I love it when people who disagree with me have questions (actual questions, not just point-scoring attempts) about my beliefs. So I was delighted to come across London preacher Andrew Haslam’s post ‘Ten Questions for Pro-Choice People‘.
Let me state my purpose up front: I’m a pro-lifer with ten genuine questions aimed at pro-choice people, and I’m hoping that you (dear reader) will keep on reading to the end.
But I’m also realistic. The chance of keeping your attention on such a matter of deep division is not going to be easy, not least because you may well imagine me to be misogynistic and backward.
I was passionately pro-life for a year and a half in my late teens after being recruited to that viewpoint by two schoolmates; I was too disorganised to join a group, but it was still a belief I held 100%. So, no, I don’t assume people are misogynistic or backward just because they’re pro-life. (Readers will probably wonder how I came to change sides so thoroughly on this; the short answer is that all the reading and thinking about the subject that I was doing in order to mutter righteously to myself about how much I disagreed with pro-choicers eventually had the opposite effect and brought me round the full 180o on the topic. I’ll write the full version someday.)
And so, I urge you to read and even respond.
You betcha. You had me at ‘ten genuine questions aimed at pro-choice people’.
A few quick notes:
1. I plan to answer the questions over the course of multiple posts, as I think there’ll be too much material here to cover in one go.
2. I originally planned to work through them in order (dull and conventional person that I am), but, as I mentally drafted my answers, I realised that some of the most fundamental points come up in the last couple of questions and that it’ll work better if I answer those first. So I’m going to answer the questions in reverse order. (
The first two have ended up being particularly long, by the way, but this won’t be the case for all of them ooookaaaay, forget that bit, I think most of them are ending up a lot longer than I’d anticipated.)
3. Like Andrew, I want this discussion to stay rational and civil, so I’m going to stipulate now that any commenters have to stick to that rule as well. If you want to disagree (with me, with Andrew, or with both of us) go right ahead; but either keep it polite and respectful, or take it elsewhere. I will enforce this if need be.
That covers the background, so on to the questions!
10. When does a person become a person? This is really the question to rule them all. Everything depends on this.
No, it doesn’t. Here’s why:
No-one has the right to make use of an unwilling person’s organs. Yet that’s what happens when a woman is made to continue a pregnancy she doesn’t want; a decision that that fetus should live cannot be separated from the decision that she has to keep it within her body with all that that entails. And ‘all that that entails’ is not trivial by any means. Even a normal, uncomplicated pregnancy is typically going to involve significant amounts of nausea or fatigue or both, with intense pain at the end in giving birth. There’s a high chance of either genital tearing or major abdominal surgery at the end. That’s in a normal pregnancy. There’s also a non-negligible chance of developing more significant medical complications, which can in some cases be long-term. While it’s rare for medical complications actually to reach the point of proving fatal, it still happens and it’s less rare in women with continued pregnancies than in women who have early abortions.
On top of this, the rest of a woman’s life is not going to stay on hold while she deals with all this. So pregnancy can have severe impacts on her ability to manage her day-to-day responsibilities, and that, again, can have far-reaching consequences. And on top of that, she’s faced with a dilemma that will have consequences for her lifelong: due to the way hormones prime the bodies of the pregnant to bond to the children they give birth to, it’s going to be difficult, often impossible, for her to face giving up even a child that was unwanted in the first place… but the alternative is to take on the massive, life-changing job of raising that child.
There isn’t an exact analogy to all this, but the closest we have is organ donation, which saves the life of one person at the cost of significant physical impact and bodily invasion for another. Well… we don’t legally compel people to donate their kidneys, even though that saves lives. We don’t even compel people to donate bone marrow or blood, which are considerably less invasive procedures. The law recognises that even the saving of lives doesn’t override the basic right to have veto power over what gets done to our bodies.
It’s possible that you, or another pro-life reader, is shocked or offended that I describe pregnancy and birth in such negative terms. In case anyone reading it did react that way, to them I say this: Ask yourself what part of the description above you believe to be inaccurate. My guess is that what bothers you is not that you felt any part of it was actually inaccurate, but that it’s incomplete; that you’re bothered that I would list only negatives about pregnancy and childbirth without mentioning the positives. Then think about how often our society in general holds precisely that expectation; that women should be willing to overlook or tolerate all of the risks and difficulties I mentioned, all in the name of a sort of awe and reverence at the wonder of creating new life. If it makes anyone feel any better, I can assure you that, on a personal level, I certainly do feel the ‘wonder of new life’ aspect to be the overreaching one; that’s why I have two loved and very much wanted children and was more than happy to go through all of the downsides to pregnancy and birth. But doing so only made me much more aware of how difficult it can be (and, in fact, my experience was a relatively easy one in all sorts of ways) and of how horrible an idea it is to decide that we should force this experience on pregnant people collectively, regardless of their feelings on the matter.
