Contra Reynolds on “Morning After Pill”

A joy of blogging and Facebook are the thoughtful people who respond to what you write. Trolls exist, but they like all trolls they can mostly be ignored and left living in their basements working out their impotence in socially harmless ways. More common is a person with a different perspective who teaches me how I sound to those who do not agree. I never stop learning from such wise folk. One of my best correspondents is a person I shall call Albert. Albert has concerns about my last on “the morning after pill.”  With his permission, I have put his entire response to me below with comments and respond in italics.


Just read your article on the morning after pill and I will begin by stating that I agree with you that it should not become an over-the-counter medicine. My main reason for thinking this is so is that there needs to remain a certain gravity to such medications. Plus, regular birth control is not over-the-counter…etc.

My central point is that this is not an issue of “science.” Readers will note that Albert agrees. 

However, Albert should notice that certain kinds of birth control, condoms for example, are over the counter. It is not “birth control” that produces moral gravity, but the result of the morning after pill . . . as opposed to the result of using a condom. 

However, your article raises an issue I’ve had with some pro-life rhetoric that has taken hold. I find it in your article and would love to hear your thoughts on this. I bring it up because I think this rhetoric ultimately has the potential to harm the cause (for the reasons I will articulate below) and not help it.


Prudential arguments, claiming that certain rhetoric will hurt the cause, are valuable. One doesn’t use ancient hyperbole, as Jesus did, because it sounds overly harsh to modern ears. I am sure Albert would agree that sometimes shocking the listener by speaking plain truths is valuable. When “radical” abolitionists called certain property “human”  . . . fully human . . . it awakened the moral conscience in many. Still as Albert would point out, it was Lincoln, a moderate, who managed to end slavery by using more weasel words than moral truth would have demanded. 

Ending slavery was worth a wimpy tone and if Albert can suggest better language, then I should adopt it! 

Here is the quote I’m thinking of:
“The pill performs its function of killing the unborn child, the fetus if scientists prefer, efficiently and well with no more harm to a mother than a natural miscarriage.”

This is a difficult sentence to sell to a secular public, even a religious public. The type of morning after med used in the U.S. is intended to prevent fertilization, or, in some cases, implantation of a fertilized zygote. Terms like “child” seem dubious here (as child implies for most people sentience, relationality, a nervous system, etc. and a number of other qualities that are not yet present). Child may, however, be a technically correct term according to particular theological perspectives.

Albert concedes too much here. He states that for “most people” a child has certain characteristics that a zygote lacks. The definition of child is part of the very issue at question. What makes a person a person? What do most people think? A large plurality favors banning all abortions, so they must agree with my view of human personhood. Another chunk of the immoral majority are deeply conflicted about legal abortion and do not support making it easier to get an abortion, the issue in question. 

Nor do I think Albert is well served to cite “particular theological perspectives,” because I think for most Americans that just means “private opinons.”  Even if I too am wrong about what “most Americans think,” it is false that my views are only formed by “theology.” It is true that my theology demands treating the zygote as human, but so does my philosophy. The issue is which particular philosophical or theological moral perspective will be enshrined in the law or in our moral behavior.

Which brings up the next point. “Fetus” is not simply dubious here, it is scientifically incorrect. “Embryo” is even incorrect here. Zygote, or fertilized egg are the correct scientific terms. Confusing these deeply harms the argument in substance and in rhetorical force.

Since my goal was to use scientific terms properly, I was wrong to use “fetus.”  But the moral point is still the same: is the zygote, or fertilized egg, human? Does it have a right to life? My original point was that a human by any other name lives by right. 

The third point is that the mechanism of action is quite common. As many as half to 2/3 of all fertilized eggs never implant in the mother’s womb. This raises all kinds of theodicy questions if half of all human persons have never even experienced cell division.

I think this is a very bad argument. Nature does many things that we may not do. Nature will kill all of us, after all. Albert and I will both die, but what nature will do, unjust men may not do. If I accept that “half of all human persons have never even experience cell division,” then I must wonder if that matters as much as Albert thinks. 

