Answering the Challenge of Back-Alley Abortions

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 01/31/2023

The overturning of Roe v. Wade shocked everyone. Pro-lifers were pleasantly surprised that the 50-year-old Supreme Court ruling ended. Abortion-choice advocates, by contrast, were dismayed that the abortion law was upended. Now that abortion-choice advocates sense abortion rights are slipping away, there is a growing fear that women who can’t obtain abortions will resort to desperate measures to end their pregnancies. As a result, we’re seeing an uptick in classic pro-choice rhetoric—specifically, the challenge that women will pursue dangerous, back-alley abortions.

The argument goes as follows. Abortion must remain legal. If it were made illegal, women would still get abortions, but instead of having them in the safe and sanitary conditions of a hospital or medical clinic, women would be forced to procure abortions from unqualified, back-alley butchers who would harm or kill them.

This challenge has always been rhetorically powerful. After all, no one wants to force women to face a life-threatening procedure in a back alley. How should a pro-lifer respond? Here are three steps to address this challenge.

First, demonstrate virtuous character. Abortion is a sensitive topic that requires thoughtful and gracious engagement. When you add the concern of women getting dangerous, back-alley abortions, the need to tread carefully when you respond is magnified. Gracious interactions should be routine for ambassadors for Christ since we’re called to exhibit virtuous character. Sadly, we don’t always exude compassion and care.

Often when the challenge of back-alley abortions is brought up, it’s not a test to see if the pro-lifer has a logical response. It’s a test to see if the pro-lifer has a heart. We pro-lifers often fail that test because we immediately jump to a logical response but fail to show an ounce of care or concern that a woman might injure herself or die at the hands of an unskilled abortionist. That’s why the first step should always be to demonstrate that we also care about born women who might risk injury or death by getting a back-alley abortion. At the very least, we can agree that we never want a woman to get a back-alley abortion, and that it would be tragic if a woman were injured or killed because of one.

Unless you’re able to navigate this challenge with the kindness and grace of Jesus of Nazareth, I’d caution you not to step into this conversation for fear that a cold and callous attitude would undermine your effectiveness discussing abortion and witnessing to the Truth.

Second, demonstrate there’s a hidden—and false—premise in this challenge. The biggest problem with the back-alley abortion challenge is that it presumes that only one person is at risk. It presumes the unborn is not a human being. This is where you must focus your rational response. If you ignore this hidden premise, you’ll be at a strategic disadvantage for the remainder of the conversation and in any further discussion on abortion. After all, if the unborn is not a human being, why make abortion illegal and pressure women to procure a dangerous, back-alley abortion?

But if the unborn is a human being just like you and me, then we shouldn’t make it legal to kill an innocent, unborn human being. We don’t make an immoral action legal just so it’s safer for people to engage in it. Bank robbery, for example, is dangerous. You might get shot trying to steal money from a vault. Even though such a behavior is risky, we don’t make bank robbery legal so it’s safer for robbers.

Philosopher and abortion-rights activist Mary Anne Warren agrees. She writes, “The fact that restricting access to abortion has tragic side effects does not, in itself, show that the restrictions are unjustified, since murder is wrong regardless of the consequences of forbidding it.” In other words, if abortion is child murder, then we shouldn’t make abortion legal just so a woman is not injured while attempting to kill her child. The law should not be faulted for making it more risky to kill another innocent human being.

Third, demonstrate that no woman is forced into a back-alley abortion. Every woman has the freedom to choose, after all. A woman who is denied a legal abortion is no more forced into a back alley than a poor person who is denied welfare is forced to rob a bank. Both have their choices. A woman can choose adoption or parenthood or any course of action that doesn’t involve killing an innocent human being.

Women faced with this choice will be more likely to refuse abortion if they are provided the love, care, and practical support they need. Thankfully, the pro-life community has tirelessly sought to serve the needs of pregnant women and their unborn children through thousands of pregnancy resource centers across the country. We need to continue to make that care available—and to an even greater degree—to women facing a crisis pregnancy. Getting that kind of uncompromising love and support drastically reduces the likelihood a woman will still choose abortion.