This article was originally published on No Termination Without Representation on May 14, 2016 and is reprinted here with permission
A New Yorker review, summarizing a key argument of Katha Pollitt’s 2014 Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, proclaimed that “No person actually imagines that a zygote is a person.” (Meaning that certainly the pro-lifers who say that it is don’t actually imagine that.) The 2015 Newsweek article “America’s Abortion Wars (and How to End Them)” came to the same conclusion. A 2007 article by a law professor focused on pro-lifers who make an exception for rape; the logic offered in the article leads to the conclusion that some such pro-lifers (though not all) “take the position that abortion kills an entity that is something less than a full person. The earlier in pregnancy an abortion occurs, the greater the appeal of this position for many.” Under a Huffington Post article, the commenter CourtDecisions once told me that according to his legal knowledge, “. . . the advocates of fetal personhood don’t really believe in fetal personhood.”
While there is another segment of pro-choicers who go to the opposite extreme and claim that pro-lifers are a religious cult who worship fetuses, the above voices represent probably the bigger and more serious group, and advance a sometimes thought-provoking case. They usually adduce two kinds of evidence for their claim (but occasionally a third kind):
1. They say that pro-lifers’ actual public-policy recommendations, and pro-lifers’ claims about personhood, are deeply inconsistent.
After “No person actually imagines that a zygote is a person,” the New Yorker review goes on:
“If they did, they would actually equate murder and abortion, and their conduct – only the tiniest fringe is willing to advertise comparable penalties for both – shows that they know perfectly well that they aren’t the same. . . . One would have to oppose capital punishment. . . . One would find it difficult to support any war or military action at all.“
Meanwhile, the law professor opens her reasoning with the observation that pro-lifers who would allow the abortion of an unborn child of rape, would not allow the infanticide of a born child of rape. She then proceeds to eliminate some of what might appear to be explanations for this distinction, and at the end we find that out of all the possibilities of explanation she has provided, the explanation in the case of some such pro-lifers must be the view that the unborn is less than a full person. CourtDecisions wrote that “even the advocates of fetal personhood believe that abortion should be legal for rape, incest and fetal abnormalities. Consequently, the advocates of fetal personhood don’t really believe in fetal personhood.”
(The New Yorker and the law professor then proceed to think up reasons why pro-lifers may actually oppose abortion: “religious dogma,” “misogyny,” “intercourse as a sin.”)
I would agree that pro-lifers who would allow abortion for incest or fetal abnormalities, unless they would also allow euthanasia or eugenic killing of born children, don’t really believe that the unborn are persons. But the argument against those pro-lifers fails against pro-lifers who do not support those exceptions, and the arguments about capital punishment and war also fail against a particular group of those who don’t: they fail against the group of pro-lifers who support a consistent life ethic.
The argument about a rape exception, however, seems more challenging, at first sight, for those pro-lifers who happen to advocate that exception, and the “comparable penalties” argument is challenging for most pro-lifers.
At this point let me mention that I am only personally acquainted with a small number of active pro-lifers and not with hundreds or thousands, and I would not be surprised if there are some pro-lifers who genuinely do not perceive zygotes as equivalent in moral value to born persons. And I would not be surprised if out of those who do not, there are a few who claim that they do. But that is not the point. I don’t think that moral truth is always determined democratically. What I will aim to do here is to represent the views of very thoughtful pro-lifers, as I understand them.
I think that most such pro-lifers do not want to give prison sentences to women who abort – if they would even award such sentences to all abortionists without exception – comparable to the sentences they would give in cases of homicide of a born person. Let’s look now at that “inconsistency” in awarding penalties. I think there are five factors at work, any one of which explains that “inconsistency” better than does the idea that pro-lifers secretly devalue the unborn:
First, I think that many pro-lifers, particularly those who have arrived at their own pro-life thinking only through a process of study and reflection over a period of years, can understand that the humanity of the unborn may not be immediately obvious to all; moreover, they give due credit to the efficacious campaign of dehumanization of the unborn that has gone on, in the US and some other cultures, for the last fifty years. Author and abortion-rights advocate Naomi Wolf admitted 20 years ago that “Many pro-choice advocates developed a language to assert that the fetus isn’t a person, and this, over the years has developed into a lexicon of dehumanization. . . . service staffers referred to the fetus . . . as ‘material’ (as in ‘the amount of material that had to be removed…’).” Unmentioned by Wolf, but perhaps still more effective in dehumanizing or simply erasing the unborn, were cunning bits of verbal engineering that assured women that only one “body,” theirs, was involved in any abortion. I think that often pro-lifers feel that many pregnant women simply do not know, or have been misled not to know, what it is that they are aborting. Pro-lifers do not demand harsh treatment for that reason. (This obviousness-of-humanity factor is also discussed, along with some possible factors that I will not touch on here, by Christopher Kaczor in his article “Equal Rights, Unequal Wrongs,” and was the subject of a Secular Pro-Life blog post some time back.)
