To All Abortion Purists:

In response to a federal ruling last month, Plan B One-Step, the “morning-after pill,” will now be available over the counter, without parental consent, to teens 15 and older. No one should naively claim that the morning-after pill will be a “cure-all” for everything that ails our society sexually. But given the horrors of the “late-term abortion industry” that the nation is currently revisiting thanks to the trial of Kermit Gosnell, why are we not hearing loud cheers over the wider availability of a drug that might reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies?

Part of the problem may be that many opponents of abortion mistakenly believe Plan B One-Step is itself abortifacient, preventing the implantation of fertilized eggs, whereas scientific opinion (apparently persuasive enough for German Catholic bishops) is that it actually prevents fertilization. But even if there were the smallest chance that Plan B One-Step could prevent implantation of a fertilized egg, this is something that happens naturally all the time: between one-third and one-half of all fertilized eggs never implant—with nary a public tear shed by abortion opponents.

I submit that this is because they know, intuitively, that there is an important moral distinction to be made between the non-implantation of fertilized eggs and the trauma of “after-birth abortions.” Marc Thiessen asks, “can we not all at least agree that killing a born child is murder?” To that I would answer, “Yes, absolutely!” (as though anyone doesn’t). And then I would follow up, “can we not all at least agree that a fertilized egg is not a person?”

But this then leaves us with the unwelcome task of drawing an “arbitrary” line somewhere in the intervening nine months, which will undoubtedly displease purists on both sides. Those on the right who refuse to see gray areas in the matter of personhood will remind me that there is a slippery slope from contraception to infanticide. Once you’ve declared that a zygote isn’t as human as a newborn (or even that a woman should be able to have sex without the “deterrent” of “fear of pregnancy”), you’ve lost all moral credibility. You’re a relativist, and you might as well provide public dumpsters for callous women to throw their unwanted babies in on their way out to find some more selfish, irresponsible sex

Meanwhile, purists on the left who refuse to see gray areas in the matter of a woman’s right to choose may also take issue with such a distinction. Those who see abortion as being purely a matter of “personal decision,” with no consideration for gestational life, are also conceding some ground if they admit that a six-month fetus has a greater claim on personhood than a just-fertilized egg. This, too, is a slippery slope; as morning-after pills become more widespread, there may be less tolerance of later-term abortion in the future. The public may lose patience with people who take twenty weeks to decide whether or not to terminate pregnancies, leading to ever greater restrictions. Abortion rights activists may have to allow for a line past which “a woman can’t choose.” 

But most of us are not purists. We live, rather, in uncomfortable tensions caused by conflicting motivations. And in a pluralist country, is it not worthwhile to grab at points of agreement wherever they can be found? Regardless of our reasoning, we would all prefer that unwanted pregnancy never occurred. But since history, tradition, and observation teach us that such a scenario is unlikely, perhaps we can find small ways to reduce human suffering in the meantime.