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

What restrictions would you put on reproductive choice?

Fervent pro-choice advocates face a dilemma as reproductive technologies such as prenatal diagnosis, IVF, PGD, and surrogacy become more sophisticated and ubiquitous. The ability of parents to select the gender of their children, via either preimplantation genetic diagnosis to select embryos of the desired gender for transfer, or via abortion after ultrasound determines a fetus’s gender, illustrates this dilemma well. Again, to quote from my upcoming book:

Because the pro-choice movement centers on women’s rights, sex-selection technology poses a particularly thorny problem [for pro-choice advocates]. Sex selection to ensure male offspring stems from ancient patriarchal notions that boys are more valuable than girls. American fertility doctors treat patients from Asian, Middle Eastern, and African cultures who take advantage of our unregulated fertility industry to use PGD to ensure that they have baby boys. In some cases the mothers-to-be proactively seek the treatment, and in others they appear to be under pressure from husbands and extended families to deliver much-desired male children . . . In such cases, accessing fertility treatment may be less about a woman’s freely exercising her choice than about her obligation to conform to ancient cultural and familial practices that are fundamentally oppressive to women . . .

[Journalist Liza] Mundy discussed the sex-selection dilemma with a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman who, while concerned about sex-selection technology, said she did not think it should be banned. “Her fear,” writes Mundy, “is that any effort to direct any reproductive decision made by any individual is to call into question all decisions made by all individuals, including, of course, the decision to abort.” Mundy, on the other hand, argues that “it should be possible to (1) accept a woman’s moral right to choose whether or not to continue an unintended or unwanted pregnancy, and (2) reject an infertility patient’s right to infinitely select desired traits in offspring.” But that will only be possible if those on the left are willing to question or reframe their rhetoric of choice and parental rights, and to recognize that unlimited choice can be as problematic as no choice at all.

I do not support unlimited reproductive choice or unlimited abortion rights. I do not support late-term or partial-birth abortion. I think sex selection via PGD or abortion should be illegal, and that preimplantation genetic diagnosis should be used only to screen for significantly disabling or fatal genetic disorders, not for either gender or non-disease traits (e.g., hair and eye color).

Like many who read this blog, I’m familiar with the oft-cited statistic that about 90 percent of pregnancies in which the fetus is prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome are terminated. I believe that, ultimately, parents have the right to decide whether or not to continue a pregnancy when their fetus is prenatally diagnosed with a genetic disorder. However (and this is a big however), in my work collecting stories from women who have made difficult reproductive choices, I’m aware that the quality of information, counsel, and support that families receive from their caregivers in the aftermath of a troubling prenatal diagnosis is often poor. Many (by no means all) medical providers express a bias toward termination, and fail to offer families up-to-date information on what it is like to raise a child with a particular disorder. My own disorder, OI, is relatively rare, and I know of more than one family who was told that their unborn child had the fatal form of OI when, actually, the child had a severe but manageable form of the disorder. So when I hear of parents who choose to terminate a pregnancy after receiving a prenatal diagnosis of fatal OI, I grieve for that child and those parents, knowing that there’s a decent chance that child’s diagnosis wasn’t fatal after all. While I want parents to retain the right to make their own decisions about pregnancy termination, I also believe that significant improvements in the information and counsel parents receive after a prenatal diagnosis would substantially lower the termination rate.

Nate asked how I view scriptures that claim God’s wrath against societies that allow the blood of innocents to be shed, pointing me to this collection of passages gathered in support of a pro-life perspective:

I am suspect of any attempt to take ancient biblical texts, isolate them, and then insist that they give clear counsel on modern-day ethical dilemmas. There are many ways in which a society can support and enable the shedding of innocent blood—wars with significant civilian casualties, a health care system that fails to provide care to the poor, etc.—so I am leery of insisting that these passages make a clear case against Christians accepting legalized abortion. I’ll go back to my first point: I believe human life—human lives—are a gift from God and should be treated with reverence. To me, that is crystal clear in Scripture. What is not crystal clear is exactly how that reverence for God-given life precisely influences how Christians should respond to modern legislative, political, medical, and ethical issues. For example, scripture clearly says, “Thou shalt not kill.” Yet, as I discussed earlier, Christians generally accept that there are various legal and moral responses to one person killing another person, so that even this very clear commandment does not translate into every person who kills another person being imprisoned for murder.