Second, it may more often be hard to determine that an abortion was not medically necessary than to determine that the killing of a born person was not self-defense. Abortion cases may more often be foggy in an evidentiary way, resulting in a cautious approach toward the prosecution of all abortion cases in general.
Third, when a crime of any kind is very common, prosecuting all cases might overwhelm the courts. An alternative might be to make examples by prosecuting only the “big fish” – in this case the abortionists (and abortion-pill vendors).
Fourth: In order to outlaw abortion in any country or state of the world in the first place, a sizeable part of the political jurisdiction’s population will have to feel that abortion is wrong; and I think outlawing abortion will contribute further to the perception that it is wrong, just as outlawing slavery must have contributed to the unanimous perception we now have that slavery is wrong. But it may take time for a consensus to develop that stiff penalties are in order even for abortionists, or that penalties of any kind are warranted for the women involved. Though in many US states the general public would now be willing to prosecute abortionists, they won’t so quickly feel the wrongness to the extent that they would be willing to prosecute women – even apart from the extra complexities of abortion cases mentioned in my first and second points above.
Fifth and perhaps most importantly, pro-lifers, like anyone else, respect the mental sense of body ownership that underlies the concept of bodily rights. The importance accorded to that sense rests on a kind of intuition, and hence the importance varies somewhat from person to person, but I don’t think there is a night-and-day difference in that regard between pro-lifers as a group and pro-choicers as a group. To put it simply, pro-lifers as well as pro-choicers believe in “bodily rights.” So pro-lifers feel that as a moral starting point, or as a default moral principle, everyone has a right to refuse to let their body be used unless they give permission. Certainly one’s body cannot be used for just any purpose under the sun. Where pro-lifers differ from pro-choicers is that pro-lifers are likely to feel that a woman does not have that right when her body is the only hope for survival of a new human being – a situation that they feel confers some degree of responsibility on her – and when her pregnancy is not expected to be unusually rough or dangerous. And the responsibility is all the greater if she became pregnant through consensual sex.
But the belief in a default principle of bodily rights has two important consequences:
a. Many pro-lifers, given that default belief, may feel that a woman does retain the right to refuse the use of her body if serious health consequences are expected for her – even though her situation is not life-threatening. Most pro-lifers might say that even in such a situation she should not abort, but many would feel that she has the right to do so. So many may be ready to permit abortion for the sake of the woman’s health, even at the cost of the baby’s life.
Does this mean that they deem the unborn to be less human than the woman? Not at all. Remember that the default principle is simply: anyone has a right to refuse to let their body be used. That one can lose that right under any circumstances at all (such as a pregnancy that is expected to be relatively smooth) testifies to the fact that the unborn is considered fully human. But even though the unborn is fully human, the woman’s bodily rights mean that she retains a right to refuse to let her body undergo truly dire kinds of suffering.
b. It is similar regarding the prosecution of abortion cases as something less than murder. Abortion is less than murder not because the victim is not fully human, but because everyone has bodily rights such that in many circumstances, one would have a right to kill in order to defend their body. We could almost say that by default, one does have a right to kill to prevent the unconsented use of one’s body. I have written elsewhere, and others also have written elsewhere, on why there should be no such right in the case of a normal pregnancy, but the point here is that there almost is such a right. Abortion is not extremely far removed from such self-defense. For a woman, the offense of abortion, once abortion is illegal, will be the offense of not letting her default right to kill be offset by other considerations present in a pregnancy. That offense may not even be defined as a crime; and if it is so defined, it will not be murder. Even what the abortionist (or pill vendor) himself does may or may not be murder, because the abortionist can be seen as simply assisting the woman in an excessive assertion of her bodily rights.
According to the moral intuitions of many pro-lifers, in the case of pregnancy the value of a human life (the child’s) does override what would normally be the woman’s bodily rights, and therefore abortion should be illegal. But if a pregnant woman violates the law and claims what would normally be her bodily rights, it is, though a defiance of the law, something less than murder.
(And the more so if the pregnancy resulted from rape. The law professor I have quoted actually mooted bodily rights as a possible explanation for why a pro-lifer might make a rape exception in spite of considering the unborn as a person, but rejected that explanation – too hastily, I think.)
And if a woman is sorely tempted to ease the anxieties of her own brain with alcohol at a time when she happens to have a child inside her, that is not morally the same as plying her newborn with alcohol without any similar temptation – though the results for the child may be the same.
