Questions for Ellen Painter Dollar on Being Pro-Choice Part One

We have three more posts related to abortion–Ellen Painter Dollar’s answers to my questions, which will appear here this morning and this afternoon (and, in longer form, on Ellen’s blog Choices That Matter). And then tomorrow morning I will post a summary of what I’ve learned from this exchange. For now, my question for Ellen:

Why is ending the existence of an embryo or fetus morally different than ending the life of a baby once s/he is born? In other words, if we are treating embryos with reverence as human lives created in the image of God, why is abortion not murder?

I believe that fertilized eggs are God-given human lives that should be treated with reverence, and that the deliberate ending of an embryonic human life is a morally weighty decision deserving of great care. I do not believe that embryos are mere clumps of biological matter to be subjected to parental whims. However, I object to characterizing abortion (or the discarding of embryos created via reproductive technology) as the “murder of innocents,” for a number of reasons.

The following paragraph comes from my upcoming book, No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction.

“Politically charged pro-life/pro-choice debates have made it difficult to contemplate embryonic life because these debates insist on absolutes. Either embryos are the same as babies, or they are merely bunches of cells subject to their parents’ choices. I think most people, when pressed, would say that neither is quite true. Embryos occupy an in-between place. They are liminal; they serve as a doorway or threshold between one state of being (individual sperm and eggs that only have the potential for life until they join with the other) and another (the definitive, transforming presence of a newborn child). The threshold is essential for connecting those two states of being; it cannot be lightly discarded any more than a house can be built without doors. But it’s also more a passage to something vital than a destination in itself.”

There is so much more to say on this, and a blog post doesn’t offer enough space in which to say it. In my book, I go into this idea more, looking at the ambivalence with which we, as individuals and as a culture, perceive embryonic life, whether in the womb or (when reproductive technology is involved) in the laboratory. That ambivalence—an ambivalence that is relatively universal, true of those who are pro-life and those who are pro-choice—provides a clue that the nature of embryonic life is not nearly as clear-cut as those on either the pro-life side or the pro-choice side of abortion debates often make it out to be. Churches that hold a clear pro-life position, for example, generally don’t hold memorial services for miscarried embryos. So abortion is murder but a miscarriage doesn’t count as a death to be publicly mourned? Likewise, a woman who has been passionately pro-choice her whole life and miscarries generally doesn’t say, “Oh well. It was just a clump of cells, subject all along to my parental choices. No big deal.” Most of us, on some level, recognize the shades-of-gray nature of embryonic life. For me, that nature means that while deliberate destruction of embryonic life, via abortion or the discarding of excess embryos in technological reproduction, is a decision of moral significance, it is not murder.

In my original post, I mentioned that my interest in reproductive ethics stems from my experience with preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). PGD is in vitro fertilization (IVF) with the added step of screening fertilized eggs for a particular genetic mutation. In my case, we tested four fertilized eggs produced via an IVF cycle for the genetic mutation causing my and my oldest daughter’s osteogenesis imperfecta (OI). OI is a genetic bone disorder that leads to frequent bone fractures, usually as the result of little or no trauma. Between us, my daughter and I have had about four dozen broken bones. Several weeks ago, my daughter broke her arm when she was putting away a heavy laptop in her science class. I once broke my thigh bone when I sat down on the bathroom floor, knees tucked under me, while my grandmother brushed her hair in the mirror. OI is a painful, maddening, capricious disorder, and we decided to use PGD to try to ensure that our second child would not inherit it. My upcoming book is the story of that decision and its aftermath.

Of the four embryos we had created via IVF, three tested positive for OI. We had the remaining embryo transferred to my uterus (the cycle ultimately failed and I did not become pregnant) and had the other three discarded. That decision—the discarding of three of our embryos—was a significant one. I have been mulling it over for the last nine years. It was a morally significant decision made with fear and trembling. I look forward to the time when we no longer see through a glass darkly. I have a lot of questions for God. I trust that God’s abundant grace and forgiveness was upon me then and will be eternally.

There is a woman out there in the blogosphere who takes any chance she possibly can to tell the world that I murdered three of my children. In fact, since my post appeared here on Amy Julia’s blog, she tweeted her murder accusation twice. Here’s the thing: Her accusation doesn’t bother me (though I’m pretty tired of it by now). Because I know it’s not true. I know there is a difference between my and my husband making a morally fraught decision to discard three embryos because of a desire to have a child who would not break her arm putting away a heavy laptop, and my marching my three children upstairs, drawing a bath, and then holding each of their heads under water until they stop breathing. I don’t know what exactly God makes of the decisions my husband and I made about having kids. But I know we did not murder three of our children.

Objecting to this line of thinking, people say things like, “Just because we can’t emotionally connect with a bunch of cells the way we can connect with a squalling infant doesn’t mean we can treat that bunch of cells as disposable. It’s still a human life. If we can choose to end the life of that bunch of cells, what’s to stop us from ending the life of an infant or child because it is inconvenient, or disabled, or unwanted?”

