Here’s a refreshingly forthright article about abortion, in which the author, one Mary Elizabeth Williams, avoids altogether the impossibly difficult task of parsing exactly when life “begins”. She cuts the Gordian knot by conceding, arguendo, that life begins at conception, and then justifies abortion on the grounds that some lives are simply worth more than others.
The article, published at Salon, bears the title So what if abortion ends life?
Ms. Williams writes:
Of all the diabolically clever moves the anti-choice lobby has ever pulled, surely one of the greatest has been its consistent co-opting of the word “life.” Life! Who wants to argue with that? Who wants be on the side of … not-life? That’s why the language of those who support abortion has for so long been carefully couched in other terms. While opponents of abortion eagerly describe themselves as “pro-life,” the rest of us have had to scramble around with not nearly as big-ticket words like “choice” and “reproductive freedom.” The “life” conversation is often too thorny to even broach. Yet I know that throughout my own pregnancies, I never wavered for a moment in the belief that I was carrying a human life inside of me. I believe that’s what a fetus is: a human life. And that doesn’t make me one iota less solidly pro-choice.
As Roe v. Wade enters its fifth decade, we find ourselves at one of the most schizo moments in our national relationship with reproductive choice. In the past year we’ve endured the highest number of abortion restrictions ever. Yet support for abortion rights is at an all-time high, with seven in 10 Americans in favor of letting Roe v. Wade stand, allowing for reproductive choice in all or “most” cases. That’s a stunning 10 percent increase from just a decade ago. And in the midst of this unique moment, Planned Parenthood has taken the bold step of reframing the vernacular – moving away from the easy and easily divisive words “life” and “choice.” Instead, as a new promotional film acknowledges, “It’s not a black and white issue.”
It’s a move whose time is long overdue. It’s important, because when we don’t look at the complexities of reproduction, we give far too much semantic power to those who’d try to control it. And we play into the sneaky, dirty tricks of the anti-choice lobby when we on the pro-choice side squirm so uncomfortably at the ways in which they’ve repeatedly appropriated the concept of “life.”
Here’s the complicated reality in which we live: All life is not equal. That’s a difficult thing for liberals like me to talk about, lest we wind up looking like death-panel-loving, kill-your-grandma-and-your-precious-baby storm troopers. Yet a fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always.
Ignore the insulting tone; at least Ms. Williams is staking out a coherent position. (She isn’t, however, looking at “the complexities of reproduction”; what she is attempting here is in fact a radical simplification.) We’ll want to come back to that last line.
Ms Williams continues:
When we on the pro-choice side get cagey around the life question, it makes us illogically contradictory. I have friends who have referred to their abortions in terms of “scraping out a bunch of cells” and then a few years later were exultant over the pregnancies that they unhesitatingly described in terms of “the baby” and “this kid.” I know women who have been relieved at their abortions and grieved over their miscarriages. Why can’t we agree that how they felt about their pregnancies was vastly different, but that it’s pretty silly to pretend that what was growing inside of them wasn’t the same? Fetuses aren’t selective like that. They don’t qualify as human life only if they’re intended to be born.
When we try to act like a pregnancy doesn’t involve human life, we wind up drawing stupid semantic lines in the sand: first trimester abortion vs. second trimester vs. late term, dancing around the issue trying to decide if there’s a single magic moment when a fetus becomes a person. Are you human only when you’re born? Only when you’re viable outside of the womb? Are you less of a human life when you look like a tadpole than when you can suck on your thumb?
This is what’s called “grasping the nettle”. Very good. So, then, on what does the value of a human life depend?
We’re so intimidated by the wingnuts, we get spooked out of having these conversations. We let the archconservatives browbeat us with the concept of “life,” using their scare tactics on women and pushing for indefensible violations like forced ultrasounds. Why? Because when they wave the not-even-accurate notion that “abortion stops a beating heart” they think they’re going to trick us into some damning admission. They believe that if we call a fetus a life they can go down the road of making abortion murder. And I think that’s what concerns the hell out of those of us who support unrestricted reproductive freedom.
But we make choices about life all the time in our country. We make them about men and women in other countries. We make them about prisoners in our penal system. We make them about patients with terminal illnesses and accident victims. We still have passionate debates about the justifications of our actions as a society, but we don’t have to do it while being bullied around by the vague idea that if you say we’re talking about human life, then the jig is up, rights-wise.