Few pro-lifers would say that the validity of the pro-life position is an open-and-shut case. I think most feel that it involves a balancing of different legitimate values, in which the balance does not fall overwhelmingly on the pro-life side, though it falls clearly enough.
2. They claim that thought experiments reveal that pro-lifers do not highly value the early unborn.
The Newsweek article, which contained numerous bad arguments, also contained this thought experiment:
“A building is on fire. On one floor, five healthy babies are in cribs. On another, 10,000 embryos are in petri dishes, being grown for 10,000 women who want them implanted (new scientific advances guarantee that all the embryos will survive until birth). Because of the rapidly advancing flames, you have time to evacuate only one floor: Either five babies will die or 10,000 future humans will be destroyed. Which do you choose?
Hopefully, the answer is obvious – anyone who decides to rescue globs of cells over living, breathing babies is a monster. But this hypothetical exposes the absurdity of the claim that women who choose abortion are “murdering” babies or that a human being pops into existence at conception, even though a zygote or embryo is no more sentient than a sperm.“
The author clearly does “hope” that the answer is obvious, but also clearly understands that there may be those to whom it might not be obvious, and thinks he’d better ensure the obviousness. He proceeds to pull out the stops with pejoratives for the poor embryos, and hyperbolic insults for the poor reader who might see things differently than he does. Should all that fail, at the end he reminds us of the old sentience argument.
One reason the author is right to brace himself for disagreement is that his thought experiment has stacked the deck: despite the concession that all the embryos would survive until birth, he has selected a means of death that will be painful to the born babies and not to the embryos; and we are likely to imagine that some adults have already bonded with the born babies, unlike with the embryos.
But what if we leveled the playing field, so that the born babies as well as the embryos would die in some painless way, and so that none of the sadness that we might feel in either case comes from any personal bonds that have become strong over time?
First let me say that for myself, I would then definitely save the embryos – and the number of them would not have to be 10,000. For me the ratio could be very close to 1:1. And I would not hesitate. But I should explain that I have been exposed to this thought experiment for some years now, and I have had time to think about it. Had I found myself in that situation without such mental preparation, some emotions and instinctively-programmed protective impulses would have operated one-sidedly on behalf of the born babies, and might have determined the outcome.
It seems that we are biologically programmed to see babies and small children as cute and to feel protective toward them, and to feel emotional when they are threatened. I would guess we are also biologically programmed to feel protective toward a woman who is obviously pregnant – to feel protective, that is, toward anyone who seems to need protection, but more so toward a pregnant woman. Maybe we do not automatically feel equally protective when a woman shows us the results of a very recent pregnancy test, but then how could we be programmed in such a way? Our biological programming took place on the savannahs of Africa at a time when we lacked pregnancy tests, microscopes, and ultrasounds. Such programming would require cues (such as the cuteness of a born baby or the obvious bump of a developed unborn baby), while for embryos and zygotes there simply would not in those days have been any cues. Moreover, nature may have seen less need for such programming than in the case of the born, because for the unborn, the mother’s body was present as the first line of defense – unlike for born babies whom the mother or father might not tend at every moment.
But as Javier Cuadros has written:
“Science is a process of knowledge in which we penetrate ever deeper. . . . As the observations multiply . . . it is typical that the original appearances . . . are shown to be incorrect. The reality is different. . . . many scientists . . . are for applying the simple criterion of appearances. No, [embryos] are not men and women, they say, because they do not look like a person. Agreed, they do not look like a developed human being. But the earth looks like it is stationary . . .“
The Newsweek author wrote that “anyone who decides to rescue [embryos] is a monster.” If he had written, before 1492, “anyone who decides to go east by sailing west is an idiot,” it would have struck a chord with the people of that time. But in a century of frequent flyers, not only does it seems to us truthful that we can do exactly that, it seems to us so in a way that is reflexive and completely natural.
Some of us pro-lifers have been thinking about embryos and embryology for a long time, and I suspect that the Newsweek author had not. Though it did not happen in my thinking overnight, to me a human life seems like one seamless process that has to start somewhere. I no longer feel surprised to think that it may have to start small. If we set aside the possibility of feeling pain or fear, and set aside the memories about a child that may have formed in the minds of others who have bonded with it, then from my perspective, anyone who can see a big difference between the death of a 4-year-old and the death of someone who will be a 4-year-old soon enough, simply hasn’t thought about it or otherwise lacks vision in the matter. (Or applies a cerebral kind of identity argument that I find weak but will set aside here.)
