I try not to get into “social issues” very much, mainly because they don’t interest me a whole lot. The issue of abortion is particularly contentious, and is a rare example of an issue that cannot necessarily be easily decided by looking to the non-aggression principle. The purpose of this article is not to be pro or anti-abortion in general, but rather, to refute one specific claim in favor of it. You hear this from time to time from a certain set of people. Typically, they are people who generally believe that abortion is bad and immoral in the abstract, but consider themselves to be “realists” or very “practical.” It usually goes something like:
“Abortion is absolutely necessary in our society, because think of how terrible things would be if all of the aborted babies were carried to term. We’d have so many more poor people. They’d be on welfare! They’d become criminals! They would all generally be ‘burdens to society.’ Our society simply couldn’t handle the amount of children, most of which would be unwanted and poor and live in broken homes that would exist if not for legalized abortion.”
The main problem with this argument is that it treats the existence of the welfare state and current standards of criminal justice as universally fixed attributes that are beyond our control, when the exact opposite is true. Poor children collect welfare because most of the country wants them to. Poor children become criminals because the potential rewards outweigh the risks.
But let’s have a thought experiment. Imagine a society in which there is no welfare state. No forced or mandatory charity or wealth transfers of any kind. All charity is purely voluntary in nature. Would starving children then be a “burden to society?” No, they would not. They would be a burden exclusively to their parents, and to any individual who chose to assist them, thereby voluntarily assuming some of the burden. Also, in our imaginary society, it is legal to use lethal force in defense not only of violent crime, but property crime as well. If someone tries to steal your car, you can shoot them dead. If it was legal to use lethal force in the defense of property crime, would property crime go up or down? The risk would certainly skyrocket, that’s for sure. If it was legal for a shopkeeper to shoot anyone trying to steal from them (as it was for most of human history, by the way), my guess is that crime would fall by a significant amount.
To put it another way: Nobody can become a “burden to society” unless society allows them to.
It is absolutely not a given that banning abortion would raise the amount of welfare payments required and raise the crime rate. It is likely that those things would happen, if and only if our current policies vis-à-vis welfare and crime are held constant. But these policies don’t have to be held constant. They could be changed, just as easily (if not much more easily) as prohibitions on abortion can be changed.
If you believe that abortion is generally immoral and tantamount to killing an unborn baby, but still favor its legalization for “practical” reasons, consider the following. When a baby is aborted, there is absolutely no way to know what that baby might have done with their life. We all know examples of individuals who have triumphed over incredibly adverse conditions, only to become happy and successful and productive people whose existence greatly enhanced human society. While statistically, it may be very unlikely that the fifth child of a poor woman with no job and no husband might go on to become a successful scientist, artist, or businessman, we can’t really know for sure. To allow abortion because of these concerns is essentially to say: “This baby probably wouldn’t grow up to be a great person, so it’s fine to kill it.” But the selection is random and arbitrary. It has nothing to do with the merits of the individual baby being aborted (because we cannot yet know their merits.)
Consider, on the other hand, my hypothetical society where abortion is forbidden, but there is no welfare state and you can shoot aspiring criminals dead. Sounds like a rough place, no? I’m sure most of you would not favor such an environment. It’s cruel to let some people starve while others enjoy great wealth! It’s unjust to shoot a teenager dead for trying to steal your bicycle! What an awful dystopia I have imagined!
But it’s important to keep in mind that in my dystopia, who exactly will be dying that didn’t die before? Not randomly selected babies whose individual merit is impossible to know. They’re now allowed to live. They’re given a chance (it might be a very small chance, given their unfavorable starting conditions, but it’s a chance nonetheless) to become productive members of society. No, now the only individuals dying are those who have already been given a chance, and have proven themselves to be a “burden to society.” The selection is no longer random or arbitrary. Those who cannot be productive enough to feed themselves will starve. Those who rely upon force to obtain their food from others will be killed in the name of justice.
So, which society is better off? The one that randomly selects a certain percentage of its population for death before it even has the chance to see the sunlight? Or the society that forbids this practice, but is much more likely to allow the unproductive and the predators to die? As awful as my hypothetical society may sound to common sensibilities, I’d encourage you to really think this one through.
Remember, this thought experiment is not to say that abortion is necessarily good or bad. The questions of whether a woman has the “right” to abort a fetus living inside of her, or questions of when “life” begins are also quite relevant to this topic, and far beyond the scope of this article. This article exists only to refute the “legalized abortion lessens the burden to society” objection. It is not a valid objection, as it depends on the faulty premise that we cannot change our policies vis-à-vis welfare and criminal justice. It just really irritates me when people who are obviously well-intentioned and trying their best to be rational and practical make terrible arguments. Hopefully, this is one terrible argument that we can justly abort, before it becomes an even greater burden to future thinkers.