So, to get back to your question above… no, the question of when a person becomes a person doesn’t do a thing to decide the abortion debate. I don’t, as it happens, agree with the idea that the answer is ‘As soon as the chromosomes are all together in the same cell’, but that’s still irrelevant. To answer your follow-up question of ‘When did you become you?’, my personal answer to that is probably that I started becoming me when I was sixteen and that I’m still making tweaks here and there (and probably always will be). Which, of course, is irrelevant to the question of when I first had a right to life; neither of us believe that my right to life started only at the point that I retrospectively feel, based on changes and developments in my personality at the time, to be the start of what I’d consider as my essential me-ness, so ‘When did you become you?’ isn’t that useful a question here. But, far more importantly, it’s also entirely irrelevant to the question of ‘When did you first develop the right to make prolonged and intimate use of someone else’s body against their wishes to keep yourself alive?’ The answer to that question is that I never had that right and never will have. I’m delighted that my mother did choose to have me – I love being alive – but my happiness that things turned out the way they did in terms of my existence doesn’t give me any sort of retrospective right to claim that they should have turned out that way.
9. What do you think our descendants will think of us?
I doubt that either side of the debate will ever win out significantly enough for our descendants to look back on the other side as some horrifying archaism (although I certainly hope we reach the point where use of reliable long-acting reversible contraception is so routine and widespread that our descendants look back in astonishment on the times when unwanted pregnancy was ever as common a problem as it is now), so I don’t think this question itself particularly gets the debate any further. However, I want to look at some of your follow-up questions in this section, as they’re worth discussing.
Western society has been shown to be wrong on some key human rights issues in the past – most notably slavery and racial prejudice. […] But do you not suppose that we have equally glaring blind spots in our seemingly advanced age?
I’m sure we do; I just don’t believe that ‘people should not be compelled to remain pregnant against their wishes’ is one of them.
I am confident that some future generation will look back on us with disgust for two reasons: (1) The logical inconsistencies of the pro-choice movement will become clearer over time, just as the pro-slavery movement eventually lost the argument
I think there are a couple of problems with that analogy.
The pro-slavery movement were initially able to hold sway because so many of the general public believed that black people were fundamentally different from/inferior to white people, but this view was gradually changed by, in large part, black people themselves; the writings and speeches of former or current slaves made it very clear that they were people and that it was a monstrous injustice to enslave them or treat them in ways that wouldn’t be acceptable to white people. That wasn’t by any means the only factor that eventually led to abolitionists winning the day, but it was a significant part of what changed the minds of the public as a whole.
Now, of course, the first problem you have with applying that strategy to the pro-life message is that fetuses don’t write or make speeches. While that doesn’t in itself make your arguments invalid, it does mean that you’re missing one of the major factors that changed people’s mind over abolitionism. The other big problem with your analogy is that we don’t really have the same situation here; ignorance over facts isn’t that significant a reason why people disagree with you. Most people already know about fetal development. They already know that development starts from conception. They already know what fetuses look like. The problem is not that we don’t know these things; the problem is that we disagree with you about what conclusions to draw about the morality of abortion. Most people (even among the nominally pro-life) don’t really see ‘This cell now has the full genetic makeup of a human being’ or ‘This cell has the full potential to develop into a baby’ as good enough reasons for a zygote to be regarded as equivalent to a child.
(2) Advances in medicine and science will make it more difficult to sustain a hard boundary between ‘blob of cells’ and ‘human being’, and with no such boundary there is no longer any conscionable reason for allowing abortion at any point after conception.
There’s an assumption here that’s a key argument among pro-lifers, and certainly one I initially found compelling in my pro-life days; the idea that we have to have some sort of clearly definable reason for drawing this boundary at one point rather than another. I remember thinking of this as the ‘Sherlock Holmes argument’; when you have eliminated the impossible then what remains, however improbable, must be your answer. It’s impossible to point to any other reasonably clearcut point on the continuum of development, so therefore, however improbable it is that a single cell should be considered a person and granted full human rights, that has to be the point at which we do these things. And I was utterly convinced of the necessity of this; after all, without that kind of clearly definable boundary, obviously we would be on a slippery slope in which allowing abortion up to any given time limit would inevitably, due to the lack of clear reasons for that particular limit, lead to us allowing it after that time limit, and then to allowing infanticide, and then inexorably on to allowing us to kill off anyone of any age.
