I have decided to share with you a transcript of an email exchange I had over the course of a few weeks with a woman from Canada; the emails have been lightly edited for clarity. At different points, I’ll be sharing my thought process about what’s going on in the conversation. The goal is to provide an illustration of how to implement some of the dialogue skills and arguments we talk about on the blog and in the Equipped for Life Course. Sometimes the pro-life advocates we train ask for us to demonstrate how our dialogue tips and arguments fit together in a real-time conversation. With permission from the woman who reached out to me, I am sharing this example so that it may be helpful to others.
I am Christian, and pro-life, for myself. Jesus died for my sins, I am ready to die for others. I am not sure if we can impose that kind of requirement on everybody though. I have been thinking over and over about the ethical arguments on abortion since the birth of my son and I was brought to be ambivalent if we can outlaw abortion in all circumstances. And what happens if the foetus has all the same legal rights than the mother, especially during the birth process?
My questioning goes in two levels:
1) An ethical questioning of self-sacrifice versus self-preservation
2) The legal rights of a mother over her own body during childbirth versus the right of the foetus to have their lives protected.
Would you care to give me a bit of your time to help me rest my thinking and solidify my pro-life thinking?
To be honest, my first thought on reading this was, why are you emailing me? This is the first time I’ve ever been contacted by someone whom I don’t know to talk about abortion. Everyone else at ERI has a lot more campus outreach experience than me, and, frankly, I find interpersonal interactions and dialogues a lot more challenging than philosophy. But sometimes you’re the person who needs to give an answer, whether or not you feel completely qualified.
Thank you for your message! You’re right in thinking that the moral requirements of Christianity are more than what the state can demand from its citizens. However, it’s reasonable for the government to demand that we don’t kill other people; if we take seriously the idea that the fetus is a human person, then abortion would be an act of killing against an innocent person, and it would make sense to outlaw it.
There is definitely self-sacrifice required in pregnancy, but that sacrifice almost never entails a need to die for the child in the womb. Even in the United States, where we have a higher maternal mortality rate than is typical, that rate is 18 deaths per 100,000 live births. That’s unacceptably high, but it’s also .018 percent of all cases, so while it’s concerning and could be a justification for abortion in those specific cases (a “life of the mother” exception), it wouldn’t be a good justification for abortion in the other 99.982 percent of cases.
So, let’s assume the state can’t reasonably require people to die for their children; what amount of sacrifice can the state demand from parents, and mothers in particular? This is where the question of whether or not the fetus is a person becomes very important. If we believe that fetal humans are persons, then we have a duty not to kill them. Pregnancy is often difficult, and labor is usually extremely painful (my wife’s labor was quite rough); outlawing abortion means women are required to go through a lot of pain and bodily changes, which is a sacrifice. However, I don’t think that the challenges of a relatively normal pregnancy are sufficient to justify killing the child in the womb. Financial challenges, stress, and most health difficulties aren’t good reasons to kill another person. There are certain serious complications which might justify it, but those go back to the “life of the mother” exception.
As far as what happens if the fetal human has all the same legal rights as the mother, I think that this is nothing but beneficial during the birth process. There are at least two patients in the room who need to be treated with care, and I’m not aware of a situation in a developed country which would require care for one party to require death or foregoing treatment for the other. Just as throughout pregnancy, all that would be required is not making treatment decisions that pose unnecessary harm to the child. Even in cases of severe pre-eclampsia requiring very early delivery, the goal of the medical staff should be to ensure the health of both mother and child.
I hope this was helpful. Please let me know if you have any other questions.
I started by trying to build some common ground about maternal sacrifice and ethical differences between Christianity and politics. Even though I really wanted to get to being “personally pro-life,” that would’ve been a jump at this point, so I answered the questions I was asked.
Thanks a lot Andrew!
Depending where you live in the world, there can be higher mortality rates. Pregnancy in that sense could look like conscription. During the First and the Second World War, in Canada, many men married rapidly to avoid conscription and even some hid in a cave near my hometown; that is historically known. Can I judge those men as cowards?