Half of humanity never experienced a basic physical process, but are humans merely physical. If they have an immaterial component, or as Plato would argue are even essentially souls, then lacking many physical experiences is terribly interesting. Is the fertilized egg ensouled? If so, then it has experiences that have value, just not ones science will measure. 

I am not arguing that this is true, but science will not be able to tell us if it is true. 

The 4th point is that the mechanism of action is also identical to the birth control provided by a breastfeeding mother’s body. What’s my point? Should we think of people who intend to not have “Irish twins” because breastfeeding provides a form of natural birth control as willfully engaging in abortion? Perhaps this is logically true from a certain theological point of view. But it is not a question I hear anyone asking and it ought to be asked if we are going to be consistent in invoking the morning after pill as tantamount to an abortion.

I think it isn’t asked, because the intent of breastfeeding is not “birth control.” It might be that a secondary (and sometimes desired) outcome of breastfeeding is birth control, but it is not (and has not been) the primary reason. My wife assures me that the main purpose of breast feeding is nutrition and bonding for baby. Now if a person (man or woman) engages in breastfeeding hoping for miscarriages, then he or she has a moral problem.

The distinction is like that used by ethicists in discussing many actions. I own a gun and a car. I am far more likely to kill Albert with my car, then with my gun, but Albert need never fear my murdering him. I will never intend to kill Albert, but riding with me is far more dangerous to Albert than being near me with a gun. If when I drive, I hope for a lucky accident and Albert’s death, then I am wicked, but so far as I know this has never occurred to me.

Just as I can morally drive still, so people can morally breastfeed if their hearts are pure! 

In any case, *here is my main point*:
I feel like the pro-life movement needs to focus not on these murky issues, but on those on which we have solid ground and can easily win rhetorical arguments and appeal to people’s minds and *hearts*. Ultrasound is already helping us win this battle.

I agree with this point. The point of my post was not to argue for banning all abortions (though I wish they were banned), but that science cannot tell us the status of the zygote, fetus, or human being. Pragmatically, for example, I would happily trade the death penalty, unnecessary in our wealthy state, for strong pro-life laws. I would also prefer European pro-life laws, which ban many abortions, to our own. 

Any improvement is an improvement!

So my point is this. We need to push hard for banning all abortions after age of viability (like many European countries at least have). We need to push for heavy restrictions after the point where it can be demonstrated that the fetus has its own blood supply and brainwaves (which no one can dispute are the markers of the cessation of human life–so why not push for them to be the legal markers of the beginning?).

These are battles we can win if we put all our eggs in these baskets.

I agree that this must be our focus, but some of us, who are not political or mainly political, need to keep arguing for the bigger goal: protection of all innocent human life. While political abolitionists mostly refused to discuss full civil rights for African-Americans, philosophical or theological abolitionists made the broader case. 

But if we continue to conflate dismembering babies (that feel pain and think and scream) together with preventing zygote implantation (even if this is our theological conviction), we will lose.

Let us assume we do not conflate the two. We need not. We can simply argue that one immoral action is obviously wrong (see pain, thinking, screaming) and another immoral action is more difficult to see. Obviously in a democracy, the easier abuse will be easiest to ban. The harder one to “see” will be harder to ban, but politics and law are not, after all, everything. 

We will lose because we will allow the public to continue to conflate the two themselves and not acknowledge the monstrosity of wanton killing of sentient human life.

I don’t disagree pragmatically, but I don’t write pragmatically. My job is more . . . to be jester or prophetic (take your pick!). I would add that I think legal euthanasia depends on just this sort of conflation: few Christians think choosing not to receive treatment is immoral, but confusion about this distinction leads many to embrace legalized suicide. Taking a “suicide pill” is morally distinct from allowing nature to take her course. I would argue that the abortion pill (note the euphemistic description “morning after pill”) is morally equivalent to the suicide pill.

In any case, the problem (it seems to me) is a cultural desire to separate sex from procreation or the possibility of procreation.  



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