Abortion and Presumption

By Michael R. Winther, President of the Institute for Principle Studies

Earlier this week, Alabama governor, Kay Ivey signed the Alabama Human Life Protection Act.  This law is a bold statement in the defense of human life.  A landslide of voices will attack and condemn the law–and those who supported it.  Much of this criticism will be based on phrases like: “reproductive rights” and “equal rights for women”.  The heart of the issue, however, comes down to how we view the fetus.  (For the record, I should note that the origin of the word fetus reflects a meaning that is not different from the word “baby”.  A fetus was one who nursed or was young and developing.)  So, we need to ask: Is the fetus a human life?  Does he or she have rights?

I believe that there is plentiful support for the “personhood” and rights of the fetus, but if we allow that some people may see this as a debatable issue, then we should ask ourselves about something called presumption.

Among the many foundational principles that have been attacked over the last century is the concept of “presumption of innocence”.  Few of our students are even exposed to the fundamental idea that those accused of a crime (or even being investigated for a crime) should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.  This idea was handed to our nation from England and, until recently, it was a hallmark of American jurisprudence.  It was often said of our justice system that it was better for 10 guilty to go free than for one innocent to go to jail.  As Americans we should embrace this concept.  It is for this reason that we make it difficult to prosecute and convict people of crimes.  If our system, our judges, or our juries are to err, then we want them to err on the side of proclaiming innocence.

If we apply the judicial concept of presumption to the abortion debate, then we need to have a high bar to hurdle before we legalize any abortion.  If there is any doubt about the humanity, the status, or the rights of the baby, then presumption demands that we presume the humanity and the innocence of that baby. If the fetus is human, then the termination of that heartbeat is an execution. Can we risk an unjust execution if there is even a small probability of human life or personhood?  Perhaps it is better for 1000 women to be inconvenienced, than for one innocent to be executed.