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A Moral Defense of the 15-Week Late-Term Abortion Ban
Joe Kral, M.A.
Society of St. Sebastian | 27 October 2022
Recently, Judie Brown, President of American Life League, issued a press release claiming that US Senator Lindsey Graham’s bill to ban abortion at 15 weeks gestation[i] was not pro-life.[ii] The press release states, “Senator Graham is a sham, his bill is an outrage, and we urge elected officials who describe themselves as pro-life to BE pro-life or admit that they are in favor of some abortion instead of all abortion. Abortion kills! Stop condoning the killing!” While it is clear that Ms. Brown does not like the bill, is it a proper assessment to claim this bill is a sham and not pro-life?
Firstly, it is important to note that even with the Dobbs ruling, there are states that can legalize abortion for any reason up until birth. Dobbs simply did not outlaw abortion; it merely allows states to decide what their particular policy will be on abortion. As a result, some states have outlawed abortion, others have abortion in limited circumstances (rape and incest exceptions), have Fetal Heartbeat Laws in effect, allow for abortion up to 15 weeks (along with some other pro-life laws in effect), others with some other late-term gestational limits, or have no limits at all.
Secondly, the fact is that in many states, abortion at 15-weeks gestation and beyond is still legal. Furthermore, one must also recognize that while Dobbs was a pro-life victory, it did not completely abolish the various harms (injustices) that were unleashed due to legalized abortion. So, for example, the states in which late-term abortions can still take place can still legally engage in fetal organ trafficking from aborted unborn children. Yet another example, is when children are the victims of a botched late-term abortion and are left to die instead of receiving medical care appropriate to their gestational age. These are but two examples of the injustices still in existence due to legalized abortion.
Now the question becomes, is it moral to limit the harm if it is not possible to completely overturn an unjust law? Here St. John Paul II gives guidance:
A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would
be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of
authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be
voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. It is a fact that while in some parts of the world
there continue to be campaigns to introduce laws favouring abortion, often supported by powerful international organizations, in other nations-particularly those which have already experienced the bitter fruits of such permissive legislation-there are growing signs of a rethinking in this matter. In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.[iii]
Here, St. John Paul II states, that if 1) the aim of the bill is to limit the harm of the evil law and 2) if the bill is to lessen its (the evil law’s) negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality, then it is not an illicit cooperation with an unjust law. Does Senator Graham’s bill do this?
The answer is yes, but how exactly? Well, one must look at how the bill would limit the harm of the existing evil of legalized abortion. While in some states, it is legal for late-term abortions to take place, while in others it is not. So, the evidence simply shows that many states allow for late-term abortions and the various evils that sort of thing allows. If a national law were enacted, it would limit the existing evil law by eliminating those existing harms which were described above.
The next step is to ask how the bill if enacted, would lessen the negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality? Here, the idea of law as the great teacher sets in. How is law helping direct its citizens to virtue; or toward a Culture of Life? For one thing, it certainly can be said that a child born from either an attempted or botched abortion would be given the appropriate medical care for a child of his/her gestational age. This is what is owed by the doctor to the child. This is simply justice. But furthermore, it sends a clear message of justice to the community that this is what is morally and legally owed to the child. It also sends a clear message that the harvesting and trafficking of fetal organs from the remains of aborted unborn children is simply unacceptable since the abortion of these children is unacceptable. Again, this helps to better humanize the already fully human unborn child. The law helps to correct the injustices mentioned, but furthermore, it helps teach the community that these children ought to be valued and that abortion, in general, is not a good.
To assert Senator Graham’s bill is not pro-life is simply incorrect. St. John Paul II makes it quite clear that pro-life incrementalism does help establish a Culture of Life. If an unjust law cannot be completely repealed then it can be dismantled piece by piece. While Dobbs was a step in the right direction of helping our country move in the direction of fully making abortion illegal, it does not mean that the country is able to pass an outright ban on abortion. In fact, the way the states have handled abortion, it is clear that a national abortion ban may have some trouble passing. It may mean that something like Senator Graham’s bill may have more support, which would allow those states that have stricter requirements to keep them while ensuring states such as California and New York that allow for abortion up until birth no longer commit that sort of atrocity by limiting them to 15-weeks.
By taking an absolutist position, not only does Ms. Brown act contrary to the virtues of prudence and justice, she in essence, by taking this all-or-nothing position, continues to allow the various sorts of injustices mentioned to continue. It is contrary to being properly pro-life in effect. To fight for an abortion ban which likely will not pass in the US Congress at this present time versus pro-life incremental legislation, which aims to restore justice in some areas while looking further ahead toward a Culture of Life, which is more likely to pass? The answer should be simple. As St. John Paul II clearly stated, this is not in any way an illicit cooperation with an unjust law. Simply put, pro-life incrementalism did not die with Dobbs and Senator Graham’s pro-life bill does help advance the Culture of Life.
[ii] American Life League, Press Release, September 14, 2022, https://all.org/press-releases/a-15-week-abortion-ban-is-not-pro-life-its-pro-abortion, retrieved on October 25, 2022.
[iii] John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, No. 73.