A Response to Objections on My Pro-Life Movement Post

A Response to Objections on My Pro-Life Movement Post November 1, 2012

After reading through the massive comment thread on my post on how I lost faith in the pro-life movement, I have put together a list of questions and points to be addressed. I will be writing future, more focused followup posts looking at some of these issues, but I thought I would briefly address some of questions and comments here first.

1. My current position on the morality of abortion

When I first became pro-choice I would have described myself as being pro-choice for pragmatic reasons. I was pro-choice because I became convinced that the policies associated with being pro-choice – i.e. keeping abortion legal while working to make birth control widely available and improve the social safety net so that women can afford to keep their pregnancies – would do more to reduce the number of abortions than the policies associated with being pro-life – i.e. discouraging birth control and comprehensive sex education while also working to dismantle the social safety net and thus making it harder for women to afford children.

However, in the five years since that time I have concluded, based on both philosophy and embryology, that zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are actually potential people. In other words, while they have the possibility of developing, with the aid of a woman’s body, into a woman’s body zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are not actually people with rights. Furthermore, I have also come to better understand that there are two people involved, and now feel that requiring women to remain pregnant against their wills is no more moral than forcing people to donate bone marrow or one of their kidneys. For more on my views, see my page on reproductive rights.

2. Actively Killing versus Letting die

Perhaps the biggest critique of my piece had to do with my argument that putting women on the pill, even with the small risk of it expelling some zygotes as a result, ought to be a moral obligation for those who view zygotes as people if doing so will save a much greater number of zygotes from naturally being expelled from a woman’s body. The counter argument is that actively killing a zygote, embryo, or fetus, even in order to prevent the deaths of a greater number of zygotes, embryos, or fetuses, is always wrong.

In this way we begin to get into that oft-quoted moral conundrum: If you see a train going down a track and know for sure that if nothing is changed it will run over and kill ten people, but if that you pull a lever that will shunt the train to another track where it will kill one person, what should you do? Which choice is the more moral and ethical one? If you pull the lever you are causing the death of one person, but also preventing the death of ten others. If you don’t pull the lever, are you in some way culpable for those extra deaths, since you could have prevented them? On the other hand, if you do pull the lever, are you a murderer?

But there is a second point. Scientific evidence suggests that the pill does not actually prevent implantation. When I played the numbers game with zygotes and the pill, I was using the pro-life movement’s numbers, not the numbers offered by current scientific consensus. If you look at science, what you will find is that neither the pill nor Plan B prevent zygotes from implanting. The reason that I played the numbers game at all was simply to point out that even if the pill did result in dead zygotes, opposing it was not actually so clear cut as the pro-life movement would have you believe.

3. Pro-life movement versus individual pro-lifers

In my post I continually spoke of the goals and policies of “the pro-life movement.” I do know that the pro-life movement is a diverse thing made up of diverse organizations and individuals. When I spoke of the pro-life movement as a whole, I was referring to the chief organizations, leaders, and political rhetoric. In other words, the dominant narrative. I am aware that there are both individuals and organizations who claim the title “pro-life” and yet do work to promote birth control and improve the social safety net so that every women can afford to raise children. I am also aware that there are some who call themselves “pro-life” and yet don’t want to see abortion banned. My purpose was not to speak of every person or organization claiming the title “pro-life,” but rather to indict the dominant voices, organizations, and narratives that are currently so much a part of our politics today.

If someone wants to keep the term “pro-life” and try to reclaim it from those whose policies would increase abortion rates and harm women, I have no problem with that. I would simply urge them to be aware that the term “pro-life” is today owned by those whose policies are not only counterproductive but also anything but pro-life.

4. What about Crisis Pregnancy Centers?

Another critique of my post was that there is no way I could grow up pro-life and think the movement didn’t care about helping women afford to keep their children, because nearly every town has a crisis pregnancy center, often re-branded as “pregnancy resource centers,” available to help women who choose to keep unplanned pregnancies. I probably should have mentioned these centers in my post so as to close off this avenue for criticism.

First of all, crisis pregnancy centers frequently lie to women about the health risks of abortion and engage in emotional manipulation in an effort to do anything possible to talk them out of having abortions. I attended banquets to raise money for these centers. Sure, there is talk about caring for the woman, but it is more geared toward caring about her as a sacred vessel than caring for her as an individual. The entire point of these centers is to save the lives of babies by talking women out of having abortions by any means possible. So no, I don’t count crisis pregnancy centers as evidence that the pro-life movement cares about women.

