What does it mean to be “pro-life”? Judging by the recent conversation about contraception, it would be easy to think that the point and purpose of the pro-life position is to reduce abortions in the world.

But as important as that is to pro-lifers, it by no means encapsulates the entirety of the pro-life position. In a brief but punchy essay, Frank Beckwith sums up the point:

The truth, however, is that the prolife position is not merely about “reducing the number of abortions,” though that is certainly a consequence that all prolifers should welcome. Rather, the prolife position is the moral and political belief that all members of the human community are intrinsically valuable and thus are entitled to the protection of the laws. “Reducing the number of abortions” may occur in a regime in which this belief is denied, and that is the regime that the liberal supporters of universal health coverage want to preserve and want prolifers to help subsidize. It is a regime in which the continued existence of the unborn is always at the discretion of the postnatal. Reducing the number of those discretionary acts by trying to pacify and accommodate the needs of those who want to procure abortions—physicians, mothers, and fathers—only reinforces the idea that the unborn are objects whose value depends exclusively on our wanting them.

In a post that I’ve seen referenced a few places, blogger Libby Anne follows Sarah (last name not given) does a bit of math and contends that fewer zygotes wind up dead when women use birth control than when they don’t.  Here’s the conclusion from Sarah:

So let’s get this straight, taking birth control makes a woman’s body LESS likely to dispel fertilized eggs. If you believe that life begins at conception, shouldn’t it be your moral duty to reduce the number of zygote “abortions?” If you believe that a zygote is a human, you actually kill more babies by refusing to take birth control.

If it were the case that the pro-life view was simply constituted by the number of people who lived and died, then Libby Anne and Sarah might have a case. But there are qualitative moral differences between the two. Suppose that two people are nearing death. In one case, we do nothing at all. In the other, we act in such a way that we know will erode the conditions for their ongoing life. Perhaps we put something in the air conditioner that makes it hard to breathe, or put a clamp on the tube that is feeding them food. In both cases, the patients die—but one died without our involvement, and the other died within conditions that we created. It’s true that they both would have died anyway. But the analogy is meant to show that the life or death of the person is not the only criteria by which we judge the morality of the action.

Now, there are two things worth saying about the above analogy. First, someone might claim that by taking birth control they are not in fact intending the death of the zygote: they are only intending that any zygote that *might* have been created to not be created. And that’s a fair claim. Second, it is an analogy where we know (with considerable likelihood) that both people are going to die. In birth, we don’t know if we use contraception whether the zygote will continue living or be “flushed out.”

Happy pro-lifers for the win.

Happy pro-lifers for the win.

These two counterclaims, though, actually mean less than they might seem on the surface. For one, even if in the above analogy I am not intending to kill the person I’m still responsible for creating the conditions in which they died. And given that we do not know whether the zygote would live or die *without our involvement,* if the zygote dies we take on responsibility for the death that we would not have otherwise precisely because of our action in the matter. To put it bluntly, our intentional acting is what distinguishes the abortificient from the natural death and which creates a degree of moral gravity about the situation that would not occur otherwise.

That’s an argument, but beneath it stands the principle that we tried to establish at the beginning: the prolife position is not measured by the number of zygotes that survive pregnancy or not, but by the quality of our wills and decisions inasmuch as they relate to human life. Hypothetically, if a couple knew that by not using an abortificient every zygote they had would die and be “flushed out”, but if they used an abortificient and one of the children lived, using the abortificient would still be wrong. Why? Because the decision would have been one that would have been contrary to the presence of human life and because the morality of the decision is not determined solely by the consequences that result from it. To deploy the classic anti-consequentialist conundrum, if we could demonstrate that statistically killing one innocent person would save the lives of a hundred or thousand others, that would not make the intentional taking of human life right or good.

One final point: let’s suppose for a second that it’s simply uncertain whether in my analogy the person died because they were really old or because we put the hypothetical clamp on their feeding tube. Analogously, it may be uncertain when someone is on contraception whether any given zygote is “flushed out” naturally or because of the drug’s effect. (Again, statistics don’t matter—action and involvement does.) In such a case, a strong dose of ethical humility would entail that we should err on the side of not involving ourselves in the process, *even if* statistically more humans die as a result. Theologically, we can entrust ourselves and our decisions to the providence of God, and contend that we have knowingly kept ourselves free from even the possibility of intentionally creating the conditions that caused the death of human life—of doing evil that good may come. We cannot have too much integrity of the will in this world.

Update:  Guttmacher has a study out saying that the abortion rate has decreased to its lowest point since 1973 and credits contraceptives for part of that.  It’s obviously good news that the rate is dropping.  Predictably, it’s being deployed as a reason why the pro-life movement should support the contraception mandate.

