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Friday, April 19, 2013

Empathy in the Abortion Issue

I’m taking a bit of a break from my critical series on Thomson’s famous essay, A Defense of Abortion, to present an article that was inspired from a conversation I had with my friend, Linda, on Facebook. I am a speaker and mentor for Justice for All, which is an organization that trains people to make the pro-life case persuasively and effectively (by making good arguments and avoiding bad ones while avoiding the common pitfalls the people tend to fall into while discussing controversial topics, such as yelling and name-calling, and have good, respectful dialogue). So I have a vested interest in helping pro-life people make good arguments and avoid bad ones, including helping them see the other side as people and not as any manner of unkind thing they may think about pro-choice people. This article will be a bit of a departure from my normal output, as this will be a bit more personal.

This is a word that draws a lot of confusion in the abortion issue, and like the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” themselves, can be misused to make the other side look like uncaring fascists. The word I’m referring to is empathy. As a philosophically-minded thinker, I find it’s always important to define our terms. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines empathy as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” This is to be differentiated from sympathy, which the same dictionary defines as “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.” In short, sympathy looks at a hurting person and says, “poor guy.” Empathy looks at a hurting person and says, “how can I help?” Sympathy helps you feel bad for someone but empathy drives you to action.

Linda made an observation that I thought was quite poignant. Her observation was that pro-choice people tend to empathize with the mother because they place much value and emphasis on the capacity of an individual. After all, I often hear them say the pregnant woman deserves our respect, not the fetus, because she is a “living, breathing person.” (As I have written numerous times, the preborn qualify as persons. I am simply using language I constantly hear from the pro-choice side.) I have found that this generally tends to be true. It’s true in my own life. I was pretty mercilessly tormented and bullied when I was in elementary school, all the way up until my high school days. No one would stand up for me. Not my teachers, not other students. My own mother would laugh about it because she apparently thought it was funny. This ended up giving me severe emotional trauma, to the point where I did contemplate suicide for a long time. I did eventually overcome these thoughts, largely due to my Christian faith, but now that I can look back at it I think (aside from my Christian convictions) that my past of being tormented and bullied has given me a perspective on the issue that many people lack. I view the abortion issue as the ultimate act of bullying -- big, powerful people who place their own priorities over that of an innocent, defenseless child in a situation that was forced upon them. To kill them because they’re in the way of something we want seems like the height of cruelty to me.

Each side believes the other side lacks empathy. Pro-choice people believe pro-life people lack empathy because they feel we care more for a fetus than for a “living, breathing person.” Pro-life people believe pro-choice people lack empathy because in order to help a woman “not be pregnant,” they are willing to support and/or go through with a procedure that ends the life of an innocent human being, a procedure that ends their life in a pretty gruesome way. But I think both the pro-life and the pro-choice person are wrong. Both sides obviously have empathy, it’s just that the subject of their empathy is different. The pro-life person, driven by empathy, is trying to end abortion because it unjustly takes the life of an innocent human being. The pro-choice person, driven by empathy, is trying to keep abortion legal so that it can be safe and rare, in case a woman finds herself in a situation in which she needs it. (Again, I’m using language from the pro-choice side. Abortions are not as safe and rare and pro-choice people often make them out to be.)

However, I would argue that the pro-choice person’s sense of empathy in this case is misguided. We should all have empathy for pregnant women and help them as much as we can. But the preborn human being is in an intrinsically vulnerable state, and needs the protection of those stronger than themselves to take care of them. To kill them when they exist in such a vulnerable state makes us no different than bullies, especially in the vast majority of cases in which sex was consensual between the man and the woman.

Pro-life people do have much empathy for the pregnant woman. We don’t live in a fantasy world in which pregnancies are easy, and fun, or anything of that nature. We recognize that pregnancies can be difficult. But empathy does not mean allowing a woman to kill her child to escape pregnancy. Quite the contrary, true empathy means helping the woman through her pregnancy as much as is possible.

The preceding article also appeared on the Secular Pro-Life blog.


  1. This is a breath of fresh air! I agree with you 100% I also have experienced similar things that I believe has also given me a perspective many many other lack..So refreshing to read this

    1. Thanks. I appreciate you reading. I am actually a speaker and mentor through an organization called Justice for All, that teaches people how to talk to pro-choice people more effectively and persuasively. If you ever hear about a JFA seminar/outreach near you, I'd recommend going. It's been extremely helpful with how I have these conversations.