Second, giving a woman a crib and diapers is great, but that’s not the real expense involved in raising a child. I could buy a new crib every week for what I pay in daycare costs for one child. The same is true for things like healthcare and, eventually, college expenses. The claim that the the pro-life movement does care about helping women afford to have children because it hands out formula and baby clothes is absurd. Those things are helpful, but they are wholly insignificant compared to the costs of raising a child from infancy through high school.

5. Are the Studies I Used Biased?

Many commenters claimed that my mistake was in believing something I read in the New York Times, or believing research put out by the Guttmacher Institute. Why do I trust the facts these organizations put out? Well, the New York Times engages in fact checking and issues corrections when it gets something wrong. For its part, the Guttmacher Institute uses peer review and refuses to take money from organizations that would compromise their objectivity. It seems to me that the pro-life movement approaches science in much the way young earth creationists do: as though scientists are engaged in some sort of grand conspiracy and every scientific fact is somehow biased one way or another. Any time they are presented with a fact they don’t like they claim “liberal bias” as a way to get out of having to actually deal with that fact.

It seems as though both the pro-life movement and young earth creationists hold tight to pre-conceived ideas and uses cries of “liberal bias” to reject any data that contradicts these ideas. In other words, the pro-life movement starts from the assumption that abortion causes women physical harm and that the birth control pill causes zygote “abortions” and then simply rejects all evidence to the contrary. The thing is, that’s not how I roll. If you want to be right, or at least as close to right as you can come, you have to be open to changing your mind. If you start out with an assumption and then throw out everything that indicates the contrary, well, that’s a problem. In contrast, I place a great deal of value on being willing to be wrong. When I approach facts, I consciously work against my biases. If I am wrong, I want to know so that I can change my mind.

So if you have evidence that the abortion rates in the Guttmacher report are wrong, do tell. If you have evidence that widespread birth control would actually increase the abortion rate, I’m all ears. If you have evidence that making birth control affordable doesn’t decrease the rate of abortions, I’m prepared to listen. But don’t just assert to me that scientific studies are biased and therefore wrong, and then think you can leave it at that. I’m all ready to listen to contrasting arguments and look at all the evidence, but I’m not okay with starting from an assumption and then rejecting everything that contradicts it.

6. Why Do I Compare First and Third World Countries?

Several commenters took issue with me comparing abortion rates in third world countries with abortion rates in first world countries. The thing is, I was not arguing that the legality of abortion is the only variable, and I was not arguing that making abortion legal makes the number of abortions drop. Perhaps I should have been more clear. My point is simply that banning abortion is not correlated with low abortion rates. Instead, it is both accessible and widespread use of birth control and comprehensive social safety nets that are correlated with low abortion rates. These statistics on abortion rate make it clear that the pro-life movement’s argument that birth control leads to more sex and therefore more unwanted pregnancies and therefore more abortions is quite simply false. They also make it clear that the idea that simply banning abortion would somehow get rid of it is false. And finally, they suggest quite clearly that the most effective way to bring down abortion rates lies in things like widespread birth control access and comprehensive social safety nets.

7. What about the Argument that Abortion Harms Women?

One point that was made is that opposing abortion is not simply about saving babies, because women suffer from abortion too, so working to end abortion will help them as well. The trouble is that claims that abortion causes health problems or mental problems have been soundly refuted. The pro-life movement frequently cites studies that are openly acknowledged as flawed – such as those tainted by recall bias or not differentiating between causation and correlation – to back up its argument that abortion harms women while ignoring more comprehensive evidence that contradicts this idea. The problem here is much the same as in point five: the pro-life movement as a whole seems less interested in actual scientific accuracy than in proving the point it has already made up its mind on, that abortion hurts women.

But I want to point out something else. Even if the evidence showed that abortion did have harmful side effects, that would not change my position on whether it should be legal. The side effect of a pregnant woman not having an abortion is having to carry her pregnancy to term and then either raise a child she did not plan on having or give it up for adoption. Thus even if abortion did have harmful side effects, whether or not to have an abortion should still be up to the individual woman.

And finally, as for the argument that abortion harms women long-term because they live in haunted regret, well, you might want to take a look at the stories of some of the many women who are not sorry that they had abortion. Sure, we all sometimes make decisions we later regret. However, the fact that some people later regret an action is not enough of a reason to ban it. And also, it is a bit disingenuous that the pro-life movement trumpets the idea that women who have abortions live lives of guilt while simultaneously doing everything it can to induce that guilt in women who have abortions.

