The Abortion Debate Isn’t About Life; It’s About Control

If you were in the lobby of a certain Midwest university’s student center on a cold evening in January 2005, waiting for the bus to take you downtown, you would see a wide-eyed eighteen-year-old standing frozen in front of one of the bulletin boards. She is staring at a flyer pinned to the wall, and on her face is the tension of an inner war between moral horror and a teenager’s all-consuming need to fit in. The flyer is an invitation: COME CELEBRATE THE ANNIVERSARY OF ROE V. WADE. The girl, a first-year student from Texas, is realizing all at once how very far away from home she is.

I’ve been in the minority on abortion my entire life, on one side or another. I grew up Catholic in a Houston suburb, ensconced in a Catholic community, and attended Catholic schools from kindergarten until I graduated high school. I received a high-quality education that I’m grateful for every day—even my religion classes, which, although they were clearly taught from a Catholic perspective, gave me a solid introduction to ethics that still shapes my decision-making.

Abortion was naturally a topic—especially in an all-girls school. The official Catholic position is that at the moment of fertilization, the embryo becomes a whole person with a soul, as valuable as any other human being and just as immoral to kill. This made sense to me: if we took it on faith that this tiny collection of cells had a soul, the other conclusions naturally followed. It must be equal to any other person and deserve just as much respect, and the intentional killing of a person was murder.

When translated into policy, this is a relatively rare stance in the United States. Gallup polling consistently finds that only about one in five Americans thinks abortion should be illegal in all cases, and a 2022 Pew poll puts the number much lower. Much more common is the position that abortion should be available with some restrictions. And while, collectively, Americans are a little fuzzy on what those restrictions should be, two particular mitigating circumstances stand out in the Gallup polls: cases where the woman’s life is endangered, and cases of rape or incest. (A note: The Gallup poll uses gendered language like “woman” and “mother” to refer to the pregnant parent; since that’s how the questions were phrased to respondents, I’ll use that language here. But it’s worth noting that the needs of trans and nonbinary people who can get pregnant are persistently under-discussed, despite being a critical part of any conversation about reproductive health.)

In 2018, Gallup polled respondents about six specific circumstances when an abortion might be considered in the first trimester. Respondents indicated whether abortion should be legal or illegal in each situation. The circumstance that drew the most “legal” responses, at eighty-three percent, was when the life of the mother was in danger. Cases of rape or incest drew the second-highest rate of “legal” responses, at seventy-seven percent. The lowest, at forty-five percent, was “when the woman does not want the child for any reason.”

Growing up, I knew that my strict stance on abortion was an outlier, even among people who would have called themselves “pro-life.” Gallup’s polling aligns with the conversations I had in classrooms and among friends, where the two most agreed-upon exceptions—the life of the mother, and cases of rape or incest—were always among the first to be raised. The ubiquity of the argument confused me because, in my mind, it undercut the entire anti-abortion case. The Church teaches that the central moral problem with abortion is in valuing one life over another. Allowing exceptions—for example, to save the life of the mother—presupposes that the fetus’ life is less valuable. At that point, the disagreement is more about a consequentialist ranking of negative outcomes: which results are less acceptable than the death of a fetus?

Standing in front of that Roe celebration flyer on a January night in 2005, I began to understand that other people’s experiences of the world were even more different from mine than I previously imagined. And as my Catholic faith started to evaporate in the coming years, it became harder to hold onto the idea that a fetus deserved the same rights as a born human. Without the idea of a soul, a tiny clump of cells—alive, arguably, but not conscious—can’t hold a candle to the web of relationships and memory that makes up a person. An embryo or a fetus has extraordinary potential, and that distinguishes it from a tumor or a cyst. But it is different, too, from the person carrying it, in a morally meaningful way.

The view from the other side prompted its own new set of questions. Theoretically, my beliefs aligned with the majority now: abortion was acceptable because the fetus didn’t have the same personhood status as the parent. But if that was the case, I couldn’t find the path from there to any legal restrictions. It was hard to imagine what circumstances would trump a person’s own decision-making process about her life and health. And yet, in the Gallup polling, “When the woman does not want the child for any reason” returned the lowest number of “legal” responses, in 2003 and 2018: forty-one percent and forty-five percent, respectively, for first-trimester abortions. More than half of respondents stated that it should be illegal—that the termination of a fetus was a worse outcome than an unwilling woman being forced to give birth.

When respondents were asked to weigh one life against another—a first-trimester pregnancy that endangered the life of the mother—they broadly agreed that the mother should be protected. When asked whether a survivor of rape or incest—someone who didn’t consent to the possibility of pregnancy—should have to give birth, they broadly answered no. When asked whether a woman’s judgment alone was worth enough to outweigh the termination of a fetus, fifty-three percent of respondents balked.

It’s not a huge leap to conclude that many Americans judge the acceptability of an abortion by the mother’s actions. If she didn’t choose the risk of pregnancy, she shouldn’t be made to suffer it. If unexpected complications require a tragic choice, who can condemn it? But if a woman doesn’t want to be pregnant for reasons that we don’t know or don’t approve of—if, for example, she simply had sex while knowing that she didn’t want to become pregnant—then forced birth is, apparently, an appropriate consequence.

Reducing harm from “immoral” behavior has never been especially popular in the Catholic Church, or in the farther reaches of the political right. Grave consequences are the point, according to the Church; they act as deterrents. In the case of abortion, patterns of support for exceptions and restrictions suggest that many of its opponents want “irresponsible” sex to come with high risks. Catholicism takes it a step further, officially condemning the use of birth control as well.

But few have yet been willing to explicitly embrace pregnancy as punishment; instead, anti-abortion politicians and institutional leaders claim to champion the rights of the unborn and protect babies from wanton “murder.” I was taught to think of an embryo as a child and to understand that sex inherently entailed the possibility of pregnancy. Sex that didn’t was sinful; abortion was not an option. Growing up, I understood the message behind the words: it was my responsibility to guard my sexuality closely. If I didn’t, I would have to live with the consequences.

Complete prohibition of abortion is deeply unpopular in the US, but the political and religious leaders who stump for it have their reasons. As an ideology, it’s compellingly straightforward and easy to teach to young women, and the justifications for a no-exceptions stance are more socially palatable than the alternative. Because when “pro-lifers” soften their position, they reveal their genuine beliefs—not that abortion is murder; rather, that it should only be an option for “innocent” women (as they define it). And anti-choice activists want any behavior that doesn’t match their idea of morality to come with the highest risk that they can find a way to impose.