First, we are not logic machines. God gave us emotions and intuition as well as knowledge, and I object to the idea that it’s morally corrupt to make decisions informed by emotions and intuition. When we insist there is no meaningful difference between a baby and a microscopic embryo because the differences in how we perceive these two forms of human life arise from our emotions instead of our logic, we are discounting the rich emotional and intuitive ways in which we interact with the world.

Second, in answer to the question of, “What’s to stop us from doing x,y,z?”…well, we are. We can stop ourselves. I reject the “slippery slope” argument, the idea that if we allow abortion under some circumstances, we’re leaving the door open to infanticide and other horrors. We can choose, as a society, to put speed bumps, even outright barriers, on the slippery slope. We can choose to say, “X is acceptable, but Y is not.” Indeed, a central focus of my work in reproductive ethics is that we need to stop sitting by helplessly, unwilling to say that some reproductive choices are acceptable and others are not, as fertility clinics offer whatever procedures are clinically possible to anyone willing and able to pay for them, as people go to questionable lengths to have biological children, arguing that they have a right to do so, and as the culture preaches that parents have a duty to only bear children who are primed for success in our individualistic consumer culture (and therefore, a duty to ensure that children with physical or intellectual disabilities are not born).

This afternoon, I will post Ellen’s answers to questions regarding restrictions on reproductive choice and the use of Scripture in relation to abortion.

About Amy Julia Becker

Amy Julia Becker writes and speaks about family, faith, disability, and culture. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, she is the author of Penelope Ayers: A Memoir, A Good and Perfect Gift (Bethany House), and Why I Am Both Spiritual and Religious (Patheos Press).

Comments

  1. I share your opposition to the idea that “it’s morally corrupt to make decisions informed by emotions and intuitions.” On the other hand, if, independent of emotions and intuitions, pro-lifers can provide a sound argument demonstrating the truth of their position, then I am willing to accept it.

    You mention some who criticize you for discarding the three embryos that tested positively for OI. Have any of your critics ever suggested that you should have had (or kept) these embryos frozen? It would be feasible to set up a system for keeping these sorts of embryos frozen indefinitely (with no intention of–or even permission for–ever implanting them). If, as is often suggested, pro-lifers are primarily opposed to the intentional killing of human life forms, then this should be a satisfactory alternative to discarding the embryos. One might even think that pro-lifers should, by their principles, regard this option as morally preferable to any attempt to defrost and implant the embryos, given the high fatality rates characteristic of such attempts.

    • As you’re probably aware, the existence of thousands of frozen embryos in fertility clinic freezers is actually a significant topic of discussion among pro-life Christians. The evangelical and Roman Catholic emphasis on recognizing the dignity of human embryos—recognizing their moral status of human beings—raises opposition not only to destroying embryos, but also to manipulating them (through genetic screening, cloning, etc.) and allowing them to linger in freezer limbo. Some pro-life people advocate embryo adoption to address this problem (allowing leftover embryos to be adopted by infertile couples who will have the embryos implanted via IVF). One pro-life ethicist I know of suggested that artificial wombs are a morally acceptable option for ensuring that all embryos have a chance at life. I won’t go into it here, but artificial wombs raise far more moral concerns than they solve. So no, no one has ever suggested that we keep the embryos frozen. Those who believe we committed murder are, I assume, also morally opposed to the procedure of IVF/PGD itself. I assume that, in their opinion, simply creating those embryos via IVF/PGD was morally problematic, in part because we created embryos with no reasonable chance at life. Because who would adopt embryos prenatally diagnosed with a disabling bone disease?

      • Pro-lifers should be pressed to explain themselves on this point. The idea of giving frozen embryos “a chance at life” by implanting them is rather misleading. We should rather speak of giving such embryos a chance at a certain quality of life at the high risk of killing them in the process.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you for so eloquently articulating the complexities of this issue. (And thanks, Amy Julia, for this discussion.) It’s true, the public discussion does tend to fall into absolutes, when I think most of us (at least speaking for myself from the pro-choice side of things) feel that the reality is somewhere in the middle — that an embryo is life and not simply a meaningless ball of cells but at the same time is not equal to a newborn child. But it’s so hard to get to a discussion that lives in that middle ground. Thank you for bringing us all there.

  3. This is the best pro-choice defense I’ve ever heard. And I’ve heard a lot. Thank you, Ellen.

    • Wow. Thanks for that Karen. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again: I have been struck by how much of what YOU wrote I wholeheartedly agree with. I think many of us Christians are probably not as far apart on this issue as we think we are. This has been a great experience for me.

      • I believe the best solution to this admittedly huge social (and personal) problem is to focus on the many areas of common ground between the pro-life and pro-choice camps. fifteen or so years ago, I was involved with a movement to do just that (on both the local and national level) but our society (media, politicians, even philanthropic organizations and churches) has been long conditioned to operating within polarities not commonalities.

        Our approach here is but a voice in the wilderness of dvisive and unproductive politics. Thanks for joining your voice with mine, Ellen.

        • Church leaders, alongside the politicians and the activist groups, are the culture war profiteers. Individual Christians are in a great position to hold their leaders accountable on this point. No one else can.


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