Is abortion murder? its opponents claim it is—that’s why they call themselves “pro-life” and abortion providers “babykillers.” That’s why people have bombed and burned down abortion clinics and murdered doctors and staffers—it’s all to “save babies.” But do abortion opponents really believe that an embryo is the equivalent of a baby, a child, a grown-up?
A great deal of ingenuity has been expended by anti-abortion intellectuals like Robert P. George and Ramesh Ponnuru to explain why, even though embryos and fetuses are children, abortion should not be punished as severely as homicide. It’s always seemed odd that anti-abortion leaders insist they would never punish women who end their pregnancy, only doctors and staffers, although by their own logic a woman who seeks an abortion is as guilty as someone who hires a hit man. When a politician—George H.W. Bush, Donald Trump—forgets where he is and says, sure, women should be punished if abortion becomes a crime, anti-abortion leaders express horror and the politician retracts it pretty quickly. Abortion opponents can exempt a woman who terminates her pregnancy only by portraying her as too desperate, irrational, ignorant, or easily led to be held responsible for her decision—it’s all the fault of a boyfriend, or parents, or “the culture of death” that tells her it’s just a clump of cells. Sometimes, although much more rarely, poverty is blamed, or a lack of support for pregnant women and mothers. But similar explanations could be given for many killers—maybe all of them—and nobody suggests we simply leave them alone.
There’s another way to look at the characterization of abortion as murder: Maybe some people who say it don’t really believe it. That is what I take away from a fascinating paper, “Discordant Benevolence: How and Why People Help Others in the Face of Conflicting Values,” recently published in Science Advances.
About half of Americans call themselves pro-life and the other half pro-choice—though what people mean by those labels is often unclear. Yet the authors found that, regardless of their beliefs, Americans “extend support” to friends or family members seeking an abortion. Large numbers of people who say they are morally opposed to abortion, many of whom consider it murder, would help someone they know. A majority of 76 percent would offer emotional support. Only 6 percent would help pay for an abortion—actually, it’s surprising that any would—but over 40 percent would help with logistics like giving the woman a ride to the clinic. Why the distinction between money and logistics? Money, as the authors write, is highly symbolic—it feels personal, like a real stamp of approval. When the teenage sister of a friend of mine needed money for an abortion, a friend of hers said he was Catholic and therefore couldn’t give her any—but he gave money to a mutual friend to give to her. The truth is, money is fungible. A neighbor who fronts you gas money to get to the clinic or watches your kids while you’re having your procedure is helping to pay for your abortion, even if they tell themselves otherwise.
The study’s authors coined the term “discordant benevolence” to describe the conflict between two values: supporting those close to us, and the belief that abortion is morally wrong. It’s not that these abortion opponents are hypocritical—although surely some are, like the anti-choice married male politician who pushes his girlfriend into terminating her pregnancy. Most of them sincerely hold both values. They reconcile these in various ways: by extending commiseration (abortion is wrong, but life is hard and people are imperfect), by making an exception (abortion is wrong, but this is my daughter), or by what the authors call “discretion” (abortion is wrong, but this woman is entitled to her own decision).
“Discordant Benevolence” is a brilliant piece of sociology, proving once again that people are endlessly complicated and surprising. I was glad to find that so many anti-abortion people are kind and thoughtful and understand the suffering of women. Better discordant benevolence than none at all! We have probably all done things against our principles in order to help a friend or relative in a jam.
I want to push back a little, though. I wouldn’t call it hypocritical for a person who believes abortion is murder to help someone obtain one, but I would question whether they really believe what they think they do. Murder—“babykilling”—is pretty serious! If your niece said she’d had it with motherhood and was going to kill her newborn, you probably wouldn’t offer a helping hand or tell yourself, “Well, that’s her decision to make.” Indeed, you probably would draw the line at empathizing with a friend’s or a relative’s criminal plans well short of murder. Would you drive your friend to the shop he was planning to rob, even if you knew he really needed the money? Lend him a gun so he could shoot his neighbor’s really annoying dog? I suppose some people might, but for most of us, personal loyalty only goes so far.
What makes the findings of the new study particularly important is that right now, in Texas, helping someone get an abortion after six weeks is illegal. That money for the procedure, that drive to the clinic, even a snack for the bus trip, all lay you open to a civil suit by any rando who finds out and cares to sue. They may not win, but they can cost you—in legal fees, social ties, sleepless nights of worry. Anti-abortion forces have rendered criminal the human impulse to help friends and family, harming the very thing we claim to value so highly: the bedrock of community. The irony is, many of the people who oppose abortion say they would do the very things that the politicians they voted for have criminalized. If Roe goes—or even if it stays, but laws like the one in Texas are upheld—women seeking an abortion may find out who their real friends are.