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Why Pro- Life?

The case for inclusion.

Abortion ends the life of a human embryo or fetus. Is this killing morally permissible? Or is it an injustice?

More than 150 years ago, a Boston physician named Horatio R. Storer pointed to the heart of the issue. "The whole question," he observed , "turns on ... the real nature of the foetus in utero ."

Does the unborn child have a right not to be intentionally killed? Does she matter like we matter? Does she count as one of us?

Yes, she does. This position is based on a fact of science and a principle of justice .

Science: The unborn is a human being

First, the unborn (the human zygote, embryo, or fetus) is a human being—a living human organism at the earliest developmental stages. This is a fact established by the science of embryology. Four features of the unborn human are important:

Distinct. The unborn has a DNA and body distinct from her mother and father. She develops her own arms, legs, brain, nervous system, heart, and so forth.

Living. The unborn meets the biological criteria for life. She grows by reproducing cells. She turns nutrients into energy through metabolism. And she can respond to stimuli.

Human. The unborn has a human genetic signature. She is the offspring of human parents, and humans can only beget other humans.

Organism. The unborn is an organism ( rather than a mere organ or tissue)—an individual whose parts work together for the good of the whole. Guided by a complete genetic code, she needs only the proper environment and nutrition to develop herself through the different stages of life as a member of our species.

"Human development begins at fertilization when a sperm fuses with an oocyte to form a single cell, a zygote," explains the textbook The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology . "This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual."

The scientific evidence , then, shows that the unborn is a living individual of the species Homo sapiens , the same kind of being as us, only at an earlier stage of development. Each of us was once a zygote, embryo, and fetus, just as we were once infants, toddlers, and adolescents.

Related articles

Why the unborn is a human being

Why unborn humans have rights

Equality and abortion are mutually exclusive

The three main arguments for abortion—and where they go wrong

Pro-life persuasion: How to discuss abortion with logic and grace

How a shallow view of the self underlies arguments for abortion

More articles

Justice: All human beings have human rights

Second, all human beings have human rights. Everyone counts. This is a principle of justice.

Unborn humans are different from most born humans in a number of ways, but those differences aren't relevant to whether or not someone has rights. Unborn children may look different from older human beings, but appearance has nothing to do with value. Unborn children are less physically and mentally developed, but toddlers are less developed than teenagers, and that doesn't make them any less important. Unborn children are dependent on someone else , but so are newborn children and many people with disabilities.

Defenders of abortion often argue that unborn humans aren't "persons" who have rights because they lack certain characteristics. One problem with this view is that it excludes more human beings than just unborn children. If unborn children aren't persons because they lack higher mental functions , for example, then human infants , people in temporary comas, and patients with advanced dementia aren’t persons either.

Another problem is that this approach undermines equality for everyone . If characteristics like cognitive ability or physical independence make us valuable, then those who have more of those characteristics are more valuable than those who have less. None of us are equal according to this view.

Historically, every single attempt to divide humanity into those who have rights and those who are expendable has proven to be a colossal mistake. Why think abortion is any different?

The truth is that we have human rights simply because we are human —not because of what we look like, or what we can do, or what others think or feel about us , but rather because of what (the kind of being) we are. That's why every human being matters, and every human being matters equally.

Why abortion is unjust

The argument for the pro-life view, then, may be summarized like this:

The unborn is a human being.

All human beings have human rights, which include the right not to be intentionally killed.

Therefore, the unborn human being has human rights.

This is why abortion—the intentional killing of human beings in utero (through lethal suction , dismemberment , crushing, or poisoning )—is unjust. It's why both pregnant women and their unborn children deserve our respect, protection, and care.

Answering arguments for abortion

Here are some of the most common arguments offered in defense of abortion—and why they don't work.

Many abortion supporters say that women have a right to choose , or that we should trust women and let them decide . People do have the right to choose to do lots of things. But there are some acts that aren’t just and shouldn’t be permitted by law because they harm innocent people. The question at hand is whether abortion is one of those harmful acts. There are good reasons (see above) to think it is. ( Read more about this argument.)

Bodily autonomy

Women have a right to control their own bodies, many defenders of abortion argue. Bodily autonomy is very important, but it must respect the bodies and rights of others . Most people agree, for example, that pregnant women shouldn’t ingest drugs that cause birth defects. And if harming unborn children is wrong, then dismembering and killing them (through abortion) is even worse. Moreover, parents should provide basic care for their children (including during pregnancy) because they are responsible for the existence of those children. ( Read more about this argument.)

Tough circumstances

Pregnant women often face very difficult circumstances. But if unborn children are valuable human beings, like born children, then killing them is no more justified in tough situations (e.g., financial hardship) than killing born children in those same situations. Our response to the difficulties women face should be to provide support, resources, and ethical alternatives —so no woman feels like abortion is her only option. ( Read more about this argument.)

Although rape and incest account for less than one percent of Minnesota abortions, these cases are very real. Rape is a truly horrific crime, and the crime is made even worse when the woman then becomes a pregnant mother against her will. Abortion, however, compounds the violence of rape by taking the life of a vulnerable human being who has done nothing wrong. Both the mother and child deserve support and care in the midst of this very painful and unfair situation.

Adverse diagnoses

An adverse prenatal diagnosis is heartbreaking. But just as disease and disability don't justify killing born children, they aren't good reasons to kill unborn children either. Moreover, support and alternatives to abortion are available, including adoption for children with special needs and perinatal hospice in the event of a terminal diagnosis. ( Read more about this argument.)

Saving the mother

In rare and tragic cases, saving a pregnant woman's life requires ending her pregnancy (such as through premature delivery or C-section)—even though the child may not be able to survive outside the womb. This is uncontroversial, though, because it's better to save the mother's life than to let both mother and child die. It is not the same as intentionally killing the child, which is never medically necessary .

Imposing a view

Some people express personal opposition to abortion, yet don't want to impose that view on others by making abortion illegal. But the reason to personally oppose abortion is that it unjustly takes the life of an innocent human being. And surely the law ought to protect basic human rights and prevent violence against the defenseless. No one would say, "I'm personally opposed to sex trafficking, but I don't want to impose that view on everyone else." ( Read more about this argument.)

Forcing religion

People often say that pro-lifers are trying to force their religious beliefs on the rest of society. But the pro-life position is supported by science and reason and is held by many non-religious people . Opposition to killing unborn children is no more inherently "religious" than opposition to killing teenagers (or anyone else). Moreover, the fact that a person's position on an issue may be influenced by religion should not exclude it from public consideration. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s work in the civil rights movement, for example, was heavily influenced by his religious convictions. ( Read more about this argument.)

Danger of illegal abortion

Before abortion was legalized, some say, many women died from illegal abortions—and this will happen again when abortion is banned. The truth is that antibiotics and other medical advances produced a dramatic decline in maternal deaths through the middle of the 20th century. This drop occurred before the 1973 nationwide legalization of abortion, which had no apparent effect on mortality rates. Indeed, a wealth of evidence shows that we can protect the rights of unborn children and have a high standard of maternal health at the same time. ( Read more about this argument.)

Punishing women

Some abortion supporters warn that when abortion is illegal, women who have abortions will be put in prison. That's not true. Before the legalization of abortion in the United States, women who underwent abortion were virtually never prosecuted (practitioners of abortion were targeted instead). Post-abortive women deserve compassion , not condemnation.

Gender equality

Some feminists argue that gender equality requires legalized abortion. The challenges of pregnancy and childbirth do fall uniquely on women and not men (though men are equally responsible for their children). But the burdens of caring for five-year-old children fall on the parents of five-year-old children and not on everyone else—and laws against killing or abandoning five-year-olds are not unjust for that reason. Despite differing circumstances, everyone should be equally prohibited from taking innocent human life. More can and should be done, however, to hold men to their responsibilities as fathers and to accommodate the essential role mothers play in our society. ( Read more about this argument.)

Men and abortion

Some people say that men shouldn't express an opinion about abortion. It's true that men can't fully understand the experience of pregnancy, but it's also true that abortion is either right or wrong irrespective of the experience of any particular person . The pro-life view is held by millions of women. That view cannot just be dismissed because of a trait of a person who happens to be advocating it. If abortion really is the unjust taking of innocent human life, then both women and men ought to speak up on behalf of the unborn girls and boys who have no voice. ( Read more about this argument.)

Additional arguments

Do laws work to stop abortion?

No, abortion is not health care

Are pro-lifers misogynists and hypocrites?

Is abortion actually good for unborn children?

The frozen embryo rescue argument doesn't show that some humans are expendable

Abortion is the opposite of love

Is there a moral right to abortion?

The values of pro-choice people actually support the pro-life position


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The Pro-Life vs Pro-Choice Debate

What does each side believe?


  • Reproductive Rights
  • The U. S. Government
  • U.S. Foreign Policy
  • U.S. Liberal Politics
  • U.S. Conservative Politics
  • Civil Liberties
  • The Middle East
  • Race Relations
  • Immigration
  • Crime & Punishment
  • Canadian Government
  • Understanding Types of Government
  • Ph.D., Religion and Society, Edith Cowan University
  • M.A., Humanities, California State University - Dominguez Hills
  • B.A., Liberal Arts, Excelsior College

The terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice" refer to the dominant ideologies concerning abortion rights. Those who are pro-life, a term that some argue is biased because it suggests that the opposition does not value human life, believe that abortion should be banned. Those who are pro-choice support keeping abortion legal and accessible.

In reality, the controversies related to reproductive rights are much more complex. Some people back abortions in certain circumstances and not in others or believe such procedures should be " safe, rare, and lega l." Complicating matters is that there's no consensus on when exactly life begins . The shades of gray in the abortion debate are why the reproductive rights discussion is far from simple.

The Pro-Life Perspective

Someone who is "pro-life" believes that the government has an obligation to preserve all human life, regardless of intent, viability, or quality-of-life concerns. A comprehensive pro-life ethic, such as that proposed by the Roman Catholic Church, prohibits:

  • Euthanasia and assisted suicide 
  • The death penalty
  • War, with very few exceptions

In cases where the pro-life ethic conflicts with personal autonomy, as in abortion and assisted suicide, it's considered conservative. In cases where the pro-life ethic conflicts with government policy, as in the death penalty and war, it's said to be liberal.

Pro-Choice Perspective

People who are " pro-choice " believe that individuals have unlimited autonomy with respect to their own reproductive systems, as long as they don't breach the autonomy of others. A comprehensive pro-choice position asserts that the following must remain legal:

  • Celibacy and abstinence
  • Contraception use
  • Emergency contraception use

Under the Partial Birth Abortion Ban passed by Congress and signed into law in 2003, abortion became illegal under most circumstances in the second trimester of pregnancy, even if the mother's health is in danger. Individual states have their own laws, some banning abortion after 20 weeks and most restricting late-term abortions . 

The pro-choice position is perceived as "pro-abortion" to some in the U.S., but this is inaccurate. The purpose of the pro-choice movement is to ensure that all choices remain legal.

Point of Conflict

The pro-life and pro-choice movements primarily come into conflict on the issue of abortion . The pro-life movement argues that even a nonviable, undeveloped human life is sacred and must be protected by the government. Abortion should be prohibited, according to this model, and not practiced on an illegal basis either.

The pro-choice movement argues that the government should not prevent an individual from terminating a pregnancy before the point of viability (when the fetus can't live outside the womb). The pro-life and pro-choice movements overlap to an extent in that they share the goal of reducing the number of abortions. However, they differ with respect to degree and methodology.

Religion and the Sanctity of Life

Politicians on both sides of the abortion debate only sometimes reference the religious nature of the conflict. If one believes that an immortal soul is created at the moment of conception and that "personhood" is determined by the presence of that soul, then there is effectively no difference between terminating a week-old pregnancy or killing a living, breathing person. Some members of the anti-abortion movement have acknowledged (while maintaining that all life is sacred) that a difference exists between a fetus and a fully-formed human being.

Religious Pluralism and the Obligation of Government

The U.S. government can't acknowledge the existence of an immortal soul that begins at conception without taking on a specific, theological definition of human life . Some theological traditions teach that the soul is implanted at quickening (when the fetus begins to move) rather than at conception. Other theological traditions teach that the soul is born at birth, while some assert that the soul doesn't exist until well after birth. Still, other theological traditions teach that there is no immortal soul whatsoever.

