Bioethics is a broad and expanding field of ethical inquiry into questions concerning human life, its beginning and end, and its interaction with medicine and other technologies. When I began my formal study of bioethics, I noticed that many issues were interrelated, and the issue which had perhaps the most implications for the resolution of any other was the question of abortion. For example, a pro-life disability ethic is able to recognize that ableism begins prenatally, which prompts measures to protect fetal humans from discrimination on the basis of disability. It occurred to me only recently that, in at least some cases of abortion, the parents believe that they are aborting the child for its own good. That is to say, while abortion is the method by which the fetus is killed, the parents are really looking at the question through the lens of euthanasia.
There are many reasons why parents (or society) may believe that it would be better for a child if he or she wasn’t born. Often, the reason is a medical condition. There are cases in which a child will not survive birth, or in which the child will have a very brief and painful postnatal life. Another issue is that of prenatal diagnosis of disabilities, in which people argue that the child’s quality of life would be so low that it is hardly worth living. At times, economic factors may come into play. At least in conversations on college campuses, the possibility of hardship by way of the foster system is a concern. A lot of these concerns are understandable; people want their children to avoid pain, on the whole, and to have happy lives. But the desire to avoid pain and promote happiness is a questionable justification for depriving someone of life.
These concerns about the quality of a fetal human’s life after birth animate two different lines of argument. I want to distinguish between how each argument functions and give a response to the primary issue underlying each one. In each case, I’m going to assume a scenario in which a child has a disease which lowers the chances of surviving through hospital discharge and which would likely cause the child to have some amount of pain for the rest of its life.
Discrimination? Microaggression? Propaganda? These are common labels against pro-lifers. Anyone arguing for the rights of the unborn can expect to be characterized as enemies of women, of liberty, and of human rights. Sometimes we can learn from these accusations and pick better terms or listen with more charity. Other times, these labels just don’t fit. Or worse, they are baseless slander.
I would like to suggest that the abortion debate is riddled with a problematic term: “fetus.” At best, this term is a harmless shorthand way to refer to a “human fetus,” “fetal human,” or the “child-in-utero,” and other non-discriminatory terms. At worst, and it’s often used this way, it’s a misleading rhetorical move designed to instill dehumanizing prejudice against the unborn. Either way, we can do better.
Some may call the term “fetus” a “microaggression,” although I’m not a big fan of that concept. My grievance with this term is that it’s typically a subtle but deliberate spin in verbiage intended to relocate the discussion away from any possible implication of human rights. The net effect of that rhetoric, if left unchecked, is a dehumanizing prejudgment about the status of the unborn, as if this “fetus” isn’t really a human being. This use of terms can even be a kind of discrimination. It isn’t discrimination in the sense of breaking a law or violating someone’s civil rights. But it does qualify as verbal discrimination because it is dehumanizing and prejudicial language.
Nevertheless, despite my complaints, I don’t think this term is a huge deal. I’m not trying to make it out to be more than it is. But I do run into this issue often enough that I have to say something about it.
A pro-choice argument in the form of a series of arrogant tweets recently went viral. You would think that with all that bravado, there would have been something new or interesting, but, no, it was just the same argument that has been around for decades. Disappointing as the argument was, I did find it interesting that, the last time I experienced this argument on a college campus, the person making the argument had a similar aggressive tone.
For some reason, pro-choice people tend to think this argument demolishes the pro-life view, so it’s important to be ready to respond to it efficiently (meaning you need to focus on just a couple of disanalogies, not all of them) and persuasively (meaning you need to convince them that you aren’t just weaseling out of a problem with your view).
Tim talks with Ann (mostly obscured) with two pro-life volunteers watching. Photo credit: Justice For All. Used with permission.
Here’s what I did at a Justice For All outreach at UCLA in May of 2016. (You can find much of what I did in Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen’s book Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, which I highly recommend. Robert George also wrote this excellent article recently.)
Ann: So if life begins at conception, what would you do if you were in a burning fertility clinic and you had to choose between saving a born baby and ten frozen embryos?
Tim: That’s a great question and I’m happy to answer it, but it’s a good example of the principle that it’s easier to ask a hard question than it is to answer it. Are you willing to give me a few minutes to answer, or are you just trying to trap me?
Authors note: There are two updates at the bottom of this post for clarity and accuracy.
I need to vent a little. I just read a statement from Rep. André Jacque who is pushing a personhood amendment in Wisconsin that frustrated me, and it’s not the first time I’ve seen this kind of thing. I believe that a common talking point that grassroots pro-life people on both sides of the incrementalism/personhood debate both use needs to be retired.
State Representative André Jacque
State Representative André Jacque proposed personhood amendment in Wisconsin two weeks ago. Predictably, it has caused a lot of debate among the pro-life community in Wisconsin, because the people that are usually referred to as “incrementalists” are concerned that this bill will get nothing accomplished at best, and harm the pro-life movement at worst by adding significant case law against us. (Hint: if you support personhood legislation and you don’t know what stare decisis is or the huge role it played in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, you probably ought to look into that before supporting personhood bills while the majority of the Supreme Court is in favor of keeping abortion legal.)
“Quite frankly, it’s kind of odd to see them on the same side as Planned Parenthood and NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League, on a piece of legislation.”
I am so sick of seeing pro-life people that have strategic objections to personhood legislation because they want to see abortion made illegal as quickly as possible compared to Planned Parenthood and NARAL, who are trying to keep abortion legal for as long as possible.
To be clear, while I have seen several leaders from the personhood movement compare incrementalists to Planned Parenthood, I have yet to see a pro-life leader from
Full disclosure: I used to work for Georgia Right to Life. I’m grateful that they offered me a full-time pro-life job when I didn’t have one. I worked there for three and a half years before resigning my position after failing to change their mind on the legal strategy that is now in the spotlight. I’m very familiar with their arguments, and they are even less convincing to me now than they were before. That’s saying something because at the time I thought their strategy was so harmful to the pro-life movement that I changed jobs so that I wouldn’t have any part in that. Most of that story and the gritty details will stay with me and me alone. I’m not interested in attacking pro-life organizations. But I am very interested in helping pro-life activists to think clearly about matters like this.