‘I’m Very Conflicted’: Readers Share Complex Views on Abortion

Readers share their views on the personal, legal, and political sides of the issue.

Abortion-rights demonstrators hold signs during a protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.
Al Drago / Bloomberg / Getty; The Atlantic

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Every Monday, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

In the last Up for Debate I asked readers, “What are your views on abortion?”

Joey shares a personal story:

I am a 78-year-old grandmother. In 1967, I had an illegal abortion on a dining room table in a part of Boston I normally did not frequent. I already had 3 kids under 3 and simply could not afford another one. My husband supported this decision. But we were white, well-educated, and had the necessary connections to do this safely, albeit illegally. Even at the time, I was fully aware of my privilege.

Having an abortion is a serious decision, and I believe most women take it very seriously. I certainly took it seriously, but nothing would convince me it was not the right thing for my family at the time. Denying women the opportunity to manage their family’s needs—as difficult as that is already—is truly cruel.

I understand that Roe vs. Wade was perhaps not the best way to legalize abortion. It should have been done by statute, not the courts. I was initially appalled this week by the fact that a Supreme Court decision was leaked, but now I believe that a great service has been done for the country. It is much clearer now that we must create and pass legislation on behalf of women’s health that includes the right to abortion. There could be restrictions, such as the need for more than one physician’s opinion if the abortion is late in the term. But a new law is the only way to truly protect women at this point. If eliminating the filibuster is the only way to achieve this, let’s do it. If I were a young woman planning an illegal abortion, I’d leave instructions to be followed in the case of my death from the procedure: Please attach a sign to my bleeding body reading This is what ‘pro-life’ looks like and place it on the front steps of the Supreme Court for all to see.

Susan also explained the circumstances of an abortion:

I am 61. I have been married to the same partner for over 40 years. We chose not to have children. I found myself unexpectedly pregnant at 16, naive about how easily one can become pregnant. I had a first trimester abortion, assisted by the boy’s mother, and have never regretted it. I went on to College and had a successful career. My Catholic mother even thanked me for taking this off her shoulders when she found out. If Roe vs. Wade is overturned it will mostly affect low-income women. If men carried babies, there would likely be no questions about abortion rights. Contraceptives and abortions have increased the quality of life for women in most countries. It is shocking to me that so many people still believe they should be able to control my body because of their personal beliefs.

Jeanne’s unplanned pregnancy turned out differently:

I’m 70 years old and carried an unplanned pregnancy to term when I was 18. There was no legal abortion in 1969. I had lots of family support and resources, I married the father of my child, I got smarter about birth control, and I did not have additional children. I eventually got my college degree and had a successful career as a publishing director for a world-wide health science and technology company, a career I could not have contemplated at 18. Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare—rare because we have greatly reduced unplanned pregnancies through enlightened sex education and readily available contraception for all women of child-bearing age.

James shared a personal story too:

We had two abortions in my marriage with my first wife. They were difficult but the right choice for us to make. In our 20’s, scratching to get by, to finish our college aspirations, trying everything not to get pregnant. But we did! We chose to be responsible. In the end we had three amazing daughters that we chose to have. The world is a better place for all of those choices!

Jeff is following the controversy over Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe as he prepares to teach a summer course on the future of the Supreme Court. He offers several bits of historically informed analysis:

What everyone seems to miss when they talk about Roe is the importance that Justice [Harry] Blackmun placed on the doctor-patient relationship. Blackmun had been a lawyer for the Mayo Clinic before he became a judge and he was sensitive to the individual medical circumstances of the pregnant patient, along with the physician’s duty to care for the patient. Alito and all the hard-line pro-lifers seem to think that every pregnancy is exactly the same, where expectant mothers simply wait happily for nine months with no health anxieties or physical difficulties. Blackmun wrote almost 50 years ago and thus closer to the time when women dying in childbirth was not a rare event. Medical risks in pregnancy have not gone away; doctors are just better at treating them now, particularly since abortion is an option, almost always a regrettable one, but still one Blackmun considered medical treatment and still sometimes necessary and proper.