Several of the scriptures mentioned in this link refer to Molech—an ancient god to whom people were required to sacrifice their children. Pro-life advocates have used the name of Molech as a weapon against pro-choice advocates. My faithful reader who calls me a murderer has also called me, “The high priestess of Molech.” As one of my writing colleagues pointed out, perhaps I should be flattered to be not just a priestess, but a “high priestess”?! All this to say: I don’t think quoting scriptures in isolation and referring to fellow Christians with the name of pagan gods is useful if we want to actually figure out appropriate Christian responses to the moral dilemmas facing our culture.

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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).


  1. Amy Julia, thanks again for keeping the dialogue open and welcoming various perspectives. Clearly these are complex issues. Why is it that we always want clear cut answers of right and wrong, moral and immoral? There’s a lot to wrestle with here.
    Ellen, thanks again for sharing your perspective in well thought, clearly articulated responses.

  2. It might clarify the discussion to try to separate off the considerations surrounding embryo killing from the further considerations raised by these other technologies. In some cases we could consider what policies we’d have reason to enact even if the technologies did not involve the killing of embryos (and yet still selected for sex, etc.).

    Have you looked at the discussions in From Chance to Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2000)?

  3. I’ve just added a comment under the thread that Nate links us to in the second question. I invite responses there (so as not to hijack the discussion of Ms. Dollar’s thoughtful points).

  4. Not familiar with that book, though I’ll look it up. As for separating the various considerations, I agree. In my book, I focus on the “further considerations” you mention without getting into more traditional abortion-related debates about killing embryos. I think repro tech raises a whole host of moral questions appropriate for Christians to consider, and those questions are related to, but also significantly different from the questions raised by abortion. When people try to decide whether repro tech is or is not ethical based on traditional pro-choice arguments (reproductive rights, women’s rights, privacy, autonomy) and traditional pro-life arguments (preserving embryonic life), they often come to some troubling, inadequate, and just plain strange conclusions.

  5. Nate Hagerty says:

    I have to pop on a plane this morning, so I’m not able to reply more fully. But I’m deeply grateful, again, for your tone. I’m not sure I communicated my points very clearly, as I don’t think this quite touches on what I was trying to get at. I’ll expand more later, I suppose, but my main point of question was how you view the notion that a culture/society can, in fact, be held spiritually and morally culpable (in the eyes of God) for the legislation it allows. (And yes, I recognize that this concept can and should be broadly expanded to include its treatment of the poor, etc.)

    And, I’m not sure it’s quite fair to say that I “[took] ancient biblical texts, isolate them, and then insist[ed] that they give clear counsel on modern-day ethical dilemmas.” I gather that, perhaps, you were making a larger point about Scriptural cherry-picking, about which I mostly agree. I simply grabbed that link as a shortcut to not having to list out the dozens of Scriptures related to “the shedding of innocent blood” (note: a different term than “murder”, which you addressed in the Part 1, earlier) … and I take no responsibility for other content on that site, how they’re framed, etc. ‘Twas a lazy google job, perhaps.

    But all that to say that there *does* seem to be something about the notion of “shedding innocent blood” which God takes deadly serious (He *is* the same yesterday, today, and forever, yes?) … and I believe that should more distinctly inform our laws, our voting, and our own moral decision-making.

    Lastly, I hasten to add: I mourn with you for the pain which you have carried, and am, frankly, disgusted that anyone would so blithely call you a “murderer” and a “high priestess of Molech”. You have demonstrated such a tender care about every aspect of your decision, I’m convinced that you are *extremely* beloved by God (and by many people who know you in “real” life). I honor you for the public wrestling which you have undertaken, and the unfortunate (and perhaps inevitable) arrows which you have taken as a result. I’m glad that you can brush them off now, but I’m sure it was pretty horrifying at first.

    Anyway, I hope to write more later. Bless you, Mrs. Dollar!

