Because I like pain, last night I attended a lecture brought in by the campus Republicans: “The Ugly Truth about Abortion: How It Does More Than Just Kill Babies”, by Kristan Hawkins, the head of Students for Life of America, and a recent transplant to Minnesota…so I guess we’ll be hearing more noise from her in the near future. Lucky us.
It was reasonably well attended, with about 70 people there, most student age, but there were a few grey heads up front — some of our local anti-choice activists. At the end, many expressed their approval of her talk. I couldn’t. It was stupid and dishonest.
In her introduction, she conveniently summed up the entirety of her case in two sentences:
1. Abortion kills a living human being, and
2. Abortion harms women and our nation
She failed to make either case. For instance, here’s one of her arguments, taken directly from a slide:
If the preborn is growing, isn’t it alive?
If it has human parents, isn’t it human?
And if living human being like you and me have rights, then why don’t they?
Setting aside the loaded word “preborn”, of course a fetus is alive. And of course its cells are taxonomically human — but that begs the question. Is it a person? I’d say no, not yet, and that personhood is defined by a very fuzzy boundary. Which makes talking about their rights moot.
The weird thing about her whole argument is that it applies perfectly to tumors, as well. Cancer is growing, and alive; it has human ‘parents’, and its cells are human; so if Kristan Hawkins has rights, why doesn’t a melanoma? We clearly do not simply give rights and privileges to collections of cells because they have human ancestry — we have other criteria, often assumed and unstated, that we use to assign rights.
In the next part of her talk, she dismisses her critics by claiming to address three categories of arguments: biology, circumstances, and autonomy.
She announced that the biology argument was the easiest to rebut. This is only true because being ignorant of biology makes everything simpler. She made familiar arguments: at the moment of conception, a unique whole human being comes into existence, with a unique combination of DNA. To which I say, if uniqueness is the criterion for preserving an organism, shouldn’t she be as vociferous in defending the rights of cows to live? They’re all unique, too. Shouldn’t the anti-choice picketers be out working to preserve unique habitats and endangered species?
One thing that was novel is that she emphasized the claim that a whole human being is created at the instant of conception. She made two arguments along that line. One was an argumentum ad google-um — search for pictures of a fertilized egg, and gosh wow look, it’s not called an egg anymore! It’s a zygote! It’s not an egg, it’s a human, and science proves it.
The other argument was a strange handwavey thing in which she declared that once it’s fertilized, the zygote carries out a complete internal program of development, therefore it’s “whole” and independent of the parent. All it needs is mere nutrition supplied to it. Which is great to hear, as I guess that means we’ll have artificial wombs tomorrow.
I’d flip that argument around, though. The zygote is not “whole”: there is a long series of transformations and interactions ahead of it to yield a functioning autonomous human being. To call a zygote “whole” is analogous to calling an iron ingot a car.
There were other weirdnesses I won’t dwell on, like her announcement that the Father of Modern Genetics had decreed that like begets like, therefore the fetus is fully human. Wait, what? Thomas Hunt Morgan said that? No, that wasn’t who she meant: she’s talking about Jerome Lejeune, the Father of Modern Genetics, who is so important that I’ve never heard him mentioned even once in 40 years of studying and teaching genetics…but the anti-choice movement has elevated him to the status of saintly icon because he was a clinical geneticist who was Catholic and had fully accepted their doctrine.
She also announced that people have intrinsic value, unlike animals, and dismissed the criterion of nervous system function, because if developing a brain makes you a person, then we need to have varying degrees of personhood.
Her arguments against circumstances as a justification were even more bizarre: they consisted of making up strange hypothetical scenarios. If it’s OK for a pregnant 14 year old to get an abortion because it’s going to ruin her opportunities for education and a career, is it then OK if she has the baby, but two years later complains that the toddler is ruining her opportunities for an education and a career, and then has it killed? The problem here is that we’re able to recognize that a fetus and a toddler are not equivalent: one is aware and interacting with the world, the other is grossly incomplete and in a state of total, passive dependence. But Hawkins has an answer for that.
There is no philosophical difference between the adult you are now and the embryo you once were that would justify killing you. There is no difference between you and the embryo!
That’s her premise. That’s what generates her absolutist stance: there is no difference between me, a 57 year old man, and a freshly fertilized zygote. Well gosh, since fertilized zygotes are naturally slaughtered in vast numbers all the time, and reality doesn’t seem to have any special regard for embryos, then the flip side of her conclusion must be that it’s perfectly OK to murder people.