Can Science Tell Us Anything?

Although there is no scientific basis for the existence of a soul, there is no such basis for the existence of subjectivity, either. This can make it difficult to ascertain concepts such as "sanctity." Science alone can't tell us whether a human life is worth more or less than a rock. We value each other for social and emotional reasons. Science doesn't tell us to do it.

To the extent that we have anything approaching a scientific definition of personhood, it would most likely rest in our understanding of the brain . Scientists believe that neocortical development makes emotion and cognition possible and that it doesn't begin until the late second or early third trimester of pregnancy.

Alternative Standards for Personhood

Some pro-life advocates argue that the presence of life alone, or of unique DNA, defines personhood. Many things that we don't consider to be living persons might meet this criterion. Our tonsils and appendices are certainly both human and alive, but we don't consider their removal as anything close to the killing of a person.

The unique DNA argument is more compelling. Sperm and egg cells contain genetic material that will later form the zygote. The question of whether certain forms of gene therapy also create new persons could be raised by this definition of personhood.

Not a Choice

The pro-life vs. pro-choice debate tends to overlook the fact that the vast majority of women who have abortions don't do so by choice, at least not entirely. Circumstances put them in a position where abortion is the least self-destructive option available. According to a study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, 73 percent of women who had abortions in the  United States  in 2004 said that they couldn't afford to have children.

The Future of Abortion

The most effective forms of birth control —even if used correctly—were only 90 percent effective in the late 20th century. Today, contraceptive options have improved and even should they fail for some reason, individuals may take emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy.

Advancements in birth control may help to further reduce the risk of unplanned pregnancies. Someday abortion may grow increasingly rare in the United States. But for this to happen, individuals from all socioeconomic backgrounds and regions would need to have access to cost-effective and reliable forms of contraception.

  • DeSanctis, Alexandra. "How Democrats Purged 'Safe, Legal, Rare' From the Party", November, 15, 2019.
  •  Finer, Lawrence B. "Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions: Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives." Lori F. Frohwirth, Lindsay A. Dauphinee, Susheela Singh, Ann M. Moore, Volume 37, Issue 3, Guttmacher Institute, September 1, 2005.
  • Santorum, Sen. Rick. "S.3 - Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003." 108th Congress, H. Rept. 108-288 (Conference Report), Congress, February 14, 2003.
  • "State Bans on Abortion Throughout Pregnancy." State Laws and Policies, Guttmacher Institute, April 1, 2019. 
  • The Roe v. Wade Supreme Court Decision
  • Key Arguments From Both Sides of the Abortion Debate
  • Roe v. Wade
  • All About Abortion Rights
  • Abortion Facts and Statistics in the 21st Century
  • Understanding Why Abortion Is Legal in the United States
  • Pro-Choice Quotes
  • Abortion on Demand: A Second Wave Feminist Demand
  • Is Abortion Legal in Every State?
  • Supreme Court Decisions and Women's Reproductive Rights
  • Pros & Cons of Embryonic Stem Cell Research
  • Coretta Scott King Quotations
  • Biography of Norma McCorvey, 'Roe' in the Roe v. Wade Case
  • Feminist Organizations of the 1970s
  • The Slave Boy Experiment in Plato's 'Meno'
  • Population Decline in Russia

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The Pro-Choice Argument

There are those who hold that contraception unfairly manipulates the workings of nature, and others who cannot see the fetus as a child until the umbilical cord is cut. Invoking an almost religious fervor on both sides of the issue, abortion is one of the most emotionally potent present political controversies. Motherhood is a powerful institution in American life, and both the "Pro-choice" (supporting a woman's right to choose) and the "Pro-life" (anti-abortion) forces see the other as attacking the foundations of the mother-infant bond.

Social analysis argues forcibly for the need for safe, legal and affordable abortions. Approximately 1 million women had abortions annually until the 1973 decision legalizing abortion, and abortion had become the leading cause of maternal death and mutilation (40 deaths/100,000 abortions compared to 40 deaths/100,000 live births according to National Abortion Rights Action league.) An estimated 9000 rape victims become pregnant each year (FBI 1973); 100,000 cases of incest occur yearly (National Center for Child Abuse and Neglect, 1978). Two-thirds of teenage pregnancies are not planned, because many do not have adequate access to contraceptives (NARAL). And the taxpayer price of supporting a child on welfare is far greater than that of a Medicaid abortion. But the issue that provokes such anger surrounds the fetus's right to life--its status as a potential human being. Anti-abortionist proponents usually take the position that conception is life and therefore abortion is murder and violates the rights of the unborn, or that there is an inherent value in life and abortion is murder because it destroys that value.

The Supreme Court decided in 1973 that the unborn fetus had no constitutional rights until the third trimester (24-28 weeks), as it is incapable of functioning independently from the mother until that time. Right-to-Lifers claim that because the fetus will develop into a human being, it demands the same paternalistic protection that is extended to animals, children and others subject to exploitation and maltreatment. The fetus must be accorded the same constitutional rights as its mother.

Two arguments delineate the problems in giving the fetus these equivalent rights. The first looks at individual rights as the products of a social doctrine. Animals and children are unavoidably present within a society, and to ensure that they remain functioning members of that society they must be protected from exploitation by other societal members. Different political platforms advocate different rights--the right to free medical care, the right to minimal taxation--but all demarcate the interaction of the individual within the group. A person's rights protect him from future harassment, but to actually obtain those rights he must already be a member of the group providing him with those protections. An Australian cannot lay claim to American rights until he is on American soil (or its equivalent). He may have a guarantee that should he enter the United States, he will be accorded many of those protections. But the guarantee depends on his entrance onto American territory. In analogous fashion, until the fetus is actually, not potentially, a member of society, it does not have constitutional rights.

One could object that the fetus in the womb is as signally present in society as the child in the crib, that each are equally members of society. Yet surely the conception of "member" involves some minimal interaction. The fetus reacts to society of the outside world solely through the medium of the mother. Strictly speaking, then, society has no legal responsibility to the fetus, but rather to the mother.

This seems like a rather harsh position, but we can distinguish between the rights of the fetus and the action that a mother might feel morally compelled to take. Consider the following situation: suppose you were to return home one day and find a stranger camped out in your living room and peacefully eating the ham sandwich you saved for dinner. You would be tempted to throw him out in the street. Almost everyone could agree that you had the right to eject him.

But suppose he told you that he could not live outside of your house; perhaps one of his enemies waits outside your door. Moreover, he informs you that he needs food and clothing and someone to talk to--he needs your presence much of the day. He becomes more demanding: you must work less, earn less, give up jogging.

Introduce a complication: your food is strictly rationed, or perhaps your heating, on subsistence level for a single person. If the stranger stays with you, your life will be seriously endangered. You might be very upset, but if it came down to the wire you would probably kick him out of the house. Again, most people would agree you were within your rights to do so.

The difficulty of course arises when it would be possible for you to support him and take care of him, but you would rather not. You might agree if the demand were only for an evening, but hesitate if it were for the rest of your life. Do rights then depend upon the time factor? You could claim a certain moral responsibility towards another human being. But it is hard to say that he has the right to force you to support him. You are not legally required to help an old lady across the street.

One counterargument declares that willing intercourse implies acceptance of a possible pregnancy--that in effect you invited the stranger in, that you knew what you were in for and that he now has the right to demand your help. But faulty contraception is like a broken window. When you return to your suite and find your stereo missing, do you accede the thief's right to take it because your window is easily pried open? The abortion issue thus forces a clarification of the nature of the individual and his social rights. Although we may feel morally constrained to protect the future child, the fetus does not have the right to force us to do so. In the traditional dichotomy of church and state, to restrict abortion is to legislate morality.

The staunchest opposition comes from those who hold absolutely that conception is life. But belief in the inherent value of life is not a trite axiom: it avows some faith in the quality of existence beyond the moral injunction "Thou shalt not kill." It becomes easy to see as hypocritical those anti-abortionists--particularly men--who condone extra-marital intercourse (or even intramarital intercourse) yet would refuse to financially and emotionally support the child conceived because of faulty contraception. The only morally consistent value-of-life position is to have intercourse only if one is willing to accept a child as a possible consequence, and participate in the quality of the child's life. This in part lies behind the Catholic prohibition of premarital sex.

As a personal doctrine few would reproach those who follow it. But pragmatics belie its application to all society, rape being the prime instance where the woman is not free to choose to become pregnant. The restriction of federal support to cases of rape, incest and probable death of the mother suggests an interesting quality-of-life argument: that potentiality is not absolute but must be prorated. Due to society's dread of incest, such a mother and her child would be spared a psychologically unbearable life. In case of danger to the mother's life we do not hear that the 'child' has potentially far more years of happy, productive life than the mother. Rather, the argument runs that the mother's life should not be sacrificed for the child who would bear such a tremendous burden.

Yet an unwanted child may be born into a household with an equally heavy psychological toll. If the potentiality of life thesis rests on an understanding of the inner qualities of life, then abortion is a necessity rather than a crime. Those who deny the right to an abortion under any circumstances fail to see that their argument undercuts itself. Abortion provides a unique understanding of the "inherent good" of existence. It is morally irresponsible to believe that a pregnancy must be brought to term even in case of the mother's death simply because it is a matter of nature and out of our hands when we have the medical means to save the mother. The case involves a comparison of the life-value of the mother and the child: the final decision must evaluate the process of existence--the value of life as it is lived. The inherent value of life cannot be an a priori constant if a choice is to be made between two lives.

Once the quality of life-as-it-is-lived is introduced into the argument, we can say that abortion provides the possibility of improving that quality. Motherhood is a remarkably special bond between mother and child, perhaps the most important relationship we ever have. It requires tremendous emotional capacities, and raising children should be one of the most conscious decisions we make. Many of those who have abortions when young have children later in life, when they are more emotionally and financially equipped to handle them. Contraception is at most 99 per cent safe, and abortion must be available to allow women the freedom to provide the optimum conditions for their child's growth.

According to a 1978 Clark University study, 83 per cent of Massachusetts supports the woman's right to choose. But the trend of recent legislation is distinctly anti-abortion, the result of an extremely well-organized and funded "Pro-life" movement (which some link to the New Right). On the federal level, the 1976-7 Hyde Amendment, a rider on the Labor-HEW appropriations bill, cut off federally funded abortions except in cases of rape, incest, and "medically necessary" instances, defined by the Supreme Court as long-lasting physical or psychological damage to the mother's health.

In 1977 this clause cut 99 per cent of all reimbursements (250,000-300,000 annually prior to the cut-off); this year "medically necessary" has been replaced by probable death of the mother. Military women are similarly restricted under the Dornan Amendment; the Young Amendment funds no abortions at all for Peace Corps women. Employers may refuse to include abortion coverage in their company health plan under the Beard Amendment. Fifteen states have called for a constitutional convention to introduce the prohibition of all abortions: 19 more would fulfill the requisite number of 34.

In Massachusetts the Doyle Bill would cut off state funds in the same manner as the Hyde Amendment. Formerly an adjunct to the budget it was passed and signed as a bill this year. Appealed by MORAL (the Massachusetts Organization for the Repeal of Abortion Laws), the bill is under injunction and pending review by the Federal District Court on the basis of a Supreme Court decision that all medically necessary services must be available to the poor. As of last May, hospitals are no longer required to perform abortions upon demand except in case of probable death to the mother. Legislation restricting abortions to hospitals with full obstetrical care (rather than women's health clinics), now before the Massachusetts House, could place the woman in a double bind. Also under Massachusetts debate is an "Informed Consent" bill which essentially amounts to harrassment: the bill requires spouse and parental notification, with consent of parents or courts for minors, full information concerning the viability and appearance of the fetus, description of the aborting technique, anad a 24-hour waiting period after the 'information session' before the abortion could be obtained.

There is a real danger that anti-abortion legislation could become increasingly more restrictive. It already discriminates against women in lower economic brackets. The power of the pro-life people should not be underestimated: they have targeted 12 Congressmen for defeat in 1980, among them Morris Udall and Birch Bayh. We need to inform our politicians of their pro-choice constituency and reverse the further tightening of the over-restrictive and discriminatory legislation.

