Questions (and Answers) for Pro-Choice Individuals

This year’s election saw the emergence of top-tier candidates, like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, who were willing to be open about the logical consequences of the increasingly standard pro-life position that a fertilized egg is equal to a baby. If a fertilized egg is a baby, then an abortion is murder, full stop. This includes the abortion given to an 11-year-old girl raped by her father. Most people, even those who claim to be “very pro-life,” usually support rape and incest exceptions to their position, because the idea of forcing a violated woman or girl to give birth against her will is too awful to contemplate.

The inherent contradiction is ripe for questioning, though, and pro-life politicians have come under some scrutiny by the press, who want to see how consistent their pro-life positions really are and whether they are willing to look into the camera and throw themselves off the political cliff… as Akin and Mourdock clearly did.

However, in a curious turn of events for liberals, pro-choice candidates are rarely questioned on their position.

When does the baby start?

Generally, pro-choice candidates are allowed to sit back and see their pro-life opponents field questions about sexual assault, jail sentences, and contraception. Christian blogger Trevin Wax thinks this isn’t very fair and has drafted a series of questions for pro-choice candidates.

Several of the questions have merit, and I agree with him that a pro-choice candidate — in fact, pro-choice individuals on the whole — would do well to contemplate their answers.

Let’s give them a shot:

1. You say you support a woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices in regards to abortion and contraception. Are there any restrictions you would approve of?

This is a very difficult question to answer. The extreme test case would be a woman nine months pregnant, from consensual sex, with a perfectly healthy fetus, with its natural birth mere days away. Would you support an abortion in this case? I am comfortable saying I would have moral objections to it. However, one cannot legislate on the basis of red herrings. The vast majority of abortions occur early in pregnancy, and virtually all “late-term” abortions involve tragic situations with the health of either the baby or the mother. I think the best answer for a lay-person would be that though some theoretical situations could doubtlessly be constructed in which an abortion would be morally objectionable, individual situations vary so much that constructing a truly fair legislative solution is almost impossible. In any event, the moral problem of an abortion would have to be measured against the moral problem of submitting a woman or girl to forced childbirth.

2. In 2010, The Economist featured a cover story on “the war on girls” and the growth of “gendercide” in the world — abortion based solely on the sex of the baby. Does this phenomenon pose a problem for you or do you believe in the absolute right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy because the unborn fetus is female?

One can and should absolutely condemn the deplorable sexism that is the basis of sexual selection. However simply banning a given motivation, no matter how deplorable, will accomplish nothing. All it will do is teach pregnant women to lie to their doctors about their motivations. The solution is the much longer and harder path of improving education on the subject.

3. In many states, a teenager can have an abortion without her parents’ consent or knowledge but cannot get an aspirin from the school nurse without parental authorization. Do you support any restrictions or parental notification regarding abortion access for minors?

This comparison is absurd. Schools require parental authorization for medicines to prevent drug use and also as a protective measure against lawsuits. If you deny a teen an aspirin, she will have a headache; if you deny her an abortion, she will either find an illegal, possibly deadly, way to have the abortion, or be forced to carry a baby to term, then have to decide between giving it up for adoption or compromising her future by becoming a teen mother. The fact that parental rights over their children do not necessarily extend to forcing them to have babies against their will is not comparable to controlling their medicine ingestion on school grounds.

4. If you do not believe that human life begins at conception, when do you believe it begins? At what stage of development should an unborn child have human rights?

“Human life” is not a scientifically relevant term. Thus, the definition will depend on many different and often highly subjective factors. When an “unborn child” (which covers everything from a one-celled zygote to an eight-month-old fetus) should have rights is a question I honestly don’t have an answer to. I will say, however, that I do not believe there is a day-before and day-after “personhood.” There is nothing magical in human development. Humans develop from a single cell, through exponential cell division and specialization, eventually leading to the development of a proto-nervous system that gradually becomes more developed and can start to “feel” in some recognizable way, eventually becoming more and more like what we think of as a “person.” Trying to put a date on when the magical “moment” happens is like trying to decide when red becomes blue. Deciding that, since finding this cut-off is impossible, you will put the cut-off at the zygote just to be safe is like deciding that all colors will now be called “color,” since they cannot be objectively distinguished.

