On Being ‘Pro-Life’: Responding to Readers, Pt. 3

This will be the last bit of correspondence I post (for now). As usual, names and identifying information have been redacted.

Dear Matthew,

I just read your Vox article on being pro-life and anti-abortion. I thought it was illuminating and thought-provoking in a number of ways. Although I have always considered myself pro-choice, I am not so partisan as to be unable to appreciate the beauty and mystery of human life at its very genesis: “For the pro-lifer, there is no clearer instance of the marginalized, the voiceless, and the vulnerable than in the womb — and no more profound source of wonder at the limitless possibilities that human life is capable of achieving. The early embryo looks nothing like us, has none of our capabilities, drains the mother’s resources, and often requires the mother to sacrifice many of her interests. If in these conditions one can see something worthwhile, something that can be a benefit or a blessing to the world even when unwanted, then one can start to glimpse why pro-lifers are so animated and so patient in their efforts.”

Of course, every life is profoundly different, and it’s a strange and wondrous thing that a human being can grow from the tiniest “clump of cells” to a fully functioning, freely thinking adult. I do feel a sense of “wonder at the limitless possibilities that human life is capable of achieving.” It is sad, undoubtedly sad, when those limitless possibilities are no longer limitless. When the human that could have been no longer has that chance.

However, practically speaking, I simply cannot agree with the idea that this potential human being’s rights override the rights of the woman who must carry it within her body. Putting aside the fact that even if abortion is illegal, women will always find a way to do it (whether out of desperation, a need for autonomy over her own body, or myriad other reasons) — and in vastly more dangerous ways — why are the embryo’s rights so highly valued, and the woman’s rights disregarded? Yes, the embryo is full of possibility and potential — but what about the woman? What about her possibility, what about her potential? Just because she is capable of becoming a mother does not mean she should.

The responsibility of carrying a life into this world, and raising it into adulthood, is a grave one that many people do not take seriously. It is one of the most profound and daunting tasks anyone could be given, and no one should be forced to take this responsibility if they’re not ready. The world is full of unwanted children, who suffer terribly due to a lack of support. Of course I’m not saying they should all have been aborted, but I do believe it should be the choice of the woman carrying the baby. Whether or not she decides to take that awesome responsibility on herself should be her choice. Only she can see the paths laid out before her, only she can know what is right for her, at that moment.

When a fetus can survive outside its mother’s womb, it is considered human, with all the same rights as any other human. Before that, it relies on its mother, and before that, the woman’s rights are still primary. If you say that the embryo, from the moment of conception, should be protected at any cost — then you are saying that its mother can be sacrificed. That the woman’s needs are not important, that she is only a “host” of that budding life. And I can’t accept that. She is a human, too. Why is that the possibilities of her life are automatically curtailed when she gets pregnant? Why is she consigned to a fate that others decide for her? Why doesn’t she have the right to decide what to do with her own body?

I understand your argument. I do. But can you understand mine? Can you see why people believe so fervently that a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body should not be legislated by others? (That’s not even going into the practical realities of abortion, which I could go on about further.)

Thank you for your thought-provoking article. I really do see where you’re coming from, and it’s not as black-and-white as some pro-choice activists like to make it seem. I would hope you also can see where I’m coming from. If you’re not too busy, I would love to have a more in-depth conversation about this.

Yours truly,

[redacted]

[Redacted],

Thank you for the wonderfully thoughtful and kind email. It is a gift to have such a generous and careful reader, and something of a rarity on the internet these days.

Let me begin by saying that I think I understand the kind of argument you are making, but there is always room to grow. I have not quit my reading or my listening to those who are ‘pro-choice’ on the matter, in part because the stakes demand my ongoing attention. I will happily acknowledge I have much yet to learn, but I do hope that I have at least a glimpse of the logic and intuitions beneath the pro-choice perspective. My indelicate description of the “weirdness” of the embryo was an attempt to flag up to pro-choicers that I understand some of why they think the embryo doesn’t have the rights that a mature human being has. I didn’t go as far as I probably should have in that direction — but then, the essay was more of an attempt to ‘explain’ a peculiar phenomenon to a predominately progressive audience, and not as much an attempt to build common ground with them. Perhaps there will be more opportunities to write such accounts in the future. They are certainly needed.

