It seems to me that the main justification for the pro-choice position is from the need for gender justice. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explains, “Also in the balance is a woman’s autonomous charge of her full life’s course… her ability to stand in relation to man, society, and the state as an independent, self-sustaining, equal citizen” [“Some Thoughts on Autonomy and Equality in Relation to Roe v. Wade,” in The Abortion Controversy: A Reader, ed. Louis P. Pojman and Francis J. Beckwith (Boston: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 1994), 124]. She holds that the Court ought to have included in Roe an argument concerning gender-based classification, for it, along with reproductive autonomy, “influences the opportunity women will have to participate as men’s full partners in the nation’s social, political, and economic life” (Ibid., 119). Many defenders of the pro-choice position reason this way, including Justice Harry Blackmun, Alison M. Jaggar, Catherine MacKinnon, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, and Kate Michelman.
Philosophically, the argument is not difficult to refute. Would pursuing an economic or political opportunity justify killing one’s two year old daughter? Of course not, pro-choice people would surely agree. S/he thinks this is a bad analogy because the unborn are not fully human persons. But that is the very question at issue in the abortion debate. The pro-choicer is begging the question rather than making an argument that the unborn are not human persons.
But if the argument is that easy to refute logically, why is it so influential today? Understanding the theory behind it may help answer this question. The ethical theory is act-utilitarianism, which says that a person’s action is justified by its bringing about greater happiness, in this case by providing her with equal access to socio-economic and political opportunities. The end justifies the means.
This reasoning has fatal flaws. You cannot know your or your offspring’s future, whether actual or possible. History is replete with examples of people who regretted past decisions or who were relieved that they did not do something they had considered doing.
Also, David DeGrazia, Thomas Mappes, and Jeffrey Brand-Ballard point out that act-utilitarianism seems unable to coexist with the notion of human rights [Biomedical Ethics, 7th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2010), 12]. One of the common arguments for enhanced interrogation at Guantanamo Bay was that these methods used on high-level terrorists could potentially save many lives by finding out about planned terrorist attacks. This is a utilitarian argument that many, especially on the liberal end of the political spectrum, rejected, for the prisoners have rights as human beings. By the same reasoning, one could justify killing an older, unhappy couple to relieve them of their unhappiness. Or one could frame an innocent person on a capital offense to avoid deadly rioting.
Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen explain why it is that rights cannot coexist with any utilitarian or consequentialist ethic.
Within any such ethic, there will always be human beings who are dispensable, who must be sacrificed for the greater good. Utilitarianism fails in a radical way to respect the dignity and rights of individual human beings. For it treats the greater good, a mere aggregate of all the interests or pleasures or preferences of individuals, as the good of supreme worth and value, and it demands that nothing stand in the way of its pursuit. The utilitarian thus cannot believe, except as a convenient fiction, in human rights or in actions that may never be done to people, regardless of the consequences [Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, 2nd edition. Kindle version (New York: Doubleday, 2011), loc. 1420].
Michael Tooley, Alison Jaggar’s colleague at the University of Colorado, who also defends abortion, sees the problem. “It seems to me very doubtful that the broadly consequentialist considerations that Alison advances would suffice to show that legal protection of that right [i.e., the unborn right to life] is not justified” [Michael Tooley et al., Abortion: Three Perspectives (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 184].
But pro-choice people who use the utilitarian gender justice argument base their demand for such justice on the human rights of women. Thus, they have a contradiction right at the heart of their thinking on abortion. You can either embrace utilitarianism or human rights, not both.
I doubt that the persistence of the gender justice argument is animated by loyalty to utilitarian theory. Rather, the utilitarian gender justice argument is a species of Marxist proletarian morality, the notion that whatever helps the oppressed (the proletariat) in their class struggle against the oppressors (the bourgeoisie) is right. Abortion helps women in their struggle against a male-dominated society and thus must be allowed by law, otherwise the legal system stands against equality. Deleonist socialists make just that argument (see “The Abortion Issue: A Socialist View,” accessed January 18, 2018, http://www.deleonism.org/text/a-76.htm.).
My oldest daughter just received a significant scholarship to attend Northwest University, a conservative Christian school. I am profoundly grateful that Northwest judged her on her merits as a student and did not discriminate against her based on gender. I know that many women around the world do not enjoy such treatment. There is much to be done to secure the rights of women and girls worldwide. But there are right and wrong ways to do so, and zeal must not continue to lead us to oppress one group of people for the sake of another, which is exactly what is happening if pro-lifers are correct that the unborn are distinct, living, whole human persons. Everything we have argued against utilitarianism stands against proletarian morality. And Marxism’s history is stained with the blood of over one hundred million people whose deaths were justified by the ends. With 60 million unborn Americans and 1.4 billion people worldwide having been exterminated through abortion, the unjust history of Marxist utilitarianism continues. People deserve better because all of us, regardless of size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency, have an unalienable right to life.