Scholars say abortion is a public, not private matter

Scholars from a variety of fields challenged the notion of abortion as a private matter at a recent panel discussion, saying that the issue affects all of society rather than just a woman and her unborn child.

Charmaine Yoest, President and CEO of Americans United for Life, said that the language surrounding the abortion debate – particularly the framing of the pro-life movement as engaging a "war on women" – "helps to show us why we cannot accept that they would like this to be a private issue."

"A war is an extremely public event," Yoest said, "particularly for us as women."

Christopher Tollefsen, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina, said that "abortion is the most public wrong in excising a person from the human community" because it involves taking a human life.

There is, he continued, "nothing more centrally public than the taking of human life."

Yoest and Tollefsen spoke on Jan. 20 at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. They took part in a panel discussion entitled "Publicly Pro-Life: Why Abortion Is Not a Private Issue" at Cardinal O'Connor Conference on Life, the nation's largest student-run, pro-life conference.

Speaking along with Yoest and Tolleffson were Hadley Arkes, the Edward Ney professor of jurisprudence at Amherst College, and Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

Arkes criticized the current legal approach to abortion, noting that most of the arguments in favor abortion can apply to living people too – including to the old, the young and the elderly.

He emphasized a need to have concern for the "pain of the child," saying that in situations of abortion "there is a real human being there suffering pain," which should be a human- not private issue. 

Tollefsen explained that the "taking of human life" is a necessarily public issue because it "disrupts the fabric of the human community."

"Abortion is the most public wrong, it seems to me," he said, because it concerns a "matter of what binds us together as a human community."

A pre-born human is a human being because it contains "all the genetic and endogenic information" as persons in other stages of life. The question of abortion raises the question of if a human being deserves "the same fundamental forms of moral protection" as other persons.

"Each of us here should be immune to arbitrary forms of violence," Tollefsen said, because "you and I are beings that have capacity for rational and free choice," and there is a "special dignity in the forms of those capacities."

However, he said "abortion interferes with that capacity," by categorically denying it to one kind of person. 

Yoest continued, adding that abortion raises the very question of "what does it mean to be a human" and to be a woman.

"It is completely indisputable that before we are born we are human," she said, pointing back to the biological facts concerning pre-born life. However, she continued, the promotion of abortion places what it means to be human in conflict with what it means to be a woman.

"What does it mean to be a woman is very much in play in our culture today," Yoest said, explaining that those who have promoted abortion "have defined being a strong, successful woman of the century," in having the ability to abort her child.

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These activists "say you have no hope of succeeding in our culture without abortion," she said, and that "we will be less feminine if men take away abortion rights."

This language, she said, goes against both the state's interest in a healthy, inclusive society, as well as a broad acceptance of humanity in all forms.

"Moving to talk about humanity is important," Yoest said, urging students to talk about abortion as more than just a women's issue. Talking about abortion as a human issue "is deeply important," she said. "It is the opposite of patriarchal."

Farr discussed the threats abortion places to religious freedom and human liberties – and thus society as a whole.

He explained that the founders of the United States did not intend for religious beliefs to be separate from public life, but instead "designed to invite religion into public life and protect it from the power of the state."

However, recent political shifts have created an atmosphere in which "personal beliefs are privatized," he said. The believe that persons have a right to life has been one of these views that has been and discounted as a "dogma of a religion."

"They believe that because they hold these views religiously, it is somehow unconstitutional to make those views publicly," he continued, allowing opponents to dismiss them as irrational and trivial.

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This understanding, Farr said, "is simply preposterous." 

"We no longer understand what religious freedom means – health of the individual and health of society," he said, urging students "to make those arguments" against abortion and from religious principles.