On Being ‘Pro-Life’: Responding to Readers, Pt. 2

I am slowly responding to the email which I received about my Vox essay on the meaning and limits of the term ‘pro-life.’

I have removed a few of the beginning paragraphs of this next email, for the sake of preserving the identity of the correspondent. The gist of it is that a husband and wife had a planned first pregnancy. The email picks up from there.

We then learned during a doctor’s appointment that the baby had Trisomy 18. It was unlikely the baby would be born alive. If it was, it would suffer from extreme, grotesque physical deformities. Some babies with Trisomy 18 are born with their intestines outside of the body. The likelihood of the baby living to its first year of life was remote.

Ours would not be an Einstein or Beethoven that you wrote about. You wrote, “The embryo contains a whole world of possibilities and adventures.” Not in our case. “[The embryos future] is no more definite, no more determined than any of us were in such a state.” With our situation, that is simply not accurate.

We consulted multiple doctors, our family, our closest friends, our rabbi and our own consciences. We weighed the emotional, health, and financial risks. Ultimately, we made the decision to terminate the pregnancy at 12 weeks.

With about a year’s hindsight, I have no doubt that we made the right decision. Under the circumstances, there was no reason my wife should have subjected herself to the health risks involved in a challenging pregnancy. The emotional toil of the continued pregnancy and the ultimate, inevitable death of the child, before or after birth, would have been unbearable. Imagine selecting a name, designing a nursery, responding to friends who offer to host a shower for a baby that will likely never be born or will die shortly thereafter.

Perhaps other parents would make a different decision. That is unquestionably their right. However our decision was right for us.

Your essay only briefly discussed your view of our situation: “We cannot shed ourselves of the sense that there is something too powerful, something too good about the human being, to make its life or its death a matter for our choice. It is better for the embryo to go on existing, for it and for us and for the cosmos whose beauty new human life adorns and deepens.” The soaring rhetoric does an injustice to the stark realities.

Those in the pro-life community, who would outlaw abortions for all women in all cases, have an obligation to address the hardest cases. Tell my wife that the government, through its laws, will compel a result contrary to the advice of her doctors, our faith, and her own conscience. Then repeat it to the thousands of women every year faced with the same situation, or worse.

Just as your awe with life informs your political opinions, our experience in the last year shapes mine. For every person you convince with your essays, our story has caused our pro-life friends to re-evaluate their position on the issue. I suspect this debate will be unresolved in our lifetime.

I appreciated your essay. It was thoughtful, well written, and provided an insight I did not have before. I do not expect that I will change your mind. If I am able to pull back the curtain on my perspective as capably as your essay did, then I’m certain we are both better off.

And this is my response:

Thank you very much for reading my essay, and for such a thoughtful email. I apologize for my slow response; the volume of mail has overwhelmed the time I’ve had to respond to it.

First off, may I express my condolences? It sounds like a very difficult situation, filled with sorrow and pain. I am sorry. My wife and I have had our own frustrations in the realm of making human life, though nothing nearly so tragic and difficult as your story indicates. Thank you for your kindness in sharing it.

I can’t begin to give you the sort of answer that will do your email justice. And I have serious regrets about that. I will note that I completely agree that those of us, like me, need to address the ‘hard cases.’ And by and large, pro-life theorists and philosophers have, and do. If I didn’t in my essay, it is because I wanted to explore the deepest intuitions that make those cases hard, namely, that there is something almost unspeakably valuable about the origins of human life and so something almost unspeakably difficult about being put in a situation where taking such a life is justified.

There are, I think, situations where abortion is permissible. My friend Charlie Camosy has argued that embryos can be material threats to the mother’s life (that is, unintentional and unintending threats), and so permissibly aborted in certain circumstances. I agree.

I am opposed to early terminations of infants who will almost certainly be dead within the first year of their life, but some of those reasons are personal: I have met two such infants and their parents in my life, and have been overwhelmed by the goodness and love present within both situations (even if such goodness was accompanied by the deepest sorts of sorrow).

But even that opposition would not necessarily mean that women in your situation would be denied such a possibility, if abortion were ever returned to a pre-Roe era. Abortions happened in hospitals legally before Roe was passed, for medical purposes. And I have no doubt that if Roe were ever overturned, the situation would be similar — not only because, prudentially, there would be no political will for prohibiting every abortion, but because doing so would not be right.

There is more to say, no doubt. But I want to say again how grateful I am for the time you spent reading my essay, and writing me such an email. Both are gifts to me, and I am indebted to you for them.

Best regards,

Matt