This article was originally published at Secular Pro-life on Feb 11, 2022 and is reprinted here with permission.
A rather interesting journal publication was brought to my attention a few weeks ago.
The article is called “Conscious Abortion: Engaging the Fetus in a Compassionate Dialogue” and was published in the Journal of Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health. This is a peer-reviewed publication. The author, Claudette Nantel, was a licensed psychologist until 2021 with almost 50 years of experience. The founders of the journal, as well as the editorial staff, are highly educated people with many years of experience in their respective fields. They often are licensed therapists/counselors or medical professionals. They are not uneducated. They have experience.
Reasonable people can come to very different conclusions on a specific topic based on experience and evidence. I just want to be clear in saying I do not think Nantel is crazy, even if she says some very weird statements. Stay with me, you’ll see why it’s important I point this out to you now.
Nantel gives her short overview of the purpose of her article, saying, “Using clinical data, we will look at abortion from the perspective of both the conflicted mother and her conscious, relational fetus.” I could find no indication that Nantel is pro-life. But that phrase near the beginning of her paper gave me pause. Conscious, relational fetus? What could she mean by that? Maybe she was pro-life, after all? I’ll discuss that tension later.
Below, I will just summarize a few of her key assertions.
- Prenatal humans are conscious, sentient, and relational beings from conception onwards (or even before conception).
Nantel tells us, “The consciousness of the fetus or prenate from conception to birth has been considered an established fact for many years by pre- and perinatal practitioners and researchers.”
She explains the idea that a prenatal child is conscious and communicative with the mother from conception, and can express themselves as an independent being when given the chance. She also quotes a family doctor to support her idea that conception is not a chance event; rather, it is a joining of three desires: that of the mother, the father, and “the soul who is to be born.” She spends quite a bit of time outlining clinical evidence of children who have pre-conception memories and memories of choosing their parents for the purpose of helping or teaching them.
- Communication, whether vocally, physically, or telepathically, is possible from at least 7 weeks gestation onwards.
Yes, she actually uses the word “telepathic” to describe the kind of communication which can happen between mother and fetus, father and fetus, or another third party and the fetus.
She describes the practice of haptonomy and how some practitioners have claimed feeling responsive movement and touch from a baby as early as seven or eight weeks old. She extrapolates this information back to say that communication with the baby should be feasible from the point of conception onwards.
Women can have a conscious dialogue with their baby to increase the chance of miscarriage.
This is the main point of the paper: describing what a “conscious abortion” is and how to do one. She defines “conscious abortion” in the terms of another author, Peter Fairfield: “…a process of deep personal connection and biological request [through which] a mother can end her pregnancy.”
“Conscious abortion” is psychosomatically inducing an abortion.
Going through the steps of a conscious abortion can help a mother feel more bonded to her baby, more aware of her own desires in the pregancy, and can be “healing” for the mother. It can also help the mother feel less guilt after the abortion or miscarriage and more prepared for her next pregnancy.
Nantel believes that communicating with the fetus before getting an abortion is “more respectful of the fetus” as an independent being, and can also increase the chance that a miscarriage occurs. She outlines some different methods for conducting a compassionate dialogue with “a fetus destined to be aborted,” but there are some general consistencies at each step:
- A woman needs to take the time to examine her desires and fears for the pregnancy and the pros/cons of both abortions and parenting. Quiet time and reflective meditation are usually involved in this step.
- The woman should talk to the fetus (vocally, with physical touch, or telepathically) and listen for a response from them. She needs to communicate fully and with an open heart, describing her desires, and reassuring her baby that they are loved. In some manner, the woman should ask them to leave her body and explain why.
- Finally, the woman should go about her normal life. If she has scheduled an abortion appointment, keep it, if needed (if a miscarriage does not occur).
Nantel explains that when conscious abortion is attempted, “the process seems effective to produce a miscarriage in more cases than statistically expected.” She believes that a compassionate dialogue with a fetus destined for abortion facilitates an agreement between the mother and child, and the being decides to leave the body on their own.
Areas of common ground/agreement
The claims presented in the paper are a lot to unpack. However, Nantel makes several points in her article that I think are worth mentioning. I believe a lot of people, no matter where they are on a religious, political, or pro-life/pro-choice spectrum, would find they agree with much of what she writes.
