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Is Abortion Self-Defense?

August 3, 2023


A recent Los Angeles Times piece by Holly Todd asked, “What if abortion were self-defense?” Todd argues, “In the U.S., pregnant people die of pregnancy related causes at a higher rate than police die in the line of duty. Pregnancy in the U.S. is dangerous.” The essay continues,

Anti-abortion advocates argue that an embryo should be accorded all the rights of a born human. Even if one accepts this argument, given the deadly risks, does a pregnant person not have a right to self-defense against someone threatening their safety? US culture has long accepted self-defense as a valid reason to use deadly force. Imagine if a person seeking an abortion were treated like a cop who had killed someone.

Todd imagines a police officer who kills a person and says, “I feared for my safety.” People respond to the police officer, “It’s OK. You did what you had to do. You were just defending yourself. Your life matters.” 

Yes, every life matters. But this is precisely why killing in self-defense is only justified in strictly defined circumstances. Killing in self-defense must be a last resort against a violent aggressor. 

Although it is true that every year police are killed in the line of duty, it is false that every killing by police is justified as self-defense. In many cases, it is dead wrong to say, “It’s OK. You did what you had to do. You were just defending yourself.” 

Indeed, every killing by a police officer ought to be carefully investigated to determine whether the killing was actually justified because of a true threat and as a last resort. It is absolutely awful that some police officers are killed in the line of duty, but this terrible reality does not mean we can assume that every killing by a police officer is justified as self-defense. 

Human beings at the beginning of life are entirely free of nefarious intentions to harm.

Similarly, it is absolutely awful that some women die from pregnancy-related complications. But this terrible reality does not mean that we can assume that every abortion is justified as self-defense to save her life. In fact, life threatening complications from pregnancy are extremely rare. In her terrific essay “Refuting ‘Abortion as Self-Defense’,” Rachel Crawford notes, “In the United States in 2016, a pregnant woman had a 0.017% chance of dying because of a pregnancy-related complication.” As medicine advances, we can hope such cases become even more rare. 

Yet in these extremely rare cases where the mother’s life is at risk, all pro-life advocates do accept that indirect abortions—the term used in Catholic theology for a medical procedure which is intended for the beneficial medical effect but also results in fetal death as a foreseen but unintended secondary effect—to save the life of the mother are morally justified. (That being said, this line of action is not morally required. The mother may choose to risk her own life in the hope of saving her child, as in the case of St. Gianna Molla.) For example, if a pregnant woman has cancer of the uterus that threatens her life, it is justified to remove the cancerous uterus, even if as a side-effect the prenatal human being dies. In this case, the prenatal human being is not intentionally killed as a means or as an end. The foreseen side-effect of the death of the unborn is accepted and justified in order to save the life of the mother. But such cases, thankfully, are very, very rare. Indeed, modern technology is making such cases even more rare. All pro-life advocates accept that a medical procedure that results in the foreseen but unintended death of the unborn is justified to save the life of the mother. 

Similar distinctions are made in law. Mary E. Harned, JD, and Ingrid Skop, MD, FACOG, point this out in their essay “Pro-Life Laws Protect Mom and Baby: Pregnant Women’s Lives are Protected in All States.” All pro-life laws in the United States allow these indirect abortions to save the life of the mother.

It is a commonly held intuition that a woman may use lethal violence not just to save her life but also to stop a rapist’s intimate use of her body without her consent. So, some defenders of abortion argue that the fetal human being is an invading threat that justifies lethal self-defense via abortion

But the differences between a violent rapist and an unborn human being are many and obvious. Even a defender of abortion like Jeff McMahan recognizes,

In the paradigm case of self‐defensive action, the individual who poses the initial threat (1) poses the threat through his present action, (2) intends the threat he poses, (3) acts in a way that is morally unjustified, and, because (4) he is a morally responsible agent and (5) there is no excuse that exculpates him, (6) he is morally culpable for posing the threat. The fetus, by contrast, cannot be characterized in any of these ways. The fetus has no intentions, does not act, and indeed is not an agent at all. It is not morally responsible for the threat it poses and therefore cannot be culpable.

Unlike an adult rapist, human beings at the beginning of life are entirely free of nefarious intentions to harm. 

Indeed, a newborn baby is the paradigm case of an innocent human being, and a human being prior to birth is even more vulnerable, helpless, and defenseless than a newborn. At least newborns can cry and scream, which may draw others to their defense. So the use of violence against an adult rapist is very different indeed from abortion of an innocent human being prior to birth.