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Jan 28, 2022

Why do women choose to have abortions? In one sense, it’s a question with as many answers as there are women who seek abortions. One may have found herself with a so-called “crisis” pregnancy, unattached to the father and unprepared to be a mother. Another may feel she has too many children, already. Another may have received a frightening prenatal diagnosis and not want that kind of life for her child. Another may have been the victim of a sexual assault. But I think there’s a belief that unites most or all of these stories: the belief that certain lives are not worth living, and that some whose lives have already begun would be better off dead.   

Writing this week at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher shares a letter he received from a reader describing a twenty-two year-old woman seeking sterilization. This young woman was going to the gynecologist to get a tubal ligation because “the world is too awful and…no more children should be brought into this hellhole.” 

I’ve heard and read similar sentiments on many occasions from fellow millennials and gen-zers. They say things like, “I don’t want to mess up a kid as badly as I was messed up,” and “I don’t have the time or the money to be a parent,” or “I don’t want to pass on my psychological issues,” or “The world is already overpopulated and the environment dying.” No matter what the reason, these young people’s back-of-the-napkin calculations on parenthood yield the same answer: that allowing life would be irresponsible. As with the women who decide death is preferrable for their child, these young people renouncing parenthood think non-existence would be preferrable. 

Obviously, the two situations are different in important ways. It is not always right to bring a child into existence. It is always wrong to kill one who already exists. And today’s culture is saturated with the assumption that sex is a birthright—a recreational or self-expressive activity in which everyone has the right to engage without reference to its purposes or consequences. The idea that deliberately childless sexual relations are easy comes naturally to a 21st-century mind. The same assumption would have sounded like reckless idiocy to someone more than fifty years ago. Our technology has loosened, not tightened, our grip on reality. 

There’s also an undeniable element of selfishness. Raising children is difficult. They restrict your freedom. They make demands on your time, your energy, and even your body. They make it exceptionally difficult to pursue self-expression and pleasure as your central goals in life. It would be easy to dismiss both abortion and intentional childlessness as mere products of self-centered hedonism. Many people do. But I think that’s a mistake. Selfishness certainly plays a part in these decisions, but I believe there’s a much deeper worldview assumption at work, here.  

The choices to foreswear children and to abort them because their lives would supposedly be too miserable both confuse kindness with love, and happiness with meaning. To say that a child would be better off dead or non-existent because of how hard the world is or how difficult its life would be is to assume that kindness is the highest virtue. It is to treat a child—actual or theoretical—as an animal; as something without intrinsic moral worth, whose comfort overrules its value as an individual.  

It is certainly kind to put suffering animals out of their misery or to prevent their existence through sterilization. This is why we spay, neuter, and sometimes euthanize our pets. This is a true kindness, because while animals are not moral agents, they do have senses. And when pain overwhelms pleasure and nothing can reasonably be done to relieve it, a quick death is often kind. 

But humans are moral agents and do have intrinsic moral value, as well as senses. We are the sort of creatures whose natures transcend sense experience, who can connect those experiences into narratives, and whose decisions in response to those narratives are the raw material of virtue. That’s why it not only makes sense to allow human beings to live knowing they will suffer physically or emotionally, but why we find the greatest meaning in stories about redemptive suffering. Humans exist on a plane where pain and pleasure are not the highest realities or goods.  

It will surprise no one at this point that I want to quote C. S. Lewis. His discussion of the difference between kindness and love in “The Problem of Pain” applies wonderfully to this question. Lewis thinks there is something “more stern and splendid” in love than in mere kindness. The former will tolerate pain and suffering in order to bring its object into maturity and glory. The latter will settle for much lesser goods: 

“…Kindness, merely as such, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering…It is for people whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms: with our friends, our lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes. If God is Love, He is, by definition, something more than mere kindness. And it appears, from all the records, that though He has often rebuked us and condemned us, He has never regarded us with contempt. He has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most memorable sense.” 

If it is true that love transcends mere kindness—that the moral thriving and eternal good of a being like a human child are more important than its comfort—then the excuses so common today for aborting or renouncing children (even children born with disabilities or into difficult circumstances) fall flat. No child is better off dead, and even a world with political or environmental challenges deserves the chance and hope embodied in a new image-bearer of God.  

Believing this won’t often lead us down the easiest path. It may compel us to do the hardest things imaginable—like bringing a child into a world that is less than ideal, or putting that child’s needs permanently ahead of our own. But the “intolerable compliment” of intrinsic moral value is the very thing that makes us human. And that is why choosing life is more than just a recognition of what the unborn or unconceived baby is. It is a recognition of what we all are.