Tanya Luhrmann '80-3 is working for Abortion Rights Action Week.

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There’s a Better Way to Debate Abortion

Caution and epistemic humility can guide our approach.

Opponents and proponents of abortion arguing outside the Supreme Court

If Justice Samuel Alito’s draft majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization becomes law, we will enter a post– Roe v. Wade world in which the laws governing abortion will be legislatively decided in 50 states.

In the short term, at least, the abortion debate will become even more inflamed than it has been. Overturning Roe , after all, would be a profound change not just in the law but in many people’s lives, shattering the assumption of millions of Americans that they have a constitutional right to an abortion.

This doesn’t mean Roe was correct. For the reasons Alito lays out, I believe that Roe was a terribly misguided decision, and that a wiser course would have been for the issue of abortion to have been given a democratic outlet, allowing even the losers “the satisfaction of a fair hearing and an honest fight,” in the words of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Instead, for nearly half a century, Roe has been the law of the land. But even those who would welcome its undoing should acknowledge that its reversal could convulse the nation.

From the December 2019 issue: The dishonesty of the abortion debate

If we are going to debate abortion in every state, given how fractured and angry America is today, we need caution and epistemic humility to guide our approach.

We can start by acknowledging the inescapable ambiguities in this staggeringly complicated moral question. No matter one’s position on abortion, each of us should recognize that those who hold views different from our own have some valid points, and that the positions we embrace raise complicated issues. That realization alone should lead us to engage in this debate with a little more tolerance and a bit less certitude.

Many of those on the pro-life side exhibit a gap between the rhetoric they employ and the conclusions they actually seem to draw. In the 1990s, I had an exchange, via fax, with a pro-life thinker. During our dialogue, I pressed him on what he believed, morally speaking , should be the legal penalty for a woman who has an abortion and a doctor who performs one.

My point was a simple one: If he believed, as he claimed, that an abortion even moments after conception is the killing of an innocent child—that the fetus, from the instant of conception, is a human being deserving of all the moral and political rights granted to your neighbor next door—then the act ought to be treated, if not as murder, at least as manslaughter. Surely, given what my interlocutor considered to be the gravity of the offense, fining the doctor and taking no action against the mother would be morally incongruent. He was understandably uncomfortable with this line of questioning, unwilling to go to the places his premises led. When it comes to abortion, few people are.

Humane pro-life advocates respond that while an abortion is the taking of a human life, the woman having the abortion has been misled by our degraded culture into denying the humanity of the child. She is a victim of misinformation; she can’t be held accountable for what she doesn’t know. I’m not unsympathetic to this argument, but I think it ultimately falls short. In other contexts, insisting that people who committed atrocities because they truly believed the people against whom they were committing atrocities were less than human should be let off the hook doesn’t carry the day. I’m struggling to understand why it would in this context.

There are other complicating matters. For example, about half of all fertilized eggs are aborted spontaneously —that is, result in miscarriage—usually before the woman knows she is pregnant. Focus on the Family, an influential Christian ministry, is emphatic : “Human life begins at fertilization.” Does this mean that when a fertilized egg is spontaneously aborted, it is comparable—biologically, morally, ethically, or in any other way—to when a 2-year-old child dies? If not, why not? There’s also the matter of those who are pro-life and contend that abortion is the killing of an innocent human being but allow for exceptions in the case of rape or incest. That is an understandable impulse but I don’t think it’s a logically sustainable one.

The pro-choice side, for its part, seldom focuses on late-term abortions. Let’s grant that late-term abortions are very rare. But the question remains: Is there any point during gestation when pro-choice advocates would say “slow down” or “stop”—and if so, on what grounds? Or do they believe, in principle, that aborting a child up to the point of delivery is a defensible and justifiable act; that an abortion procedure is, ethically speaking, the same as removing an appendix? If not, are those who are pro-choice willing to say, as do most Americans, that the procedure gets more ethically problematic the further along in a pregnancy?

Read: When a right becomes a privilege

Plenty of people who consider themselves pro-choice have over the years put on their refrigerator door sonograms of the baby they are expecting. That tells us something. So does biology. The human embryo is a human organism, with the genetic makeup of a human being. “The argument, in which thoughtful people differ, is about the moral significance and hence the proper legal status of life in its early stages,” as the columnist George Will put it.

These are not “gotcha questions”; they are ones I have struggled with for as long as I’ve thought through where I stand on abortion, and I’ve tried to remain open to corrections in my thinking. I’m not comfortable with those who are unwilling to grant any concessions to the other side or acknowledge difficulties inherent in their own position. But I’m not comfortable with my own position, either—thinking about abortion taking place on a continuum, and troubled by abortions, particularly later in pregnancy, as the child develops.

The question I can’t answer is where the moral inflection point is, when the fetus starts to have claims of its own, including the right to life. Does it depend on fetal development? If so, what aspect of fetal development? Brain waves? Feeling pain? Dreaming? The development of the spine? Viability outside the womb? Something else? Any line I might draw seems to me entirely arbitrary and capricious.

Because of that, I consider myself pro-life, but with caveats. My inability to identify a clear demarcation point—when a fetus becomes a person—argues for erring on the side of protecting the unborn. But it’s a prudential judgment, hardly a certain one.

At the same time, even if one believes that the moral needle ought to lean in the direction of protecting the unborn from abortion, that doesn’t mean one should be indifferent to the enormous burden on the woman who is carrying the child and seeks an abortion, including women who discover that their unborn child has severe birth defects. Nor does it mean that all of us who are disturbed by abortion believe it is the equivalent of killing a child after birth. In this respect, my view is similar to that of some Jewish authorities , who hold that until delivery, a fetus is considered a part of the mother’s body, although it does possess certain characteristics of a person and has value. But an early-term abortion is not equivalent to killing a young child. (Many of those who hold this position base their views in part on Exodus 21, in which a miscarriage that results from men fighting and pushing a pregnant woman is punished by a fine, but the person responsible for the miscarriage is not tried for murder.)

“There is not the slightest recognition on either side that abortion might be at the limits of our empirical and moral knowledge,” the columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in 1985. “The problem starts with an awesome mystery: the transformation of two soulless cells into a living human being. That leads to an insoluble empirical question: How and exactly when does that occur? On that, in turn, hangs the moral issue: What are the claims of the entity undergoing that transformation?”

That strikes me as right; with abortion, we’re dealing with an awesome mystery and insoluble empirical questions. Which means that rather than hurling invective at one another and caricaturing those with whom we disagree, we should try to understand their views, acknowledge our limitations, and even show a touch of grace and empathy. In this nation, riven and pulsating with hate, that’s not the direction the debate is most likely to take. But that doesn’t excuse us from trying.

Four pro-life philosophers make the case against abortion

pro life argument essay

To put it mildly, the American Philosophical Association is not a bastion of pro-life sentiment. Hence, I was surprised to discover that the A.P.A. had organized a pro-life symposium, “New Pro-Life Bioethics,” at our annual conference this month in Philadelphia. Hosted by Jorge Garcia (Boston College), the panel featured the philosophers Celia Wolf-Devine (Stonehill College), Anthony McCarthy (Bios Centre in London) and Francis Beckwith (Baylor University), all of whom presented the case against abortion in terms of current political and academic values.

Recognizing the omnipresent call for a “welcoming” society, Ms. Wolf-Devine explored contemporary society’s emphasis on the virtue of inclusion and the vice of exclusion. The call for inclusion emphasizes the need to pay special attention to the more vulnerable members of society, who can easily be treated as non-persons in society’s commerce. She argued that our national practice of abortion, comparatively one of the most extreme in terms of legal permissiveness, contradicts the good of inclusion by condemning an entire category of human beings to death, often on the slightest of grounds. There is something contradictory in a society that claims to be welcoming and protective of the vulnerable but that shows a callous indifference to the fate of human beings before the moment of birth.

There is something contradictory in a society that claims to be protective of the vulnerable but shows a callous indifference to the fate of human beings before the moment of birth.

Mr. McCarthy’s paper tackled the question of abortion from the perspective of equality. A common egalitarian argument in favor of abortion and the funding thereof goes something like this: If a woman has an unwanted pregnancy and is denied access to abortion, she might be required to sacrifice educational and work opportunities. Since men do not become pregnant, they face no such obstacles to pursuing their professional goals. Restrictions to abortion access thus places women in a position of inequality with men.

Mr. McCarthy counter-argued that, in fact, the practice of abortion creates a certain inequality between men and women since it does not respect the experiences, such as pregnancy, which are unique to women. Some proponents of abortion deride pregnancy as a malign condition. A disgruntled audience member referred to pregnant women as “incubators.” Mr. McCarthy argued that authentic gender equality involves respect for what makes women different, including support for the well-being of both women and children through pregnancy, childbirth and beyond. He pointed out that in his native England, pregnant women acting as surrogates are given a certain amount of time after birth to decide whether to keep the child they bore and not fulfill the conditions of the surrogacy contract. This is done out of acknowledgment of the gender-specific biological and emotional changes undergone by a woman who has nurtured a child in the womb.

The most compelling argument against abortion remains what it has been for decades: Directly killing innocent human beings is gravely unjust.

Mr. Beckwith explored the question of abortion in light of the longstanding philosophical dispute concerning the “criteria of personhood.” The question of which human beings count as persons is closely yoked to the political question of which human beings will receive civil protection and which can be killed without legal penalty. The personhood criteria range from the most inclusive (genetic identity as a member of the species Homo sapiens ) to the more restrictive (evidence of consciousness) to the most exclusionary (evidence of rationality and self-motivating behavior).

Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of Saint Louis, center, offers the sign of peace to Bishop William M. Joensen Des Moines, Iowa, as U.S. bishops from Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska concelebrate Mass in the crypt of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Jan. 16, 2020. The bishops were making their "ad limina" visits to the Vatican to report on the status of their dioceses to the pope and Vatican officials. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Mr. Beckwith has long used the argument from personal identity (the continuity between my mature, conscious self and my embryonic, fetal and childhood self and my future older, possibly demented self) to make the case against abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. To draw the line between personhood and non-personhood after conception or before natural death is to make an arbitrary distinction—and a lethal one at that. Mr. Beckwith noted, however, that none of the usual candidates for a criterion of personhood is completely satisfying. Even the common pro-life argument from species membership could, unamended, smack of a certain materialism.

The most compelling argument against abortion remains what it has been for decades: Directly killing innocent human beings is gravely unjust. Abortion is the direct killing of innocent human beings. But political debate rarely proceeds by such crystalline syllogisms. The aim of the A.P.A.’s pro-life symposium was to amplify the argument by showing how our practice of abortion brutally violates the values of inclusion, equality and personhood that contemporary society claims to cherish. In the very month we grimly commemorate Roe v. Wade, such new philosophical directions are welcome winter light.

pro life argument essay

John J. Conley, S.J., is a Jesuit of the Maryland Province and a regular columnist for America . He is the current Francis J. Knott Chair of Philosophy and Theology at Loyola University, Maryland.

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What Has the Pro-Life Movement Won?

Donald Trump gave us a Supreme Court that could overturn Roe v. Wade. But the fight against abortion may leave the current G.O.P. behind.

Credit... Illustration by The New York Times and Lino Lago. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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Ross Douthat

By Ross Douthat

Opinion Columnist

  • April 2, 2021

The pro-life movement’s multidecade strategy, up to and including its fraught bargain with Donald Trump, appears to have succeeded. Thanks to the Trump White House and Mitch McConnell’s Senate, there is now a 6-to-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, vetted by conservative legal activists and committed to principles of constitutional interpretation that seem to require sweeping Roe v. Wade away, or at least modifying it into obsolescence.

Yet instead of preparing to claim victory, in the last two weeks part of the anti-abortion movement has fallen into an acrimonious debate over a radical proposal — from the Australian philosopher and Notre Dame professor John Finnis, in the journal First Things, arguing that unborn human beings deserve protections under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The political implication of Finnis’s argument is that the pro-life movement’s longtime legal goal, overturning Roe and letting states legislate against abortion, is woefully insufficient, and in fact pro-life activists should be demanding that the Supreme Court declare a fetal right to life.