8. Do I want to save the Zygotes?

My discussion on zygotes raised a couple of questions. First, several commenters said that my argument was akin to saying that if we weren’t trying to cure cancer then it would be okay to kill people with cancer. That is not what I was saying. Rather, my argument was simply that if the pro-life movement was consistent, it would be concerned about the zygotes that die naturally. That it in point of fact demonstrates utterly no concern for these zygotes indicates that the pro-life movement does not actually view zygotes as people, regardless of how much they argue they do when contending against abortion and birth control. In other words, the argument has nothing to do with whether we should give zygotes the same consideration as people.

While we’re on the subject, several commenters said that it was fine that these zygotes die since they do so naturally. I find this response extremely strange given that dying from cancer is also natural, or dying from diabetes, or dying from appendicitis, and yet we work to find ways to prevent these deaths. Unless these commenters are willing to say we should suspend modern medicine because deaths that occur “naturally” are a-okay, they’re being inconsistent, applying a different standard to zygotes than they apply to people. And that, quite simply, was my point.

Third and finally, one commenter who works in embryology pointed out that the zygotes that fail to implant do so for a reason – they are not healthy zygotes. This commenter was concerned that I was actually advocating spending time and resources on saving these zygotes because even if that could successfully be done it would simply bring a lot of extremely severely disabled people into the world. I was indeed aware that these zygotes generally fail to implant because there is something wrong with them, but I don’t think that changes my argument. After all, we do what we can to help severely disabled people out of the womb, including ones that would die without modern medicine, so if pro-lifers are consistent in their claim that a zygote is a person just as much as you or I they should insist on doing the same for zygotes, even ones that suffer from abnormalities. However, because I do not view a zygote as the equivalent of you or I in any way shape or form, I do agree with this commenter that such research would be a waste of resources. My point was not to argue that we should be working to save the zygotes but rather simply that if the pro-life movement was genuine in its claim that zygotes are people like you or I, it ought to be doing so.

9. On Sex, Consequences, and Responsibility

Of all the comments on my post, the ones that I found most strange were the ones arguing that sex is about making babies, and people need to be responsible and accept the consequences of their decisions. I found these comments odd because they revealed that someone could somehow read my entire post and then make my point for me. For these commenters, being pro-life is not about saving babies, or at least not primarily about saving babies. Instead it is about making sure that sex has consequences.

But why? Why must sex have consequences? When an obese person becomes diabetic we don’t deprive him of insulin and tell him his diabetes is his own fault and he just has to deal with the consequences. Should we deprive people of coffee because if you’re tired it’s your own fault for not getting more sleep? We do things to mitigate the consequences of our actions all the time. Birth control and abortion are just one more way of doing this. If someone argues that sex must have consequences – that sex and baby making must always go hand in hand regardless of the technology we have developed to separate the two – they are simply trying to impose their personal beliefs on everyone else.

Furthermore, seeing abortion as a way for people to be irresponsible is disingenuous. When a woman finds herself with an unplanned pregnancy, she has to consider her options and choose a course of action. That is called being responsible. Having an abortion is one of those options. In other words, there is no reason abortion should be seen as an irresponsible way of handling an unplanned pregnancy, just like there is no reason having a baby should be the mandated consequence of having sex.

If you are one who believes that abortion is murder, you will probably have some problems with the two previous paragraphs. But my point is that if it is all about preventing the murder of unborn babies, well, talk of “consequences” and “responsibility” is a bit disingenuous. When you talk about how sex should have consequences or about how abortion is an irresponsible way to get out of dealing with the results of sex, well, you are moving the conversation away from saving babies and toward controlling people’s sex lives. So if it really is about saving babies, and not about pushing your sexual morality on society in general, you shouldn’t be making this sort of argument. If you’re interested, I’ve actually written about this twice, in posts called “When It Really Is about Controlling Woman” and “When you do the thing that makes babies…

10. Why I Used the Label “Pro-Life”

Several pro-choice commenters wondered why I used the term “pro-life” and “pro-life movement.” I usually try to use the term “pro-life” when I write a post I hope will gain some audience among those who oppose abortion. I do this because I remember how quickly the doors of my mind used to slam shut whenever I heard someone using one of those other labels for me. It was an immediate conversation stopper. It was the end of any productive dialogue. I didn’t want phrases like “anti-choice” to put people off my post. However, I generally have preferred the term “anti-abortion.” I’m going to write a post sometime in the future about these different labels, and as I do so I will likely further hone my own thoughts on which labels are most appropriate and in what situations.