Blackmun (writing for seven justices) stressed the medical nature of pregnancy, childbirth, and abortion, and indicated that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is inherently a medical decision, not one that could be left to politics. The decision’s language is that, for approximately the first trimester, “the attending physician, in consultation with his patient, is free to determine, without regulation by the State, that, in his medical judgment, the patient’s pregnancy should be terminated.” He focuses on the doctor, not the pregnant patient! He evinces a sublime concern for the best interests of pregnant women, given the individualized medical complications that often result from pregnancy. His ruling is that personal liberty under the Constitution includes a medical determination within the doctor-patient relationship aligned with the best interests of the patient.  

Finally, it’s intriguingly popular even among liberal lawyers to criticize the Roe decision, possibly because Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself criticized it. Yet the legal theories in Roe did not magically spring up overnight. Many state and federal judges that considered the abortion question in years leading up to Roe agreed that the personal privacy rights of due process include the abortion decision. Seven justices agreed with the Roe decision, and four additional justices added to the Court (along with Blackmun) affirmed the central holding of Roe 19 years later in [Planned Parenthood v. Casey]. Roe and Casey are not unique in Supreme Court jurisprudence either, like Alito would have us think. Many Supreme Court cases rely on “substantive due process” to protect rights that most people would consider natural and obvious, even if they are not listed in the Constitution.  

Ginsburg would have preferred a more incremental approach that allowed for more state legislative flexibility, presumably on the theory that the legislatures would trend liberal over time. Interestingly, a conservative critique of Justice Alito’s draft opinion is similar, suggesting an incremental approach upholding this particular abortion restriction but not overruling Roe and Casey would be preferable. The debate between minimalist jurisprudence and absolutist jurisprudence is continuing, albeit from a different angle. To a legal history aficionado, it’s been a fascinating week!

K. explains why she opposes abortion and wishes that she could be pro-choice:

I’m anti-abortion because of a simple argument made by Scott Klusendorf: it’s wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being, and a fetus is an innocent human being. The characteristics that distinguish a fetus from a born human are size, level of development, environment, and level of dependency, none of which are characteristics that make someone more or less human.

So if killing a born person is wrong, then killing a fetus is wrong.

But I also believe it’s wrong for men to ignore the burden of the pregnancies that they create. It’s unfair for women to be forced to bear responsibility for another person when they lack adequate financial, mental, physical, or spiritual support for themselves. It’s unjust that giving birth is significantly more dangerous for black and brown women. It’s terrible that pregnancy can make it harder for women to escape abusive men. These are huge problems that pro-lifers are not solving that abortion does solve. And as the current controversy results in greater circulation of pleas for women’s health and safety and wellbeing to be valued, I wish that I could be pro-choice because the awful circumstances so many women face—that I can’t even imagine facing—seem so much more real to me than the rights of a fetus who doesn’t even always look human.

But abortion is the intentional killing of a human being and we look back with horror at anyone in history who decided a group of people did not actually count as people. We cannot solve the problem of injustice against women with more injustice. We need solutions that support women without killing fetuses.

RJ disagrees:

This is what happens when you have too many overly religious people deciding things. Religion is about power and control. Now they are using their power to control. Fetuses are only potential life. They don’t count for census purposes. Bottom line, you don’t count until you’re out.

We have birthdays, not conception days, for a reason.

Glenn gives a contrasting account of what religion is, why he is pro-life, and what that phrase demands of him:

I am a devout Christian in a culture where it seems everything except my faith is considered a part of the public domain. My sexuality, I am told, is public but my faith is to be private. This constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding of Christianity. My faith is not a weekend hobby that I indulge within the confines of my private life for the purpose of emotional comfort. It could be argued that my sexuality is exactly that. Rather my faith is a way of ordering the whole of both my private and public selves. To exclude my faith from the public debate is to exclude me from the public debate.