  6. I was indeed responding to a larger issue of cherry picking Scripture, and realized after I sent my post to Amy Julia that my response to you might appear to be ascribing motives to you that you don’t have. So you’re absolutely right that my response was not completely fair; I wrote that response after writing everything else, when I was pretty worn out, and it was partly a from-the-gut response to how other, less charitable people have used Scripture as a weapon. So thanks for coming back with another thoughtful and gracious response. I’m going to think more about your larger question about whether we have a duty to oppose legislation that allows the shedding of innocent blood. The practical part of me (which is a pretty big part) still wants to say, “Well, yes, but legislative measures don’t seem to really influence the actual occurrence of abortion, so even with biblical backing, should Christians be focusing on the legality of abortion, or apply our efforts to where they might actually make a difference in the number of abortions that happen–in concretely supporting women who have or are likely to have unintended pregnancies?” But I get your larger point about faithfulness to a God who has made clear his abhorrence of societies that treat “the least of these” poorly, and it makes sense to include embryonic human life under that umbrella. If you have additional thoughts when you return from your trip, please share them. My e-mail address is easy to find on my blog, and I’m open to writing more follow-up as this conversation continues.

  7. Nate, on the issue of “shedding innocent blood” and “abortion” do you find anything in the scriptures that helpfully takes us beyond the sorts of considerations that reasonable non-Christians would be willing to accept independent of scriptural grounding? If so, then what precisely are those distinctively scriptural insights? If not, then what do the scripture passages actually contribute to this issue?

    The idea of legally opposing the “shedding of innocent blood” is, like the idea of legally preserving the “right to life,” not a uniquely biblical insight. Both ideas, however, are only plausible when they are highly nuanced (much more nuanced than the phrases themselves even begin to suggest). How do the scriptures help us to determine the appropriate nuances with regard to early stage abortion?

  8. Brian Burke says:

    I apologize if you have already answered this question (I am late to the discussion, but have searched and haven’t found an answer): if you agree that late-term abortion should be illegal, have you come to a conclusion on “where to draw the line” with respect to when in the pregnancy it becomes “late-term”? If so, how did you arrive at that conclusion?

  9. I don’t have a clear idea of where to draw the line and hesitate to take a stab at that without doing further reading and giving it more thought. But here’s the larger point I was getting at: Even most people who support abortion rights find the idea of a late-term abortion in which a fetus is partially delivered and then has its skull crushed, etc., to be morally abhorrent. So I get frustrated when I say, “I’m pro-choice,” and someone counters with, “So you think it’s OK for a doctor to crush a baby’s skull and pull it out of its mother’s body?” Um, no. I don’t. I want to make it absolutely clear that while I am pro-choice, I am not pro-ANY choice. Reproductive choice should not be unlimited, abortion should not be unrestricted and unregulated, and we in the pro-choice camp should stop being so afraid that if we agree that certain practices (such as late-term abortions, partial-birth abortions, or abortion for gender selection) are unacceptable, we’re accepting a dangerous compromise that threatens all reproductive choice. As I said in one of these posts, I don’t accept the slippery slope argument. We can choose limits. We can say that one thing is acceptable but another is not. Sorry – I know that doesn’t really answer your question but I don’t want to write off the cuff about something I haven’t studied very deeply.

  10. Thank you, Nate. As a vehement pro-lifer, I appreciate and agree with your words of affirmation to my friend Ellen and couldn’t have said it better myself.

  11. Karen, I’d be interested to hear your reasons for why you are a vehement pro-lifer instead of a nuanced pro-choicer like Ellen.

    Do you think that it is just a matter of personal taste, or do you think that your position is less erroneous than Ellen’s? If the latter, then can you provide an adequate justification for thinking as you do? (Or, do you take yourself to have provided that adequate justification? If so, then what would you say about the unanswered challenges that I have raised? If not, then why haven’t you attempted to provide that adequate justification for thinking that your position is less erroneous than Ellen’s? If it is a matter of difficulty, wouldn’t you say that the importance of the subject matter makes such an attempt worthwhile–despite of the difficulty?)

  12. Craig, I gave my reasons for being pro-life in the original post from me in this series. I understand that you find my reasons unconvincing, but those are my reasons. I don’t think my position is unfallible, but as I say in the post, I do believe that it is best for human society to err on the side of human life rather than choice (a principle I apply to capital punishment and euthanasia as well).