Finnis is not the first person to make that case , but the controversy it’s incited this time has been more intense , and in one sense strangely timed: An apparent hour of victory seems like an odd moment to fall to Twitter wrangling over a constitutional claim that most conservative jurists, from Robert Bork to Antonin Scalia, have consistently rejected.

But abortion foes actually have good reason to feel unsettled and uncertain rather than triumphant. First, there is the strong possibility that the 6-to-3 conservative court does not have a majority of justices who particularly want to apply their principles to something as fraught as abortion, as opposed to the comforting blandness of administrative law. Between the popularity of Roe in polling and the fear of liberal backlash and potential court-packing, some combination of John Roberts, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh may decide to follow the rule of institutional self-protection rather than their principles, or find ways to make only the smallest-possible edits to the court’s existing abortion jurisprudence.

Indeed, right now there’s a case pending with the high court that would put Roe to a test: Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization , involving a Mississippi ban, with limited exceptions, on abortion after 15 weeks (when the fetus is pear-size and kicking tiny legs) that a district court struck down. Yet the case has been pending since September, suggesting that there may not be even four justices — the number required to take the case — who are ready to issue a controversial ruling. And pro-life skeptics of the conservative legal establishment are already citing Dobbs to suggest that the just-overturn-Roe strategy might be poised to fail again.

This isn’t the only reason for pro-life unsettlement. The movement also has to be aware that even if its long-running legal strategy is about to succeed, its strategies and prospects in a post-Roe world are uncertain at best — an uncertainty that shadows other conservative policy debates, like the argument over Mitt Romney’s proposal for a monthly child benefit, as well.

Americans have deep qualms about abortion, and amid the general liberal turn of the last few decades, polling on the issue has been remarkably stable: Support for Roe coexists with support for restrictions and regulations that Roe does not permit, the country splits almost evenly over whether to identify as “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” and most Americans fall into a conflicted middle ground.

This means that while overturning Roe would probably prompt a pro-choice backlash in reaction to the court’s decision, there would be ample opportunities, in a world where abortion is returned to the democratic process, to make a pro-life case.

But the anti-abortion cause is closely linked to a culturally bunkered Republican Party and a weakened religious right, it has few media megaphones and weak financial backing, and a lot of the country just seems not to want to think too much about abortion and to punish the party that forces it to do so. So it’s extremely easy to imagine the end of Roe leading to a little more state regulation over all (mostly limitations in the second trimester, along the lines of many European countries), but then for the few states that go further to find themselves boycotted and besieged, leaving the goal of ending abortion nationwide as far away as ever.

Especially because the plausibility of that goal depends on whether the pro-life movement can prove — through very literal policy demonstrations, not just rhetoric — that it can protect and support the pregnant women who would no longer get abortions in the world that it desires. The pro-choice side insists that these women’s independence and well-being and equality depends on a right to end a life that, were it wanted, would be called by name and celebrated with ultrasound photos on the fridge. Against that argument the anti-abortion movement needs more than just the ultrasound photo: It needs to prove the pro-choice premise wrong.

The movement’s wiser leaders know this. Last year, for instance, The Atlantic’s Emma Green profiled Cheryl Bachelder, the former chief executive of Popeye’s and a rare pro-lifer in the C-suite world, who was working with other anti-abortion leaders “to brainstorm all the community support systems that would need to be stronger in a world where abortion is illegal: mental health services, addiction-recovery programs, affordable child care.” Green also reported that the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, has been compiling a database of state resources for pregnant women in preparation for the hoped-for end of Roe.

But, of course — as Green noted with dry understatement — actually getting a major expansion of social services in states that might conceivably ban abortion would require a different Republican Party than the one that exists today.

Over the last month, for instance, many socially conservative Republicans have been critiquing Romney’s proposed family benefit on the grounds that it might lead to more nonworking single mothers. This is a reasonable worry, but it’s definitely the case that making abortion illegal would lead, in the short run, to more women raising kids in difficult circumstances. (The long-term cultural effects are a separate question.) And then it’s also the case that family grants like the Romney plan have been shown to reduce abortion rates when used in European countries.

Put these realities together, and you get a conclusion that most Republicans have not internalized. To restrict abortion in a just and sustainable way, to reduce both the personal hardship of parenting and the incidence of illegal abortion, you probably need some kind of policies like Romney’s plan no matter what the consequences for work incentives or single motherhood. More unintended births to poor women in the near term are a necessary price of pro-life victory — with the lives of the babies themselves the reason that price is very much worth paying.

These realities can seem very remote from the legal theorizing involved in the 14th Amendment debate. Suggesting that judges should endorse an anti-abortion reading of the Constitution solves none of the pro-life movement’s immediate problems. If today’s Republican-appointed jurists are too politically timid to merely return abortion regulation to the states, it’s much harder to imagine them ever issuing a sweepingly pro-life ruling that, under current alignments, would risk attempted nullification from many liberal state governments. And an academic argument over the 14th Amendment’s original meaning hardly helps the pro-life movement address the immediate social-welfare questions it will need to answer should Roe fall.

However, there is a way in which the 14th Amendment argument and the questions raised by Bachelder’s brainstorming or Romney’s family plan are actually closely linked. For a long time the core pro-life position — not that abortion should be a little more regulated or a little more culturally disfavored, but that it should be truly forbidden in almost every case — has been a symbol and an abstraction: an idea that Republican presidents can very notionally support, a cause that judicial appointees can benefit from without directly endorsing, an ideal that Republican state legislators can invoke without having to compromise their libertarian principles to make it real.

But now, with the pro-life movement hovering in a strange limbo between a longed-for victory and another judicial defeat, the question looms up: Is anti-abortion sentiment notional or real?

If it’s mostly notional, then a betrayal by Roberts or Gorsuch won’t change much about conservative judicial politics. If it’s mostly notional, then even the end of Roe will change abortion politics only at the margins and in deep-red states.

If the end of abortion is a real goal, though, then yet another defeat at the Supreme Court should prompt a radical reassessment of the movement’s existing Federalist Society and G.O.P. alliances.

And a victory at the court should likewise widen the pro-life imagination well beyond Republican politics-as-usual, toward an all-options-on-the-table vision of how public policy could make an abortion ban feasible, popular, enduring.

In either scenario, there is something to be said for a pro-life movement that talks less in the language of partisanship and proceduralism and sounds more like the utopian and not simply conservative cause that its logic ultimately requires it to be.

In this sense, saying “yes, the Constitution that protects ‘persons’ should protect the hidden and helpless person in the womb,” and “yes, we will pay whatever price in spending and social support that this principle requires ” are not contradictory positions: They are the same argument on different fronts.

It’s hard to imagine a future where a Supreme Court imposes the full pro-life position on an unwilling country. Whatever its constitutional merits, the 14th Amendment idea requires that public opinion be moving in its direction first.

But there is an imaginable future where making arguments that stress that the pro-life movement really means it , that the lives of children and their mothers together matter more than any other principle, is part of what finally persuades the country to choose life.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook , Twitter (@NYTOpinion) and Instagram .

Ross Douthat has been an Opinion columnist for The Times since 2009. He is the author of several books, most recently, “The Decadent Society.” @ DouthatNYT • Facebook


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Moral foundations of pro-choice and pro-life women

Mariola paruzel-czachura.

1 Institute of Psychology, University of Silesia in Katowice, Grazynskiego 53, 40-126 Katowice, Poland

2 Penn Center of Neuroaesthetics, Goddard Laboratories, University of Pennsylvania, 3710 Hamilton Walk, Philadelphia, PA 19104 USA

Artur Domurat

Marta nowak.

3 Healio Institute of Psychotherapy in Katowice, Bazantow 35, 40-668 Katowice, Poland

Associated Data

The materials, data, and code are available at . The study was preregistered at .

Opinions on abortion are more polarized than opinions on most other moral issues. Why are some people pro-choice and some pro-life? Religious and political preferences play a role here, but pro-choice and pro-life people may also differ in other aspects. In the current preregistered study ( N  = 479), we investigated how pro-choice women differ in their moral foundations from pro-life women. When the Moral Foundations Questionnaire (MFQ) was applied (i.e., when declared moral principles were measured), pro-life women scored higher than pro-choice women in loyalty, authority, and purity. However, when women were asked about moral judgments indirectly via more real-life problems from the Moral Foundations Vignettes (MFV), pro-choice women scored higher than pro-life women in emotional and physical care and liberty but lower in loyalty. When we additionally controlled for religious practice and political views, we found no differences between groups in declaring moral foundations (MFQ). However, in the case of real-life moral judgments (MFV), we observed higher care, fairness, and liberty among pro-choice and higher authority and purity among pro-life. Our results show intriguing nuances between women pro-choice and pro-life as we found a different pattern of moral foundations in those groups depending on whether we measured their declared abstract moral principles or moral judgment about real-life situations. We also showed how religious practice and political views might play a role in such differences. We conclude that attitudes to abortion “go beyond” abstract moral principles, and the real-life context matters in moral judgments.

Graphical abstract

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Supplementary information

The online version contains supplementary material available at 10.1007/s12144-023-04800-0.

Banning the termination of pregnancy due to severe and irreversible damage to the fetus was approved in October 2020 in Polish legislation, which turned out to be one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Similarly, some American states have enacted new abortion restrictions in 2021 and 2022. Those changes provoked protests and showed how one moral issue, i.e., “the abortion problem”, may polarize societies. We already know that opinions on abortion were “always” polarized (Foot, 1967 ; Singer, 2011 ; Thomson, 1971 ; Watt, 2017 ), and they are also very stable (Kiley & Vaisey, 2020 ). Moreover, they are more polarized than opinions on most other moral issues (Baldassarri & Park, 2020 ; DiMaggio et al., 1996 ; Jones, 2018 ). Nevertheless, why are some individuals pro-life or pro-choice, and what characterizes those two groups?

Past research tried to answer these questions showing mainly how religiosity and political preferences shape the attitude to abortion. More religious and conservative people are usually more willing to declare pro-life (Barkan, 2014 ; Fiorina, 2017 ; Jędryczka et al., 2022 ). The abortion problem is indeed strongly related to religion, and religion is strongly related to politics (Jelen & Wilcox, 2003 ; Malka et al., 2012 ). When the religion is against abortion, for example, in the case of the Roman Catholic Church, the followers are usually pro-life (Jonason et al., 2022 ).

But moral judgments related to abortion are based mainly on the strength or salience of personal values (Rilling & Sanfey, 2011 ; Schwartz, 2007 ; Spicer, 1994 ), and religious or political preferences are just the indicators of those values (Koleva et al., 2012 ). That is probably why religious and political preferences were commonly studied as predictors of attitudes to abortion. However, one can approach the abortion problem from another perspective, i.e., look at it through the lens of moral foundations theory (Graham et al., 2018 ; Graham & Haidt, 2012 ). This theory, in its latest version, postulates six moral foundations, i.e., care, fairness, liberty (so-called three individualizing foundations), loyalty, authority, and purity (so-called three binding foundations) (Clifford et al., 2015 ).

The moral foundations theory and the abortion problem

Moral foundations theory (Graham et al., 2009 , 2013 , 2018 ; Haidt, 2001 ) was proposed to explain why moral beliefs vary so widely across cultures yet still show many similarities and recurrent themes (Haidt & Graham, 2007 ). The first version of the theory posited that people differ in evaluating the importance of five moral foundations: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity (Graham et al., 2018 ). The care foundation (the opposite of harm ) relates to feeling empathy for the pain of others. Fairness (the opposite of cheating ) concerns sensitivity to justice, rights, and equality. Loyalty (the opposite of betrayal ) refers to the tendency to form coalitions and feel proud of being a group member. Authority (the opposite of subversion ) relates to a preference for hierarchical social interactions and feeling respect for, or fear of, people in a higher social position. Finally, the purity (previously termed sanctity ) foundation (the opposite of degradation ) refers to a propensity to exhibit disgust in response to incorrect behavior and reflects individual differences in concerns for the sacredness of values (Koleva et al., 2012 ). Care and fairness are individualizing foundations. They are person-centered and focus on protecting individuals, whereas loyalty, authority, and purity are conceptualized as binding foundations because they focus on preserving one’s group as a whole (Graham et al., 2009 , 2013 , 2018 ). In the last modification of the theory, the sixth moral foundation of liberty was added (Graham et al., 2018 ). A higher level of liberty means a higher need to be free in our choices and behaviors. Liberty is also an individualizing moral foundation.

