The debate over abortion is plagued by misconceptions and misinformation. Just last spring I received a pamphlet from a campus pro-life group claiming that abortion raises the risk of breast cancer, yet if we can consider the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health as a trustworthy source, this factoid has been thoroughly debunked. On the flip-side, some pro-choice advocates still maintain that an embryo is not alive. Even without this surplus obfuscation the issue is complicated and delicate; both positions in the debate represent legitimate values on their own terms. In the interest of clarity, I will attempt to put forth a reasoned argument in favor of a person’s right to an abortion.
To begin, let us first agree on a few premises. First, that life begins at conception, and second, that this creature once conceived is human. To suggest otherwise would be patently absurd. A zygote is every bit as alive as an amoeba and has as complete a genome as every human walking the earth. To spend any more time on these details would be counterproductive.
How, then, comes the right to an abortion? I — and every other serious pro-choice advocate I have met or read — maintain that the relevant characteristic that might save a precious embryo is neither life nor humanity, but personhood. With a little effort, everyone can think of instances where the life of a friend, a teacher, a parent, or any fully-formed, thinking, desiring, yearning, sweating, striving human being is worth more than some other creature that is either alive, a member of homo sapiens, or both.
Now let’s assume for the sake of argument that both embryos and fetuses qualify as persons. Two of the more curious positions among the pro-life camp are that abortion should not be allowed in cases of fertilization by rape and not in cases where the pregnant person’s life is threatened by the pregnancy. Here comes the much beloved thought experiment: suppose a person was sexually coerced such that they were carrying a 30-year-old man who had lived his life normally until that point instead of an embryo. Further suppose that the burdens of carrying this man are the same as those attributable to a normal pregnancy.
So, should the violated person be forced to allow the man to feed off of, essentially parasitize, their body, or can they elect to remove him before his nine months are up, thus killing him? I think that the answer is quite obviously the latter. All people have a right to bodily autonomy — we all decide what happens to our own bodies. If and when they are hijacked by other creatures (whether or not they meant to do it) we have a right to remove them. That being said, it would be an admirable and tremendously moral sacrifice to carry that burden for nine months. Choice does not preclude choosing to carry the fetus (or in this case the man). But just as we do not force people to donate blood or organs, no matter how many lives it would save, we cannot force people to rent out their bodies.
On to the point at which “pro-life” often becomes precisely the opposite: cases where the pregnant person’s life is threatened. This is the arena where the social conservative’s bogeyman, the “partial-birth abortion,” comes into play. If you are seriously under the impression that if a person is going to die by carrying their fetus to term, then they ought to be required by law to do so to save the life of the creature inside them, then I don’t know what to tell you other than that perhaps you should reconsider your values if you wish to remain a part of the greater moral community of humanity. I would, however, like to say a bit on this topic of “partial-birth abortion.”
It is useful to note that the term “partial-birth abortion” does not exist in the medical lexicon and is not recognized by the American Medical Association. The term was coined by U.S. Representative Charles Canady (R-FL) in 1995 and its use is almost entirely restricted to American political theater. The closest relevant medical term is “intact dilation and extraction,” or IDX. Many who are opposed to it describe it as a gruesome procedure, and perhaps it is; it involves making an incision at the base of the fetus’s skull then using a catheter to suction out the brain and make it easier to pass the head. The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 ended the procedure in most cases but left very curious loopholes. For instance, it does not affect procedures in which the fetus’s body is dismembered in utero or when the fetus is fully delivered then left to die of asphyxiation; it only bans those procedures where the fetus is first partially delivered then killed and fully removed.
But after all this talk, I have only covered a minority of circumstances under which abortion is performed. According to the Guttmacher Institute, about 90 percent of medical abortions occur before the 13th gestational week and only about 1 percent after the 20th week. What’s more, they typically do not involve rape or threat of maternal death. Now, for those who consider the origin of a fully-fledged human being to be the moment of conception, take note that as many as 50 percent of all pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion. Most of these occur because of the zygote’s failure to implant on the uterine wall after conception. If these beings are the moral equivalents of you or me, why don’t pro-life advocates spend massive amounts of resources and time campaigning to prevent this truly astonishing loss of human life? They could say that it is a part of nature, that it is “God’s plan,” perhaps, but I doubt they would say the same thing if their own bodies came down with a curable, life-threatening illness. They might suggest that about half of those potential people are genetically unfit, thus their elimination is justified, but that smacks of eugenics.
If you consider any of the characteristics of people like you and me that make our lives worth preserving, you will find that embryos embody none of them. We are moral agents; we can think and make choices; we can have desires and the desire to live; we are capable of suffering and of happiness and inflicting these feelings on others; we have memories and a history and a story. This is why we can swat a fly buzzing around our ears with minimal moral panic but can’t shoot the tall dude blocking your view at a concert. All of those qualities come together to justify our own existence when we are a hindrance to another person living their life. None of those qualities apply to a 10-week embryo inside a poor woman who cannot afford another child because she needs to feed the two she already has.
While I do believe that there is a point in a non-forced and safe pregnancy after which induced abortion should not be allowed, the preponderance of pro-life activism is not concerned with finding this point; rather the goal appears to be keeping poor people poor. If you consider the effects of all the various bans and restrictions, it becomes painfully obvious that the people who will suffer are going to be disproportionately young, low-income, and non-white. As it has been pointed out before, the affluent will always be able to find a competent doctor to rid them of an unwanted pregnancy. For the poor, it’s quite a different matter; according to the World Health Organization, 68,000 women — primarily from developing countries — die each year from unsafe abortion. When pro-life activists target organizations like Planned Parenthood they are doing irreparable harm to the communities they serve, but most of the damage has nothing to do with moving clinical abortions to the back-alley. A Planned Parenthood center doesn’t just provide cheap abortions for struggling people, it also provides STD testing and treatment, cancer screenings, contraception services, HPV vaccinations, Pap smears and pregnancy tests, among other things. Around 75 percent of all the people who received these services from Planned Parenthood were below 150 percent of the federal poverty line.
Take note that in 2009 Planned Parenthood helped over 7,000 people safely carry their pregnancies to term and helped almost 1,000 people find an adoption agency. This highlights one of the most misunderstood aspects of the pro-choice platform. We want people who want to have babies to have them. Pro-life advocates often trot out the argument that otherwise-aborted children could simply be put up for adoption or enter foster care. The sad fact is that there aren’t enough loving homes to accommodate even the children we already have, let alone the hundreds of thousands more per year that would enter society if abortion were nonexistent. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, well over 100,000 children under age 16 in foster care find themselves without permanent parents at the end of the year. A study by Mark Courtney at the University of Chicago revealed that “37 percent of foster youth aged 17–20 had not completed [a] high school degree or received a GED” and that “12 percent of the youth reported being homeless at least once since leaving care.” Clearly these youth are not being served well by the system.
If ostensibly pro-life individuals actually care about the lives and the well-being of real people, they would support programs like family planning, food assistance, and other social safety nets. If pro-life individuals actually wanted to reduce the number of abortions, they would support programs that educate and empower women, provide sex education beyond proselytizing abstinence, and provide medical care to the poor. I think we can all agree that abortion is not inherently a “positive” thing — arguably ending any life is at least a little bad — but if we want to be serious about how to reduce the incidence of abortion, the answer is not to ban the procedure but to address the underlying causes that drive people to obtain them.