However, my pro-life views are less a product of my faith than of my experience and understanding of science. I have had, on at least three occasions, the profound honor of being introduced by proud parents to their 20-22 week prematurely born babies in an incubator of one of our nation’s foremost pediatric ICUs. I know what a 21 week old child looks like and I cannot unsee this, or ignore these moments of profound clarity. That which we could only guess at in 1973 has become by virtue of the technological and medical advances of the last fifty years much clearer.  

If the fetus is, in fact, a human being, as I believe, then abortion is always a matter of profound moral concern for the whole of society. If, in fact the fetus is not a human being, then the mother’s decision is always none of our business. I am pro-life, and that conviction dictates a debt of compassion to every life touched by these excruciatingly complex decisions. It requires of me that I not just support life, but that I also support quality of life. Pro-life, at its core, demands respect for human beings. The basic beginning of respect is that we tell the truth in the most compassionate and caring way possible. Even, perhaps especially, inconvenient truths.

Harold writes that “abortion is a moral evil and an affront to the dignity of the person, much as the death penalty, refusing to grant asylum to migrants, human contributions to climate change, failure to act reasonably during a pandemic, and excessive capitalistic greed deprive individuals of their intrinsic dignity or in many cases their lives. I believe in the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.” However, he continues, “repealing Roe does little in terms of actually addressing the issue at hand.”

He explains:

Abortions will still continue, but now just relegated to the underground in states that banned it, out of sight and out of mind. A life lost is still one less person present in the world, whether their impact on it would have been good, bad, or indifferent. Therefore policies and programs to support mothers during pregnancy and children after birth are desperately needed. The options available are infinite.

A society that allows for a woman to choose life and not be forced into an impossible situation is more appealing than outlawing abortion and ignoring the human suffering. Individuals who absolutely want an abortion will find a way to have one. The tragedy lies in a society being so poorly conceived of as to give a prospective mother no other option but to force them into having an abortion. Only when we build a society that truly celebrates life can my conscience be clear. Otherwise the overturning of Roe becomes nothing more than a self-congratulatory delusion.

Johnny maintains that the younger generation doesn’t need abortion:

Abortion is already a dinosaur for young people. We rarely marry, barely have sex, and hardly ever have children. When we were teenage girls, we were showered with birth control pills the moment we got our first pimple; and by that point, half of us boys were already too addicted to smart phone pornography to seek out baby-making sex. We know that a single parent can raise a kid—we were the kid. Maybe it wasn’t easy, but we turned out alright; some of our friends turned out even better. We know plenty of women with kids and careers; they obviously didn’t need to choose one or the other. We know there has never been a healthier, wealthier, safer, more peaceful time to be alive. Ever. And we know life changes, twists, turns, dumps you out every now and then, and we know nobody ever really gets a fair shake. Yet we know this twisty, crazy life is so much better than our petty imaginations could ever have planned it to be.

And of course, we’ve been following the science. We know it’s not at all mysterious when life begins, and we know it’s not a crocodile growing in there. We know it’s most often the rich and the white and the powerful telling the poor and the vulnerable that everyone would be better off if there were simply fewer of us—especially if we’re people of color—most especially if we’re disabled. We know the family planning centers that shut down when they can’t perform abortions, and we know the pregnancy centers that always have diapers on hand without ever making a cent. We know people will say anything to get elected, then do next to nothing but try to get on TV. We know what’s happening; we know who’s in it for what.

We know there should be a quarter more of us here; should have been more of us at prom; should have taken longer to walk across that graduation stage. Bad things happen in life, and sometimes we have to choose between something bad and something even worse. We get that, and we’re sorry life goes that way for some. But someone took away our friends before we ever met them. They were the birthday parties we never attended; the game-winning shots we never cheered; the dates we never went on. They were the bickering brothers and sisters we never raced to the Christmas tree on a giddy morning, never helped get dressed through tears on a wedding day. Abortion has left us emptier. We’ve been swindled.