Only two studies tested how moral foundations might be related to attitudes to abortion. In the first study, Koleva and colleagues (Koleva et al., 2012 ) found that purity (measured by the Moral Foundations Questionnaire – MFQ of Graham and colleagues) predicted being pro-life. Specifically, they conducted two studies involving thousands of participants and a variety of moral issues (among them: the abortion problem), and they tested if the endorsement of five moral foundations may predict judgments about these issues, also testing the role of political ideology (measured by self-assessment on a scale from very liberal to very conservative ), age, gender, religious attendance (i.e., frequent church attendance), and interest in politics. Regarding the abortion problem, only purity predicted attitude to abortion, next to conservative ideology and frequent church attendance. Despite the relevance of this result, this study focused only on declared preferences for moral foundations (i.e., used MFQ). We already know that those abstract preferences or principles do not always predict real-life decisions (Bostyn et al., 2018 ; Schein, 2020 ). For example, regarding the abortion problem, it was already found that some people, despite declaring they are against abortion, decided to help a close friend or family member seeking an abortion (Cowan et al., 2022 ). That is why we also need to study moral foundations more indirectly, for example, by asking about moral decisions close to real life. Additionally, Koleva and colleagues did not test the relevance of the liberty foundation, which was later added to the MFT (Clifford et al., 2015 ; Graham et al., 2018 ). Moreover, they tested only general attitudes to abortion (for example, not measuring the possible impact of the abortion law on the participants or their close others). Lastly, they conducted the study before the latest law changes in 2020–2022, which could also impact attitudes toward such an important social issue.

In the second study, Jonason and colleagues ( 2022 ) asked 255 women and men from Poland about their attitudes toward Poland’s ban on abortion. They showed that Catholics were higher on binding moral foundations (measured via MFQ) than non-Catholics and that Catholics perceived the new situation in Poland with less negativity, which led them to support the ban more than non-Catholics. These results are consistent with past findings, as generally, being religious and conservative is related to being pro-life, and religiosity and conservatism turn out to be linked to binding moral foundations (Kivikangas et al., 2021 ; Saroglou & Craninx, 2020 ). Despite the relevance of this study, it also focused only on declared moral foundations (i.e., MFQ) and did not measure liberty as a new moral foundation (Clifford et al., 2015 ; Graham et al., 2018 ). Moreover, it focused mainly on attitudes toward Poland’s recent ban on abortion. Finally, the two studies mentioned above analyzed the general population, so it is hard to make general conclusions about the differences between pro-choice and pro-life. One possible way to study this issue deeply could be by studying two samples of individuals who clearly define themselves as pro-choice or pro-life. We aimed to do this in the current research.

The current research

We aimed to provide deeper insights into the moral foundations among pro-choice and pro-life individuals. We wished to build on past work (Jonason et al., 2022 ; Koleva et al., 2012 ) in six ways:

  • we used two measures of moral foundations that could allow more general conclusions about the differences between being pro-life and pro-choice as they measure moral foundations directly (MFQ) and indirectly (MFV). Specifically, we measured moral foundations not only by asking about the declaration of moral preferences (declared the importance of and attitude to abstract moral principles) using MFQ (Graham et al., 2009 ) but also by measuring participants’ assessment of immoral actors in concrete, real-life scenarios using MFV (Clifford et al., 2015 ). Measuring declarative abstract moral principles with MFQ makes sense; nevertheless, abortion is a common real-life problem involving concrete actions and choices to be made (Cowan et al., 2022 ; Maddow-Zimet et al., 2021 ). Because MFQ relies on respondents’ rating of abstract principles, it is tough to say anything about respondents’ moral judgment of concrete scenarios (Clifford et al., 2015 ). Moreover, those abstract principles do not always predict real-life decisions (Bostyn et al., 2018 ; Schein, 2020 ), e.g., some people, despite being against abortion (declaration of abstract principle), decide to help a close friend or family member who is seeking an abortion (Cowan et al., 2022 ). That is why we used MFV, an indirect measure of moral foundations based on real-life situations;
  • by using MFV, we measured the new moral foundations of liberty, and to our best knowledge, we are the first to test the role of this foundation in the abortion problem;
  • by using MFV, we were able to measure two types of care foundation, i.e., emotional and physical care, so this way, we could test the sensitivity to emotional or physical harm in our sample;
  • we narrowed the sample to women. We did it for obvious biological reasons, i.e., women are more directly affected by the abortion rule than men. Past studies also show that our attitudes may be stronger if an object or issue may impact our lives more directly (Albarracín, 2021 );
  • we decided to test two groups of women (i.e., pro-life and pro-choice). Past research (Jonason et al., 2022 ; Koleva et al., 2012 ) did not study such opposite groups; by this design, we could look for the clear differences between them;
  • we measured attitudes to abortion in more detail than in past studies (Jonason et al., 2022 ; Koleva et al., 2012 ). Specifically, we asked women about their attitude to abortion in three ways: by direct question whether they are pro-choice or pro-life, by asking about their views on four detailed issues concerning the new abortion law in Poland, and by using a scale that helped us to measure Full and Conditional Abortion Support (see Measures section).

Following past research (Jonason et al., 2022 ), we hypothesized that pro-life women would have higher levels of binding moral foundations than pro-choice women. Because moral foundations measured by MFQ and MFV correlated positively in past research (Clifford et al., 2015 ), we expected to observe the same pattern of results for both of them.

The Research Ethics Committee of the University of Silesia in Katowice accepted the current study. The materials, data, and code are available at . The study was preregistered at . We report all measured variables in this study.

Participants and procedure

We preregistered a survey with a sample of at least N  = 300 respondents, n  = 150 women pro-choice, and n  = 150 women pro-life. Using G*Power software suggested that we need to recruit two independent groups of ca. 150 participants, assuming alpha error probability of 0.05, power of 0.8, and low-to-medium effect size of 0.33 (of differences between groups on a dependent variable in two independent group comparisons). Because participants’ membership to one of two groups would be defined post hoc – based on the dichotomous question about support for abortion – and the allocation ratio to the groups was hard to predict a priori, we preregistered that if we collect more data in any of the two expected subsamples, we will include them in the analyses. We stopped the data collection when the smaller group had n  = 150.

Our online study was conducted during a specific time in Poland in 2021, just after the Polish government introduced the new abortion law. We want to highlight that it was a stormy time when many people went on the streets to express their support for women’s rights, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, so despite that, their lives were directly in danger. Like the study by Jonason and colleagues ( 2022 ), contrary to Koleva and colleagues’ ( 2012 ) study, we asked about a real-life problem, as abortion was the main topic in media, hospitals, homes, etc.

Women were invited to an anonymous online survey in Qualtrics using the snowball method via the University of Silesia’s website and social media platforms. Five hundred sixteen participants took part in the study. All participants had Polish nationality and spoke the Polish language. We excluded participants who did not agree to participate in the study after reading the instruction ( n  = 6), did not answer attention check questions ( n  = 3), and one man from the sample. We also excluded participants ( n  = 27) with too short (less than 3:30 min.) or too long (more than 28 min.) survey completion times, defined by logarithms outside the interquartile range of [ Q 1–1.5 IQR , Q 3 + 1.5 IQR ] 1 .

The analyzed sample consisted of 479 women, split into two groups: pro-choice women ( n  = 332, M age 26.34, SD  = 7.53) and pro-life women ( n  = 147, M age 27.84, SD  = 7.20). Among pro-life women, n  = 123 (83.7%) declared being Catholics, n  = 11 (7.5%) reported being atheists, and n  = 13 (8.8%) declared being other than Catholics (i.e., Buddhists, Protestants, other and not specified). Among pro-choice women, n  = 158 (47.6%) reported being Catholics, n  = 155 (46.7%) declared being atheists, and n  = 19 (8.8%) declared being other than Catholics (Buddhists, Judaists, Orthodox Catholics, Protestants, other and not specified). However, it is worth noting that 177 (53.3%) pro-choice women practiced religion, and 11 (7.5%) pro-life women were not religious.

Group check

Our two groups were distinguished by asking women if they were pro-choice or pro-life. However, to ensure that women correctly divided themselves as pro-choice or pro-life, we asked them about more detailed attitudes to abortion (see section Measures ).

Attitude to abortion

Women were asked about their attitudes to abortion in three ways. First, respondents answered a single question about whether they were pro-choice or pro-life (“If you had to define your own attitude towards abortion clearly, you are: pro-choice/pro-life”). This question was used to identify the two subsamples. Second, the participants expressed their views on four detailed issues concerning the new abortion law in Poland. The first question, “What is your attitude to the verdict issued by the Constitutional Court?” was answered on a scale from 1 ( I definitely do not support ) to 7 ( I definitely do support ) (variable: Attitude to New Rule in Table  1 ). The other three questions were about the potential impact of a new law on them personally (variable: Personal Influence in Table  1 ), on their close others (variable: Influence on Close Others in Table  1 ), and generally on other women (variable: General Influence in Table  1 ) and they were answered on a scale from 1 ( definitely negative ) to 7 ( definitely positive ). Third, participants read six statements about attitudes to abortion and evaluated to what extent they agreed with the statements using a scale from 1 ( I disagree ) to 5 ( I agree ). The first three statements were: “I support the full right to abortion, which is the inalienable right of every woman”, and “Abortion is a woman’s personal matter, and no one else can decide for her whether she should have an abortion or not”, “Abortion should be allowed regardless of the reason”. Averaged answers for these three statements created the index of Full Abortion Support (Cronbach α  = 0.92). Similarly, the following three statements: “Abortion should be allowed only if the pregnancy threatens the life or health of the mother ”, “I support the introduction of the full right to abortion, but only up to the 12th week of pregnancy”, and “Abortion is allowed only when we are sure that the child will be born with a genetic defect” were to create the Conditional Abortion Support index, however, due to its low consistency ( α  = 0.11), we decided to analyze them separately.

Descriptive statistics and differences between pro-choice and pro-life women in religious practice, political views, and attitudes to abortion

The numbers in brackets are the variable’s scales

Moral Foundations Questionnaire

We used a Polish adaptation (Jarmakowski-Kostrzanowski & Jarmakowska-Kostrzanowska, 2016 ) of the Moral Foundations Questionnaire (MFQ; Graham et al., 2009 ) to measure the degree to which the participants endorsed five sets of moral intuitions (i.e., care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity) in moral decision-making. The scale consists of 30 items that measure the moral foundations in two ways: a relevance subscale (15 items) showing how important each one of the moral foundations is for a person, and a judgments subscale (15 items), which measures the extent to which people agree with various moral opinions connected with the different moral foundations. An example item for care is “It can never be right to kill a human being”; for fairness: “When the government makes laws, the number one principle should be ensuring that everyone is treated fairly”; for loyalty: “People should be loyal to their family members, even when they have done something wrong”; for authority: “Men and women each have different roles to play in society”; and for purity: “People should not do things that are disgusting, even if no one is harmed”. A 1 to 6 response scale was used for all items, where 1 was not at all relevant or strongly disagree , and 6 was extremely relevant or strongly agree . Responses were averaged to give an overall score for each foundation. Cronbach alphas were found to be moderate for care ( α  = 0.61) and fairness ( α  = 0.56) and high for loyalty ( α  = 0.77), authority ( α  = 0.76), and purity ( α  = 0.82).

Moral Foundations Vignettes

It measures moral foundations based on evaluating other people’s behavior violating them (MFV; Clifford et al., 2015 ). The randomized set of 21 vignettes was used in our study, three vignettes per moral foundation. Apart from using five classic moral foundations, it includes a liberty foundation and two types of care, i.e., sensitivity to emotional harm to humans or non-human animals (care emotional) and sensitivity to physical harm to humans or non-human animals (care physical). An example item for care emotional is “You see a woman commenting out loud about how fat another woman looks in her jeans”; for care physical: “You see a zoo trainer jabbing a dolphin to get it to entertain his customers”; for fairness: “You see a boy skipping to the front of the line because his friend is an employee”, for liberty: “You see a man forbidding his wife to wear clothing that he has not first approved”; for loyalty: “You see the US Ambassador joking in Great Britain about the stupidity of Americans” [changed into Polish Ambassador in Germany]; for authority: “You see an employee trying to undermine all of her boss’ ideas in front of others”; for purity: “You see an employee at a morgue eating his pepperoni pizza off of a dead body”. The 5-point scale was used from 1 ( not at all wrong ) to 5 ( extremely wrong ). We did translation-back-translation of MFV (see Materials at OSF). Cronbach alphas were satisfactorily high for care emotional ( α  = 0.88), fairness ( α  = 0.71), liberty ( α  = 0.72), authority ( α  = 0.71), and loyalty ( α  = 0.76), and moderate for care physical ( α  = 0.68) and purity ( α  = 0.56).