Allow me to proceed somewhat more linearly through your email, however, to ensure that I do not overlook any of your excellent points.

First, I’d note that you describe the embryo as a “potential human being.” But that doesn’t seem right. The embryo is an organism that is ordered toward its maturation as a mature human being, but it is indeed a human being. We might think that it is permissible to kill human beings, and describe the embryo as a potential person; but then we’d have to have an argument about whether or not potential persons have rights, and why or why not.

For my own part, I’m reluctant to divide human beings into two classes, those who have rights and those who do not. For one, the division is inelegant: the various reasons people propose to ascribe personhood to certain members of the class of human beings often strike me as arbitrary, and potentially even dangerously self-serving. (We know for sure that we are persons and have rights, but those others…) And second, dividing up human beings that way is frequently a tactic of societies that commit gross injustices (like genocides). It is true that many such cultures justify their killing by describing the unwanted human beings as subhuman. But the basic logic is the same: there are certain human beings who ‘count’ for us, while those others do not — which means we can treat them according to our pleasure. I recognize that this is not precisely an objection against doing so, as perhaps there are benign forms of such divisions. But it should at least chasten us against doing so hastily.

But, that is something of an aside to your real point, which is about the rights of the mother to determine her own future.

One presupposition I wonder about is your suggestion that pregnant women sometimes should not ‘become a mother.’ I understand, I think, what you’re getting at here. But it seems to imply that the pregnant woman is not already a mother. Doubtlessly, when she gives birth her relationship to her (now) baby changes significantly; but that change hardly seems like a beginning. Birth is an encounter preceded and prepared for by the most intimate of relationships. So, in one real sense, by gestating an embryo a woman has already begun to act in a motherly fashion to her child — she provides sustenance, support, and life itself. She may be doing so reluctantly, or even unwillingly — but her body is out there, ahead of her, giving of herself to the life of the one growing within her.

You are right, of course, that bringing a child into the world is an act of grave importance. People should indeed take it seriously. But you move from that claim to the suggestion that no one should be “forced to take this responsibility if they’re not ready” — as though I disagree. I do not. Nobody should be forced to become a mother. (It is for this reason which, even if pro-lifers think abortion in cases of rape is morally bad, they are also willing to carve out legal exceptions for it.) But in ordinary cases of conception through consensual sexual activity, nobody is ‘forcing’ the woman to become a mother by prohibiting her from terminating the pregnancy. Saying that a woman is not free to throw cakes at people says nothing about whether she is being compelled to bake the cake in the first place.

This is, I recognize, almost certainly dissatisfactory (if not repugnant!) as a response. Yet I think it is one of the major gaps between those who are pro-life and pro-choice. To see the pro-life point of view requires seeing how the ‘grave responsibility’ of bringing a child into the world backs up into the acts which could generate human life. It turns out that sexual intercourse itself is extraordinarily risky. As an inherently dangerous behavior, it is plausible that we ought only undertake it with the kind of seriousness and preparation which you are commending for those who become parents.

Coercion is not, then, the only way to think about what prohibiting abortion means; it also means the generation of responsibility within the sphere of sexual relations between men and women, and the responsibility to manage risks appropriately. I don’t think t hat way of framing things diminishes or infringes the agency or dignity of the woman; rather, it seems like it deepens and magnifies her agency, if through no other way than by increasing the weight with which she is able to say ‘no’ to a man. After all, she alone will know (generally speaking) whether an act of love will risk generating human life.