Her arguments against autonomy are just as bad: more hypothetical scenarios and anecdotes. Hey, so is it OK for a pregnant woman to take thalidomide then? Is elective abortion of girl fetuses acceptable? Can I get pregnant, abort the fetus, and use its body parts in an art project? This drug-addicted woman refused to get a C-section because it would leave a scar, prolonged her pregnancy dangerously, and when she finally had it done, one of her twins was dead and the other was addicted to crack. That one had me thinking, “Well, she should have had an abortion earlier — it sounds like she wasn’t going to be a fit mother, either.”
I’d have to say that I’d agree that all of her scenarios were awful, but that arguments against them wouldn’t rest on the magical personhood of the fetus. They have to do with consequences to the child, if carried to term, or to society.
Finally, after a series of bad arguments, she gets around to her Ugly Truths. Ugly Half-Truths would be more like it.
Ugly Truth #1: legalizing abortion did not make abortion nor pregnancy safe. In 1950, she said, there were only 263 deaths from illegal abortions, which wsa roughly the same number of deaths seen in hospital abortions. Unfortunately, this was ludicrous cherry picking of the data. Here are some real facts.
One stark indication of the prevalence of illegal abortion was the death toll. In 1930, abortion was listed as the official cause of death for almost 2,700 women—nearly one-fifth (18%) of maternal deaths recorded in that year. The death toll had declined to just under 1,700 by 1940, and to just over 300 by 1950 (most likely because of the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, which permitted more effective treatment of the infections that frequently developed after illegal abortion). By 1965, the number of deaths due to illegal abortion had fallen to just under 200, but illegal abortion still accounted for 17% of all deaths attributed to pregnancy and childbirth that year. And these are just the number that were officially reported; the actual number was likely much higher.
She also made a weirdly muddled argument, comparing the legality of abortion to maternal mortality rates in childbirth. She pointed out that the US has the most liberal abortion laws (on paper, but not in practice, I would say) and has high maternal mortality rates, that is, deaths in childbirth, while Ireland has completely outlawed all abortion, and has the lowest maternal mortality rates in the world (which may be a statistical error, but never mind). What those statistics have to do with one another, I don’t know, and she didn’t explain. But again, I’m thinking the reverse of what she does: if normal childbirth in the US is so dangerous, isn’t that an argument for abortion? She also praised Ireland without mentioning Savita Halappanavar.
Ugly Truth #2: abortion is proven to hurt women physically and emotionally. She has an anecdote: a video of a woman named Kelly Georgia, who deeply regrets her abortion. She claims that the suicide rate is 6 times higher for women who have abortions, and that there is increased risk for breast cancer, citing the National Cancer Institute.
This is simply lying with partial statistics and badly done studies. The best evidence says that abortion does not increase women’s risk of mental health problems. You can jigger the stats by doing inappropriate comparisons and inappropriate controls: poor, desperate women are more likely to commit suicide than women in stable, comfortable situations: guess which group is more likely to have problems with depression and illness?
The abortion and breast cancer link is a flat out lie. The NCI says no: the link is that pregnancy before the age of 30 has a protective effect, reducing the incidence of breast cancer, for reasons that are not clear. You could better argue that not getting pregnant increases your risk for breast cancer, which is true, but also means that becoming a nun is carcinogenic.
Ugly Truth #3: Abortion is a big business that profits from her crisis. Planned Parenthood makes millions of dollars! 92% of Planned Parenthood’s business was abortions! Planned Parenthood has abortion quotas. There was a heck of a lot of hate for Planned Parenthood on the stage and in the audience.
The stats are not true. Abortions represent about 3% of Planned Parenthood’s contacts with patients; they are more expensive than handing out condoms or doing pap smears, so they are a bigger chunk of their revenue and expenses, but it’s definitely not 92%. Planned Parenthood provides a full range of women’s medical services, and abortion services are part of it.
As I was leaving the talk, by the way, I passed their table where they were handing out literature, and a woman from the audience breathlessly recounted the latest conspiracy theory: did you know that Planned Parenthood intentionally injects young women who visit with hormones to make them fertile, so that they’re more likely to get pregnant and come back for an abortion? The woman from Students for Life of America behind the table said,
I’m not surprised, they make millions of dollars from abortions.
Other half truths that emerged: Hawkins doesn’t like contraception, either, and announced that hormonal contraception is a carcinogen. So it is! Progesterone has properties that would get it classified as a human carcinogen, just like broccoli and beer. And that means, ladies, that your ovaries are trying to kill you, because they’re constantly trickling out a carcinogenic hormone.