(With some effort, I can see how someone could develop the idea that if there has never been any sense of self, then nothing can be lost to any individual. But neuroscience tells us that the self is an illusion anyway. So what actually counts is a bundle of independent pains and pleasures, fears and hopes, that has an illusion of self seemingly tying it all together. What counts is whether such a bundle that would have existed is lost. Whether or not a particular illusion has occurred is not something that can count.)
Above I have responded to the two main arguments that I have seen for the claim “Pro-lifers don’t really believe . . .” But there is another argument as well that deserves to be looked at.
3. Some point out that pro-lifers are not doing all that they could do to save zygotes from natural death.
In a blog post called “No 5k for the biggest killer – so does anyone really believe it’s a killer?,” Fred Clark quotes from a book called Broken Words –
“. . . between 50 percent and 75 percent of embryos fail to implant in the uterus. . . . Surely, a moral response to a pandemic of this magnitude would be to rally the scientific community to devote the vast majority of its efforts to better understanding why this happens and trying to stop it. Yet the same pro-life leaders who declare that every embryo is morally equivalent to a fully developed child have done nothing to advocate such research. … One could say that this massive loss of human life is natural, and therefore, humans are under no obligation to end it. But it is not clear why the same argument could not be used to justify complacency in the face of AIDS, cancer, heart disease, and other natural causes of human death“
– and then comments:
“That suggests one of two things. Either these pro-life advocates are complacent monsters every bit as callously unconcerned with saving unborn babies as those they oppose. Or else, just like those they oppose, these folks do not really believe that “every embryo is morally equivalent to a fully developed child.” [Emphasis mine.]
I think that Clark has a point, and I think that consistent pro-lifers should be much more alarmed about those deaths than they presently are. But I think that again, bodily rights is at work, and the rest is a partially pardonable lack of awareness; and triage; and an understandable, if not completely pardonable, tendency to shrink from what could be a monumental sacrifice. I do not think that pro-lifers “do not really believe.”
Unlike with any kind of cure for AIDS, cancer, etc., saving those zygotes and embryos would require treating not the body of the victim, but the body of another person – the victim’s mother. When abortion is proposed, pro-lifers feel that the life of the embryo should normally override the bodily rights of the woman, and therefore that a justified infringement of her bodily rights is appropriate. But that infringement by society takes the form of preventing a pro-active act of violence on the part of the woman – it is not society pro-actively obliging a woman (a woman who plans no conscious and pro-active act) to ingest some (yet-to-be-developed) chemical or undergo some treatment that would trick her uterus into being more receptive to an embryo. Such an act by society would be a more intrusive infringement on her rights. And even before that infringement, society would have to pro-actively oblige her to submit to tests for the presence of an embryo whose presence would not otherwise be known – probably not even known to her.
I think that we should R&D some treatment that many women might wish to undergo voluntarily. But this lack, on society’s part, of a right to make sure, once the treatment is developed, that it would ever be used and would ever save lives, would be one reason that we do not passionately pursue its development.
I mentioned a “partially pardonable lack of awareness.” There must be many pro-lifers who do not know enough embryology to be aware of these deaths at all. But the pro-life leadership must certainly be aware, and does nothing to educate people. They must certainly be aware; but I feel it may all remain somewhat abstract even for thinking people, because the knowledge is purely statistical. When a sidewalk counselor sees a woman walking into an abortion clinic, that counselor sees a specific case of a life that (seemingly, at least) need not be lost; but we would not even know that the “between 50 percent and 75 percent figure” (assuming that is correct) is a reality, had not technologically-enabled investigations been made, followed by extrapolation from the findings.
“Triage”: I think that we should respond to those little one-celled or 800-celled sisters and brothers of ours exactly as we would respond to our born little sisters and brothers if they were under any threat. But we can expect most of those children whom we will save to be born sickly, and if a billion of our born little sisters and brothers each required the most costly, resource-intensive, and personnel-intensive kind of medical support during their lifetimes of whatever length, our moral obligation to save them by depriving everyone else would have some limit. The pro-choice argument about quality of life is not wrong; their mistake is to apply it discriminatorily, saying that it is particularly one group who must die to free up resources for others.
And finally, I mentioned “an understandable, if not completely pardonable, tendency to shrink from what could be a huge sacrifice” (a mild version of Clark’s “callously unconcerned”). Triage would only justify inaction about those deaths up to a certain point. I think that consistent pro-lifers should be ready to minimize their own expenditure and recreation to do something about those unborn children and everyone else in the world who is seriously suffering, and I don’t know if we’re all ready to do that yet.
I think that consistent pro-lifers should be much more alarmed about the natural deaths of zygotes than they presently are. But I think that if we look for the reasons they are not alarmed, a failure to “really believe” that they are persons is not among those reasons.