Most people who believe abortion to be wrong believe it to be wrong intrinsically. By contrast, those who do not believe abortion to be wrong make a utilitarian deduction: A child at the wrong time can be a bad thing. Therefore, ending its life can be a good thing. A right to abortion, they believe, increases human happiness.
This logic is almost never stated so explicitly. It exerts its power as an intuition, an instinctive empathy for women in distress. As such, it operates on a plane with which explicit and reasoned arguments rarely intersect. So let us set argumentation aside and test the utilitarian defense of abortion instead via a story of imagined parallel lives.
Spring 1975. Patricia is a junior at a prestigious university in the Northeast. She hopes to become the first lawyer in her family. Today she’s sitting on a curb on a quiet street in a New England town, a few miles from the quad. After days of worry and sleepless nights, she has just confirmed at a local Planned Parenthood the secret inside: She’s pregnant. Her boyfriend, a student at the same university, has gone with her to hear the news. Patricia sits immobile, tears washing her face as she thinks bleakly of her future, her parents, and what comes next. Something must be done.
Several states and a socioeconomic world away, another twenty-year-old is also crying. Kelly has just heard the same news from a local doctor: She is pregnant. Kelly is not a college student, but a high school graduate in a Rust Belt town. She has been working for two years now as the receptionist in the largest auto dealership around, a job she enjoys. Kelly’s boyfriend is not with her to hear the news. He’s on the day shift at the mill; she will have to tell him tonight. Like Patricia, Kelly sits immobile as she thinks bleakly of her future, her parents, and what comes next. Something must be done.
In the framework bequeathed to us by Roe v. Wade, every story ever told about unwanted pregnancies opens where Patricia and Kelly now find themselves: inside the emotional tsunami of discovering an unexpected pregnancy. These tales also end at this moment, with this snapshot. It is as if nothing else will happen in a woman’s life, or in the lives of those around her, ever again. No one on the pro-choice side seems to wonder how Patricia’s or Kelly’s decision might look in retrospect. No one asks about an abortion’s longer-ranging effects, not only on the woman in question, but also on the other people moving in and out of her life.
So we’ll do something the pro-choice narrative doesn’t do. We’ll ask what happens to our characters next.
Two months later. Patricia is no longer pregnant. After several more tortured nights, and without telling anyone but her boyfriend and her best friend, she went back to the local Planned Parenthood and had an abortion. It was the logical thing to do, she felt, and no religious or other objections stood in the way of her doing it.
Patricia’s boyfriend accompanied her to and from the procedure. Actually, he is now her ex-boyfriend. As often seems to happen, pregnancy became the Rubicon of their romance. With both boyfriend and procedure behind her, Patricia is back at her studies. Concerning the abortion, she feels nothing but relief. And she will never forget this feeling. Later in life, she will become a passionate advocate for choice.
Kelly has no religious or other objections to abortion, either. But after several more sleepless nights, she has made the opposite choice. She doesn’t know why she resists ending her pregnancy, apart from inexplicable hesitation. Whatever the reason, she decides to have the baby.
Her mother, furious at first, is calmer and more supportive now. They are starting to talk about ways to make things work, once the baby comes. Kelly’s younger brother, intrigued by the idea of becoming an uncle, is also cheering her up. The baby’s father is another story. He’s made it clear that he isn’t ready to get married or otherwise to set up a home with her and the baby. As often seems to happen, the pregnancy has become the Rubicon of their romance. He is now Kelly’s ex-boyfriend.
So far in our story—mainly because we are bending over backwards to hold certain plot details constant, like Peter Pan boyfriends and secular convictions—the utilitarian script might seem plausible. Even so, a mere two months into the tale, we are still only beginning to see what choice has wrought.
Six months later. There’s no question that at this particular moment, it’s Patricia, not Kelly, whose shoes we would rather be wearing. Kelly is in labor today, and the pain is grueling. Epidural anesthesia, now common in big cities, is not yet available in the local hospital where she’s about to deliver.
Between contractions, Kelly is worrying. How will she find a decent boyfriend with a child attached to her? Can she bear to live with her mother once the baby is finally out? How long will she be able to take time off from her job without losing it?