Religious practice

Participants were asked to evaluate their level of practicing religion on a scale from 1 ( I don’t practice at all ) to 8 ( I am a very practicing person ). Additionally, we asked about which type of religion they practiced (if they practiced any).

Political views

We asked participants two questions about their political views, one related to economic issues (“Please indicate on the following scale your political views relating to economic issues”) on a scale from 0 ( State participation should be very small ) to 7 ( State participation should be very high ), and the other one related to social issues (“Please indicate on the following scale your political views relating to social, cultural issues”) on a scale from 0 ( very conservative ) to 7 ( very liberal ).

Descriptive statistics and differences between pro-choice and pro-life women in religious practice, political views, and attitudes to abortion are shown in Table  1 . The two groups differed (Welch t-tests) significantly in practicing religion (lower among pro-choice) and political views on social issues (higher liberal views among pro-choice), but there was no difference between the groups in views on economic issues. Pro-choice and pro-life women differed in full support for abortion, meaning the two groups differed in their extreme views on abortion. Moreover, pro-life women had stronger beliefs that the new abortion rule in Poland would positively impact themselves personally, their close others, and women in general. In contrast, pro-choice women believed more that the new law would harm all women, themselves, and their close others.

Regarding conditional support, women pro-life agreed more with two statements allowing abortion conditionally when the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life or health and when one is sure that the child will be born with a genetic defect. Women pro-choice agreed more with the third statement allowing the right to abortion until the 12th week of pregnancy (Table  1 ).

Summing up, the observed differences, especially in full support of abortion, show that women accurately classified themselves into one of the two groups, and we can be sure that the groups indeed evaluate abortion from different standpoints (however, see the limitation section for elaboration on improving such classification).

Next, we run analyses to see if moral foundations measured in two ways (i.e., MFQ and MFV) correlated. As shown in Table  2 , we received positive correlations among analogous dimensions of moral foundations, replicating past results (Clifford et al., 2015 ).

Pearson correlations between moral foundations measured by MFQ and MFV

* p  < .05, ** p  < .01, *** p  < .001 two-sided.

Finally, we run analyses to see if the groups differ in moral foundations (ANOVA) and when controlling for political views and religious practice simultaneously (ANCOVA).

Preregistered analyses

Do pro-choice and pro-life women differ in moral foundations.

Yes. As shown in Table  3 , when we analyzed differences between groups (ANOVA) using the classical measure of moral foundations (i.e., MFQ), we found that pro-life women had significantly higher binding foundations than pro-choice women, i.e., loyalty (medium effect size), authority (medium effect size), and purity (large effect size). We observed a different pattern of results when using the MFV (with small effect sizes for all results), a more indirect measure of moral foundations. For binding moral foundations, only loyalty seemed to play a role here, i.e., pro-life women had a higher level of loyalty than pro-choice women. However, pro-choice women had higher levels of both types of care (i.e., emotional and physical) and liberty than pro-life women. Fairness, authority, and purity did not differentiate those groups using MFV.

Tests of effects in ANOVA and ANCOVA

* p  < .05; ** p  < .01; *** p  < .001. The rows contain tests of one ANOVA with moral foundation as a dependent variable and attitude toward abortion as a factor, and one ANCOVA, extending the ANOVA with the set of covariates: religious practice, political views on economic issues, and political views on social issues

Exploratory analyses

Do pro-choice and pro-life women differ in moral foundations when we control religious practice and political views.

Yes. When we controlled for political views and religious practice simultaneously (ANCOVA), we found no differences between groups regarding declared moral foundations (MFQ). However, in the case of real-life assessments (MFV), we observed the same pattern of results for care and liberty as when using ANOVA, but now loyalty did not differentiate these two groups. Additionally, we observed differences in fairness, authority, and purity in such a way that women pro-life had higher levels of those foundations than women pro-choice. All found effects were small.

Past research tried to explain attitudes to abortion mainly by looking into religious and political differences between pro-choice and pro-life people. However, attitudes to abortion may also be related to an individual’s moral views (Jędryczka et al., 2022 ; Jonason et al., 2022 ), and sometimes moral foundations may even be an as good predictor of attitudes to abortion as a religious practice or political conservatism (Koleva et al., 2012 ). In the current research, we looked into the problem of attitudes to abortion more deeply by studying, directly and indirectly, moral foundations among pro-choice and women pro-life women.

When we asked about moral foundations directly (using MFQ of Graham and colleagues, 2009 ), we confirmed our preregistered hypothesis that pro-life women have higher binding foundations than pro-choice women. This result is consistent with past findings (Jonason et al., 2022 ). However, we found a different pattern of results when measuring moral foundations indirectly, i.e., by MFV (Clifford et al., 2015 ). For binding foundations, only loyalty seemed to play a role here, i.e., pro-life women had a higher level of loyalty than pro-choice women. Regarding individualizing foundations, pro-choice women had higher care (physical and emotional) and liberty levels than pro-life women. Fairness, authority, and purity did not differentiate those groups when applying MFV.

Moreover, when we additionally controlled for religious practice and political views (ANCOVA), we found no differences in moral foundations between groups regarding declared moral foundations (MFQ). However, in the case of real-life assessments (MFV), we observed higher care and liberty among pro-choice (just like in ANOVA) and higher fairness, authority, and purity among pro-life. We conclude that religious practice and political views may explain differences between pro-choice and pro-life, but only in the case of declared moral foundations (MFQ) and not in MFV (when individuals make moral judgments about real-life behaviors). Because we found differences between pro-choice and pro-life women (whether we controlled religious practice or political views or not), we conclude that studying indirect moral judgments (i.e., using MFV) may reveal hitherto unknown “hidden” differences between pro-choice and pro-life women.

Specifically, our results show intriguing nuances in the problem of abortion as we found that pro-choice and pro-life women differ in declared abstract moral principles (MFQ) and sensitivity to violating those principles in real-life situations (MFV). On the one hand (i.e., when using the MFQ), women who were pro-life were the women who intensely cared about binding foundations, which was also related to their more vital religious practices and higher conservatism on social issues. It simply means that women who were pro-life cared more about binding foundations than pro-choice women, so they declared that they cared about being loyal, listening to authorities, and not violating the purity foundation, which is strictly related to religious sanctity (and indeed, this foundation’s one of the first names was even sanctity ) (Graham et al., 2018 ). Indeed, past studies showed strong correlations between religion and binding moral foundations worldwide (Saroglou & Craninx, 2020 ) and conservative political preferences and binding foundations (Kivikangas et al., 2021 ). Similar associations were found between five moral foundations, religiosity, political preferences, and acceptance of the new abortion rule in Poland (Jonason et al., 2022 ) or between preference for group-based hierarchy and pro-life (Osborne & Davies, 2009 ). When we controlled for religious practice and political views, the differences between pro-choice and pro-life women disappeared, so we can conclude that – at least for declared abstract moral foundations – being religious and conservative plays a central role in the abortion problem.

On the other hand (i.e., when using the MFV), we showed that this is only one part of the story. We know it because when indirectly measuring preferences for moral foundations, the same women (i.e., pro-life) had higher levels of only loyalty foundation when compared to pro-choice women. The importance of loyalty to the abortion problem is consistent with theory and past findings (Jonason et al., 2022 ). Higher levels of loyalty are related to being more religious and conservative (Saroglou & Craninx, 2020 ). The more surprising result is that authority and purity foundations did not play an essential role in the abortion problem when measured indirectly. This result contradicted past findings when moral foundations were measured directly (Jonason et al., 2022 ). It may be related to a different approach to measuring moral foundations by MFQ and MFV. For example, purity is more directly connected to religiosity in MFQ than in MFV, and their operationalization is slightly different (Crone, 2022 ). We suspect it is the most reasonable explanation for finding no differences here. However, when we additionally controlled for religious practice and political views, we replicated the higher level of care and liberty among pro-choice, but we also found a higher level of fairness, authority, and purity among pro-life. Future researchers could try to explain those nuances more deeply, e.g., by conducting longitudinal studies or using more complex measurements of religiosity and political preferences. We observe inconsistent patterns of results for binding moral foundations measured via MFV, so we should be more tentative about the interpretation and conclusions from our study. We need more studies on this issue to understand why we observed such inconsistency.

Regarding the individualizing moral foundations (MFV), pro-life women scored lower in physical and emotional care and liberty foundations than pro-choice women (also when controlling for religious practice and political views). Regarding care, it simply means that pro-choice and pro-life women gave similar declarations about how important it is for them to care about others (MFQ). However, they differed in indirect measures of care in such a way that pro-choice women had higher levels of care than pro-life women (MFV). These results are the most intriguing for us. Women being pro-life sometimes argue that they care about all life, so abortion should be banned. Nevertheless, we did not find confirmation of this in empirical results. Surprisingly, those women who were pro-choice had higher levels of emotional and physical care than pro-life women. It means that when making moral decisions about other people, pro-choice women were more sensitive to violations of care foundation or, in other words: they disliked the suffering of others more than pro-life women. According to some approaches in moral psychology, the foundation of care is the most critical, and people make their moral judgments mainly based on a simple question: Is anyone hurt? (Gray et al., 2012 ; Schein & Gray, 2018 ). Future studies are needed to explain those differences in care, looking for possible sources of them, maybe in the levels of empathy (Zaki, 2018 ), moral identity (Aquino & Reed, 2002 ; Paruzel-Czachura & Blukacz 2021 ), moral absolutism (Vecina et al., 2016 ), or more general attitudes to violence (Vecina et al., 2015 ).

As MFQ does not allow measuring the liberty foundation, we only studied its level using the MFV, and we found that pro-choice women had a higher level of liberty than pro-life women. The importance of liberty is consistent with theoretical assumptions of being pro-choice (Foot, 1967 ; Singer, 2011 ; Thomson, 1971 ; Watt, 2017 ), and it is the first result confirming empirically that, indeed, being pro-choice is related to highlighting liberty when making moral decisions about what behavior is right or wrong.

Some individuals may say they are pro-life or pro-choice because of their religious or political preferences. Indeed, we found significant relations between stronger practicing of religion, conservative views on social issues, and being against abortion. However, we also found this may be too straightforward to describe this problem because there are atheists and believers in both groups of women, i.e., pro-choice and pro-life. We need more studies to understand the complex attitudes to abortion, for example, by studying only a sample of atheists. It is also worth highlighting again that past studies showed that moral foundations might be as good a predictor of attitudes to abortion as religious or political views (Koleva et al., 2012 ). Because of the importance of the abortion problem in our everyday lives, we need more studies to understand possible differences between pro-choice and pro-life people beyond simple explanations that abortion is just a matter of religion or politics.

