In a Heartbeat: Debating Abortion

September 8, 2021 Updated: September 9, 2021


Many would rather avoid a serious discussion of abortion. Some economic conservatives see the issue as a distraction from the serious business of winning elections and getting the economy back on track.

Social liberals see such a discussion as itself a threat to a settled right declared by the Supreme Court nearly 50 years ago and relied on by women and abortionists ever since, no matter how shaky the legal basis for the decision. Many find the whole subject too grisly and unpleasant to bring up, or too tied to the experiences or views of loved family members.

The Texas Heartbeat Act reminds us that abortion stops a human heart. It brings the abortion debate back to the heart of political life and moral concern, from which the court’s rulings supposedly had banished it.

While President Joe Biden calls the Texas Heartbeat Act “extreme,” the present abortion regime that Roe v. Wade imposed on all states in 1973 is one of the most extreme in the world.

The Texas law was crafted to evade the legal maneuvers that have stymied other states’ efforts to restrict or prohibit abortion after the prenatal child had a detectable heartbeat.

The Texas law’s unusual provisions—such as prohibiting state officials from enforcing it but allowing a private citizen to bring a civil action in state court against anyone who performs or knowingly aids or abets a post-heartbeat abortion—were crafted to bypass the legal maneuvers that had stopped similar heartbeat measures in other states.

The Supreme Court’s decision in this case was deliberately limited in scope. It doesn’t address the substance of the Texas law or preclude other challenges to it. The court is already scheduled to hear a challenge (Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization) to the Mississippi law that bans most abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy when the prenatal child can feel pain.

Until now, the pro-abortion forces have stifled debate on the nature and morality of abortion itself. Planned Parenthood and its supporters insist that the issue of abortion has been settled as a result of prior Supreme Court decisions (Roe and Doe in 1973, and Casey in 1992). It has covered the subject with euphemisms about the nature of abortion (terms like “women’s reproductive health”), an increasingly extreme embrace, even celebration, of the fatal procedure, and with misinformation about the science of embryology and the history of abortion law prior to Roe (the myth of tens of thousands of mothers’ deaths due to back-alley, coat-hanger abortions).

The media consistently misrepresent the actual provisions of Roe. That’s why polls show a majority in favor of Roe but an even larger majority in favor of restricting legal abortion after the first three months in ways and to degrees that the Roe abortion regime doesn’t permit. The Mississippi law to be considered by the Supreme Court this year limits elective abortions to the first 15 weeks of pregnancy—in line with public opinion about what Roe is and should be, but not with Roe itself.

The Texas Heartbeat Act

Proponents of unrestricted abortion, like others who have sought to exclude the vulnerable—such as slaves, the old and infirm, those with disabilities—from basic human rights, use language that treats a whole class of individuals as less than fully human. They deny the scientific and moral reality that our individual human lives begin at conception.

The Texas Heartbeat Act insists in its very name that children in the womb are no less human than the rest of us. Ultrasound enables us to see that. Seeing the beating heart of our child and its recognizably human form, we understand that abortion involves not simply the removal of human tissue or the “products of conception” but the killing of another human being.

As Alexandra DeSanctis, discussing “The Strange Pseudoscience of the Abortion Rights Movement” in National Review, puts it, “For a movement that defends abortion on the grounds that the unborn child is not human—or has no claim to rights—this scientific reality poses some difficulties.”

In their 1973 Roe ruling, the justices pretended not to know when life begins, but even at the time, this wasn’t a mystery or a matter of belief or opinion, as Biden still asserts. We cannot say that we were once a sperm or some inchoate clump of cells such as those of a fingernail. The embryo begins its life journey “as soon as the oocyte (ovum) is fertilized.”

We all began life as a new, genetically distinct organism, whether we believe it or not. We are the same individual who, absent premature death by disease, accident, or being killed, develops through life first in and then outside the womb, as an infant, child, adolescent, and adult, in that order.

A few philosophers and bioethicists, the most well-known of whom is Peter Singer, accept all that, but maintain on utilitarian grounds that a child—though fully human before and after birth—may in some circumstances be killed for a greater good. This is a minority view at present, but after nearly 50 years and tens of millions of lawful abortions in the United States, enlightened opinion in advanced Western societies is increasingly open to other kinds of destruction of innocent human life.

Other classes of humans—such as the severely sick or disabled, those with Down syndrome or advanced dementia—are differentiated from persons. The all-important criteria of autonomy and capacity to choose are used to justify the killing of such non-persons through voluntary or even involuntary euthanasia.

Time for a Real Debate

Roe didn’t express any kind of national consensus, growing or actual, about abortion. Laws restricting abortion were getting more, not less restrictive, as we learned more about human development at the embryo stage of life.

The problem, as even many legal scholars who support abortion rights have said, is that the majorities in Roe and Casey didn’t find a right to an abortion in the Constitution. It’s not there. They simply made it up to reflect their own moral and political opinions.

In the 1973 words (pdf) of John Hart Ely, who was later to become dean of Stanford Law School, the decision was “bad because it is bad constitutional law, or rather because it is not constitutional law and gives almost no sense of an obligation to try to be.”

The liberal, pro-choice legal scholar Laurence Tribe said, “One of the most curious things about Roe is that, behind its own verbal smokescreen, the substantive judgment on which it rests is nowhere to be found.”

One dissenting justice, Kennedy-nominated Byron White, concluded that the ruling wasn’t about interpreting the Constitution, the text, the history, or anyone’s intent. As he put it succinctly, it was “an exercise in raw judicial power.”

These past decades of bad law masquerading as constitutional rights—and the refusal of the abortion industry or legacy media to allow serious discussion of the moral and political issues—have wrought death and destruction, resolving nothing. Prenatal children have been denied the legal protections they deserve and to which the 14th Amendment, according to legal scholars John Finnis and Robert P. George in their amicus brief (pdf) to the Supreme Court in the Mississippi case, entitles them.

The taking of innocent human life in any circumstances is a grave matter, much as we may wish to turn away from it, prettify the act, and dehumanize the victims with euphemisms and pseudoscience. The slaughter of innocents in their millions since Roe and its obfuscation by courts, abortion activists, and media corrupts our whole moral and political life. It’s time to talk about it. Come, let us reason together.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Paul Adams
Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i, and was professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of "Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is," and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.