I am Christian. Jesus laid down his life for me. I have been thinking all my life that it is the right thing to do to be ready to die for my family and friends, or even a stranger. To believe it is the right thing to do—and to live circumstances when it is required of you—are two different things.
When I got married, I became pregnant rapidly. I was happy, and my husband too. I had a perfect pregnancy and I hoped for a natural birth with a midwife. I was two weeks late at the end of my pregnancy and I had to see a doctor. The doctor told me I had to have a cesarean section. I could try naturally but it was risky according to my obstetrician. I learned later that I could have tried natural birth and she was exaggerating my risks. I faced my c-section with fear. I was conscious with local anesthesia during the operation. I was scared and could not control my visceral fear. I knew rationally that my doctor was a skilled surgeon and that she would do the maximum to help me if something turned bad, but I could not control my gut feelings.
It went okay afterwards, my wound healed well but I had a bad reaction to the anesthetic and had bad side effects that took 6 months to go away: I had difficulty passing urine, I was not feeling my skin on a big area of my body, and worst of all I had difficulty walking for 6 months. Psychologically I had to overcome PTSD from the surgery. I was ready to lay down my life for my son but I could not deny the fear I experienced. When people have an accident or a sudden disease that requires them to go through similar circumstances, life forces them to live it. I had NO CHOICE to risk my life for my son and it was not an easy road. One in four laboring women will have to get a cesarean section in Canada. Because it is common people think it is easy. It is still major abdominal surgery. A friend of mine needed 5 units of blood because of hemorrhaging during her c-section. A woman died in my town from the complications of hers two years ago.
I told you my birth story to tell you that women face a unique challenge in pregnancy and childbirth that other people will not have to. It can threaten their very lives. There is ALWAYS a potential risk of death, or at least lifelong health effects. In the 19th century, one in five women would die in childbirth. Nowadays the risk is much lower, but you never know. I had an ideal pregnancy with no complications and still had to face a risky childbirth.
I would never pretend that my childbirth experience was as traumatic as what veterans lived through. I would never put it on the same level of hardship. The medical staff cared for me well. But many women are bullied and coerced during childbirth. Birth trauma is real, physically and mentally.
Soldiers have a chance to die in combat, or at least be hurt. But they VOLUNTARILY enter the service. The same is true for firefighters, police officers, and paramedics, etc. We consider them heroes for this reason. The captain of a ship that is sinking is required to stay on the boat until everybody is rescued. If he abandons the passengers he will be labeled a coward, for good reason; after he pledged his service, he cannot just run away in the face of danger, like in the case of Francesco Schettino, the captain of the wrecked cruise ship Costa Concordia.
The minute a woman gets pregnant, that service is kind of imposed on her by default. Does every woman want that? By my Christian upbringing, I believed that I should be ready to lay down my life, and was ready to have to face it in my pregnancy and childbirth, but I still found it hard to live nonetheless. Can we demand it of everybody? Can we really impose on all women to risk their lives for their foetus?
Giving equal rights to the foetus brings dangers legally also. It can bring the rights of the baby over the rights of the mother who is risking herself during labor. To me, her right to labor as she chooses, not fearing legal repercussions, trumps the right to safety for the baby. A midwife, too, can be charged, even if she gives her best help and is not neglectful, with a charge like involuntary manslaughter, and social services can try to take the baby away from the parents. That is crazy to me. It happened, it is not just a movie scenario. Women have been bullied in labor by getting told they put their foetus at risk if they continue to try to labor naturally. People have tried to outlaw home birth for years. Homebirth women have been labeled as neglectful parents. A homebirth midwife went to prison in Europe not a long time ago. Women have been strapped down by medical staff and given forced cesarean sections. Doctors routinely deny a trial of vaginal birth after a cesarean (VBAC) all over the USA and Canada, pushing women that do not want a repeat cesarean to labor alone or drive hours away from home to find a doctor willing to help them during VBAC, even if science proves that VBAC is a preferable option in a healthy pregnancy. Doctors have threatened calling social services and having a court ordered cesarean given against the will of a mother. It happened. Babies have been taken away after the birth even if everything went well “because the doctor thought it was risky; the mother is crazy.” Those parents had to fight to get their baby back. Court-ordered cesarean section is rare but very real and it is scary.
