own bodily rights. So exactly how does a fetus have the right to co-opt another person’s body without consent?

Let’s say for example medical science has progressed to the point of being able to transplant a fetus into another human being. In an accident a pregnant woman is injured to the point of immanent [sic] death, does that fetus have the *right* to be implanted into the next viable candidate without consent?

The commenter was arguing, in other words, “A woman who is a candidate to be made pregnant in that futuristic way would have a right to refuse to let her body be so used – everyone would agree. Therefore, why should a woman who has become pregnant in a more usual way not also have a right to refuse to continue the pregnancy?”

In the context of the abortion debate (and, significantly, in hardly any other context), the term “bodily rights” comes up often. Synonyms still more commonly used are “bodily integrity” and “bodily autonomy,” but I will say “rights” because it is rights that have practical consequences. If anything can help determine the practical outcome “Woman goes through with abortion,” it is a right, not an abstract “integrity” or “autonomy.”

The above fetus-implantation version or any version of the bodily-rights argument could be rebutted by pointing out that most pregnant women voluntarily engaged in a sex act that caused the pregnancy in the first place, and therefore have a responsibility for the child (the “responsibility argument”); but this rebuttal does not work in cases of rape, and is not convincing to some people in any situation – for reasons which I need not discuss here but will refer to in an appendix. Thus the argument remains logically strong. But is it logic alone that makes an argument strong or weak? I would like to approach this from the perspective that an argument is an instrument for changing some of another person’s brain circuitry, and the ideas that correlate with that circuitry, to resemble part of one’s own circuitry and ideas, and that some value-related circuitry and ideas are better for us as individuals and as a species than others. I will contend that though logical demonstrations (such as the above thought experiment) and their rebuttals have an important place in the debate about bodily rights, there is no clear logical resolution to the debate one way or the other; that in seemingly logical demonstrations there are psychological factors at play apart from factors which are purely logical, and that those factors sway us from our normal intuitions; and that those factors can be neutralized by understanding them and by other techniques.

I would like to see people question where their convictions come from, because I think that the more they examine where they come from, the more they will move toward better convictions.

I would like to proceed according to the following outline:

1. Morality and moral principles, including our moral principles about when morality should be backed by legislation and when it should not, derive ultimately from intuition.

2. The intuitions of many people, particularly of most pro-lifers, say that the unborn children of pregnant women should be legally protected against abortion in some (not all) situations.

3. The intuitions of most pro-choicers differ from ours in the first place and say that the unborn children of pregnant women should not be afforded any legal protection.

4. There are some people who are, in terms of moral intuitions, “on the fence,” undecided.

5. Some people’s moral intuitions are better than those of others; in this particular area of moral investigation, the intuitions of pro-lifers are better. (Keep reading!)

I think that just as “there is no clear logical resolution to the (overall) debate one way or the other,” the correctness or incorrectness of any moral intuition cannot be logically proved, but that logic can nudge us toward correct moral intuitions, that is, help us find the correct moral intuitions within us. Under this point 5 below I will include a long section analyzing logically the concept of bodily rights. It is designed to nudge us toward more correct moral intuitions about the importance of bodily rights.

6. Though the intuitions of most pro-lifers say that unborn children should in many cases be legally protected against abortion, the intuitions of many pro-lifers also agree with pro-choicers (as do the intuitions of many undecideds) that a woman who is not pregnant (as in the above thought experiment) should not be legally subject to the forcible implantation in her of a child she did not conceive, even to save the child’s life. (And our intuitions also usually say that a violinist to whom we are hooked up should not be given legal protection from unhooking; and our intuitions also agree with various other pro-choice thought experiments designed to reject, in certain situations, legislative enforcement of a broad right to life.)

7. Human logical powers are limited, and therefore a particular situation, situation A, may seem parallel to another situation, situation B, in all the important morally-relevant ways that the human mind can think of, without the two situations necessarily being morally equivalent.

8a. The situation depicted by a thought experiment always includes some imagery of greater or lesser vividness, and some emotional content. If to our logical minds (momentarily or over a longer term) some outrageous situation, A, depicted by a pro-choice thought experiment, does seem parallel to situation B – a legal prohibition on abortion in a normal pregnancy – then the imagery and emotions of situation A get temporarily transferred to situation B. Let’s call this a process of “outrage transfer.” (Below I will touch on the search for an understanding of how events such as outrage transfer might actually work neurologically.)

b. Moreover, if we are subject to an over-fascination with logic, which many people are, then our consciences/intuitions will work with wrong information (the belief that logic can completely prove or disprove the moral equivalence of two situations) and may tell us that if there seem to be strong parallels between the situation of a pro-choice thought experiment that militates against legal protection of some living being, and the situation of pregnancy, then we should discard legal protection of the unborn in pregnancy – in spite of our earlier intuition supporting such legal protection.

8a and 8b are what I had earlier called “psychological factors at play apart from factors which are purely logical.” I had said that those psychological factors “sway us from our normal intuitions” and I had gone on to say, “those factors can be neutralized by understanding them and by other techniques.”

9a. The effects of outrage transfer will fade over time. Moreover, the outrage transfer of a pro-choice thought experiment can be offset or more than offset by pro-life thought experiments such as those involving the separation of conjoined twins, or the “Cabin in the Blizzard” thought experiment of Stephen Wagner et. al. (It can be “more than offset” if only because our minds are impressionable and are always most strongly affected by the imagery and emotional triggers that stimulated them most recently.)

b. Though human logical powers are not sufficient to tell us conclusively about the moral equivalence or otherwise of two situations (as mentioned in 7 above), they are sufficient to convince us of said insufficiency, and thereby to free us from an over-fascination with logic and restore our original trust in our intuition that the unborn deserve legal protection.


Someone will say that I am discarding logic and that moreover I am saying that a pro-life position can only be defended by discarding logic. But that is not what I am doing. We should always apply logic to the fullest extent possible, and there are good logical rebuttals to the forcible-implantation and other pro-choice thought experiments, and I will discuss them in brief; but we should not think that logic, even on a base of intuition, can give us final answers to all moral questions, specifically the question of whether a right to life overrides bodily rights in the case of pregnancy.

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