Our study is not free from limitations. First, we tested only one sample. There is a possibility that different samples (e.g., from other cultural or religious backgrounds) would bring different results. We cannot know to what extent the results are dependent on the Polish context and the abortion protests, and this is a limitation that needs to be addressed in future research. We need replications of our study, especially in diverse samples, including countries where the abortion law changed, similar to Poland. Attitudes to abortion may be sensitive to changes in law, which made thousands of women protest for their rights on the streets in the case of Poland. Second, we did not study whether being pro-choice or pro-life is moderated by individual differences. For instance, attitudes or moral judgments may depend on personality (Pratto et al., 1994 ). Does personality matter for the abortion problem, and if yes, how? (Jonason et al., 2022 ). Third, we also did not study how situational factors may impact attitudes toward abortion, and some research shows that this issue is worth future investigations (Bago et al., 2022 ; Bilewicz et al., 2017 ). Fourth, two compared groups were identified based on a direct question about their position on pro-life or pro-choice. To cope with false self-identification, we asked additional questions about attitudes toward the abortion problem and the new law in Poland. Admittedly, we confirmed that women correctly assigned themselves to the group for or against abortion (see results: group check). However, we did not avoid the problem related to the situation that some participants who claimed to be pro-life or pro-choice had more mixed feelings about the rest of the questions. We conducted additional analyses to understand this issue more deeply ( Supplementary Materials ). Specifically, we presented the percentages of participants’ answers within the two groups on the six statements expressing full or conditional support for abortion (Table S1 ). This table shows that most participants correctly assigned themselves to the group. However, there were participants whose feelings were mixed. Moreover, we conducted the hierarchical cluster analysis on the three statements expressing full support for abortion and observed that some participants do not belong to the two obtained clusters (Table S2 ). Because we did not preregister to drop such participants out, we did not do it. However, we recommend implementing better control of this issue in future studies to ensure that such groups are created properly. Fifth, we measured religious practice and political views by only single items. In future studies, researchers could use more complex measures of those variables, e.g., the Centrality of Religiosity Scale (Huber & Huber, 2012 ) or the Resistance to Change-Beliefs Scale (White et al., 2020 ). Sixth, it is worth noticing that the correlations between the factors estimated through the MFQ and the MFV are mediocre, or some correlate not exactly as the theory would expect. For instance, MFV authority correlates with MFQ fairness. Perhaps different results with MFQ and MFV might be caused by the imprecision of the instruments in measuring moral foundations. Lastly, there is also a possibility that different results would be obtained in non-WEIRD samples (that are White, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) (Henrich et al., 2010 ), as some research has suggested different patterns of moral judgments in non-WEIRD samples (e.g., Smith & Apicella 2022 ; Sorokowski et al., 2020 ; Turpin et al., 2021 ; Workman et al., 2022 ). Despite all the above limitations, we believe that because of our topic’s theoretical and practical relevance, our study brings an important puzzle to understanding polarization regarding the abortion problem.


We conclude that to understand the attitudes to abortion more fully, we must go beyond abstract moral declarations. Our research demonstrates that pro-choice and pro-life women differed in moral foundations when (a) they revealed abstract moral foundations (pro-life women cared more about loyalty, authority, and purity than pro-choice women) and (b) when they made moral judgments closed to real-life problems (e.g., pro-choice women were more concerned than pro-life women when the foundations of emotional and physical care and liberty were violated). Concerning the latest restrictions on abortion in many places worldwide, discussions about the abortion problem have become more common in our everyday lives. This issue touched many people so much that it sparked massive protests. Hence, it is essential that people are aware of these differences between pro-choice and pro-life women, and we definitely need more studies on this topic.

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

(DOCX 24.2 KB)

Author contributions

MPC and MN contributed to the study conceptualization. MPC and AD wrote the draft. MPC and MN contributed to data collection and data preparation. AD analyzed the data. All authors accepted the final version.

Data availability


The authors declare no conflict of interest.

1 We did not pre-register dropping those participants out. However, when we repeated the analyses for the full sample, we observed the very similar values of Cronbach alphas, the same pattern of correlations and differences between groups, and similar p-values in the performed statistical tests.

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Michael W. Austin Ph.D.

Ethics and Morality

Ethics and abortion, two opposing arguments on the morality of abortion..

Posted June 7, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader

Source: Edson Chilundo/Flickr

Abortion is, once again, center stage in our political debates. According to the Guttmacher Institute, over 350 pieces of legislation restricting abortion have been introduced. Ten states have signed bans of some sort, but these are all being challenged. None of these, including "heartbeat" laws, are currently in effect. 1

Much has been written about abortion from a philosophical perspective. Here, I'd like to summarize what I believe to be the best argument on each side of the abortion debate. To be clear, I'm not advocating either position here; I'm simply trying to bring some clarity to the issues. The focus of these arguments is on the morality of abortion, not its constitutional or legal status. This is important. One might believe, as many do, that at least some abortions are immoral but that the law should not restrict choice in this realm of life. Others, of course, argue that abortion is immoral and should be illegal in most or all cases.


Personhood refers to the moral status of an entity. If an entity is a person , in this particular sense, it has full moral status . A person, then, has rights , and we have obligations to that person. This includes the right to life. Both of the arguments I summarize here focus on the question of whether or not the fetus is a person, or whether or not it is the type of entity that has the right to life. This is an important aspect to focus on, because what a thing is determines how we should treat it, morally speaking. For example, if I break a leg off of a table, I haven't done anything wrong. But if I break a puppy's leg, I surely have done something wrong. I have obligations to the puppy, given what kind of creature it is, that I don't have to a table, or any other inanimate object. The issue, then, is what kind of thing a fetus is, and what that entails for how we ought to treat it.

A Pro-Choice Argument

I believe that the best type of pro-choice argument focuses on the personhood of the fetus. Mary Ann Warren has argued that fetuses are not persons; they do not have the right to life. 2 Therefore, abortion is morally permissible throughout the entire pregnancy . To see why, Warren argues that persons have the following traits:

  • Consciousness: awareness of oneself, the external world, the ability to feel pain.
  • Reasoning: a developed ability to solve fairly complex problems.
  • Ability to communicate: on a variety of topics, with some depth.
  • Self-motivated activity: ability to choose what to do (or not to do) in a way that is not determined by genetics or the environment .
  • Self-concept : see themselves as _____; e.g. Kenyan, female, athlete , Muslim, Christian, atheist, etc.

The key point for Warren is that fetuses do not have any of these traits. Therefore, they are not persons. They do not have a right to life, and abortion is morally permissible. You and I do have these traits, therefore we are persons. We do have rights, including the right to life.

One problem with this argument is that we now know that fetuses are conscious at roughly the midpoint of a pregnancy, given the development timeline of fetal brain activity. Given this, some have modified Warren's argument so that it only applies to the first half of a pregnancy. This still covers the vast majority of abortions that occur in the United States, however.

A Pro-Life Argument

The following pro-life argument shares the same approach, focusing on the personhood of the fetus. However, this argument contends that fetuses are persons because in an important sense they possess all of the traits Warren lists. 3

At first glance, this sounds ridiculous. At 12 weeks, for example, fetuses are not able to engage in reasoning, they don't have a self-concept, nor are they conscious. In fact, they don't possess any of these traits.

Or do they?

In one sense, they do. To see how, consider an important distinction, the distinction between latent capacities vs. actualized capacities. Right now, I have the actualized capacity to communicate in English about the ethics of abortion. I'm demonstrating that capacity right now. I do not, however, have the actualized capacity to communicate in Spanish on this issue. I do, however, have the latent capacity to do so. If I studied Spanish, practiced it with others, or even lived in a Spanish-speaking nation for a while, I would likely be able to do so. The latent capacity I have now to communicate in Spanish would become actualized.

Here is the key point for this argument: Given the type of entities that human fetuses are, they have all of the traits of persons laid out by Mary Anne Warren. They do not possess these traits in their actualized form. But they have them in their latent form, because of their human nature. Proponents of this argument claim that possessing the traits of personhood, in their latent form, is sufficient for being a person, for having full moral status, including the right to life. They say that fetuses are not potential persons, but persons with potential. In contrast to this, Warren and others maintain that the capacities must be actualized before one is person.

pro life argument essay

The Abortion Debate

There is much confusion in the abortion debate. The existence of a heartbeat is not enough, on its own, to confer a right to life. On this, I believe many pro-lifers are mistaken. But on the pro-choice side, is it ethical to abort fetuses as a way to select the gender of one's child, for instance?

We should not focus solely on the fetus, of course, but also on the interests of the mother, father, and society as a whole. Many believe that in order to achieve this goal, we need to provide much greater support to women who may want to give birth and raise their children, but choose not to for financial, psychological, health, or relationship reasons; that adoption should be much less expensive, so that it is a live option for more qualified parents; and that quality health care should be accessible to all.

I fear , however, that one thing that gets lost in all of the dialogue, debate, and rhetoric surrounding the abortion issue is the nature of the human fetus. This is certainly not the only issue. But it is crucial to determining the morality of abortion, one way or the other. People on both sides of the debate would do well to build their views with this in mind.

Mary Ann Warren, "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion," originally in Monist 57:1 (1973), pp. 43-61. Widely anthologized.

This is a synthesis of several pro-life arguments. For more, see the work of Robert George and Francis Beckwith on these issues.

Michael W. Austin Ph.D.

Michael W. Austin, Ph.D. , is a professor of philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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Unraveling the Science Behind the Pro-Life Movement: A Comprehensive Introduction

pro life argument essay

  • By: McKenzie Hammons
  • Thought Leadership

With an abundance of information at our fingertips, the science behind the pro-life argument has never been more understood than it is today.

Women can now learn more about their pregnancy than their grandmothers ever could. The information we know now was not readily available to the average woman of the Roe generation. Scientific discoveries, technological advancements, and increased access to new information all point to the sanctity of human life.

For example, the use of fetal ultrasound machines only started to become more widely used in the 1970s, changing the way women were able to connect with their preborn babies. Science continually validates the humanization of preborn lives, favoring the pro-life argument.

Introduction to Pro-Life Science

People look to science to give them insight on topics like the mental health ramifications of women post-abortion, the biology of fetal development, whether fetuses can feel pain, the physical and emotional effects of abortion on women during and after various abortion procedures, and more.

Religious, moral, and ethical arguments can be better amplified through science. Although we are living in a time where objective truth is offensive to many, perhaps biological and scientific fact can grip the hearts of those swayed by the world’s confusion

Defining pro-life: Terminology and perspectives

When discussing the pro-life movement, it’s essential to understand the terminology and various perspectives that exist. Pro-life refers to the belief that a fetus has a right to life, and thus, abortion should be restricted or prohibited.

The opposing view, pro-choice, advocates for a woman’s right to choose whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy. While some may identify as pro-choice, not all would advocate for unlimited abortions.

The relevance of science in the pro-life debate

Science plays a crucial role in the pro-life debate by providing evidence-based information on fetal development, abortion procedures, and their consequences. This knowledge is vital in shaping informed opinions and promoting constructive dialogue.

pro life argument essay

Fetal Development & Viability

The life of a preborn baby is often described in a way that minimizes its value. Because if we avoid humanizing fetuses, abortion is deemed okay. The PR machines of the abortion industry try to justify the horrendous acts it commits, yet many are ignorant of the reality of fetal development.

The preborn heart begins beating and pumping blood in the earliest stages of heart development, between 21 and 24 days after conception. Thankfully the Texas Heartbeat Law brought national attention to this fact. The heart is the first organ to function in a human embryo, as it pumps blood to create rapid growth.

Milestones in fetal growth

While a pregnancy may be callously referred to as a “clump of cells” by some, a fetus (defined in the dictionary as an unborn baby) is not a mere ball of tissue.

First, a fertilized egg is considered a germinal that becomes an embryo that quickly becomes a rapidly developing fetus.

Fetal development progresses through various milestones:

1. Fertilization : The sperm and egg unite, forming a zygote.

2. Implantation : The zygote attaches to the uterine wall, becoming an embryo.

3. Organogenesis : The embryo’s organs start to develop.

4. Fetal stage : After 10 weeks, the embryo becomes a fetus and continues growing and developing.

Ph.D. Andréa Becker found it interesting how little public attention is given to fetal development in all stages of pregnancy. Becker examined countless research papers, pondering how various groups define and refer to the fetus. Becker found that one, “Abortion provider and scholar Lisa Harris (2008, 2019) describes acknowledging that abortion ends potential life, especially once a fetus starts to resemble a small baby. This is both danger talk and one of the ˜things we cannot say’ in abortion care.”

Abortion providers know that humanizing the life they’re terminating affects their bottom line, so they must be careful to maintain ambivalence and sterile boundaries to avoid mothers creating emotional connections to their children.

The viability debate: When does life begin?

Some argue that life starts at conception, while others believe it commences at a later stage, such as when the preborn baby can potentially survive outside the womb. This discussion has significant implications for the pro-life movement and informs legislative decisions on abortion restrictions.

A new scientific discovery found that the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg, light is emitted in the womb. Scientific Reports describes the light as an explosion of zinc fireworks, the signature that life is formed.