Patricia at this same moment has just arrived home for Christmas break. Exams are over, and she has done well. In addition to her 3.8 GPA, she has just scored higher on the LSAT than even she dreamed possible. Her parents are proud; the promised land of her future stretches ahead. Patricia looks forward to several weeks of rest, and to nights out drinking with friends and dancing to a new craze called disco.
Patricia has ended her pregnancy; her future prospects look unimpaired. Kelly, in all likelihood, is about to become a statistic: a single mother with no college degree, perhaps hovering near the poverty line. Yet by pushing crude materialism aside, we spy a deeper reality: Kelly’s decision is profoundly transforming her world and those whom she loves.
Even in utero, Kelly’s baby was reweaving the relationships between Kelly and those closest to her. An anxious middle-aged woman has become an excited grandmother-in-waiting; an adolescent brother is now a budding uncle. After birth, the baby will continue to alter the identities of those whose circle it now joins. It will transform the community into which it is born. This process will continue for the rest of the lives of all the members of this family, reaching into generations of their descendants to come.
Five years later. Kelly’s daughter has just started kindergarten. Kelly’s work hours, her social life, her shopping, her home—these and most other details of her days revolve one way or another around that five-year-old girl. The child’s father is diffident about child support, and he and Kelly have spent time in court. Now and then he takes the child out to McDonald’s or drops off a toy. Kelly’s younger brother, meanwhile, has been teaching his niece to play soccer. Unexpectedly, Kelly’s ex-boyfriend’s parents have come around; they even babysit here and there.
Kelly did indeed lose her job at the auto showroom because of overstaying her maternity leave. She now works a front-office job at her child’s school, so she and her daughter keep the same hours. The mimeograph machine has just been replaced by the magic of Xerox. At the end of some of Kelly’s workdays, when the two of them play with one in the school’s office, the child squeals as she makes ghostly images of her hands and face. Kelly frames them.
Neither Kelly nor anyone else in the family can now imagine life without this creature—the same one Kelly once considered not bringing into the world at all. She will never forget the depth of her feeling for this unexpected child. In later years, Kelly will become a passionate advocate for life.
We could tweak the details of Kelly’s story, imagining her richer or poorer, more or less educated, luckier or more tragic in love, and so on. But the fundamentals would remain constant—which is exactly the point. Kelly’s life is indeed complicated and enriched, simultaneously and immeasurably, by the care of her child. The child is indeed essential to her beyond compare. The choice that threatened to make Kelly miserable has now become woven into the fabric of her life. It is now the source of her deepest contentment and consolation; and to different degrees, the same can be said for other family members.
After the same five years, Patricia almost never thinks about the pregnancy in her past. Hired straight out of law school for a partner-track job at one of the best corporate firms in New York, she routinely works twelve-hour days, most Saturdays, and sometimes more. She lives well. Her career takes her to places like Paris and London and Frankfurt. She loves the perks of 1980s New York—a doorman, a health club, a one-bedroom coop in the Village.
Patricia encounters more eligible men than Kelly does, both day-to-day and night-to-night. An attractive woman in her twenties, Patricia is socially in demand. She is assiduous about birth control, as about other details of her personal life, and the mistake she made in college never happens again.
Like Kelly’s story, Patricia’s could vary in innumerable particulars. But it has abiding features, just as Kelly’s does. The life Patricia leads is the life that advocates of abortion extol: personally fulfilling, unfettered by maternal responsibility. Material acquisition and career success are not incidental to the utilitarian case; they are the summum bonum of the defense of choice. The bottom line is articulated in the opening of the manifesto Shout Your Abortion: “Abortion is good for women, families, and communities. . . . Abortion is two incomes instead of one. . . . Abortion is fiscal responsibility.”
Yet abortion has other consequences which cannot be reduced so ruthlessly to dollars and cents. Childrearing is famously daunting work. It is also, as a rule and over time, among the most fulfilling of all human endeavors. Many parents would even judge it the highest calling of all. If happiness and personal fulfillment are the summum bonum of Patricia’s choice, then this omission demands to be added to the ledger, too.
It’s 1995. Kelly is forty. She is a mother of three now, having married the manager of the school cafeteria; they have twin boys. Kelly’s daughter is twenty and working full-time at the local Denny’s. The twins are teenagers. Their parents’ lives, and sometimes their big sister’s, are full of ball games and school plays and other social doings of active adolescents.