And then one day, apropos of nothing much, it hit me that… this was not actually happening. This was in the late ’80s, so abortion had been legal in the UK for over twenty years by then. During that time, the legal limit on abortion had remained exactly the same. It hadn’t been pushed out further. We hadn’t legalised infanticide. There didn’t seem to be any howling mobs calling for those things to happen. I remember being quite confused by this – after all, the pro-life argument in this area seemed unassailably logical – but I couldn’t deny that, however logically pro-lifers argued that this would happen, it clearly wasn’t happening.
It was only years later that I realised where the flaw had lain in my initial logic: people are, in fact, completely capable of drawing an arbitrary boundary across a continuum, and do so all the time. We do that with deciding the age at which people are old enough to consent to sex, to drive, to vote, to marry. We draw legal boundaries for the ages of all those things and we keep to them; not because there is any sort of fundamental identifiable difference between a person on their sixteenth or seventeenth or eighteenth birthday and the same person the day before, but because we recognise that’s the best, albeit imperfect, way to deal with the fact that people gradually develop from a stage in which they can’t safely handle those situations to a stage in which they have the mental development to be at least allowed to try. We disagree on where exactly those legal boundaries should be, and sometimes those disagreements result in us changing them… but we don’t, as a society, reach the conclusion that because there is no biological or developmental reason for drawing a hard boundary between a teenager of fifteen years plus 364 days and a sixteen-year-old then that means it’s fine to have sex with young children.
And we do the same thing with abortion laws. Most people don’t want a situation where abortion is banned from conception on. Most people don’t want a situation where a person can legally decide to abort at any time up until birth. (That ‘most people’, by the way, includes people giving birth, which is why the apocryphal ‘but what if a woman chose to have an abortion five minutes before birth??’ scenario that crops up so often in pro-life arguments has never, to my knowledge, been known to show up in real life.) People do, for the most part, acknowledge that fetal development is a continuum and believe that this continuum should be reflected in abortion law.
So, no; the lack of a hard boundary after conception does not mean that we need to ban abortion from conception on.
8. Why is it more acceptable to fight for the rights of animals than of unborn humans?
Overall, I’m not sure it is. (Granted, that collection of links is pretty anecdotal evidence, but it does indicate that there are a lot of people out there getting stick for their beliefs in animal rights.) Of course, there are certainly some people who are more sympathetic to the animal rights cause than to the pro-life cause; without wanting to generalise about anyone else’s views, I think the factors there are a) the view I described when answering question 10 in the last post, namely that enforced continued pregnancy isn’t morally acceptable regardless of how we regard fetuses, and b) a belief that ‘presence of sentient awareness’ is a more defensible deciding factor than ‘species membership’ when regarding what protections a being should have.
As a rule, vegans are not considered to be among the lunatic fringe. Unlike pro-lifers, they usually get respect for their beliefs.
Apart from the points I made above, I think you’re talking apples and oranges there. Veganism is typically a decision that someone makes about their own personal diet; the pro-life equivalent would be a person whose beliefs about abortion lead her to decide to continue her own unwanted pregnancy, but who doesn’t believe she should make that decision for others. Vegans who go round actively campaigning for meat-eating to be made illegal and chanting that meat is murder are likely to receive rather less respect for their beliefs.
7. Why not prefer adoption over abortion?
Because it still means a) going through with the pregnancy with all that that involves and b) having to relinquish the child at the end, both of which are extremely hard to do (even with a pregnancy that wasn’t wanted).
Of course, this is still the choice that some women prefer, and I entirely agree that anyone for whom this is the choice should be allowed and supported to go through with it. However, if you’re asking why it’s usually not the preferred choice for an unwanted pregnancy… well, that’s why.
Wouldn’t it be a heroic thing to carry a baby to term and let that child live and be raised in a loving home?
It would, yes, just as it’s heroic for a surrogate mother to make the decision to become pregnant for that same purpose. Heroic acts, by definition, are over and beyond; they should never become things that people are legally compelled to do.
I don’t want to minimise the pain involved in giving away a child, but it seems to me quite obviously preferable to ending that child’s life altogether.
It’s certainly preferable for the adoptive parents who receive the child, and in most cases it’s going to be preferable for the child. In most cases it is not going to be preferable for the person who’s actually pregnant, for the reasons I gave above.
That’s four questions covered and a lengthy post so far, so this seems a good point to finish Part 1. I’ll aim to cover questions 6, 5 and 4 in Part 2 and questions 3, 2 and 1 in Part 1, and link them back to this post when I’m done.
Amended: I found vastly more to say about question 6 than I’d anticipated, so that now has a post on its own, which is here.