The truth, as always, is more complex. Hormones modulate cellular activity; increasing the mitotic activity of cells increases the risk of errors that lead to cancer. So, basically, living is carcinogenic. The NCI has a fact sheet on oral contraceptives.
A number of studies suggest that current use of oral contraceptives (birth control pills) appears to slightly increase the risk of breast cancer, especially among younger women. However, the risk level goes back to normal 10 years or more after discontinuing oral contraceptive use.
Women who use oral contraceptives have reduced risks of ovarian and endometrial cancer. This protective effect increases with the length of time oral contraceptives are used.
Oral contraceptive use is associated with an increased risk of cervical cancer; however, this increased risk may be because sexually active women have a higher risk of becoming infected with human papillomavirus, which causes virtually all cervical cancers.
Women who take oral contraceptives have an increased risk of benign liver tumors, but the relationship between oral contraceptive use and malignant liver tumors is less clear.
See? Reality is always messier than the black & white lies the anti-choicers recite.
Ugly Truth #4: abortion is counter to what feminist founders envisioned. Did you know that Susan B. Anthony, Julia Ward Howe, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, etc. all disliked abortion and thought women’s ability to reproduce was beautiful and wonderful? That’s fine, yes, I knew that sexual and social mores a century or more ago were different. It’s a good thing I don’t hold anyone’s opinions sacred!
Ugly Truth #5: abortion exploits women and enables cover-up of abuse. Here she recites stories of men who forced women to get abortions they didn’t want; of cases of continuing incest which were covered up by the rapists forcing their victims to abort the evidence. Those were truly horrible. The pro-choice position isn’t that women must get abortions, but that it’s the choice of the pregnant woman, so I think we’d all agree that forcing women to abort is wrong. I don’t think that she gets to imply that she’s on the side of the women victims here, though, unlike those wicked pro-choicers who would probably cheer at the idea of rapists compelling abortions (no, we wouldn’t).
And then she brags about how when she’s praying in front of a clinic women, in the midst of those mobs waving graphic placards, cursing women for killing babies, and trying to guilt them into turning around, the women are in tears when they enter and in tears when they leave, therefore they’re all grieving and being given no choice. What? I’ve seen those fanatics at the clinics. They’d make me cry.
And then one more non sequitur: Murder is the leading cause of death for pregnant women. Yes, that is awful, many men are wretched awful creatures with destructive attitudes towards women. That is not an argument against abortion.
Finally, at the end of her talk…it wouldn’t be an anti-choice talk without waving bloody fetuses around, now would it? So she showed a one minute video titled “Abortion: Before and After” with pictures of aborted fetuses. Meh. I’ve seen worse. Surgical procedures can be bloody and messy and produce disgusting by-products. But this was, of course, pure emotional manipulation: people react viscerally to viscera.
There were then a few questions, which I’ll quickly summarize.
Q1: This one was just an odd waste of time. “Which is better? Eternity of boredom or century of ecstasy?” She refused to answer as off-topic. I don’t blame her.
Q2: On what do you base claim that humans have intrinsic value? A: Because we were created. Q: Were animals created? A: Yes, but not in image of god. Who would have guessed she was religious?
Q3: What about nurses, doctors, mother etc. if abortion is illegal? Would they all be arrested? A: Abortionist would be jailed. Mother is a victim.
Q4: Old shouty guy: People just don’t realize what Planned Parenthood does. What can we do to get the word across? A: Planned Parenthood was convicted of double-billing the government. Wants law to prevent government money to organizations convicted of defrauding the government. When we elect a Republican president, Planned Parenthood will be defunded. (Another case of glossing over the truth: Planned Parenthood settled a profit-seeking suit from a former employee, who alleged double-billing. It’s more complicated than Hawkins made it out to be.)
Q5: Older woman: Amen to all that. A friend said they were against abortion, but went to an abortion clinic and learned that women had to go through counseling before making decision. Is that true? I don’t know what they do in the clinic. A: True, but not relevant to whether abortion is wrong. It depends on the clinic. There are conflicting stories — and then she told a set of vaguely sourced anecdotes about Planned Parenthood forcing women to go through abortions even though they’d changed their minds.
Q6: A comment, not a question. The idea that Roe v Wade changed conversation about abortion is not true. States started legalizing it before the decision, so overturning Roe wouldn’t suddenly change the situation.
And then I went home at last, unimpressed. She delivered what I expected: lots of bullshit. Before I went, I had a private bet with myself that she was going to be one of those people who claimed that abortion causes breast cancer, and sad to say, I won. Why am I not surprised that it’s local Republican who brought in such an awful speaker?