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Shortly after President Trump announced that the United States would pull out of the Paris Agreement, I ran across the following Facebook post:

I’m not certain how many yet to be born children of the world will fail to see life because of President Trump’s decision regarding the Paris Climate Accord. Based upon the reaction of many, it must be an astronomical number.

Because, I know that 900,000 yet to be born Americans will fail to see life this year because of abortion, and folks ain’t making a peep about that.

This was the most gracious and thoughtful of the comments I saw using the Paris/abortion dichotomy to highlight what many on both sides of the political spectrum see as a values disconnect between the right and left. You will likely recall a similar controversy linking environmental protection with abortion from 2015, as the overlapping stories of Planned Parenthood’s purported shopping around aborted baby parts and the killing of Cecil the Lion in Africa garnered national attention. Controversies where abortion and environmental protection are linked ultimately occur because each affects a shared audience—future generations. Whether it is a future individual who may or may not exist because an embryo is terminated or a future individual who may or may not exist because of a climate-induced increase in disease vectors, speculative future individuals are implicated.

For those who care about environmental protection, abortion creates a problem due to the following sentiment growing in conservative circles: caring about issues like climate change or biodiversity protection (and future possible deaths) is a non-starter when those advocating strongest for climate action or biodiversity protection are often the same people advocating strongest for abortion rights (and immediate deaths today). Whether or not you believe abortions at any stage are “human deaths” has no bearing on the fact that a large (and apparently increasing) proportion of the voter base believes they are—and in particular the segment who held their nose and voted for Donald Trump. According to exit polls, 81% of (self-identifying) white evangelical Christians voted for Trump. While many of these may have been enthusiastic Trump supporters, I have talked to many others who felt that they “didn’t have a choice” (never-mind that there were a host of more qualified candidates in the primary, but that is a conversation for another day). It pained many of these people to vote for a man with such low moral character, but when viewing the bigger picture they could not get behind a candidate in Clinton who said that said in the debates she “strongly” supported Roe v. Wade. And who among pro-life advocates could forget Ilyse Hogue (of NARAL Pro-Choice America) receiving cheers from the Democratic National Convention crowd when she “gave a speech about how she aborted her first child not for any medical reason but simply because it was an inconvenient time to become a parent.” Even Nancy Pelosi blamed Trump’s victory it part on her party’s “hardline abortion stance.” “Abortion” was one of the top searches on election day. While Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch’s approach to abortion cases remains unclear, pro-life conservatives believe that Trump has already delivered a victory justifying their vote against Hillary Clinton—no matter what else Trump does while in office. Though a 3rd party vote would have delivered on the conscience front while also not jeopardizing our nation’s fundamental democratic institutions, the fact remains that many voters could not get past this single issue—to them, a vote for a third party was a vote for Clinton.

As I have written about before, environmentalists tout science and logic as supporting their most ardent causes: carbon dioxide emissions exacerbate climate change, mercury emissions harm pregnant women and unborn children, species decline hurts society in the long run (reduced access to medicine, etc.), and the list could go on. Conservatives have tended to increasingly deny the sound science and logic supporting scientific facts like these. But don’t both liberals and conservatives selectively apply science and logic to back their causes? As demonstrated through the abortion/environmental protection examples highlighted above, each ideology contributes to an internally inconsistent and illogical national conversation about respect for and conservation of biological life.

Consider, first, abortion. Whether a fetus is “life” or not is, of course, central to the debate. As Jim Rasband, John Nagle, and Jim Salzman point out, the different values and perspectives people bring to bear create an apples to oranges scenario: “If someone believes that abortion is murder, whether the abortion occurs in the first rather than second trimester is meaningless.” And vice versa for those who do not believe abortion is murder. Logically we might ask why the latter group would have qualms, then, about an abortion occurring in the 8th month of pregnancy? If a member of the “abortion is not murder” camp does have reservations about an 8th month abortion, their objections must be grounded in the age of viability. Age of viability takes us out of the “value-laden opinion” realm and into the scientific realm. Scientific advances and technological improvements have caused the age of fetal viability to continually move up, as described in a 2015 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

These scientific facts are influencing social norms, which appear to be shifting. With abortion rates dropping across the nation, polls point to millennials feeling differently about abortion than prior generations. By 2010, young Americans between the age of 18 and 29 had become more pro-life and more likely to accept restrictions on abortion than their parents.

