David Kolb

Two hesitant comments on abortion

Two hesitant comments on abortion. Both concern the public policy issue of putting social effort into enforcing prohibitions.

First : Around the beginning of the 20th century the effort to outlaw alcoholic beverages had created a patchwork of local options where a county or state could be dry or wet. The local option did not stop people from drinking. Proponents of the ban on alcohol pushed for and obtained the national prohibition of alcoholic beverages. After several decades the prohibition was rolled back because of the difficulty of enforcing it and the growth of underground ways of obtaining the beverages. The choice of alcohol was left to the individual and the social harm that would result from some percentage of people abusing the choice was accepted because the social cost of absolute enforcement of the prohibition would be too high. If the current court overturns the Roe v Wade decision, the effort to outlaw abortion will have achieved a patchwork of local options by state. Proponents of the ban on abortion will push for national prohibition, since local option will not stop abortion. Is there any reason to think that such a national prohibition would not meet the fate of the prohibition of alcohol?

Yes, because if you subscribe to the view that a fertilized egg from the moment of conception is an individual human being with rights to life, abortion is a case of direct murder of an individual . Whereas if using alcohol leads to harms they usually do not result in death so it’s more a case of letting die then direct intervention killing. So this will seem to justify heavier enforcement attempts.

Second: however, I wrote a short dialogue several years ago bringing up a difficulty with the belief that every fertilized egg has a right to individual life that supersedes other rights. By pushing hard on that idea I try to get the abortion opponent to admit that there will be cases where the social cost of protecting a few cells is outweighed by other considerations. If we can agree that in at least those cases and maybe more it’s a question of drawing lines then we have something to debate rather than a standoff of absolute prohibitions.

That dialogue can be found at https://dkolb.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/a-short-dialogue-about-abortion.pdf