We don’t need abortion; we just don’t need it. Sure, some of us who still want it to be there just in case some nebulous something comes along and upends our meticulously curated lives, but at what cost? For the rest of us, even if we don’t outright despise it, we simply don’t live lives where abortion is relevant, desired, or even all that helpful. Abortion is not in our future; it’s haunting us in our past. We should be glad for chances to leave it there.

Elizabeth wants more moderation in our politics:

I’m not a particularly sentimental person, but Caitlin Flanagan’s article about abortion (i.e the best arguments for both sides) made me cry. I can’t help thinking that the abortion debate and the gun rights debate are two sides of the same coin. I’m in my 50s, and I’ve seen the gun rights movement get more and more extreme. I thought things would change after Columbine, or Sandy Hook, or Parkland … but it seemed each new tragedy made the “guns for everyone” movement stronger. Now, I can’t help feeling that there are some parallels with the most extreme members of the pro-choice movement (i.e. abortions for everyone! whenever you want!). I am firmly pro-choice, but it’s also true that other countries have much stronger limits on when you can terminate a pregnancy. I believe every woman should have access to safe medical treatment for an unwanted pregnancy up to a certain date, and also that women who find out their babies have abnormalities that wouldn’t let them survive for long shouldn’t be shamed for terminating those pregnancies. I think most Americans would agree that we should have some limits on *both* gun ownership and abortion, but it’s hard to to figure out what those limits should be under the current system.

Constance is reconsidering her political affiliations:

I am an 88 year old lady with 3 children, 6 grandchildren, and 3 great-grandchildren. Much of my long life has been devoted to my family, as is true of my generation generally. I am well-educated and I would like to think knowledgeable about most current affairs. I am a Christian, but not a regular church attendee. I feel that for my family, because of our ideals and ethics, I would strongly oppose abortion. However, I do not believe that we, or anyone, has the right to tell any woman what she can or should do with her own body. Counseling is appropriate in many instances, but each must make the choice for herself and be willing to live with it for her entire life.

I have voted Republican for most of my life, but now consider myself an Independent. I will vote for Democrats until the GOP rids itself of its dangerous right-wing contingent. Where will we find a candidate to pull us out of this sad situation we find our country in politically? At this juncture, I have no clue.

Leslie is conflicted overall but flags two lines of thinking to which she objects:

Though I generally consider elective abortion a moral wrong that ends a life, I’m enormously sympathetic to the difficulties inherent in pregnancy and childbirth, and very hesitant to make it illegal. I have 4 children, and it is difficult for me to imagine being pregnant if I truly didn’t want to be, even though I believe that life begins at conception. I’m also enormously skeptical about the ramifications of pro-life policy agendas. There was a series in the NYT several years ago which detailed the prosecution of women who had endured miscarriages. The law tends to be a blunt instrument, and I’m very concerned that if abortion is made illegal, or that if the pre-born are granted the status of a protected class, the result will be exacerbating the risks faced by another vulnerable class: pregnant women.

All this to say: I’m very conflicted.

Here are my opinions that I often don’t see discussed in the way I think about them: First, I favor discussing looser restrictions around late-term abortions. Most early term abortions occur because of financial or life circumstances, but in early pregnancy, if someone finds herself in difficult circumstances, there are many months to actually address these problems. Late term abortions, however, usually occur when it is determined that the child has a condition that is not compatible with life. Some of these conditions are not apparent until late-term ultrasounds reveal them. In that case, I might not prefer abortion, but it makes sense to have more leeway in those circumstances.

Second, I feel it’s a common pro-choice argument to make that adoption is not a viable option because it would be so painful for a woman to give a child up that she’s carried for 9 months and to think of someone else raising the child. Does this not sound like a vindictive ex-lover? The line of reasoning is: If I can’t have him/her, no one can! The argument is self-defeating. The value of the child, and the mother’s felt obligation to the child (the father also has an obligation, of course), is acknowledged in the difficulty the mother would face having to give the child up. But instead of validating that inherent value and obligation, the conclusion that the child shouldn’t get to live violates them. I’m just baffled because I feel that this argument is made so glibly and I rarely see anyone point out the cruelty, or at the very least the ethical murkiness, of choosing an abortion because it would be hard for you to imagine the child being cared for by other people.

