Anti-Abortion and Pro-Choice?

Last week, I asked: So what if I hadn’t been born? In response, Rachael Larimore at Slate kindly took up my offer to discuss, as she puts it, “the lightest of topics”: abortion.

You will not be surprised to learn that we differ on some core points. First, she believes that embryos are human beings. Here she writes:

… this photo of a 10-week-old embryo clearly shows limbs and eyes and organs and a brain. It might look like an imagined Roswell-esque alien, but if it’s not human, I don’t know what is.

Rachael, I disagree. I see an embryo, the size of a pinkie, that couldn’t survive even in the most intensive NICU. It doesn’t have a working brain, internal organs, or lungs that could function under any circumstances. It’s a mush of rapidly dividing cells with enormous potential to be a human, if nothing intervenes, like a miscarriage or a D&C. But to me, that uninhabited scrunch of cells is no more human than an acorn is an oak tree. And so I don’t agree that “it’s barbaric to kill 1 million babies a year,” since I do not see a baby in that one ounce of tissue. I don’t think women who choose abortion have committed murder, or anything even close. I think they scraped out some extra tissue that could have become babies but were not yet.

I do think, Rachael, that you honestly believe that these cells are human. I don’t think you’re some misogynist anti-sex demon who wants to impose a patriarchal regimen on American women, which I know is how some pro-choice folks imagine the opposition. But I see no moral tragedy in your declaration that in 2008 there were 1.21 million abortions. I don’t think that the moment of having heterosexual intercourse—willingly or otherwise, with or without contraception—should be the last moment when a woman may consider whether or not she would harbor a cluster of cells all the way up until it’s a full, independent, sentient being.

I know I am part of a minority—about a third of the country—that is especially anti-sentimental about embryonic development. My sense from the opinion numbers is that most people see, in those cells, a kind of sliding scale of humanity. This point of view conceives (ahem) of a fertilized egg as something more than a fingernail but not really human in the same way that you and I are, though they see a 39-week-old fetus as practically a baby. That’s why, I think, most people are okay with first-trimester abortions but have a harder time with the final trimester, and why roughly half the country believes that abortion should be legal in some circumstances but not all. Such people believe that, up to a certain point, the fertilized egg/embryo/fetus is kind of human—although not in precisely the same way that you and I are.

And yet I do believe life is sacred—so much so that I believe that actual life vastly outweighs potential life. If someone considers those multiplying and dividing cells, and concludes that her life’s circumstances outweigh that potential life’s possibilities, who are you to decide that for her? What if that pregnancy stands between her and getting away from an abusive boyfriend, or recovery from rape, or climbing out of poverty, or being able to support her other three children? What if she’s fourteen, carrying the consequences of her father’s repeated sexual assaults? What if she has an ectopic pregnancy, which will never result in an independently living child and could rupture and kill her? What if it’s the day after she’s date-raped and she takes Plan B, whose active ingredient is levonorgestrel, which scientists say works by preventing fertilization but may occasionally prevent implantation instead?

If any of these “ifs” move your heart, Rachael, then you may be anti-abortion but pro-choice—an ethically consistent position, and the position that, I believe, many Americans hold.

Consider this anecdote: I had a friend who was pregnant under horribly difficult circumstances, which she would be uncomfortable having me relate. She hated the idea of abortion. But one day she found herself standing by a train track, fighting the impulse to jump. At that point she realized that she had to treat her life as more important than was the mere promise of life inside her. Had abortion been illegal, she would have found someone to do it anywaynot just for herself but so she could continue to support her two living, breathing, actual children.

So do you feel that abortion should be against the law? Should my friend have been put in jail for that abortion? Should she have been condemned to risk bleeding to death in a hotel room when an unqualified butcher removed the embryo with a coat hanger? I know people who are against abortion, beliving as you do that it is a moral tragedy—but who still believe that it has to be legal, because otherwise women (like my friend) will risk their lives to escape nature’s accident.

None of this is abstract. Mississippi will vote next week on the radical "personhood" constitutional amendment, which would enshrine in law the formulation that "sperm + egg = person" and could outlaw some forms of contraception while also complicating medical treatment for miscarriage. (The Prospect's Pema Levy reported on the genesis of the personhood movement here last week; Irin Carmon at Salon reported on the intra-Mississippi politics of the amendment, with careful delineations of the scientific and ethical questions in play.) The consequences here are real and personal.

Do you believe you should impose your beliefs—which are fundamentally spiritual beliefs about an honest question that cannot be decided in any factual or scientific way—on others, no matter their circumstances, overriding their own ethical and moral deliberations? That’s what I mean about making women mandatory incubators. If a woman does not believe that that pinkie is a human, should the government force her to hold it inside her until it is?  

It’s possible to be anti-abortion but pro-choice. I believe many people in this country are. Do you favor the personhood amendment? Do you think abortion should be outlawed under all circumstances?


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