One is often told by pro-choice advocates that even a complete legal ban would not succeed in eliminating abortions — just in driving them under ground. I think that’s true.
However, I see no reason why our inability to eliminate all abortions through a legal ban should prevent us from having a legal ban.
Consider, for a moment, what we as Catholics say abortion is: the destruction of an innocent human life. Now there are other forms of destruction or assault upon innocent human life in our society, and we have legally banned many of them. Yet we have never yet seen those bans result in a the complete elimination of those crimes.
We will never reach a point where the abortion rate is zero, just as we have never reached a point at which the murder rate is zero or the rape rate is zero or the child abuse rate is zero. The fact of the matter is that people often want things which they can only achieve through hurting others. We see this in the motives that people have for the above and countless other forms of crime.
Abortion rights supporters often make the case that anti-abortion advocates are virtual fascists by citing frightening amounts of state supervision which they argue would be necessary to prevent abortions. I ran into a good example of this in the an online conversation a while back where a pro-abortion rights person argued that if I was pro-life I would have to support the following:
1. Pregancies must be registered with the state. As soon as a woman knows she is pregnant, either she or her doctor must inform the state, and the state will provide the embryo with an identification number.
2. If a woman miscarries, she must inform the state, which will treat the death of the embryo like the death of anyone else. If there is any reason at all to believe that foul play was involved, an autopsy will be performed, the woman will be extensively interviewed by law enforcement officials, and she will undergo medical tests (e.g., blood tests, invasive physical examination) to determine whether the death was a homicide. If the woman miscarries somewhere other than a hospital, she must preserve the remains so that officials can determine the cause of death and file a death certificate, and so they can rule out negligence.
3. If law enforcement determines that the death likely was a homicide, the woman will be tried and, if convicted, will face years in a federal penitentiary, or whatever the current penalties are for murder. If the woman did not commit the murder alone (e.g., by physically doing it herself without the aid of others), then whoever else played a role will also be tried.
4. If a woman who registered a pregnancy does not produce a baby after the normal gestation period, an investigation by law enforcement officials will begin in order determine what happened to the embryo.
I know that I’ve seen published pieces by feminist authors essentially arguing that if one is not in favor of jailing millions of women and thousands of doctors, one is not really anti-abortion — but since I recalled exactly where the above was and it was fairly detailed, I think it can serve well for our purposes.
Now, I do think that these practical objections underscore a real problem: The means it would take to reasonably assure that no one could procure an abortion without seriously expecting to be legally punished for it would be so invasive that virtually no one would want to see such a thing.
However, I think that this argument misses the point. Our primary goal as anti-abortion advocates should not be to hunt down and punish everyone who procures or provides an abortion, but rather to remove the cultural and moral sense that getting an abortion is an available and an acceptable response to a “crisis pregnancy”.
Let’s look for a moment at another crime which, like abortion, is committed by parents against children: violent or sexual child abuse. If we considered the state to be the primary protector of children, and parents to be an incidental part of the equation, our laws to prevent child abuse would doubtless involve mandatory schooling outside the home (and investigation of any absences), frequent and random examinations of children by a state doctor, interviews between children and state agents to determine if the parents are treating the child well, and random in home inspections by child protective services. We would rightly recoil from a such a system, even if it might successfully identify many more instances of child abuse, because such a system would be based on the idea that the state rather than the family is the primary protector of the child.
Because in the case of abortion the child is within and entirely dependant upon his mother, any form of outside supervision would be even more intrusive — and thus probably undesirable from a rightly ordered view of the relationship between family and state.
Why insist on outlawing abortion if it would be difficult and probably undesirable to strenuously police against it?
Because, I would argue, it is both important that our civil laws reflect natural and moral laws; and also because the current legal status of abortion as a legitimate medical procedure encourages its use.
Human nature being what it is, I cannot imagine how we could achieve a society in which abortion simply do not happen, any more than a society in which any other form of violence does not happen. But we should abolish its status as a legitimate medical procedure (I am not sure that criminalization would need go further than making it illegal, on pain of a hefty fine, to run a business providing abortions and permanently revoke the medical license of any doctor who performs one) so that we cease to actively encourage abortions and hold them up as a right.
To call abortion a right is to hold up an evil as a good — and to call it a legitimate medical procedure is to consider destruction of life to be “health”. But the sad fact is that the abortion rate will never be zero — because some people will always be willing to seek to preserve their own way of life by destroying someone else’s. It is, it seems to me, the duty of the state to remove the legality and availability of abortion — but catching and judging the remaining offenders is something that must be left to God, who knows all.