So What if I Hadn't Been Born?

When I blogged over at Slate’s XX Factor (now Double X), I grew fond of Rachael Larimore, with whom I agreed to disagree with on almost everything. I am not being sarcastic. Recently, I heard a rabbi talk about the importance of discussing major issues not to convert others—not to win—but to “improve the quality of our disagreements.” I love this concept as a way to improve our public discourse on core political subjects, which are often religious wars in another guise.

And so I am going to continue my tradition of disagreeing with Rachael, who recently posted an item titled Pro-Choicers Hate the "What if I Hadn't Been Born" Question. Here's Why. Rachael was responding to Amanda Marcotte’s post about precisely that question. Rachael says that pro-choice arguments rely on the idea that

… women should be allowed to abort their unplanned pregnancies because unwanted children grow up poor, neglected, abused or some combination thereof. It can’t allow for the possibility that some “unwanted” children actually grow up in loving homes and become responsible, even successful, adults; or that couples who take responsibility for unplanned children can be as good of parents as couples who wait until they’re ready to have a family.

Then she notes that she was born to teen parents in 1972, before Roe, and rejoices in the fact that, therefore, she’s alive.

But her argument relies on a factual error and a debatable premise. The first is this:

An aborted fetus had a heartbeat, and a brain, and, depending on the gestational age, tiny arms and legs and maybe even fingers and toes. It was human.

Well, that depends on your definition of human—and of fetus. According to the Guttmacher Institute, widely considered the most reliable source of accurate facts on the reproductive debates, nine out of ten abortions take place in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. That’s not a fetus; it’s an embryo—a little cluster of cells smaller than a thumb. If you believe that a human life begins when the sperm smacks through the embryo’s cell wall and offers the potential of a life that grows from that unique genetic material, well, the distinction between thumb-size embryo and semi-human fetus doesn’t matter. But I find that impossible to understand.

But the debatable premise is that concept of an individual right to to be born. Rachael values her existence, which is fabulous; we all should. I value mine as well—in part because existence is so very temporary and random, with no guarantees. I simply can’t believe that there's a moral mandate that every possible life must become an actual one. So what if I hadn’t been born? Who would notice?

I was “a surprise,” as my mother likes to put it, conceived around a diaphragm. (Two of my three siblings also know the failed contraceptive method that resulted in our births. We're an irreverent family.) At one point in the pregnancy, it looked as if my mother might miscarry, and doctors put her on bedrest. After a few days of that, she says, she decided that if this baby wanted to be born, it would be, and if not, well, too bad. She went back to work. 

Obviously the cells that became me hung on, tenacious and stubborn (then and still). But so what if they hadn’t? What if my mother had miscarried, or the diaphragm hadn’t slipped, or she had decided that 22 was too young to be a mother? Here’s what: no one would know the difference. There would be no “me” to regret not existing. Someone else would have enjoyed the privileges of being the beloved first great-grandchild, first grandchild, and first child. Those people who love me would love someone else—just as passionately and richly, I have no doubt. The people who did get born would enjoy the glory of swimming in the ocean, of porcini ravioli with fresh parmesan, of kissing my eight-year-old’s head, of watching the sun rise as the moon sets—and would suffer all the accompanying slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Nature is exuberantly fertile and indifferent, a vast gamble, tossing out many possible seeds and not caring which takes root. To me, what matters is that new life happens. It doesn’t particularly matter which new life happens, whether human or mushroom.

I find it absolutely impossible to believe that spiritual magic strikes when a sperm fertilizes an egg, divides into a blastocyst, or curls into an embryo. If it’s okay to abstain from sex, or to use contraception, then it’s okay to clean out a uterus of those gathering storm cells as well. (I might be a little queasier after “quickening”—the traditional division between potential and actual life—but I trust that complex choice to each individual.) I’ve never needed an abortion—my contraceptive method is infallible—but I don’t see why any woman should be a mandatory incubator. If you believe that something magic happens when two cells join up to launch a new DNA regime, fine: carry to term. As the slogan has it, if you’re against abortion, don’t have one. I know that my mother and I are outliers—for most people this is a difficult question—but I just don't get the sentimentality about a clutch of dividing cells. And legislating othersbehavior based on a spiritual belief (and while Larimore says she’s not religious, her justification is still a belief) strikes me as theocratic, even totalitarian. And while Rachael might be a less prominent voice in this discussion, I would say the same to those few others—William Saletan?—open to a discussion in the spirit of better understanding our disagreements.

And now, Rachael, back to you.

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