It seems absurd to suggest that the only thing that makes us fully human is the short ride out of some lady’s vagina. That distinction may apply neatly legally, but philosophically, surely we can do better.
Well! “Wingnuts”. “Archconservatives”. Those, apparently, are the only sort who might believe that “if we call a fetus a life they can go down the road of making abortion murder”. (We’ll just ignore that silly bit about the “not-even-accurate notion that ‘abortion stops a beating heart’”. Of course it does.)
Well, how would you define “murder”? Presumably, it’s the taking of a life without the consent of the person being killed. As Ms. Williams suggests, though, we do in some cases consider such killing justifiable, in which case we stop calling it “murder” and use some other word instead, like “execution”, “euthanasia”, “manslaughter”, “accidental death”, or in the case of military action, just “killing”. Let’s look at the examples given:
Men and women in other countries: We do consider enemy combatants to have forfeited their right to life (by trying to kill us), and so we view our killing them as morally justifiable, as an act of self-defense. How about those innocents within the blast radius, who die right along with the guys we’re after? Clearly we don’t feel so comfy about killing them, but we go on doing so anyway. (We do try to avoid it, though.)
I’ll bet that if your own kin were one of these victims, you’d have no qualms about calling it “murder”. I’ll also point out that these innocents are killed “collaterally”, as a regrettable side-effect of a justifiable and necessary military operation; if we were to focus on killing them singly, however (as we do, for example, with aborted fetuses), it would clearly be murder.
Prisoners in our penal system: The key point here is that they are not innocent; they have by their free choice voided their right to life. In this they are obviously in a vastly different moral category than unborn children.
Patients with terminal illnesses: The key here is consent. Patients with terminal illnesses can grant their informed consent; unborn children cannot.
Accident victims: At issue here is what is being terminated. When a patient is taken off life support, it is because there is no longer the potential for life, or at least for life of the sort that we consider to be worthy of protection. Why? Because in our view the essence of human life, and the basis of moral consideration, is consciousness and subjective experience — so we consider it morally neutral to remove life-support from a body for which this is no longer possible. Clearly this is not the case with an unborn child.
At the conclusion of her essay, Ms. Williams writes:
My belief that life begins at conception is mine to cling to. And if you believe that it begins at birth, or somewhere around the second trimester, or when the kid finally goes to college, that’s a conversation we can have, one that I hope would be respectful and empathetic and fearless. We can’t have it if those of us who believe that human life exists in utero are afraid we’re somehow going to flub it for the cause. In an Op-Ed on “Why I’m Pro-Choice” in the Michigan Daily this week, Emma Maniere stated, quite perfectly, that “Some argue that abortion takes lives, but I know that abortion saves lives, too.” She understands that it saves lives not just in the most medically literal way, but in the roads that women who have choice then get to go down, in the possibilities for them and for their families. And I would put the life of a mother over the life of a fetus every single time — even if I still need to acknowledge my conviction that the fetus is indeed a life. A life worth sacrificing.
So! Let’s review. Can we find a coherent principle in all of this?
Ms. Williams argues that yes, life begins at conception, and so a fetus is no less a life than a new-born infant (i.e., in Ms. Williams’s words, a person who has recently made “the short ride out of some lady’s vagina.”) She points out also that “we make choices about life all the time in our country.” Finally, she says, regarding the mother of the condemned party, that:
“She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always.”
Given what Ms. Williams has said elsewhere in her essay, particularly that business about the “short ride out of some lady’s vagina”, that last sentence states the case far too narrowly: the phrase “inside of her” has no good reason for being there. To be consistent, the sentence should read:
“Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of her child, whether born or unborn. Always.”
(If my understanding of this is wrong, please tell me why.)
This may seem a harsh interpretation of Ms. Williams’s position, but she‘s the one, after all, who threw away the one limiting principle that has heretofore made abortion morally justifiable, in most peoples’ eyes: to wit, that somehow a fetus is not fully alive, and so is exempt from the moral consideration that the rest of us expect. If that’s the hand Ms. Williams wants to play, then she has to play it out. It’s an admirably consistent position — which is clearly why she espoused it — and it does get around the impossibility of defining some post-conceptual “bright line” where life begins. But taken to its logical conclusion, it grants to individual women the absolute power, at their whim or convenience, to dispose of the lives of their offspring, even after they’ve been born. Maybe even until they’re headed for college.
What say you, readers?