- Both sides of the debate can get tunnel-vision for one or the other human beings involved in pregnancy.
- Abortion is a complex choice for most women with complex effects (including negative ones) afterward, sometimes even years later. Women deserve thorough counseling both before and after an abortion.
- A person needs to have a reason to be committed to using contraception to avoid unplanned or unwanted pregnancy; ambivalence towards contraception or pregnancy can lead to not using contraception as prescribed/intended and increasing the chance for a “conflicted” pregnancy.
- Men play a large role in pregnancy decisions and outcomes. Biological father involvement is very important during pregnancy.
- Women and men can bond with their babies during pregnancy and doing so can positively affect pregnancy outcomes for all parties.
Areas of disagreement
There are several parts of Nantel’s article, however, where I disagree with her completely and would like to challenge her assertions and point out some discrepancies in her logic.
- The various claims she makes about fetal consciousness, communication, rationality, and relational ability, which I outlined in the Main Points section.
She cites clinical evidence, including observations of fetal movement made after or seemingly in response to various modes of communication.
There is evidence showing prenatal humans learn language in the womb and learn to distinguish between voices; they can move and respond to maternal stress/emotional state, touch to the belly, and noise. However, many of her claims veer into territory that only shows, at most, correlation. At one point, she describes cases of practitioners using haptomony as early as seven-eight weeks gestational age who claim to have felt the baby move and respond.
I don’t know what they were feeling, but I highly doubt a human one inch long can move enough or exert enough outward pressure to be felt. Yes, humans that young and younger are moving both spontaneously and reflexively. However, 14-18 weeks is around the earliest a mom can start to feel the movement of her baby.
Her other claims, such as consciousness before conception and beings that are able to choose conception before their physical body exists, are more in the realm of metaphysics and religion, not necessarily psychology, and are difficult to test and evaluate empirically.
- Claims about abortion laws.
She claims criminalization of abortion leads to more dangerous abortion. At least with regard to the United States, there is an abundance of evidence showing that restricting abortion does reduce both legal and illegal abortion rates, partially through decreasing unintended pregnancies. After the advent of antibiotics, abortion became safer for the pregnant woman; and even before Roe v Wade, “back alley” abortions in the States were still being done by doctors and trained medical professionals and women were not dying in droves from illegal abortions.
She also claims that prenatal humans were not historically recognized as separate from the woman’s body until the 1960s, when ultrasounds became available. But US laws (which can usually be traced back to older English common laws), have recognized the fetus as a separate being in law from the early 1800s. Does she mean something else by “historically”? We don’t know, because she does not explain that statement.
- Human fetuses and embryos are relational, conscious, independent beings but they are not human beings until after birth.
I had a difficult time parsing what she believed at first because sometimes she talks about human fetuses as if they are human beings, while in other places she seems to deny their personhood or rights-bearing nature.
Early in the paper, she uses the terms conscious, relational, interpersonal, feeling, and responsive to describe the human fetus. She says they are independent beings with desires, can communicate those desires, and that we should be respectful of the human fetus. Also, fetuses can make deliberate, rational choices. All this from (at least) the beginning of their physical existence. That sounds an awful lot like a person, even from a pro-choice perspective.
However, she then also explains that she uses the term “fetus” instead of “prenate” in the article, even though “prenate” is the more common term in her field, because “prenate implies a fetus destined to be born, and therefore seems to exclude a fetus destined to be aborted.” So she thinks there is a significant difference between babies of women who are planning to carry to term and those planning to abort. However, she expresses there is a distinct possibility that women going through the conscious abortion process actually change their minds after step 1 or 2 and decide to keep their baby. In that case, the destiny of the child has changed, but the child themself remains the same.
Throughout the paper, in addition to calling the fetus destined to be aborted “fetus” or “being,” she also calls them “child” and “baby,” which added to my confusion on where exactly she stood on prenatal human personhood or rights. Finally, I hit a section which made it clear that despite her somewhat confusing mix of terms, she does makes a moral distinction between born and preborn children. When she refers to the treatment and care of prematurely born babies, she says a medical team acts “in order to do what is most appropriate to facilitate the evolution of this being who has become, for a shorter or longer time, a human being.”