And please note, I think it would be difficult to surrender a child and to wonder about it maybe for the rest of your life, but to me it shouldn’t follow that the child doesn’t get to live. This is not a good argument!

Emily has a distinct case against adoption as a solution:

Why not give an unwanted child up for adoption? I don’t see adoption as a viable alternative, at least on a financial level. I can’t afford a $15,000 hospital stay to give birth, but I can save up $750 for an abortion. I’m lucky that I have a good support system and can do my job pregnant. Many women have neither and can’t afford to forgo pay long enough to give birth.

Full disclosure: I have a massive fear of being pregnant and giving birth. In a world without legal abortion, I would absolutely be one of the women douching with Lysol that Caitlin Flanagan writes about. So I have a personal interest in safe, easily accessible abortion.

John argues that there is a practical upside to terminating pregnancies:

Abortion is one way to reduce the number of unwanted children in the world. It is not the best option, but it is an option that should be safe and legal everywhere. Those who would ban it have shown themselves unable and unwilling to care for the unwanted children that their ban would produce.

Rebecca’s mother helped unwanted children:

When I was a teenager, my mother explained to me her belief that abortion is the taking of a human life. She also explained that she would never protest outside an abortion clinic, because shouting at the women who entered would be wrong and cruel. Instead, she and my father became foster parents for infants who needed care while they were awaiting adoptions, and thereby helped to provide one form of genuine support for women with unwanted pregnancies. If people truly believe that abortion is wrong, then they should work to resolve the societal circumstances that cause unwanted pregnancies and place women in untenable situations.

Chadd believes that it is immoral to give birth to unwanted children:

I am a 33-year-old white man. I have been very lucky and very privileged and I’m the first person to admit that. But I’m also a felon, returned to society, with the blemish that prevents me from all kinds of things. With that, I have some understanding of what it is like to lose essential rights.

I support abortion rights, full stop. I’ve seen the damage done to lives brought into the world that weren’t wanted or cared for, and the destruction that causes, most importantly to the child. I’m fine with saying the uncomfortable thing that some people just should not have children. Some children should maybe not ever have been born. These are uncomfortable truths: These children have no say in whether they are born. No say in whether they are wanted and planned for and taken care of. Or whether they are unwanted, or used as a trap for a failing relationship, or just flat born into a world with a family that never wanted them. It’s hard to imagine something more likely to have bad outcomes than forcing women to carry pregnancies to term that they don’t want. I just disagree with the argument of more life=better. Maybe it’s because I don’t have children.

But I have raised one child, as a step-parent. From 2 to 9 I helped raise this child and I wanted nothing more than to love and care for her because her real father didn’t want to. Unfortunately that relationship failed and I’m no longer in that child’s life, but the experience changed how I feel about children and whether or not I will have them. With the state of the world right now, the answer is ABSOLUTELY NOT. I would feel ashamed to bring a new life into this world that might lose more and more rights as the Evangelical crusade continues to own our bodies and lives. Not to mention an ever expanding technology-driven world where many jobs are soon to be obsolete. If you don’t want to have children, for any reason, no person should force you to keep a child. It is morally reprehensible to bring a child into a world where it is not wanted, where it may or may not be able to take care of itself in the future, and to a potential parent that may loathe their existence.

Frances has a modest proposal:

How about this … mandatory, reversible vasectomies for all boys and men and mandatory castration for all sex offenders. Say what? Don’t like the idea of the government regulating your manhood? That’s how I feel about the government or state regulating my lady stuff. Offer birth control through free clinics along with ongoing sexual education and viable social services for families and maybe the number of abortions will diminish.

Lucretia thinks men should stay out of this debate:

The women’s movement was, I would suggest, the most drastic change in our culture since the time of the pharaohs. The challenge to male supremacy is a challenge to control of the life force itself. Personally, I don’t think anyone who has never been able to be pregnant has a place in the discussion. I’ll stay away from circumcision, if men stay away from abortion.

