I admit it: I’m one of those Americans who voted for Trump. I did so begrudgingly and most of my reasoning was pretty slip-shod and reactive: I didn’t do a lot of research and didn’t tune in to a lot of the debates. I could list a few superficial reasons that a Trump presidency seemed ok. Most of the commentary I saw about him was about his outrageous comments. I didn’t like him but I cared a lot more about his decisions than his personality; anyways, his uncloaked vulgarity gave him a certain kind of Robert Baratheon-esque appeal. I thought that the actual governing of the country would be in the hands of real politicians and hoped that the rhetoric about him being a ruthless businessman who got results was true.
But my choice really came down to a single question I asked myself. ‘How many people will die if Trump is elected, and how many people will die if Clinton is elected?’ Taking the long-term effects of possible permanent legal decisions about abortion into effect, the numbers seemed unquestionably scarier if Clinton was elected. So I voted for Trump.
(I don’t want to defend my position on abortion here: my intention is to present useful information for those who share my beliefs, although I’m aware that this is probably a very small proportion of Medium readers. Let me briefly explain the logic of my position. In my view, government’s first role is to protect the boundaries of life and death at every stage. I have no reason to believe that the unborn are not worthy human lives, so I cannot exclude them from my calculations).
Anyways, I don’t want to wade into another election uninformed, so I’m putting on my best researching hat and sharing my findings. Please note that I do not follow politics, and therefore cannot hope to present a comprehensive or fluent view. My conclusions are my own, but I hope that by doing some grunt work, I can provide a starting-point for others with similar concerns.
A Single-Issue Perspective: Abortion in America
A lot of the discussion around abortion is based around a dance between federal and state rights. States have the right to restrict or allow abortion within the parameters of decisions from the Supreme Court and federal laws.
Roe v. Wade (1973) stated that states could not restrict abortion in the first trimester or if the mother’s life or health was in danger. The Doe v. Bolton case, decided on the same day, determined that the definition of a mother’s health (in the case of late-term abortions) included “all factors — physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age — relevant to the wellbeing of the patient." The 2007 Gonzales v. Carhart case overturned the trimester framework, instead establishing fetal viability (which has been shown to be possible before the first trimester) as the benchmark for whether abortion could be restricted. So states can only restrict abortion after fetal viability and if the mother’s health (defined broadly) is not at risk.
There is also federal legislation restricting certain forms of abortion. The Born Alive Infants Protection Act of 2002 protects the rights of infants born alive (including after failed abortion attempts) at any stage of development. The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 bans partial birth abortions when the life of the mother is not at risk. Under this act, doctors can be charged with 2 years in prison and women cannot be prosecuted.
The 1980 Hyde Amendment bars the use of federal funds for abortions that are not life-threatening or the product of incest or rape.
State laws vary. 18 states prohibit abortion (with exceptions to health) after 20 weeks, 4 states prohibit it after 24 weeks, 20 states prohibit it after viability, and 8 states do not prohibit it at any stage in the pregnancy.
What hopes are there for anti-abortion legislation?
There is a lot of talk about overturning Roe v. Wade, which would allow legislation that restricts or prohibits abortion to be passed. How feasible is this? The Supreme Court’s doctrine of stare decisis —we said we would so we will—makes it less likely but certainly not impossible. States continue to pass legislation that contradicts Roe v. Wade (like Alabama’s Human Life Protection Act) in hopes of their case reaching the Supreme Court for judgment.
If Roe v. Wade were overturned, it would mean that the rights to determine the legality of abortion would revert to individual states (except where overruled by federal legislation). Some states have trigger laws that mean that overturning Roe v. Wade would automatically ban abortion while other states have laws in place to protect access to abortion.
Overturning Roe v. Wade requires the decision of at least five Supreme Court justices. The present Supreme Court is comprised of John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, and a vacant seat. Roberts, Thomas, Gorsuch, Alito, and Kavanaugh are all widely believed to be interested in overturning Roe v. Wade, and the appointment of another judge likely to agree would make this more feasible.
On balance, I think that if a new justice is nominated and confirmed before the election, it would make electing a conservative president less vital for the pro-life cause, as it would limit the impact of their position on the issue to approving or vetoing bills (like the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act) passed through Congress.
But what really saves unborn lives?
The argument is frequently raised: making abortion illegal doesn’t stop women from getting abortions, it just causes them to seek more dangerous methods. While this certainly isn’t totally true (abortion rates in the Republic of Ireland rose by at least 38% after the repeal of the 8th amendment, for example) and there are complicated factors involved in comparing abortion rates worldwide, it does seem true that liberalizing abortion laws coincides with fewer total abortions and within the United States, abortion restrictions do not seem sharply linked with fewer abortion rates. However you interpret the statistics, it’s clear that criminalizing abortion is not the final word in saving unborn lives.
