Unfortunately, Ryan Normandin’s Sept. 2 column “Why life trumps choice” only too vividly demonstrates what sheer ignorance and self-serving feelings of moral superiority can lead to when people are not informed by either science or compassion. It makes me truly sad that a person affiliated with a great science school can provide such a colorful demonstration of that.
I am not going to provide legal arguments — I will leave that to legal scholars. I can only provide the perspective of a scientist and a women’s rights activist. Let us start with the alleged “fuzziness” of when the life begins, which, according to Normandin, we “after all do not know.” Well, some of us do. Life begins at birth, period. It is at birth that a fetus becomes a separate organism from its mother.
What about the unique human genome, which is created when an ovum catches a sperm cell? Of course it is unique. As are at least dozens of genomes created the same way, which then proceed down the toilet when the ovum does not attach itself to the lining of the uterus — all without anyone noticing. Not to mention the millions of potential combinations which just never materialize because people don’t have sex frequently enough. If one is so sad about those poor sods whose “right to life” is so horrendously denied, I’d suggest that they try to introduce a piece of legislation requiring everybody from 14 to 45 to copulate every day until they literally cannot do it any longer. After all, if they don’t, they “prevent the child from being alive at a later time,” as Normandin puts it!
Moreover, as biologists know, a genome is not all there is to how an organism develops. There are various complex mechanisms which turn genes on and off. Some of them we already understand, some of them we don’t. I am O.K. with hearing a TV host saying things about our oh-so-unique DNA as if we were still in the 1930s, but at MIT, I tend to expect that people do their homework before touching upon complex scientific topics.
What about banning late-term abortions? What about “viable fetuses”? When a late-term fetus is born and made alive using our technology, that is a good thing. But it does not make the boundary any fuzzier. Similarly, we can sometimes treat cardiac arrest and revive a person, but that does not mean that a person is technically dead when the heart and breathing stop. In short, it is moral to try to give — or prolong — life when you can. But our ability to do so does not change when life starts or ends.
Normandin accuses abortion-rights people of “putting a higher value on [the woman’s] life than [on] that of the child.” Between many other statements in his column, this one is refreshingly true. Yes, I do put a value on a woman’s life. I also do not put any more value on somebody else’s fetus than I do on somebody else’s egg or sperm cells. There is some value, but it is very different from the value of a human life. That does not mean that I rule out the ability to care about a particular fetus — or an egg cell, for that matter. People have the right to choose what to do with their reproductive abilities as they see fit, and I am completely for protecting that right and making sure everyone in the society can exercise it freely.
I disagree with people who do not care strongly enough to even get their biological facts right, and who feel so self-righteous that they put a higher value on a part of a woman’s body than on her person and her life. There really is a choice here: the one between being a feel-good crusader for the fiction of “the lives of unborn children,” and learning a little bit more about people around you. The fantasy world of profile activists is very comforting. It just does not have anything to do with the actual protection of human life.
But let us return to facts once more. Normandin says that it is just “a claim” that banning abortion leads to back-alley abortions. Well, the last time I checked, there was plenty of evidence out there. If you are too lazy to learn the facts, it does not just make them “claims.” The parts of the world where abortion is largely illegal — such as Latin America and Africa — have higher rates of abortion than the U.S., and maternal mortality from abortion is hundreds of times higher. Other countries have experimented with banning abortion, including the USSR in the 1930s under Stalin and Romania in the 1970s under Ceausescu. Maternal mortality from illegal abortions soared, but that does not mean abortion became rarer. In fact, ex-USSR countries and Romania are among the world champions competing for the highest abortion rate. Banning abortion leads not to making abortion rarer, but to making it more frequent.
The ending of Normandin’s column counters that preemptively. He says, discussing the harm of illegal abortions, “if the mother contracts an infection because of her illegal acts, that is unfortunate, but when you do something illegal, you know the risks.” To put it more bluntly, “I don’t care if you die because I banned abortion. It is your fault, you evil murderer!” This underscores the whole set of convictions of the column’s author: the harm to women just does not enter the picture. It is simply irrelevant. Let those women die; they asked for it. Who is the bigger, more ruthless murderer here?
I’d be happy if that set of convictions was rare, but it is not. And it comes in a pretty comprehensive package of beliefs that many anti-abortion activists share. The anti-abortion movement has roots in the strands of Christianity, where women are supposed to remain domestic, weak and submissive to men, especially in public. According to their world view, women should not use contraception. Many anti-abortion activists are also anti-contraception activists, fighting for the right of pharmacists to refuse selling contraception on grounds of conscience. At times, it really makes me wonder: What will they come up with next? Maybe mandatory euthanasia for women who cannot bear children or provide sexual gratification for their husband and protectors?
Sadly, what all this “pro-life case” is about is control over women. It is about making women less than full people. It is not even about fetuses — they are just an excuse. A hundred years ago it used to be about the right to vote. Today, it is about abortion rights. But one thing has not changed: the people — both men and women alike — who want to keep women oppressed do not care for a scientific investigation of the matter. They do not care about other human beings. They are selfish and ignorant.
I am sorry for using very harsh language in this reply. But I feel it is necessary in this case. When two males on the newspaper’s opinion page discuss a question that directly affects all women’s lives with almost academic detachment, what I think about is how I often cry hearing real people’s stories about illegal abortions and abortions that lead to societal and internalized stigma. What I want to ask them is how can they live with themselves? How can they be so blind and deaf? It is an offense against morality to ignore people’s suffering, to talk as if it is just not there. It is arrogance to decide for other people what is better for them. It is overwhelming pride to use self-serving fantasies to justify the harm you do.
Women have the right to be in full control of what they do with their bodies. They also have the right to be spared from being talked about in the manner Normandin did — as if they just were not there, as if their lives were not worth protecting.
Igor Yanovich is a graduate student in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.