I believe she uses the term “human being” to denote a human organism that she considers a person, which does not include “fetuses” or prenatal “beings.” Apparently, there is a transformative process that evolves a “being” into a “human being.” She does not describe why birth or parturition is a requisite to being considered a human being; nor does she explain why a biologically human fetus that she calls a “being” can evolve into a “human being.” How do they become what they already are? Why is that point birth? She acts like they’re aliens before birth, and explains none of these assertions.
Perhaps there is an explanation in her field, and others in her field would know the underpinning assumptions for her claims. However, as an outsider, the answers to these questions are not at all clear.
- Conscious abortion is a compassionate choice women can make that is respectful to the fetus destined to be aborted.
There is a lot going on here.
She admits abortion ends pregnancy and fetal life. She admits prenatal humans have person-like qualities (but are not actually persons).
If that is the case, and these beings are not persons and have no rights, why should we be more compassionate to them before killing them? Would it be for the same reasons you might compassionately kill a pet? But pets such as cats and dogs do not have quite the same characteristics as these prenatal “beings” she describes. They do not make rational decisions about choices presented to them. So she is admitting there is something more to these beings in terms of capacity and function, at least, than common pets. Yet not enough to not kill them.
It seems as if she is trying to toe a middle line in the pro-choice/pro-life debate in an effort to seem neutral and unbiased. But to a person who believes all human organisms are persons, she does not come across as neutral at all.
Imagine encouraging a five year old child to die so that you may continue living in a certain manner, or because you have serious issues going on in your life which make it very, very hard to continue caring for said child. You tell your child you really love them, but they just need to leave right now and maybe come back later. Why should killing be ok as long as we’re compassionate about it?
Imagine encouraging a teenager to commit suicide because you’re just not ready to parent them right now and inviting them to come back later as another fetus. Why is it respectful to encourage suicide?
This is what her gentle, compassionate proposal sounds like to pro-lifers, because we believe the prenatal human is a human being, a person, and worthy of the same protections and rights as a toddler, teen, or adult human.
No matter what way she cuts it, for pro-life people, her suggestion of compassionate dialogue to induce abortion is asking (or telling) your baby to die for you. This is a supremely selfish, not compassionate, point of view.
Other items of note
- Overall, overtly religious language is not included, though sometimes metaphysical or spiritual language is used.
If any knowingly pro-life person were to use the same language this pro-choice or trying-to-be-neutral author uses, they’d be metaphorically pounded into last century by pro-choice people. The ridicule would be immense. They’d be labeled as religious nuts and science-deniers. Telepathy, feelings and memories from conception, the existence of the being before birth…all of this would be attributed to religious beliefs and laughed at as not being scientifically validated.
- I see these ideas crossing into the mainstream.
I have seen abortion providers on Twitter post photos of the corkboard in their office where women are encouraged to leave notes for their children. Many of these notes express love, gratitude, and deep connection to the baby. This in encouraged as part of a positive abortion experience.
Another article I remember making the rounds on social media was on the sacredness of death and abortion. In order to talk about abortion honestly, death’s involvment needs to be acknowledged. In fact, the same word was used in relation to abortion: “compassionate.”
- She is hypocritical about emotion’s role in abortion.
She thinks the abortion debate is emotionally charged and polarized and makes clear that is a negative. It certainly can be. But then she spends a lot of time encouraging an emotional bond and connection to the prenatal child to enhance the outcome of the pregnancy, including abortion. Something being emotionally charged is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, in a debate about life and death, I would want people to be both rational and emotionally invested.
- David Boonin’s work (which is arguably some of the best pro-choice work there is) would be demolished by these claims.
Core to Boonin’s strong argument is that the fetus has no desires. He does not fall into the pitfalls she points out that many activists do: He considers both the mother and fetus. He is not particularly emotionally charged. But his main undergirding assumption is directly attacked by authors like Nantel, who argue that fetuses do, indeed, have desires, and these desires can be communicated. If she is right, Boonin’s arguments in favor of abortion crumble.
Nantel’s article was a wild ride to read. I was challenged by some of the things she wrote and agreed with her on far more than I thought I would. However, she does not convince me that “conscious abortion” is any more compassionate than surgical or medical abortion is. While I find the idea of intentionally seeking to bond with the baby before birth a good one, I do not agree that doing so in order to ask the child to commit suicide for you is respectful, compassionate, or morally acceptable.