Whereas a reader who requests anonymity believes that men should have the ability to choose an abortion too:

I have a dear friend who has been putting off breaking up with a woman he does not love and often mistreats him. He also had gone on record stating that he didn’t want children. She did want them. One day he accidentally got her pregnant. Within months he had to say goodbye to the city and friends that he loved, and was forced to move to a town he doesn’t like and where he knows no one because her family lives there and they can help with raising the child. His entire life has been completely uprooted in less than a year because he has no say in this debate. This is the side that never gets talked about. I’m not pro choice or pro life, I’m pro abortion. It needs to be normal enough that having these kinds of conversations [isn’t] just viewed as women’s rights to their own bodies, because that’s only a part of it. Your friends, your community and your society all suffer from unprepared parents. And no one should be having children unless it’s desired by both parties.

A woman should have every legal and moral right to pursue an abortion if that is her wish, and there should be a societal expectation that if the father of the child desires the abortion, then she has a moral obligation to fulfill that desire, regardless of her feelings on the matter, because what grows in her body becomes his responsibility for the rest of his life. Exactly two people should be involved in this decision, and they should be respectful of what’s at stake for each other instead of trying to one up who has more of a say in the choice.

Cara directs our attention to the Thirteenth Amendment as a basis for protecting a right to abortion:

Neither slavery nor *involuntary servitude*, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Ryan is frustrated with both sides in the abortion debate:

“My body, my choice” is an incoherent rallying cry for both the unvaccinated and pro-choice crowds precisely because it neglects the fact that what you choose to do to your body inevitably affects others. In our highly individualistic culture, this is often overlooked, and in the case of abortion, ends up working precisely because we have come to understand fetuses as subhuman. It becomes easy to transform an issue of life and death into a question of freedom and privacy.

The logic of the alarmist takes proliferating about abortion hinge upon the idea that there is a conspiratorial hive within conservatism that is out to subjugate women, as if “forcing” them all to have children is the most effective way of accomplishing that goal. While there are certainly bad actors on both sides, the idea that the justices are up to anything more than pointing out the clear problems of the legal scaffolding of Roe is comparable to the idea that there is a cabal of pedophiles who control Washington. It’s plain fear-mongering that distracts from the issue at hand.

I also believe that many on the pro-life side of the debate eviscerate their own argument through their fear-mongering tactics. How can you claim to protect the sanctity and dignity of human life when you stand outside clinics with horrific signs, trying to guilt or scare women away from an abortion? Perhaps the pro-lifers who participate in these demonstrations would claim they are merely trying to emphasize the reality of what abortion is. But in working to end what they see as an unjust practice, they treat the very women wrestling with this decision unjustly. They recognize the humanity of the baby in their womb, and yet their tactics render the woman carrying that baby subhuman. For them, the issue is framed as life or death (and it is). But the “life” side of the debate encompasses more than just the unborn; it must be equally concerned with caring for the woman carrying that child. The goal is not only that she would choose life and give birth to her child, but that she and the child would be set up for a good life together.

The vast majority of women who are contemplating whether or not to get an abortion are in pain and in need of compassion. There is something tragic about a situation in which the miracle of human life doesn’t quite feel like a miracle. The women who will actually see their lives affected by this decision are not the ones decrying the end of democracy. They are not the ones protesting outside the Supreme Court, toting signs about how abortion is healthcare. They are people who have been reduced to political outcomes by both sides, who find themselves in unimaginably difficult situations. They are amongst the few who will actually encounter the real-world implications of this legislation, and, tragically, they are the ones whose voices are being drowned out.

And Ella doesn’t know what to think:

I grew up in a conservative evangelical family and have definitely been on the receiving end of the ‘“abortion is murder” talks. In fact, I almost attended an abortion protest through my youth group. However, I struggle with that view a lot. At this point I do not have a clear view on abortion.

Thank you all for your various perspectives, and I’ll see you again on Wednesday.