Medical care of women in labor is already not that great at being pro-woman and respectful of laboring women’s wishes. If abortion is outlawed and equal rights given to the baby, the slippery slope is always there and the rights of women during childbirth could be taken away, like the right to informed consent and the right to refuse a treatment or medical intervention. If she is on the front line risking her very life bringing that baby into the world, she should be free to choose the way she births the child. The law that would give rights to the unborn should be extremely clear on that. The pandora’s box can be opened if the rights of the foetus are absolute.
Where is the duty of the pregnant woman? The captain of a ship is pledging an oath to care for the passengers, he cannot just run away in face of danger, like in the case of Francesco Schettino, the captain of the wrecked cruise ship Costa Concordia. He was seen as a dishonorable man and a coward, and faced prosecution. Is it the same for pregnancy? Pregnancy is ALWAYS a potential risk to life. Of course today medical care is better than ever, but death still happens too often. The minute a woman is pregnant, she has to be ready to lay down her life for her baby. I am a classic case. I had a perfect pregnancy but had to face childbirth complications and a cesarean section. I was ready to die for my baby. I made that oath. Are all women required to be? And I think there is a difference in quickly taking an abortion pill and taking something voluntarily to make your child suffer their whole life like the weird thalidomide thought experiment. I do not think that most pro-choice people are advocating baby harm and torture at will. I am pro-life for myself; for others, I do not know.
Sorry for a long e-mail.
One of the challenges of talking to people about abortion is that you don’t know where they’re coming from until they tell you. I answered her questions reasonably well, but in a fairly general manner. As it turns out, they weren’t general questions. Her questions came from a specific experience that affected her deeply. I couldn’t have known that in advance, but I probably should’ve been more prepared for that to be the case.
Before I could respond, she sent me another message, just about a half hour later!
I’ve thought more about my emails.
I think the core of my thinking is that I want birthing women to be respected for what they endure, and have real informed consent to surgery and interventions; robust rights in childbirth; advocacy for respectful medical care; no court-ordered cesareans and social services involvement for patient non-compliance. Obstetricians can also have “foetal tunnel vision.” I do not want babies to die. I do not think abortion is the best choice for a woman. I think she will regret it. It drives me up the wall when “professionals” say that post-abortion depression syndrome is not real. I have met a few regretful women that still cry late at night, years later. I believe that caring for your child is hard, but the best choice you will make. Thank you for your reply. It clarified my thinking and solidified my pro-life views.
I’ll admit, I got a little frustrated here. This message seemed to function like a conclusion, but I didn’t feel like we’d concluded anything yet. On top of that, there are times where I as a pro-life person just want to jump up and down and yell, “Yes! I care about that too! I just don’t think it justifies pro-choice policy.” For me, a good bit of my training is in medical ethics, so I’m really frustrated about violations of patient autonomy and the general lack of focus on ethics in medical practice. But that also gives me an opportunity to respond to a really personal story with more common ground to show that I don’t just care about this from an academic perspective.
Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you.
First, I want to emphasize that I share your concerns about maternal care. The c-section rate is even higher in the US, and part of my job in the delivery room with my wife was to make sure they didn’t coerce her into an unnecessary c-section. Even though she was able to give birth without a c-section, she had a really tough labor, so I don’t want to downplay how difficult pregnancy, labor, and recovery can be for women. I think people should have the ability to choose from reasonable medical decisions for themselves and their children, even if professionals disagree with their choice.