God is in even the smallest of details. John 1:4-5 says, “In Him [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” (NKJV). God stamps his signature at the moment of our creation, marked by light. This is

scientific evidence that even at the earliest stage of gestation, preborn life is precious and should be protected.

But, what does a biologist say when life begins? Americans are no longer unified under the logical consensus that human life begins at fertilization as “only 38% of Americans view fertilization as the starting point of a human’s life.” Another study found that 45% of Americans believe life beginning at conception is a “philosophical or religious belief,” not rooted in biological and scientific fact.

Biologists from 1,058 academic institutions were surveyed, and 96% affirmed that life begins at fertilization. Perhaps the other 4% decided to leave objective truth up to personal opinion and feeling.

Abortion Procedures and Their Impact

Depending on what stage of development the baby is in, abortion procedures vary.

Common abortion methods

Abortion methods vary depending on the stage of pregnancy and include:

Medication abortion (AKA the abortion pill)

Drugs like mifepristone and misoprostol to terminate a pregnancy up to 10 weeks. First mifepristone starves the baby of nutrients. However, if the abortion reversal pill, progesterone, is administered, then the effects of the mifepristone can be countered to save the baby. After the first pill, misoprostol is taken to force contractions to expel the dead or dying baby.

Vacuum aspiration abortion (D&C) Typically this method is performed up to 14 weeks gestation. A suction device removes the baby along with the placenta. Then other tools are used to scrape the lining of the uterus to ensure all baby parts are expelled so that infection should not occur. At this stage in pregnancy, a baby’s nerve cells have developed rapidly, and the baby can respond to touch.

Dilation and evacuation (D&E)

A combination of suction and surgical tools removes the fetus and placenta after 16 weeks. This procedure is used during a second trimester or late-term abortion. First, the cervix must be dilated for one to two days to prepare for the evacuation procedure. Suction is used to vacuum out the placenta, but unlike earlier abortion methods, the baby is too big to fit through the suction instrument. The baby must be removed in pieces with a clamp.

Complications from this procedure may include uterine perforation, cervical laceration, infection hemorrhage, maternal death, and future pregnancy complications.

The physical and emotional consequences

Abortion can have both physical and emotional consequences. Physical risks include uterine perforation, cervical laceration, infection hemorrhage, maternal death, and future pregnancy complications.

Emotional effects are highly individual and can range from relief to regret, guilt, or depression. A new retrospective study found that:

● “Only wanted abortions were associated with positive emotions or mental health gains.

● All other groups attributed more negative emotions and mental health outcomes to their abortions.

● Sixty percent reported they would have preferred to give birth if they had received more support from others or had more financial security.”

Ethical Considerations in the Pro-Life Debate

Although some proudly share their abortion story, other pro-choice advocates simply believe abortion is a necessary evil. While they acknowledge abortion ends a human life, they believe a woman’s right to choose is more important than the life of a nameless fetus.

The retrospective study surveyed women with a history of abortion and found that 43% believed abortion is inconsistent with their values and preferences. However, they elected for the abortion anyway.

Another study showed that 58.3% of the women who went through with an abortion, did so to satify others (family, partner, etc.) and 66% of the women who had an abortion believed they were making a mistake in having the abortion.

Moral arguments for pro-life views

Pro-life supporters often argue that life begins at conception and that abortion is morally wrong because it ends an innocent life. Some base their views on religious beliefs, while others argue from a philosophical standpoint.

There is a misconception that to be pro-life is to be religious, and that pro-life activists are just pushing their religious views. The Secular Pro-Life organization says, “You don’t have to be religious to have a problem with killing humans.” A preborn baby is a human life, and human life is valuable and deserving of protection.

Balancing women’s rights and fetal rights

The pro-life debate involves the complex task of balancing women’s rights to bodily autonomy and reproductive choice with the rights of the fetus. While pro-life advocates prioritize the baby’s right to life, pro-choice supporters emphasize the importance of a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body and life circumstances.

pro life argument essay

Legal Aspects of the Pro-Life Movement

Legislation, politics, and social opinion are all impacted by scientific fact as a basis of understanding. Significant court cases and legislation have shaped the legal landscape surrounding abortion.

Key court cases and legislation

In the United States, the landmark case of Roe v. Wade in 1973 established a woman’s legal right to abortion. However, subsequent cases and legislation have modified and limited access to abortion services because of the scientific facts that the case was founded on.

Roe v. Wade was based on fetal viability being understood to be around 28 weeks gestation. As science has progressed, younger babies can survive outside the womb. The age of fetal viability is still heavily debated. Yet, the logic of Roe stood on faulty grounds wherein the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case could challenge the ruling’s validity. This new landmark decision interpreted that the Constitution of the United States does not grant a right to abortion.

The Role of Education in Shaping Opinions

Often when people are presented with the full picture of what abortion really is, they change their minds. Understanding the intricate details of fetal development humanizes the baby, points to a Creator, and convicts hearts. Becoming aware of the brutality of the various forms of abortion procedures changes perspectives too. They are not simple, standard procedures—they can have lasting physical and emotional effects.

PreBorn! Network Clinics discuss with women about abortion, adoption, and parenting. The Clinics explain the abortion procedures at their various stages so that women are informed of what will happen to their bodies, and their preborn babies, if they were to visit an abortuary to go through with the procedure.

The pro-life message is that a fetus is a life, and it is a human life, deserving the right to life just as much as any of us. We are living in the information age, and technology makes it easier than ever to comprehend the humanity of preborn lives, mimicking each stage of fetal development.

Pregnant moms can track, in real-time, all of the rapid changes their baby is undergoing week by week during pregnancy.

While information is more readily available, we also live in a deceived generation that prefers subjective truth to scientific fact. Women vulnerable to abortion need compassionate lovers of Jesus to speak truth and love into their lives, empowering them to choose life.

PreBorn! Network Clinics offer vital support services for pregnant women, such as prenatal care, counseling, financial assistance, and parenting classes to help women make informed decisions about their pregnancies and access resources that may encourage them to consider alternatives to abortion.


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Home — Essay Samples — Social Issues — Pro Life (Abortion) — A Pro-Life Perspective on Abortion


A Pro-life Perspective on Abortion

  • Categories: Pro Choice (Abortion) Pro Life (Abortion)

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Words: 500 |

Published: Mar 16, 2024

Words: 500 | Page: 1 | 3 min read

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    The Best Pro-Life Arguments for Secular Audiences by cathy cleaver ruse, esq. rob schwarzwalder cathy cleaver ruse is Senior Fellow for Legal Studies at Family Research Council. Previously, she served as Chief Counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives Constitution Subcommittee and was the pro-life spokesperson for the U.S.

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  4. Pro Life (abortion) Essays

    Exploring the pro-life movement allows for an in-depth examination of the philosophical, moral, and legal arguments surrounding the right to life and the autonomy of pregnant individuals. Writing an essay on the pro-life movement provides an opportunity to delve into the historical, cultural, and religious factors that have shaped this movement.

  5. 'The Pro-Life Generation': Young Women Fight Against Abortion Rights

    July 3, 2022. DALLAS — The rollback of abortion rights has been received by many American women with a sense of shock and fear, and warnings about an ominous decline in women's status as full ...

  6. Science Is Giving the Pro-life Movement a Boost

    The idea that life begins at conception "goes against legal precedent, science, and public opinion," said Ilyse Hogue, the president of the abortion-advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America, in ...

  7. The Pro-Life vs Pro-Choice Debate

    The pro-life vs. pro-choice debate tends to overlook the fact that the vast majority of women who have abortions don't do so by choice, at least not entirely. Circumstances put them in a position where abortion is the least self-destructive option available. According to a study conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, 73 percent of women who had ...

  8. I Am Pro-Life. Don't Call Me Anti-Abortion.

    The struggle in the abortion debate is, in many ways, a struggle over language. For example, I am pro-life. I strongly support rights and protections for mothers and children, including prenatal ...

  9. Comparison/Contrast Essays: Two Patterns

    This essay will delineate the controversy in one type of comparison/contrast essay form: the ""Argument versus Argument,"" or, ""Block-by-Block"" format. ... Supporters of both pro-life and pro-choice refer to religion as support for their side of the argument. Pro-life supporters claim that abortion is murder, and is therefore ...

  10. The Pro-Choice Argument

    The Pro-Choice Argument. By Tanya Luhrmann. October 25, 1979. There are those who hold that contraception unfairly manipulates the workings of nature, and others who cannot see the fetus as a ...

  11. The Only Reasonable Way to Debate Abortion

    There's a Better Way to Debate Abortion. Caution and epistemic humility can guide our approach. If Justice Samuel Alito's draft majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health ...

  12. Four pro-life philosophers make the case against abortion

    Even the common pro-life argument from species membership could, unamended, smack of a certain materialism. The most compelling argument against abortion remains what it has been for decades ...

  13. Rebutting Objections to the Pro-Life Position

    Pro-life arguments are religious, but religion should be kept out of public policy. On the contrary, the pro-life case doesn't have to rely on religious premises. Consider this argument: (1) It is immoral to intentionally take an innocent human life. (2) Abortion intentionally takes an innocent human life. (3) Therefore, abortion is immoral.

  14. Pro-life vs. Pro-choice Argumentative Essay

    Introduction. "Pro-life" and "pro-choice" are the dominant ideologies that define abortion. The pro-life movement believes that abortion should be banned, a term some argue is biased because it implies the opposition does not value human life. Pro-choice advocates, on the other hand, support the legalization and accessibility of abortion.

  15. The One and Only Pro-Life Argument

    The One and Only Pro-Life Argument. The focus of pro-life advocacy should always be on the fact that the unborn child is a human being, with a moral status equal to a born child, and not on distractions about social policy, sexual ethics, or other rights claims that overlook this biological reality. For the sake of argument: Let us stipulate to ...

  16. What Has the Pro-Life Movement Won?

    And an academic argument over the 14th Amendment's original meaning hardly helps the pro-life movement address the immediate social-welfare questions it will need to answer should Roe fall.

  17. Moral foundations of pro-choice and pro-life women

    Following past research (Jonason et al., 2022 ), we hypothesized that pro-life women would have higher levels of binding moral foundations than pro-choice women. Because moral foundations measured by MFQ and MFV correlated positively in past research (Clifford et al., 2015 ), we expected to observe the same pattern of results for both of them.

  18. Ethics and Abortion

    A Pro-Life Argument. The following pro-life argument shares the same approach, focusing on the personhood of the fetus. However, this argument contends that fetuses are persons because in an ...

  19. Unraveling the Science Behind the Pro-Life Movement: A Comprehensive

    Becker examined countless research papers, pondering how various groups define and refer to the fetus. Becker found that one, "Abortion provider and scholar Lisa Harris (2008, 2019) describes acknowledging that abortion ends potential life, especially once a fetus starts to resemble a small baby. ... Moral arguments for pro-life views.

  20. Abortion Prohibition: Support of a Pro-life Movement

    The pro-life argument is life and death though the uncertainty of complication makes it difficult. ... After considering all pro-life arguments, this essay can conclude that abortion should be completely illegal; terminating an unborn fetus is an extremely cruel act that should be prevented in any way possible. If murder is illegal and has ...

  21. A Pro-Life Perspective on Abortion: [Essay Example], 500 words

    One of the key debates surrounding abortion is the pro-life versus pro-choice argument. Pro-life advocates argue that life begins at conception and therefore, abortion is the taking of an innocent human life. On the other hand, pro-choice advocates believe in a woman's right to choose and control her own . In this essay, I will argue in support ...

  22. Pro-Life Debate Argumentative Essay on Abortion

    A pro-choicer would feel that the decision to abort a pregnancy is the mothers and the mothers alone and that the state has no right to interfere. A pro-lifer would argue that from the moment of conception, the embryo or fetus is alive. This pro life argumentative essay will discuss the issue if the life imposes on us a moral obligation to ...

  23. Abortion: A Pro-life Argument Essay

    Abortion: A Pro-life Argument. Ellen Willis's "Putting Women Back into the Abortion Debate" (2005) is an argument that supports women's rights and feminism in terms of allowing all abortions to occur. She discusses abortion with the perspective that women's rights are the issue, not human life. This argument is not accurate.