The Whole Truth About Abortion

by Sherry F. Colb

As has been widely reported and discussed, the Supreme Court hears argument today in a case challenging a restrictive abortion law from Texas. This post and my Verdict column for this week discuss a California law involving a different kind of abortion-related law: it requires licensed facilities to notify their patients that California has public programs that provide free or low-cost reproductive services, including abortion, coupled with a phone number for women to access such services.

In the column, I take up the question of how a pro-choice versus a pro-life advocate might perceive this law and consider and reflect on both perspectives.  One of the arguably salient issues in this context is whether pro-life pregnancy clinics are affirmatively lying to patients or whether they are simply omitting some information that patients might be interested in knowing (or entitled to know). To the extent that clinics are telling women false information about abortion, that would plainly be inappropriate (hopefully by the lights of any honest person, regardless of her position on abortion). But the California law seems to address what is more of an omission than an act by pro-life crisis pregnancy centers: their failure to share information about the availability of abortion (as well as contraception) and its subsidization by the government of California.

In testifying, witnesses swear (or affirm) to tell the truth, the "whole truth," and nothing but the truth. A commitment to the whole truth means that a person has violated the oath if she or he tells only a partial version of what happened, leaving out important details that could make a difference to the disposition of the case.  Similarly, if a pregnant woman goes to a crisis pregnancy center, she may well expect to learn about the various alternatives she has in handling her pregnancy.  This would include information about prenatal care, taking her pregnancy to term, surrender of babies for adoption and choosing adoptive parents, future use of contraception, and terminating her pregnancy. Learning about only some of these alternatives but not the last one (or the last two) would reflect the impact of missing the "whole truth" about reproductive options.  If one were testifying under oath about paths one might take upon learning that one was pregnant, one would accordingly be violating the oath to tell the "whole truth"by providing only the partial information provided by pro-life crisis pregnancy centers.

On the other hand, is a crisis pregnancy center like a witness in court who promises to tell the "whole truth," or is such a center a different sort of thing?  My view (as a pro-choice person) is that the whole array of legally recognized options for pregnant women is part of what is implicitly promised when a center bills itself as a "crisis pregnancy center" (or even just a "pregnancy center" or "reproductive health center").  To omit abortion, on this view, is to fail to deliver what one has promised at the door, a failure very similar to the witness's omission of important facts in telling a partial truth rather than the whole truth.

Yet from a pro-life person's perspective, it may be unethical and therefore inappropriate to give pregnant women information about the abortion option, since--from their point of view--abortion is a form of unjustifiable violence.  Just as a crisis pregnancy center would not be obligated to tell a pregnant woman that she could find baby brokers who would legally sell her baby to the highest bidder, even if this happened to be true, a pro-life advocate might well regard the abortion alternative as just as bad as or maybe even worse than the broker alternative.  Just because an option is legal does not make it legitimate or moral, such an advocate would probably say.

To provide an analogy, I have a friend who, like me, is an ethical vegan and who works in a food market, primarily with produce.  When people ask this friend where they can find the non-vegan version of cheese, i.e., cheese made with the lacteal secretions of mammal moms whose babies are taken away from them and who are slaughtered within a few years, along with their lost infants, the friend replies "I couldn't tell you that."  From my friend's point of view, this is not information that anyone is entitled to have; yet customers are likely to misinterpret my friend's words to mean "I don't know," rather than what's actually meant, which is "I know the answer to your question, but I would be violating my ethics if I were to tell you."  I consider my friend's actions legitimate, despite the fact that customers are not receiving the "whole truth" about where the cheese is or what the friend knows about where the cheese is.

How different is the failure of pro-life advocates to tell pregnant patients about the abortion option (or where they can call to find out more about it)?  One important difference is that other people work at the food market and can tell the inquiring consumers what they want to know.  With respect to a pro-life crisis pregnancy center, by contrast, it may be that only pro-life individuals work there, so it is likely that--absent the California law--no one will be telling pregnant patients about abortion.  On the other hand, one could conceive of the crisis pregnancy center as one place to gather information in a sea of other places.  A dissatisfied pregnant woman could head over to a different pregnancy center or search on the web for one that considers abortion one of the options to which pregnant patients ought to be exposed.

As I have said, as a pro-choice person, I favor the California law, and I do not like the idea of patients receiving incomplete (and, to that extent, inaccurate) information about their options in case they are pregnant.  But as my co-author Michael Dorf and I explain in our book, Beating Hearts:  Abortion and Animal Rights, neither of us regards pre-sentience abortions as violating an embryo's or fetus's interests, so I do not have ethical qualms about most abortion procedures.  For someone who takes a different view, however, I think I can understand and empathize with the desire not to tell the "whole truth" when it comes to this procedure.  It is, in other words, very difficult to separate out one's perspective on abortion from one's perspective on the California law requiring the provision of (some) information about the availability of abortion for pregnant women.  Or to put it differently, I would have a hard time tolerating having to let people know about all of the restaurants they could go to consume animal products (if only there were restaurants in my town that were actually vegan).