And I agree that abortion harms women. Harm to women is a wrong caused by abortion, but it’s not the primary thing that makes abortion wrong. Abortion is wrong because it involves killing an innocent human being.
I want to challenge you about being pro-life for yourself. If you are pro-life because you believe that the human being in the womb has value as a person, then that would apply to all fetal humans. That is to say, abortion would be wrong in any circumstances without a sufficient justification to kill a human being (a circumstance like the “life of the mother” exception that I mentioned before). If abortion is ever wrong, it can’t be just personally wrong. But if abortion is broadly wrong, then we should seek to prevent other people from having abortions, and we should even try to make good laws to prevent wrongful abortions from happening. So being “pro-life” can’t just stop at yourself.
If someone doesn’t believe that unborn children have the same value as women, or that women’s rights should always trump the rights of fetal humans, it becomes possible to justify abortion, and individuals can just make a decision about whether they’re going to choose to make a sacrifice of their rights for the sake of their children. If children are equally valuable people, then it can’t just be a matter of personal choice, even though it involves very personal sacrifices on the part of women.
I hope this helps clarify why it is good and necessary to have a pro-life society, instead of just a society of pro-life people.
One tough thing about online conversations is that you don’t know how long you have. I thought this might be my last email, so, now that I’ve shown that I care about her experiences and the experiences of other women, I wanted to push back on what I thought was the central problem from the first message: even though being pro-life is a “personal” belief, it’s the sort of belief which necessitates public action. Because she identified as pro-life, I used less neutral language about the unborn child.
Jane: Thanks for your reply.
You changed my mind. Thank you for putting in words what needed to be clarified in my thinking so that I can be pro-life all the way. There is a branch of pro-life people however who do not show enough, in my opinion, care and compassion for the rough time the pregnant woman is going through. I think for most of these women that seek abortion, what they need is someone to hold their hand through their pregnancy, their birth, and afterwards. I think that almost every birthing woman should have a doula. Stepping up for that child can be difficult. For centuries women were grouped together in work and life, in childrearing and childbirth. Now our lives are solo and I think it makes it worse. In Canada in general, and especially the province of Quebec where I live, since abortion is legal, we do not care anymore. Crisis pregnancy centers are so rare. If a woman wants to keep her child, she can find help, but for the most part she has to cope alone. I am glad to see that in some cities in the United states there are 3 CP centers for 1 abortion clinic? That is amazing.
Maybe I shouldn’t, but I always get surprised when someone changes their mind. Josh convinced me that I should respond to this email so it didn’t feel like I “won” and then stopped talking. I also wanted to give specific ideas for action steps. I like to do this because I believe many people would get more involved if someone told them where to start.
Thanks for your reply. And thank you as well for being so open to what I have to say! I really appreciate that you were willing to change your mind as you thought more about our discussion.
It’s frustrating that pro-lifers often forget that pregnancy involves at least two people and ignore the mother to focus on the baby; or, even worse, sometimes fake compassion. ERI, where I work, actually wrote an article on why “fetus tunnel vision” is a big problem and pro-life people need to have more empathy.
I’m sad to hear how hard it is for mothers who want to keep their children in Canada. My boss has done a few trips speaking there, and he noted that it’s generally more hostile to pro-life thinking and efforts than the US. I would love to see more pregnancy resource centers in Canada who can provide care for women and children when they need it the most.
I don’t know if there are any pregnancy resource centers near you, so it may not be possible to help in their work; but you really care about mothers, and it seems like it would be a very natural thing for you to work through and within your church to help care for mothers before and after birth. Similarly, we’re trying to get as many pastors as possible to sign the “pastor pledge” my boss wrote, in which pastors agree to make it clear from the front of the church a couple times a year that pregnant women won’t be judged or ostracized and will be cared for by the church. If you would be willing to bring this up with your pastor, that could be helpful in creating a good environment for mothers, as well. Here’s the link to the article about it: https://blog.equalrightsinstitute.com/every-pastor-prevent-abortions-congregation/
* Name changed for confidentiality.
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