5. Currently, when genetic testing reveals an unborn child has Down Syndrome, most women choose to abort. How do you answer the charge that this phenomenon resembles the “eugenics” movement a century ago — the slow, but deliberate “weeding out” of those our society would deem “unfit” to live?

I answer it by saying that I reject the premise that a fetus is the moral equivalent of an adult human and, thus, aborting a fetus is not the moral equivalent of murdering a so-called “defective” adult. Forced sterilization of both men and women for being “defective” (on the basis of a much looser definition than the hard chromosome count) is forcing medical procedures on an individual against their will, which I oppose in the name of individual autonomy. It is the same reason I find forced childbirth objectionable. I wonder, do you find nothing objectionable about forcing childbirth on an unwilling girl?

6. Do you believe an employer should be forced to violate his or her religious conscience by providing access to abortifacient drugs and contraception to employees?

An employer should not have the power to pick and choose what medical procedures their employees get to have. If you have to pay for health insurance, you are not empowered with sudden authority to make medical decisions for someone. What if an employer finds chemotherapy objectionable? What if your employer is a Christian Scientist who believes prayer ought to be a cure for even serious illnesses?

7. Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King, Jr. has said that “abortion is the white supremacist’s best friend,” pointing to the fact that Black and Latinos represent 25% of our population but account for 59% of all abortions. How do you respond to the charge that the majority of abortion clinics are found in inner-city areas with large numbers of minorities?

I respond by saying that this is the craziest thing I’ve read since the last time I checked the Fox News website. However, the disproportionate number of abortions amongst minority women does seem to reflect various inequalities that they face, so I would wholeheartedly support policies to bring these women out of poverty, provide them with health care, and give them comprehensive sex education that reduces the number of unintended pregnancies. Wouldn’t you support these policies in the name of reducing the number of abortions?

8. You describe abortion as a “tragic choice.” If abortion is not morally objectionable, then why is it tragic? Does this mean there is something about abortion that is different than other standard surgical procedures?

I would only describe some abortions as a “tragic choice,” namely those carried out by women who would much rather have a child than an abortion but who decide to have an abortion for other reasons, be they external or health-related. These are tragic because, in many cases, women have an emotional connection to the idea of a baby, even if that baby does not yet exist or never will. This makes the decision to abort a tragedy for her, and I would not minimize her pain or that of the potential father.

9. Do you believe abortion should be legal once the unborn fetus is viable — able to survive outside the womb?

Though instinctually attractive, viability is not a good cut-off for limitations on abortion, because it is a moving target. Year by year, more and more premature babies are made viable by the power of science and the heroic efforts of doctors and nurses. Some day, it may be possible to have an entire pregnancy extra-utero. Would we then consider the abortion of a zygote murder? This seems absurd. Whatever restrictions we wish to place on abortions, they must be taken mostly independent of technological advances.

10. If a pregnant woman and her unborn child are murdered, do you believe the criminal should face two counts of murder and serve a harsher sentence?

Again, this is an attractive idea, but difficult to justify. If killing a pregnant woman is two murders, is just killing the fetus (forced abortion) one murder? And if that is one murder, why is the woman herself getting an abortion not murder? Of course, this last question is exactly where the pro-lifer wants to take us with this question. The idea of killing a pregnant woman disgusts us because it targets someone vulnerable, the way killing someone elderly, disabled, or very young does. In the case of partnered women, it also causes even more severe emotional distress for the future father, who goes from having a partner and expecting a child to having neither in one go. One can punish this crime more severely for these reasons without falling into the pro-lifer trap.

How would you answer these questions?

(image via Shutterstock)

About Claudia

I'm a lifelong atheist and a molecular biologist with a passion for science and a passionate opposition to its enemies.


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