This post has generated some confusion and a lot of questions from pro-lifers and pro-choicers alike. I have a bad habit of assuming everyone who is reading this is well-versed in feminist theory and pro-choice politics, and that simply isn’t true. So I’m going to back up a bit and try to lay out some of the issues.
There are a lot of different pro-choice arguments out there. Most of them revolve around the ideas of bodily autonomy and personal privacy — that is, a pregnant woman should be allowed to decide for herself whether or not she continues the pregnancy, and the government should not be empowered to legally compel her to remain pregnant against her will. There are a lot of moral, legal and ethical arguments as to why the government shouldn’t be able to do this, and why women should not be forced to sustain a fetal life. I’m not going to get into those here. Instead, I’m going to address the standard pro-life view that life begins at conception, and that we should invest every fertilized egg, embryo and fetus with full personhood rights. And I have a few questions about that.
The paramount right to life is vested in each human being from the moment of fertilization without regard to age, health or condition of dependency.
In other words, life begins the moment a sperm fertilizes an egg. Personhood begins here. Sounds simple enough, right? But I have some questions and concerns (numbered for easy answering from the multitudes of pro-lifers who I’m sure will be happy to address them):
1. How do we determine our population? If a person is a person at the moment of conception, then we need to seriously re-evaluate how we calculate the number of persons world-wide. How do we track each conception? Have women make daily doctor visits to check? Implement some sort of required daily home test?
2. How do we determine our death rate? Somewhere around half of all fertilized eggs naturally don’t implant in the uterine lining, and never develop into fetuses, let alone babies. Does our death rate just go up a few million with the passage of this amendment? The medical community has traditionally defined pregnancy as beginning at the point of implantation precisely because so many fertilized eggs don’t implant. Should we change this definition?
3. Should every “human” death be investigated? If so, how? As it stands, if a person dies (and especially if they’re found dead), there’s often some sort of investigation, especially if there’s reason to believe that another person caused their death. So, first, how do we recover all the “bodies” of the fertilized egg-people? Do we insist on checking every pad and tampon for evidence of human life? Every pair of panties? Every toilet bowl? And if we find a fertilized egg, should the police be called? I mean, if you find a baby in a dumpster, you call the police. If you find a used tampon in the trash, should you do the same thing? If a woman goes to the hospital for a miscarriage, should she be investigated as a potential murderer or child abuser? Should there be laws about the proper disposal of dead egg-bodies, the way that there are laws regulating the disposal of born human bodies?
4. Pro-lifers claim to value each and every human life, from the moment of conception. That’s why, they say, they want abortion to be illegal — because it kills a person. And there are indeed a lot of abortions. But the abortion rate pales in comparison to the rate of fertilized eggs that don’t implant and “die” by being naturally flushed out of the body. Yet there is not a single pro-life organization (at least that I can find) dedicated to finding a solution to this widespread, deadly epidemic. The “death rate” of unimplanted fertilized egg-persons almost certainly far exceeds the abortion rate and the death rate from AIDS combined. Why the silence? Why no mass protests or funding drives or pushes for research?* Where is the concern for the fertilized egg-people?
5. Should fertilized eggs and embryos get social security numbers? What benefits should they be entitled to?
6. What responsibilities and legal consequences should pregnant women face? Should Child Protective Services be able to step in if a pregnant woman does something that could potentially damage the fetus — like eat tuna or drink coffee or exercise heavily? What if a woman isn’t pregnant, but makes her body inhospitable to a fertilized egg — say, for example, that she uses birth control, which thins the uterine lining and makes it difficult for a fertilized egg to implant? What if she’s anorexic? Some anorexics may be able to ovulate, but may not be able to sustain a pregnancy, or even have enough nutrients to allow for implantation. Can such a woman be prosecuted or otherwise punished for creating an environment that was deadly for an egg-child? What if a pregnant woman had a miscarriage, and it could be linked to some behavior — going skiing or flying or not eating properly? We already prosecute pregnant women when they use drugs during their pregnancies. If a pregnant woman otherwise does harm to her fetus, should she be prosecuted for child abuse? Neglect? If she miscarries, can she be tried for homicide?
7. I’ve asked this one before, but I rarely get a straight answer: If a woman intentionally terminates a pregnancy in a pro-life nation, how much time should she do? If a fetus is a person and a woman intentionally terminates the life of that fetus, should she go to jail? Be up for the death penalty? In almost any other circumstance, a person who intentionally kills another person — or who pays someone to do the killing for them — is prosecuted. Why should women who terminate pregnancies be exceptions? And if women who terminate pregnancies should be excepted because they just don’t know better, should the same hold true for women who intentionally kill their born children? For women who intentionally kill strangers?
8. If a fetus is entitled to use a woman’s body to sustain its own life, should we begin researching other ways for humans to share bodily functions? It could save lives, after all. If, say, my kidneys fail and there is a way that you and I can be physically attached for about a year, can I can use your body to clean out my own? Sure, it will mean that you will be less physically mobile, it’ll require you to take time off of work, it will significantly alter your health, and getting me off of you when I’m ready will require you to go through a long and expensive process which re-defines the meaning of pain, but if a fetus has those rights, why don’t I?
9. Should women be liable in civil court to the estates of their fetuses or fertilized eggs? Say a woman miscarries, or her egg never implants, and one can make the argument that her actions (drinking a glass of wine or horseback riding or not eating properly or being overweight) contributed to the miscarriage or non-implantation. Should she be liable?
10. What about men? How do we establish the paternity of a fertilized egg? What obligations do men have to the eggs they fertilize?
11. What about in-vitro fertilization? Clearly it would be wrong to destroy any fertilized eggs in an IVF clinic, since those eggs are people, but what of the fact that without being implanted in women’s bodies, those eggs will never develop? Is it morally acceptable to leave those egg-people in a freezer for their whole lives, or should we compel some people to carry them to term?
12. How should we handle pregnancy-related complications? Say a woman is pregnant, and while giving birth isn’t going to kill her immediately, it’s going to weaken her body to the point that she will almost surely die within a few months of birth. Abortion is a definitely no-go, right? What if giving birth will probably kill her? We usually don’t know for 100% absolute sure that childbirth is going to kill a woman; doctors are usually only able to predict that it is likely to kill her. But of course, the likelihood — even a strong likelihood, and even a near-definite likelihood — that someone is going to kill you is not enough to pay for someone else to kill them first. And what if it is 100%? Why does the woman’s life take precedence over fetal life if they’re both human beings invested with full personhood rights? And how should we deal with ectopic pregnancies? Go the Catholic route and require that the woman’s whole fallopian tube be removed rather than just take out the egg? That still kills the fertilized egg-person.
What else would you like pro-lifers to answer?
*My pet theory, of course, is that pro-lifers realize that a fertilized egg is not a person, and that they also value born people a whole lot more than embryos, and don’t think that embryos should be invested with full personhood rights.
- Personhood Amendments and the Pro-Life Long Game by Jill November 14, 2011
- Utah bill would criminalize miscarriage by Jill February 23, 2010
- North Dakota House Passes Bill Giving Rights to Fertilized Eggs by Cara February 18, 2009
- A Question for Pro-Lifers by Jill July 31, 2007
- Well, as long as we’re speaking slowly. by Jill September 8, 2008