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Agree wholeheartedly! Many of these zygotes that are miscarried very early have severe genetic defects, which certainly alters their likelihood of survival but not their personhood. It also makes them far less likely than the average aborted person to have survived ex utero.

    All that said (and perhaps this is a more germane comment for the prior post, but I’ll put it here anyway), I do think that family planning and (non-abortifacient) contraception should be made available to all so that one can make whatever decision their consciences lead them to.

    • What sort of access to these things is warranted socially is a separate question, of course, but it’s not *at all* obvious to me that “whatever decision their consciences lead [people] to” is a sufficient principle for bioethics.

      • well, that’s assuming that (a) some kind of access to non-emergency health care is a human right & (b) most contraceptives aren’t abortifacient and thus the bioethical implications of using them are between the user & God.

  • Kamilla Ludwig

    Excellent! Thank you, Matt.

  • ngilmour

    Matt, would you mind taking a gander at a similar attempt of mine and letting me know where (or whether) we differ on this?


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  • Isaac

    Matt, I don’t think this decision conforms to standard consequentialism versus deontology cases. Once we know that birth control causes less embryos to die due to failure to implant, we have a prospective choice about what consequences we are going to bring about. The choice is like that between enacting policy A that will kill two versus policy B that will kill one. Choosing policy B over A is COMPLETELY different from choosing policy C which let’s say, is to kill one so that three others will be saved (the same net consequences as policy A). So once I have that particular piece of information (from Libby and Sarah) and act on it, the quality of my will lends moral worth to my actions, by the lights of consequentialist and deontologist alike.

    Btw, birth control pills act by blocking the hormone that causes ovulation. It has a side effect of making the endometrium less receptive to embryos, BUT if ovulation occurs, it occurs because there is enough of the right hormones in the system to also cause the endometrium to be receptive. Essentially, it’s next to impossible to get ovulation without also having a receptive endometrium. Science…

    • Isaac,

      Notice that you said “birth control *causes* less embryos to die…* If it’s true that birth control in fact causes an embryo to die, and the intention in taking birth control is precisely to prevent an embryo from being created, then I take it that the decision to use it is wrong, even though the consequential deaths are fewer. In other words, it seems like your rejoinder simply presupposes a consequentialist view based on the number of deaths, which is not precisely the view I’m objecting to.



      • Isaac

        It may seem like that, but only because you’re not getting my point. If I were to use birth control, one reason I might do so is precisely because fewer embryos would die than if I didn’t use it. This is like choosing policy B over policy A. Deontologist and consequentialist alike agree that benefiting the most is a good prima facie rule. Where they disagree is whether its permissible to bring about harm in order to benefit the most. The decision to use birth control (understood as a choice between policy A and B) is not like this kind of case because there is no person that I am harming in order to bring about a greater good. Rather the choice is just between bringing about x number of deaths versus y number of deaths where x>y. Again, deontologist and consequentialist agree that its right to bring about y number of deaths when there are no externalities, and when the choice is posed in this way, there are none.

        • Isaac

          Here’s another way of putting it. The choice Libby is posing is like the standard trolley case. Trolley is hurtling toward 5, is it permissible to divert the trolley to a side track on which there is only 1 worker? Everyone, including most deontologists, agree that this is the right thing to do. The choice Libby poses is not like the objectionable footbridge case, in which we push someone off a bridge to their death in order to stop the trolley and save the five. In other words, the choice Libby poses is not to actively kill anyone in order to save anyone else, rather it’s like the standard, unobjectionable trolley case.

          • Isaac,

            It’s not obvious to me that the decision to divert the trolley is *permissible*–even if that’s what should be done in the case. It is entirely possible that in doing so, one commits a wrong precisely by intending to kill the one in order to save the five. We wouldn’t charge the person who didn’t switch the trolley (for instance) with a crime of manslaughter for failing to do so. But in a situation where a decision is made, we may, precisely on the grounds that they are choosing between lives in a way that places them on a scale. But how could we possibly determine that one human life is more valuable than five? That supposition (which stands beneath the “permissible” claim) is precisely the consequentialist one.

            Additionally, to clarify, deontologists disagree about whether it’s permissible to *intend* harm to bring about good. It may be the case that one intends to kill a person and use the organs to save a dozen, but fails–only to have the person die of a heart-attack from shock, thus saving the dozen. Such a situation would still be wrong precisely because the agent willed an end that did not come about.

