Columnist Carrie N. Baker: A moral justification for civil disobedience to abortion bans

Carrie N. Baker

Carrie N. Baker


Published: 04-24-2024 4:48 PM

Over the last several years, in response to abortion bans and restrictions, advocates around the country have developed an alternative supply network for abortion pills outside of the medical system and the law. As a lawyer and law-abiding citizen, I recommend people follow the law. If they don’t like a law, I recommend challenging it, either in the courts or legislatures. But when voter suppression and gerrymandering have skewed the political system in a way that has led to laws that do not represent the majority nor protect vulnerable groups from harm, civil disobedience may be the morally right and just thing to do.

In thinking through the issue of when civil disobedience is justified, I turn to Martin Luther King Jr.‘s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” written in August of 1963. In the letter, King distinguishes between just laws and unjust laws. Citing St. Augustine, King explains, “An unjust law is no law at all.” In answering the question of how to distinguish just and unjust laws, King appeals to “moral law” and “eternal and natural law,” citing St. Thomas Aquinas. He argues that just laws “uplift human personality” and unjust laws “degrade human personality.” He argues that an unjust law “distorts the soul and damages the personality.” Quoting Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, he argues that an unjust law “substitutes an ‘I -it’ relationship for the ‘I -thou’ relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things.”

Applying King’s arguments to current day abortion laws, we can ask several questions: Do abortion bans uplift or degrade human personality? Do they “distort the soul and damage the human personality”? Do they give people supporting them “a false sense of superiority” and make people seeking abortion feel “a false sense of inferiority?” Do they “substitute an ‘I -it’ relationship for the ‘I -thou’ relationship, and relegate persons to the status of things?”

I would answer an emphatic “yes” to all of these questions. Headlines over the last year and a half since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade gives us ample evidence of how abortion bans harm the dignity, rights and health of women and people who can become pregnant. There have been more than 70 documented cases of women almost dying when they were denied emergency medical care because of abortion bans enacted across the country. The first woman to die because she was not offered a life-saving abortion due to an abortion ban was Yeniifer Alvarez, who died in July of 2022 in Luling, Texas.

Abortion bans have led to denial of medically necessary healthcare, putting people’s lives in danger, and they have led to threats of criminal prosecution. These laws enable health care providers, police and the public to bully and control pregnant women and the people who support them. These actions degrade and damage the human personality, and distort the soul, to use King’s words. These laws give some people “a false sense of superiority” and impose stigma on people who have abortions, which gives them “a false sense of inferiority.” I would argue these laws “substitute an ‘I -it’ relationship for the ‘I -thou’ relationship and relegate pregnant women to the status of things,” whose lives are not valued, whose dignity is not respected, and whose rights are disregarded.

King was committed to the equal worth of each individual, which he defined as treating human beings as ends in themselves, and never instrumentalizing them as a means to ends not their own, or objectifying them as things. Abortion bans treat pregnant people as a means to the end of producing more babies, and they objectify women as things, as incubators. King was committed to treating each person as worthy of free will — someone with the capacity and right to “deliberate, decide, and respond.” To do otherwise is to objectify and debase what it means to be fully human.

Laws banning abortion objectify women and pregnant people, denying them the right to make moral decisions for themselves. Therefore, these laws are unjust and immoral. King described racial domination as a “particular form of evil” that resulted in “sinful racial hierarchies.” Similarly, sexual domination is a form of evil resulting in “sinful” sexual hierarchies. Abortion bans make women and pregnant people second class citizens, denying them the right to be free agents, moral decision-makers and democratic subjects. King condemns “sinful racial hierarchies.” Abortion bans are part of sinful sexual hierarchies.

For these reasons and more, I support the robust alternative delivery system providing abortion pills to people in all 50 states, including those banning or restricting abortion (see I support these systems because I believe that we cannot become habituated to the injustice of abortion bans. Martin Luther King described civil disobedience as a rejection of the habituated acquiescence to the injustice of segregation. Civil disobedience creatively enacted new habits and new relations required for a functioning multiracial democracy. According to King, nonviolence direct action enabled a recovery of agency by the oppressed. By burying the “psychology of servitude.” King said “we can make ourselves free” not only by fighting for freedom and dignity, but by enacting that freedom and dignity directly.

Fighting for better laws and challenging bad laws in the courts are critical parts of the fight for the freedom and dignity of women and pregnant people, but so is the underground abortion pill movement, which enacts that freedom and dignity directly, and resists the “psychology of servitude” and “habitual acquiescence” to unjust laws.

Carrie N. Baker is a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College and a regular contributor to Ms. Magazine.