The complexities of abortion

How becoming a mother made me a better thinker.

Posted Jun 09, 2011

As a young teenager and through a lot of my college career, I identified as "pro-life"; that is, I believed that women should not have a right to abort a fetus they created as a result of voluntary sexual intercourse. After taking my undergraduate Bioethics class (and falling in love with the subject - indeed, it is the only Bioethics class I ever took even though it is now my main area of research), my professor helped me to see that there are pretty solid pro-choice arguments - the most convincing for me being Judith Jarvis Thomson's argument that no person is obligated to use their body to sustain the life of another person. Just as I cannot force you to give me even in milliliter of blood to sustain my life (even though I am a person with a right to life), a woman cannot be compelled to use her body to sustain the fetus (even if the fetus were considered a person). I carried that view with me for a long time, through my graduate training, and right up until July 2008, when I saw my daughter's image for the first time on the ultrasound screen. That first image was, to use Rudolf Otto's term, awe-ful. The ultrasound technician pressed the wand against my belly and the little fetus somersaulted in response. While the technician continued to speak to us, my little tenant continued frolicking in my womb. My husband and I drove home in silence afterwards. While stopped at a red light he commented, out of the blue, that after seeing our fetus, he could never bring himself to abort it. My response seemed so foreign given my beliefs: Neither could I.

Being pregnant and giving birth has given me a new found respect for fetal life - whether or not I think the fetus is a person with the full rights of an extra-uterine person is irrelevant. I believe it is a being worthy of respect. The purpose of this entry, however, is not to argue in favor of this. What being pregnant made clear to me was that abortion is a far more complex moral issue that I thought it was when I identified as pro-life and also when I identified as pro-choice. Being pregnant, feeling the fetus growing inside of me, being subjected to the physical turmoil and dangers of pregnancy, and understanding, really understanding, how hard it is to raise a baby made me far more sensitive to arguments on both sides of the issue. And one thing that my subsequent research has taught me is that many advocates on both sides lack appreciation for the complexities of the issue.

A 1989 case study by Marsha Vanderford illustrates that pro-choice and pro-life advocates use similar tactics to slander and vilify each other. Pro-choice advocates largely dismiss pro-life advocates with accusation of religious extremism, and charge them with wanting to relegate women back into oppression. Pro-life advocates accuse pro-choice advocates of being Communists (a term that incited much fear during the Cold War era) with an agenda that includes compulsory abortions. It seems safe to say that such an unfortunate trend continues today. Many pro-choice advocates do not regard pro-life advocates as genuinely good people who truly believe that fetuses are morally equivalent to infants, and are troubled at the killing of beings who they perceive as innocent persons whose right to live has been violated. Rather, pro-life advocates are charged with sexism, elitism, and authoritarianism. They are viewed as religious extremists and as perpetuators of a rhetoric of fear and hate. Certainly, this describes some individuals on the pro-life side. For example, Scott Roeder, who murdered abortion-provider Dr. George Tiller in 2009, seemed to have done so given religious convictions. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who delivered the Roe v. Wade majority opinion, was exposed to a high degree of hate mail and "personal abuse" from many who opposed the legalization of abortion. But this does not describe all abortion-rights opponents; indeed, it may not even describe the majority of them, since many of them condemned Tiller's murder, for example.

Pro-choice advocates are equally vilified. They are not viewed as people with genuine disagreements about the moral status of the fetus (no pro-choice advocate sincerely thinks abortion is akin to killing children), or with concerns about the very real plights and sufferings of single mothers and unwanted children, or with a deep conviction that women are entitled to equal opportunities and treatments as men in the social world, which can very well be impeded by her biological capacity to become pregnant and by the deep-seated expectation that child care predominately falls on women's shoulders. Rather, pro-choice advocates are viewed as people with ulterior motives, pushing abortion in order to make a profit at the expense of women in difficult situations. They are described as anti-family and anti-child. They are portrayed as evil people who advocate, sell, and revel in the destruction of infants.

