Alabama recently passed the most restrictive anti-abortion law to date, forbidding abortion even in cases of rape and incest. While the bill is obviously aimed at restricting abortion, its primary function is to be challenged and end up at the supreme court. The hope is that the conservative judges will use the opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade. What should strike proponents of rational, informed legislation as deranged is that the supporters of Alabama’s law are apparently both confused about what the law does and proud of their confusion. While this does not entail that the law must be bad, it is certainly problematic. To use an analogy, imagine that your surgeon was proud of his incredible confusion about how your organs worked and their layout. While this does not entail that the surgery he is performing on you will turn out badly, it should certainly raise grave concerns. Likewise for the law: it might be great, but the confusion and ignorance of its creators and supporters should raise concerns. But perhaps it is fine because the law has the noblest of intentions.
Proponents of the law, such as Alabama governor Kay Ivey, claim that the motivation behind the law is to protect life. As the governor said, “to the bill’s many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God.” Some who oppose the bill claim that it is not about protecting life but about restricting women’s reproductive rights. While the philosophical problem of other minds entails that I cannot know what another thinks and feels, it is certainly sensible to look at the available evidence when determining motivations and intentions.
In the case of the abortion law, the claim is that Alabamians believe that every life is a precious and sacred gift from God. This is certainly consistent with wanting to reduce the number of abortions. But do Alabamian politicians and authorities hold to this view? A sensible test is to see if they consistently apply this principle in their legislation and actions throughout the state.
Coincidentally, as the governor of Alabama was signing the law because of her deep belief that life is a precious, sacred gift a story broke that Alabama’s prison conditions are so awful as to be unconstitutional. If Alabamians believe that every life is a precious, sacred gift then they would presumably not permit the sacred lives in their prisons to endure such unconstitutional treatment.
An obvious objection is to argue that while all lives are precious, sacred gifts, some lives are more precious and sacred than others. While fetuses are innocent, prisoners have been found guilty of something and hence deserve to be punished. As such, having horrible prisons is consistent with the view that life is a precious, sacred gift.
This does, of course, have considerable appeal. Even if life is precious, morality still permits people to be treated differently based on their actions. As such, one can hold that life is precious, but some life must be behind bars. However, there is still a problem. If life is a precious, sacred gift, then even the worst people are still precious, sacred gifts and thus deserve at least the basics of decent treatment. Moral and legal limits of punishment are, of course, recognized by the constitution and Alabama’s failure to act on this casts doubts on their devotion to the professed principle that each life is a precious, sacred gift.
But one could still argue that criminals earn their abuse by being bad and hence Alabama is acting consistently by having terrible prisons and the strictest anti-abortion law at the same time. But if Alabamans have this devotion to life, one would expect that it would manifest in excellent maternal and infant health. To use an analogy, if your doctor said she saw you as a precious, sacred gift and would do anything to protect life, you would expect her to act on that. You would no doubt be shocked if she proved negligent in her medical responsibilities and you ended up being needlessly ill.
Given the professed view that Alabamans regard life is a precious, sacred gift, one would be shocked to learn that Alabama is terrible in terms of maternal and infant health. Alabama is tied for 4th worst in the United States, with 7.4 deaths per 1,000 live births. While it might be argued that this is due to factors beyond their control, there is a consistent correlation between strong anti-abortion laws and poor maternal and infant health. While correlation is not causation, the reason for this correlation is clear: the state governments that enact the strictest anti-abortion laws also show, via public policies, the least concern for maternal and infant health. This is certainly inconsistent with the professed principle that life is a precious, sacred gift. It is also inconsistent with the professed motivation for anti-abortion laws: to protect the life of children. It is, however, consistent with the hypothesis that this (and most) anti-abortion laws are motivated by misogynistic principles. After all, if legislators pass anti-abortion laws because of hostility towards women’s reproductive freedom and wellbeing, then one would also expect them to neglect maternal and infant health in their other policies. On the face of it, this is the better explanation.
It could be argued that Alabaman leaders do hold to the life is a precious, sacred gift principle, they are just bad at consistently applying it. So, it is applied to abortion but not to maternal and infant health or to prisoners. Failing to apply one’s professed principles consistently is, of course, a common human failing, and this could be used to explain how anti-abortion leaders often tend to fail to apply their professed pro-life principles to such things as infant and maternal health care. So, one could argue that the Alabaman legislators have a good principle, but they do not apply it consistently—despite their professed devotion to the principle and the effort they put in applying it in the case of abortion.
As would be expected, my own view favors the explanation that the Alabaman legislature and governor do not hold to their professed principle. A better explanation is that their actual principle is one that is hostile to women and perhaps to the less powerful in general—after all, this is consistent with the state of Alabama prisons and the state of maternal and infant health care. If they do hold to their professed principle, they are incredibly inconsistent in its application—which is morally problematic as well.