            The case is, of course, different with “prospective” persons. But: Suppose it was the case that a couple uses contraception, only a person was created and then died because of the lack of a uterine wall. In such a case, the couple would be responsible for the death not only because of the material conditions, but precisely the material conditions were *intended* to be such that were inhospitable to the life of a prospective zygote. It was the life of that very zygote–*any* zygote–that the use of contraception is intended (necessarily) to prevent.

            All this to say: I think I’m something like a deontologist with different norms at work here than you seem to be presuming.



          • Isaac

            Let’s just be clear, when I choose to divert the trolley, I don’t intend to kill anyone. Likewise, were I to use birth control, I would not thereby intend that anyone die. On the contrary, I might very well intend to prevent deaths, just as I would intend to do by diverting the trolley.

          • And that is precisely the proposition in question. I’m an Anscombian about intention, which means (broadly) what you claim to intend in a given act is not necessarily equivalent with what in fact is intended in a given act.

          • Isaac

            Agreed that it is quite possible for someone to be wrong about their true intentions or to assert a purpose other than their true intent. Nevertheless, there’s no reason to suppose that someone could not act with the intention I’ve proposed. For instance, we could easily imagine someone acting on the intention to prevent deaths in both cases, and being overwrought with agent-regret (but not remorse) when deaths result from their decision. (Note that this regret is fully consistent with maintaining the belief that one acted rightly, see e.g. Baron 1988.) Likewise, we could imagine the same person being overjoyed that the trolley came to a grinding halt before hitting the single worker on the side track. Or in the case of contraception discovering that no embryos died because of the pill. These affective reactions would be evidence concerning my intention, evidence that it was not my intention to cause anyones death but rather to prevent others.

          • Isaac,

            I think the affective reactions are interesting, but not necessarily determinative for understanding the reasons for action in a particular case. In the case of contraception, the act is one to intentionally prevent *any* human life from being created from an act of coitus. As such, while there may be regret at the human life that is (under hypothesis) lost if such loss became known, there might also be a similar sort of regret toward the human life that was created, precisely because the structure of the action was itself aimed (regardless of the mental content of the agents who perform it) against the coming-to-be of any human being. Does *that* easy-to-imagine scenario have any bearing on the moral quality of the act?

            I’m curious, though, if you know of a non-consequentialist reason for diverting the trolley from the five to the one that wouldn’t have relevance or bearing in other situations. So what if we knew that the one had just discovered the cure to a certain form of cancer, but hadn’t had a chance to write it down yet. Would it be better to prevent the death of the one by shifting the train, or to let the five die instead? I take it that the probability of the train running over humans is the same in each scenario. Is there a non-consequentialist reason that one could supply to decide the issue?


          • Isaac

            Yes, regret at getting pregnant would have bearing, and the scenario is easy to imagine. Nevertheless, you might just as easily imagine a person taking birth control in order to prevent deaths but who is then overjoyed to discover that she got pregnant, right?

            Not sure what your getting at with the other question, but maybe this will answer your question. Many pro-lifers disagree with people like Judith Jarvis Thompson because they believe that we have Samaritan duties or positive duties to rescue those imperiled. One might see the standard trolley case as one in which I am obliged to rescue the five worker because I have Samaritan duties toward each of them and that these duties override my duty not to imperil the worker on the side track. Thus, the decision doesn’t have to be one about weighing the value of the one life against the five. Rather, it’s about weighing one’s duties toward the five against the duty toward the one.

          • Actually, I find it very difficult to imagine someone being overjoyed at being pregnant if using birth control, even under the purported reason that they are doing it to prevent deaths–precisely because (unlike not taking it) the point of birth control is also to prevent pregnancies. Pregnancy in such a situation means both the failure of their intended actions and a state that presumably contradicts their grasp of the (purported) goods for their life at that particular time. I could see people slowly becoming more joyful as they became accustomed to the new reality, but given that the willing prior to that point is one aimed at the state of not-being-pregnant, I would find “joy” to be an odd state indeed.


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  • Matt, I think you’re right on this. I’d be curious, though, about your thoughts on this study: http://www.aaplog.org/position-and-papers/oral-contraceptive-controversy/hormone-contraceptives-controversies-and-clarifications/

    The more important question seems to be whether or not birth control pills (specifically combined oral contraceptives) do indeed have an abortifacient effect. I accept the idea that even if there is a minute chance that the pill can cause the death of an unborn child, then we should oppose it. Like you said, it’s not about statistics; it’s about our involvement and responsibility in the conditions leading to the death of those zygotes.

    However, this position also assumes that combined oral contraceptives do indeed prevent zygotes from implanting, as many claim. As the study I linked to above indicates, however, this may not be the case.

    Anyway, I’d love to get your opinion on this.