Vilifying pregnant women who abort rather than immersing oneself in her world, her circumstances, her concerns, her pains, her hopes, dreams, aspirations, and limitations makes it easy to write off all abortions as intrinsically immoral. It allows one the luxury of ignoring the very real negative circumstances facing young and single mothers, and the collective responsibility we all share in our purportedly (but not actual) pronatalist society for raising our future generation. Writing a pregnant woman off as self-serving for aborting means we don't have to struggle with her as she makes the very real, life-altering, decision to either continue educating herself or building a place in society for herself, or to become a mother - and we don't have to question the moral dimensions of our societal practices that imposes such a decision onto women, rather than fighting for a society where single motherhood is not mutually exclusive with developing oneself as an individual. We don't have to face the inconsistency of telling women that they cannot abort and must bear a child in a society where single parenthood is correlated with poverty, and then also simultaneously admonish them as "welfare mothers" when they must rely on public funds to care for the infants that those fetuses become. Vilifying women who abort means that we do not have to take a serious look at the social circumstances that underlie so many decisions to abort and, therefore, we do not feel the need to fix them. It means that we become impervious to all the evidence that illustrates that women who abort tend to be mothers (and so very much care about children and family), typically used contraception when engaging in sexual activity (and so are not necessarily sexually irresponsible), and often abort because of financial difficulties and lack of support (and so not necessarily due to mere convenience or selfishness). Writing women who abort off as careless monsters means that we don't have to engage in very real stories of struggle and heartache.

Similarly, deriding human fetuses as mere tissue, parasites, or clumps of cells allows us to ignore the complexity of questions concerning the beginning of personhood, the nature of moral status and rights, and the ambiguities that comes with the destruction of human life (which is a complexity that extends from abortion to other topics, such as collateral damage in war, euthanasia, embryo research, and the death penalty). Describing fetuses as such is biologically inaccurate. By the time a woman finds out she is pregnant, the embryo/fetus is beyond the zygotic stage of development, where it can very literally be described as a clump of cells. Yet continuing to refer to them as such during pregnancy facilitates viewing abortion solely as a medical, rather than moral, issue. If fetuses are nothing more than mere "parasites," their removal from a womb is as inconsequential as the removal of all other parasites from their host's body. If fetuses are nothing but "products of conception," then, like all products, they can be disposed according to the whims of their "owner" without a second thought. If fetuses really are mere "tissue" akin to any other organic material in the body, then they can be as easily removed as an appendix. If they are merely "clumps of cells," then their destruction is no more morally important than when I scratch my arm and destroy other kinds of clumps of cells. Regarding fetuses this way means we don't have to deal with the accurate statement that many pro-life advocates often repeat: that abortion really does stop a beating heart. Abortion really does destroy a live member of the species Homo sapiens; an entity that is, at the very least, a potential person - and this makes abortion utterly unlike removing a parasite, or tissue, or a clump of cells. While we can legitimately debate what all this means for ascribing personhood and rights onto a fetus, we should at least honestly acknowledge that abortion involves the killing of a being very much unlike all the terms that are typically used to dehumanize it.

Acknowledging all these complexities both in regards to women who abort and to fetal life leads to a deeper, more nuanced position on abortion. And all this serves to emphasize what should be the position on abortion from both the pro-choice and pro-life perspective: the abortion question is hard. The fact that we have been debating this issue for so long, spanning generations and different ideological groups, illustrates that, in the words of one of my most keen and insightful students, you cannot summarize the arguments either for or against abortion in the space is takes to fill a bumper sticker. Writing off pregnant women and fetuses with the terms described here simplifies a very difficult problem and helps to ensure that our national debate regarding abortion remains in a state of stagnate polemics. It may make it easier for us to make up our minds about where we stand, as it is easier for us to make up our minds concerning where we stand on the ethics of a particular war if we view our "enemies" as nonhumans, or where we stand on the issue of illegal immigration if we view all Mexicans as malevolent criminals, but it is not the intellectually honest way, and it is far from the best way, of approaching a very difficult moral issue.

So what am I now, you may be wondering? I am not the pro-life child I once was, and I am not the pro-choice young adult I once was. That is not to say I have no ultimate stance on whether abortion should or shouldn't be a legal option for women - I do. But my stance is irrelevant. The point is how I got to my current position is a product of studying abortion in light of philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, religion, social concerns, feminism, and politics. It means that I actually had to engage in difficult complex thought - as we all should when we are dealing with moral dilemmas (but, unfortunately fail all too often to do). It means that I had to stop thinking that my position was the obviously right one, and I had to stop vilifying those with whom I disagree. I think most our society's dialogues (not just about abortion, but about our current wars, the economy, religion, universal health care, illegal immigration, and same-sex marriage, for example) would benefit from a similar shot of civility and rationality.

And to think it all started with a simple ultrasound.