    I attempted to answer your challenges up until the point when you asked if frozen embryos should be stored next to the ice cream, a challenge I could not take seriously.

  13. Karen, the ice cream question was intended to make you re-read the comment you were criticizing (scenario #4, you might recall). You had obviously not read the comment, to which you had been responding, with due diligence.

    As for your reasons, it became clear that you were simply assuming–without supporting argument–that it is morally wrong to kill a fertilized human egg. That’s the sort of pro-life claim we had hoped you would try to argue for–not a claim you should simply take for granted. So it’s not an issue of infallibility.

  14. I said I support scenario 4 (which is essentially what the snowflake program is) and you responded by asking if they should be stored next to the ice cream.

    I don’t know who the “we” are that you are referring to. I was asked by Amy Julia to write about why I am a pro-life Christian, so that’s what I wrote about. Not everyone thinks it’s wrong to intentionally kill a fertilized egg, and not everyone who thinks it’s wrong wants to outlaw abortion; many also think that abortion IS ultimately better for women and children (“every child a wanted child,” pro-child=pro-choice,” etc.), so none of these positions are assumptions in the current culture.

  15. So in fact you still haven’t read scenario 4 with due diligence. Here it is again, word for word:

    “4. Suppose that we developed a relatively safe and inexpensive method for removing very early stage embryos from wombs. If these early stage embryos could be kept alive in a perpetually frozen state (with an even higher rate of survival than they would otherwise have), would pro-lifers accept this as an acceptable alternative to abortion? Why or why not?”

    As to your second point, apparently we are to understand your response to Amy Julia as follows. Your justification for why you are pro-life is this: you assume without argument that it is morally wrong to kill a fertilized human egg.

    Most readers probably thought that you were trying to provide more of an argument for that moral claim.

  16. Craig, perhaps you can help me understand what you are looking for, exactly. If you think (I won’t assume you you do) murder (of grown people) is immoral (beyond being illegal, I mean), what would be your argument for that moral claim?

  17. Karen, as we’ve discussed, your pro-life argument that abortion is morally wrong simply assumes–without argument–that it is morally wrong to kill a fertilized human egg. Can you really not see what is obviously unsatisfactory about such an argument? (Hint: one thing that is unsatisfactory is that no one who doesn’t already accept your pro-life conclusion is going to accept the premise of your argument.)

    Rather than addressing this problem, you ask instead for an argument for why the “murder” of human adults is wrong. Do you not see the obvious asymmetry here? You are asking me to argue for a statement that most people (including myself, if the statement were more precisely worded) would accept without further argumentation. Similarly, “1=1″ would be accepted without the need for further argumentation. Generally, it is a different, and often more difficult, task to give an argument for statement such as these–given that arguments are expected to start from less controversial premises. If you don’t understand this, then you should actually try to give an argument for why 1=1, using less controversial premises. What would those premises be?

    Hopefully, you will not continue to insist upon changing the subject or misreading my questions. What, therefore, is your answer to scenario 4 (assuming that you have finally read it with due diligence)?

  18. Sorry, but it’s cryogenics that is the change in subject.

  19. Nice evasion.

    Notice how it was you who introduced the cryogenics issue from another thread. Maybe you’re still confused about the relevance of the “snowflake program”?

  20. Craig, I’ve stayed out of these discussions for the most part because I wanted to let an honest and respectful dialogue take place. But I’m going to insert myself now for two reasons. One, because your tone does not demonstrate respect for Karen or for her arguments. She has answered your questions with patience, and as far as I am concerned, this aspect of our discussion is complete.

    Two, I’d like to comment on the frozen embryos as well. I think Karen’s argument is, at least in part, a teleological one. Which is to say, she (and I, and Ellen too, I think) believes that human life is created by God with a purpose, a telos. Certainly this assumption is a faith-based one. As a conversation among Christians, as this dialogue was intended to be, it is also an assumption that does not need defense. (In a debate with people who don’t believe in God or in human beings as creatures formed by God, it would need a defense.) That telos can never be realized as a frozen embryo, which is why perpetually freezing said embryos is not a “pro-life” solution.