If science and social norms are not compelling, there is the confusing logic of attempting to reconcile arguments promoting environmental protection versus those defending abortion. It boils down to: how can people make moral claims regarding murdered lions or unborn citizens living in a future, climate-changed world but so readily dismiss ethical or moral questions raised by aborting the unborn? A host of related questions arise:

  • If Walter Palmer had aborted the unborn cub of Cecil the lion’s mate would the outrage have been any less?
  • How is an unborn child who cannot choose life—but who would be born absent human interference—any different from a lion, pit bull dog, whale or any other species that cannot choose to be free from human interference resulting in termination? Why should unborn babies not receive the same respect as Cecil (if not more)? How were Cecil’s rights—since he could not choose—any more important than the rights of Gianna Jessen—who also could not choose, but who happened to survive her mother’s abortion attempt (Jessen asked Congress, speaking before a House committee, “If abortion is merely about women’s rights, then what were mine?”)
  • How can someone argue that we should reduce mercury pollution to protect the unborn child of Jane Doe, who is 2 months pregnant, but then support Jane’s right to abort the baby two weeks later?
  • If the focal point is the choice of the mother, why does the relevant choice not occur at the point of sexual intercourse? From a biological, scientific perspective isn’t the die cast at that point regarding the potential inevitability of life arising out of the act? Doesn’t intercourse as the point of choice make quite logical the acceptability of abortions when a woman does not choose, such as in the case of rape (did not choose to engage in intercourse) and medical emergency (did not choose to die in order to accomplish the birth of a child). After intercourse is a child’s fate in “Mother Nature’s” hands any less than Cecil the lion is in “Mother Nature’s” hands?
  • Environmentalists often invoke the rights of unborn future generations as justification for strong environmental protection policies today—consider the case of climate change. So why should unborn children’s rights be considered in the environmental context but not in the abortion context? Aren’t future generations subject to climate change impacts far more speculative entities than an embryo on its way to becoming a human in a mere matter of months?
  • If age of viability is a person’s barometer, how can scientists declare the potential discovery of a single-celled bacteria on Mars proof of “life” on another planet, and yet a 2 week old, multi-celled embryo in a mother’s womb is not life?

The questions could go on.

While some see value in wrestling with the logical missteps manifesting from the abortion/environmental protection debate (see here, here, and here), others have claimed a relationship between the two issues is “ludicrous” (see, here). Nonetheless, conservative standard bearers like Marco Rubio criticized the furor over the killing of Cecil the lion by contrasting it to the national response (or lack thereof) to aborting unborn babies. His message, echoed in many conservative circles, was basically “why do we care about a dead lion when millions of babies have been aborted?” And of course it is very hard to gain conservative support for stopping species decline or climate change impacts when the most prominent proponents of environmental protection policies often readily accept the abortion of millions of unborn. Many conservatives, however, wrongly use this line of reasoning to be dismissive of environmental protection. The lesson to be learned from the killing of Cecil is not irrelevant because liberals happen to support the lesson, any more than the lesson to be learned from humanity’s role in climate change is irrelevant because of Al Gore’s advocacy.

This logical misstep demonstrates that many conservatives are on the wrong side of science, history, and ethics when it comes to the environment. This has led many to ask whether evangelical conservatives are pro-life, or rather pro-birth? Consider that air pollution globally leads to 2.7 million premature births each year, putting babies lives at risk (preterm birth is a leading cause of death for children under five) and costing healthcare systems billions of dollars. Mercury and related pollution from coal-fired power plants results in up to 11,000 deaths a year in the U.S. alone. Mercury also causes neurological problems in children, lowering IQs, and consigning children to a much lower quality of life than if we had been using cleaner burning fuels or better technologies while burning coal. Even so, a coalition of conservatives, and in particular groups of evangelicals opposed to abortion, have repeatedly declared that reducing mercury emissions from power plants is not a pro-life issue, despite the clear scientific evidence that both unborn children and infants face increased risk of death and cognitive impairment in life due to mercury pollution. A letter written by a group of evangelicals in 2012 (through the Cornwall Alliance) opposed EPA’s Mercury rules as needless regulation.

When it comes to abortion/mercury pollution, how would/should a conservative vote based upon the single issue of “life,” as many people claimed to do with Donald Trump? Hillary Clinton supported the mercury rules, so wouldn’t a third party candidate who was generally opposed to abortion but for environmental protection be the logical choice? Ultimately, many conservatives are inconsistent when it comes to their views on environmental protection and abortion. If one truly cares about the unborn, why would we knowingly subject them to increased risk of death, a world of reduced cognitive abilities due to pollution, rising sea levels and social and economic upheaval due to climate change, and reduced quality of life resulting from the continued loss of biodiversity?

In the end, both liberals and conservatives should demonstrate greater consistency in their concern about future generations and the resources that make the world a healthily functioning ecological system—whether the unborn baby of today or the one born 200 years from now who will be forced to live with fewer resources, within a degraded environment, and with a reduced quality of life if we do not act environmentally responsible now. It is time that both sides of the political spectrum step across to the right side of science, history, and ethics—the side where we fight to preserve all forms of life on this planet.

– Blake Hudson

Posted by Blake Hudson

Blake Hudson is a Professor of Law at the University of Houston Law Center. After graduating from the University of Montevallo, he attended Duke University, where he obtained his law degree from Duke Law School and his Masters in Environmental Science & Policy from Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. The views expressed here are not intended to reflect the views of the University of Houston.

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