So what is? Birth control seems to be a commonly-proposed factor — fewer unwanted pregnancies equal fewer abortions. One study suggests that access to free birth control could cut abortion rates by up to 78% — using very rough, very generous math (and discounting the fact that many women already have access to free birth control), that could translate to nearly 200,000 fewer abortions in the US each year. Obviously this is very conjectural, but it seems likely that free birth control would reduce abortion rates to some extent.
Financial, medical, and social support of single mothers and poor families might also bring down the numbers (as well as helping out people already struggling). In a 2004 study, 73% of women seeking abortions cited ‘not being able to afford a baby’ as one of their motivations. In my view, whether it directly led to fewer abortions or not, which I can only speculate on, legally reinforcing the value of motherhood, children, and the family would lead to a healthier country over all. From a pro-life standpoint, I would personally be inclined to support higher social and economic safety nets, more accessible healthcare, more affordable housing and childcare, easier access to higher education, longer and more supportive maternity leave, and other laws and programs (typically on the liberal docket) which would make the prospect of motherhood more manageable.
Other Issues That Threaten Life
The question I used to make my choice in the last election was: ‘If I elect X, how many people will die?’ Clearly, the lives of the unborn are not the only lives worthy of being protected or in danger of being lost unjustly. Here is a brief look at some of the other issues with an idea of how many lives are being lost. Italicized links lead to a Politico list of current presidential candidates’ views on the topic.
Pandemic. There have been around 200,000 coronavirus deaths in the US so far. It’s hard to quantify how many of these deaths were avoidable (some say most). Obviously, nobody foresaw the COVID-19 pandemic back in 2016, which should be a reminder to elect people we trust with the unforeseen.
Police brutality. It feels reductive to reduce the injustice of police brutality to a body count, but as an issue much in the public consciousness, it’s worth bringing up. 996 people were killed by police in 2019; disproportionately, 235 of them were black. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how a vote would contribute to police reform, but it’s a factor to bear in mind.
Health care costs. A 2009 study showed that 45,000 non-elderly Americans were dying every year due to lack of health insurance. Obamacare seems to have led to a reduction in mortality, though this isn’t universally accepted. But with 1 in 6 Americans avoiding healthcare due to cost, a reformed healthcare system could certainly save significant numbers of lives.
Gun violence. In the US, 15,208 people were killed by gun violence in 2019 — compare to the UK, where there were 12 — and there were 417 mass shootings.
Capital punishment. Only 22 Americans were executed in 2019, all of them on a state level. The last federal execution was in 2003. Only 28 states still allow the death penalty and Supreme Court rulings have put a number of restrictions into action.
These statistics pale compared to the number of induced abortions in the US each year: in 2017, there were over 850,000, far exceeding the total of other avoidable deaths I’ve listed here (of course, I’ve left out other, less quantifiable factors — possibilities of war, harm to the environment, and so forth).
It is clear that abortion is an ongoing tragedy of gargantuan proportions. Does that mean that it merits being treated as the only important issue? In my opinion, yes and no. Yes because of the sheer scale of the problem and the fundamental concept underlying it: that the worth of a human life can be negotiated. But also no, because focusing on legality seems to detract from the issues that might actually bring about change. What would save more unborn lives: overturning Roe v. Wade or universal health care? The answer isn’t easy, but at this point I suspect it’s the latter.
Of course, it’s not as simple as merely comparing statistics. My question: ‘which option leads to fewer lives lost?’ is limited. It discounts human suffering and injustice on the one hand; it discounts pure right and wrong on the other.
Can I justify acting in a way that goes against my conscience to obtain results that I think will be good? ‘For the greater good’ was the slogan of Harry Potter’s figure of political evil: at what point does the end justify the means? Going into a voting booth and ticking the box next to a pro-choice candidate feels like saying ‘I’ve decided not to protect innocent lives’ — even if I think more lives could be saved in the long run. My mind is half-convinced, but my heart feels that it is doing wrong; I’m making a political choice at the expense of my morality. Isn’t it better to refuse to do evil, at any cost, and protect my own soul, rather than compromise? And what if I’m wrong about the possible effects?
The truth is that all politicians (and by extension all voters) have blood on their hands. The world of politics is too complicated for there to be a ‘right choice’ and it is selfish to insist that an ideal be fulfilled before we take action. Whether we move to the right or the left or stand still, there is blood on our hands, and the question we’re left with is grim: whose? And why?
It’s not an easy question to answer. Balancing moral responsibility is a difficult game: understanding the full and real consequences of any individual action (which can be unpredictable) is difficult enough, and making moral decisions based on these conclusions complicates the issue. I fully understand and almost agree with pro-life voters who vote purely on the basis of abortion; this was the position I took during the last election. This election I will turn my attention to candidates who seem more likely to improve quality of life for all Americans, hoping that a better life will also be offered to the unborn.