By Patricia’s fortieth birthday, she is a mother, too. Fifteen years into working at the firm, she began noticing that the male colleagues who once lavished attention on her are now more animated in the company of younger female associates. Two years ago, at thirty-eight, she married another lawyer who had been wooing her for years. She had seen too many friends wait too long for just the right match, and she wanted a husband and a child before it was too late.
Career-wise, Patricia has achieved what she wanted: She is a powerful partner in the firm. She travels Business Class to Europe and elsewhere. These trips are more tiring and less fun than they used to be, because now she has an infant. Two years of IVF have paid off: She and her husband have a little boy, whom they adore. They have been reading up on the best New York preschools and are blessed with an excellent full-time nanny. Patricia doesn’t see much TV, but she sometimes watches a show called Murphy Brown with an odd mix of self-approval and relief at the thought that, unlike Murphy, she herself at least is married.
Here we reach another truth that the freeze-frame of a crying young woman fails to capture. The utilitarian defense of abortion—the insistence that it makes women happier—faces sterner challenges as Kelly and Patricia reach middle age. Patricia’s postponement of family has resulted in prodigious material gain and personal freedom. But it has also incurred risks, including infertility and its treatment, as well as permanent minuses: It has made her family circle smaller than it might have been.
As for Kelly, much of her hardest work is by now behind her, and the consolations of her maturing kids’ company continue to increase.
In 2005, Kelly and Patricia each turn fifty. Kelly and her family celebrate at the Cheesecake Factory at the mall. Kelly’s children are out of the house by now; her daughter is married and has two little boys. Kelly often babysits her grandchildren after school while their parents work.
Patricia celebrates her fiftieth with her husband at a Relais & Chateaux hotel on the coast of Portugal. Their son, now twelve, stays behind in New York with the nanny.
Fast-forward sixteen years, to 2021. Both Kelly and Patricia die of cancer this year. As always with the dying, their worlds narrow to a single cast of characters: loved ones. Kelly is surrounded in her last months by her children, grandchildren, and other family. Patricia’s son, now twenty-eight, is among her comforters. Her ashes will be scattered over the Hudson, near the cabin she and her husband bought when she made partner.
Having come to the end of our characters’ stories, we return to our opening question from a new angle. Just how compelling is the utilitarian defense of abortion from the perspective of life’s closing? It wholly neglects the fact that legalized abortion exacts hidden costs in the form of joys lost and postponed. Looking at “choice” from the end of the chooser’s life, rather than only from the moment of choosing, we confront a universal truth: That life is good, period, is never so apparent as when one is leaving it.
To challenge the utilitarian hypothesis is not to “judge” or condemn anyone. Hardly a character on earth can summon more sympathy than a terrified young woman with an unexpected pregnancy. This is why, since the age of Roe began, the pro-life movement has responded with open arms to women and men caught up in abortion, to say nothing of charities ranging from residences to psychological and medical services. Instead of celebrating and multiplying the choice to abort, pro-choice advocates should have long since joined with pro-lifers to confront the forces that brought Patricia and Kelly to consider abortion in the first place.
Behind every woman who opts to end a pregnancy stand systemic failures: the loss of sexual norms, thanks to the sexual revolution; pornography; consumerism; the sexualization of children through corrupt school curricula; churches that have traded ancient Christian teaching for a cool-kid flag. Post-Roe, there will still be abortion in America. Devising strategies to diminish these hidden contributors should be the pro-life movement’s next generational mission.
What Kelly’s and Patricia’s stories ultimately show is that the utilitarian case for abortion fails by its own standard. True happiness cannot be separated from the warp and woof of lives woven together—especially by the birth of a child. This is the sacred tapestry that needs recovering. This is what the ghastly logic of Roe and Casey tried to make us forget. The unborn child dreaded at the beginning of many pregnancies becomes something else entirely over time: the grandchild who lights up a nursing home, the sister driving a kid brother to prom, the adult child holding a woman’s hand on her deathbed.
As we dare to imagine a better future for men, women, and children than the one bequeathed by the Supreme Court in 1973, let us meditate on those realities, too.
Mary Eberstadt holds the Panula Chair in Christian Culture at the Catholic Information Center and is a senior research fellow at the Faith & Reason Institute.