Yet this also seems to be avoiding the real problem, which is that even if we could intentionally avoid conception altogether, some women will doubtlessly still have unwanted embryos. The ‘sacrifice’ that prohibiting abortion would compel them to make is still real, the denial of her aspirations and her hopes still unavoidable. And in response, I am not sure there is anything I can say except — yes, that version of the woman’s dreams and hopes for her future might go unfulfilled.

Yet they go unfulfilled for what is an extremely rewarding and fulfilling prospect, if it is embraced. And that is some very real consolation, I would think. Happiness is far more resilient than we believe; it is learned, and comes to bear in many forms of life which we never would have expected or necessarily desired. We are a relatively adaptable species — and the life in which a child plays a central role is, just as such, by no means a bad life, even if it is not the life that the mother had wanted. It is not the case that children suffer from being ‘unwanted pregnancies.’ They suffer from being unwanted children. But between the conception and the formation, there are many years within which the mother can learn to love and delight in her child. Such shifts in our affections are, I think, eminently reasonable — even necessary, and that even when we are denied the original objects of our hopes through no choice of our own. The responsibility that sexual activity incurs is a responsibility to learn to love the human beings who are conceived through it, for that is what such children deserve. Mothers (and fathers, no less!) who treat their children as unwanted add wrongs to their proper decision to give birth to the child rather than terminate it in the womb; but those additional wrongs do not make the previous decision wrong as well.

There is nothing easy about this answer, but then, there is nothing easy about making our way to happiness when life doesn’t turn out as we hoped, either.

I wonder, though, about the implications of how you frame your argument. If abortion is permissible because women carry a disproportionate burden in being pregnant, then if (when!) we create artificial wombs and learn to safely extract the embryo — would you think that mothers would have obligations to do that rather than abort? It seems like if the disproportionate burden of pregnancy on women is the problem that abortion is the answer to, then if that burden were alleviated or removed, the reason to permit abortion would fall away.

A few final thoughts, as I know I’m going on too long already. First, do you really mean to say that the fetus is not human until after birth? The reliance on the mother is important, and that does give (I think) the mother special privileges and prerogative, such that I don’t think that the embryo should be “protected at any cost,” or that the “mother can be sacrificed.” I think terminating pregnancies to save the life of the mother is permissible, for instance. But I cannot see my way to the position that it is only after birth that the embryo counts as human. It strikes me as odd to say that one baby is born at 21 weeks, and so we count them as human, but we can permissibly terminate another who is the same age.

Additionally, I do not think the mother is a ‘host.’ Anything but. She is an agent, who is responsible for her actions and responsible to the human beings whose life she contributes to through her actions, and to the society who dignifies her agency by holding her to her responsibility. She has the right to “decide what to do with her own body.” She may, if she wants, engage in intrinsically risky sexual acts that might bring human beings into the world. But if she does bring a human life into the world — and here we doubtlessly part ways — she has another ‘body’ within her, whose ends and interests and even rights are independent from her own. The embryo is not a part of her body, even though it is wholly contained within it; it is not a limb or an organ. It is an intrinsically ordered organisms, within an environment suited for its own development and flourishing. The embryo belongs in the womb; that is its home, within which it is nurtured and developed, and from which it departs to enter the world. The rights of the woman are real — but they simply do not extend to the termination of this organism which she has given life to through her voluntary action.

In closing, I would offer the same gracious response to you that you gave me: I really think I see where you’re coming from, and the question simply is not as simple as pro-lifers sometimes make it seem. It is very easy for us to say “the science says life begins at conception — ergo, rights!” And certainly at some level, my own argument boils down to something not far from that. But the arguments for why abortion is wrong are complicated, and the intuitions beneath the pro-choice position have deep roots that are harder to examine and critique than most of us pro-lifers would like.

Thank you for the opportunity to address a few of your questions, though I am sure I have done so very badly. I will look forward to your response with interest.

With gratitude,

Matt