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  • Eric Phillips

Abortion as a Freedom

Updated: Jun 10

The Fetus in the Womb by Leonardo da Vinci, 1511

If you would have told me at the beginning of 2022 that Roe v. Wade was about to be overturned, I would not have believed you. It would have seemed too good to be true. When that happened it was the answer to forty-nine years of prayers, which from my perspective was (and still is) basically a lifetime. But now that it’s finally happened, God be praised, we have realized it was not the whole battle, and probably never could have been, even if this victory had come a lot sooner. States have the right to make abortion illegal now, but in the two years since the Dobbs decision, only fourteen have done so. And now the pro-abortion side has become energized in a way that previously only the anti-abortion side had been. This was a significant issue in how well the Democrats performed in the 2022 midterm elections. Seeing this has given me insight into why the Republican party was by-and-large, for most of my life, content to reap the benefits of being nominally anti-abortion, without working too hard against it. They had a large voting bloc that was perpetually driven to the polls by the continuance of a grave injustice. Now the other side is getting that boost.

Is the pro-abortion side motivated by a sense of injustice? They certainly are. After the Supreme Court decision, I heard a lot of protests along these lines: “As a woman, I now have fewer rights than my mother did twenty years ago!” Granted, I listen to NPR, and that’s where I heard most of these. The objectivity expected from a “national, public” news outlet is all well-and-good for most issues, but not when “women’s rights” are on the line. When the topic of abortion comes up, I often have to talk to the radio and fill in the blanks for the parts that the complainant is leaving unsaid: “I have lost my rights” (to kill my unborn children). “My mother was free” (to abort me). “I’m outraged that I don’t have the same rights” (to abort my daughter). Once the sentences are completed, it doesn’t sound like a loss of liberty at all, but rather as what it actually is: an extension of the right-to-life to babies in the first trimester of a pregnancy.

It's not just on the radio that I’ve encountered such complaints. I saw a billboard near the end of 2022 that featured line-drawings of a family, with text saying, “Keep the government off our bodies, and out of our families!” Oh, you don’t want the government to get involved in family matters? So, you want to repeal laws against spousal abuse? Laws against child abuse? No? That’s not what you mean? Of course not, but unfortunately it is what you printed on your bulletin board. And in the one special case where you did mean to protest government involvement in family matters, that involvement is specifically the prevention of the most basic and irreversible kind of child abuse that there is: actually killing them. The argument can withstand no scrutiny at all.

But it does sound good, on the surface, to frame this as a question of freedom, and the curtailment of that freedom as governmental intrusion. It’s an application of that old Colonial-Era flag with the coiled rattlesnake, “Don’t Tread on Me.” What could be more American than that? One of the guests on an NPR program after the 2022 election, a Hispanic woman who works as a Democratic-Party activist and consultant, said with respect to the Hispanic community that if you tried to promote abortion to them, it wouldn’t be well-received, but if you framed the issue in terms of women having lost their rights, then you could get somewhere. Women’s rights to what, again? Let’s complete the thought: their rights (to destroy their own offspring in utero for any reason or for no reason). But as long as we truncate it strategically, we can feel like freedom fighters, and make women mad that the government is trying to take their rights away.

The problem, of course, is that from 1973 to 2022, women in all fifty states did have these rights, this freedom. As of today, we have closed the barn door in a few places, but the horses got out a long time ago. Now there are millions of American women who look back on their own abortions as necessary to the story of their lives. “I would never have finished college,” or “I would never have gotten that promotion”; “I would never have been able to take that breakthrough assignment if I’d had a baby to take care of.” They would not have been free to pursue their personal dreams, if they had not been free to have an abortion. That’s what the woman meant who complained that she had “fewer rights than [her] mother did twenty years ago.”

Most women don’t ever plan or want to get an abortion. Probably most pro-choice women hate the idea—not in the political abstract, mind you, but the idea of themselves having to get one. But it’s like how single people or newlyweds don’t like thinking that they might get divorced some day. These women still have lived all their lives with the undesirable possibility in the back of their minds as a sort of last resort, a possible bolt-hole for themselves or their daughters (or their sons), one they hopefully won’t ever need, but that might be better than imperiling a scholarship to a good school, if it ever comes to that. So if you talk to them about abortion itself, they’re against it, but if you put the question in terms of personal freedom, they still resent the option being taken off the table.

And when we put the problem in those terms, suddenly it seems a lot more familiar, a lot more understandable. Virtually everyone resents impediments to their freedom. It’s like the recovering alcoholic who keeps going to the bar, and gets upset when a concerned family member wants him to stop. “I can just order soft drinks, you know. Don’t you trust me?” Or the man who has already been caught in one adulterous affair complaining when his wife wants to scrutinize the details of his upcoming business trip. Or the person who has lost his license for driving 120 mph insisting on keeping the hot rod when he gets his license back, instead of downgrading to a car with sensible maximum speeds. “I won’t use the speed. You just never know, I might get chased by terrorists one of these days.” These are all fairly extreme examples, with people who in each case have already been guilty of something, but now let’s take away the “criminal record,” and talk about the rest of us.

We sinners are a whole lot prouder and more confident than we have any right to be. “Oh, I’ll never do that. I’m better than that.” So we often resent it when people go to the trouble of telling us not to do something that we’re totally never going to do anyway. We certainly resent it if they do more than just tell us, if they want to monitor us, or to require precautions. But at the same time, at the back of our minds—especially if this is an area where we feel tempted—there often lies an unacknowledged thought, “I actually might stumble into that some day.” We can be impatient of anyone who doubts us, while at the same time (almost subconsciously) leaving just enough wiggle-room, just enough opportunity for transgression that if it ever should happen, we could write it off as an accident, or as something we were forced into. Holy Scripture teaches us, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (I Cor. 10:12), and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 13:14).

The worst harm from the decades of legalized abortion in the United States is probably the millions of dead human beings that none of us ever got to know. But I would argue, almost as bad has been the entrapment practiced on millions of women who found themselves unexpectedly in a tight spot, with an innocent new life suddenly blocking the way between them and their dreams, who had no externally enforced standards to keep them from taking the easy way out, and just rolling over it. If this life isn’t developed enough to say, “Don’t tread on me,” does it count when I do? “No,” the laws told them. “It doesn’t. Never mind that it does count with newborns. Don’t think about that. We’ve got your back. Do what you have to do.” But now that the damage is irreversibly done, the guilt incurred, the laws in some states at least have changed their minds. After five decades without guardrails, it is hard to come to terms with all the wrecked cars at the bottom of the cliff, especially if things have turned out well enough for you that you don’t remember your abortion as a bad accident, but just a regrettable exigency. “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.”

This is what we mean when we say that the first use of the Law, the political use, is a “curb.” It forces us to stay on the just path even when it seems strongly in our own self-interest to go off-road, and friends and political allies are urging us to do just that. For forty-nine years, and longer now in some states, our governments have fallen down on two of the most fundamental jobs they have: to protect the weak from the relatively strong, and to protect the strong from harming the relatively weak. It has been a massive betrayal. It’s entrapment as bad as what the serpent practiced in the Garden of Eden; it’s just practiced by people who are themselves deceived. And perhaps the serpent was just as deceived as they are. Perhaps the first person Satan deceived was himself.  

Not every freedom is good. When we get to live under just laws, laws that reflect God’s Law, we should thank him for two things: not only that they protect the innocent, but also that they provide fences to keep our own potential for self-serving wickedness in bounds. Even though, you know, I would never really do that.


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