11. There Are Huge Differences between Protestants and Catholics

One thing that was frequently pointed out to me in the comments is that I couldn’t assume all pro-lifers were the same because there are large differences between how Protestants and Catholics approach this issue. I am very aware of this. While I grew up evangelical, I actually spent a couple of years as a Catholic before leaving faith behind entirely. I think the most interesting difference, and I will discuss this further in a future post, is in the reasons for opposing birth control. Catholics oppose birth control entirely, believing that sex should not be separated from procreation. In contrast, Protestants who oppose birth control do so because they believe it causes abortions.

In other words, Catholics oppose birth control because they want others to follow their own religious and moral beliefs while Protestants oppose birth control because they believe it kills babies. Of course, Protestants also voice concerns about birth control encouraging premarital sex, which they believe as sinful. Regardless, this difference is fascinating, and indeed should not be ignored. The ways in which Catholics and Protestants have influenced each other over time on issues of abortion and birth control is also fascinating.

12. What about Natural Family Planning?

Several commenters asserted that people should stop complaining about birth control access and just use natural family planning, so I wanted to make a couple of points on that issue. First, there are a variety of different birth control methods out there and people should be allowed to pick which works best for them, not forced into using any one method because of someone else’s religious or moral beliefs. The reason the Catholic Church is okay with natural family planning is that it involves an “openness” to procreation. That fact alone should make it clear that natural family planning is not for everyone, and is perhaps most especially not for those who are not open to having children.

That said, I actually happen to know a lot about natural family planning. Before getting an IUD this past summer I actually used natural family planning as my only form of birth control. If you will remember, I spent several years as a Catholic. I will say that natural family planning worked for me, in that both of my children were indeed planned and I did not have any “oops” babies. However, keeping track of everything was extremely stressful – it is absolutely critical to get every sign correct – and the amount of abstaining we had to do took a tole on our sex life. I worried every month as I waited for my period, and every month the first sex I had after my fertile period I was tense and full of worry that I might have misread the signs and be risking pregnancy. I’m not saying it was all bad – I did enjoy learning about my body and my cycle. However, natural family planning is not some sort of easy fix to throw out there when people talk about birth control access. Given amount of time and effort it involves, natural family planning is for all intents and purposes a hobby.

13. Is Planned Parenthood Involved in Some Sort of Evil Conspiracy?

There are two issues here. The first is whether or not Planned Parenthood is engaged in some sort of conspiracy to force women to have abortions. The thing is, being pro-choice means supporting a woman’s right to choose. Pressuring woman into having abortions would be antithetical to choice. There is is not space here to get into all of the arguments I grew up seeing thrown around regarding Planned Parenthood, nor do I have time at the moment. Suffice it to say that I find the idea that that organization could be staffed by pro-choice individuals all somehow complicit in forcing women to have abortions without word leaking out. It would have to be a conspiracy on a simply massive scale. Based on what I know and have experienced, the idea that Planned Parenthood is engaged in a scheme to push women into having abortions appears ludicrous.

But that said, those who make the argument that Planned Parenthood is engaged in some sort of conspiracy seem to assume that if this was the case it would somehow be an argument for abortion. If Planned Parenthood really were trying to force women into have abortions rather than allowing women to make their own choices and supporting them in those choices, I and every other pro-choice individual I know would be horrified and work to expose the organization and bring reform and accountability. I would not, however, suddenly decide that abortion should be banned. If one health food store chain turns out to be embezzling people’s money, does that mean we should ban organic food? Um, no. Whether or not Planned Parenthood is engaged in some sort of conspiracy has no bearing on whether or not abortion should be legal.

14. Did I Become Pro-Choice So That I Could Be Promiscuous?

I saved this issue for last because I found it rather humorous. Several commenters accused me of changing my position because I wanted to have sex, and of being a swinger who is anti-monogamy. In fact, one commenter suggested that I just wanted to be able to get out of having children. The reason I find all of this so funny is that I have only ever had sex with one man, my husband, I married young, and I have two young children. Of course, I don’t see anything wrong with having multiple sex partners or with choosing not to have children at all. Even if I were sleeping around and swearing off children entirely, that would not invalidate the arguments I was making, because those arguments had nothing to do with my personal preferences. But the assertion that I, a young married mother of two, became pro-choice because I didn’t want kids and didn’t believe in monogamy? That made me laugh.

And of course, there is something else here that some commenters seemed to forget. I am a happily married mother of two, and I use birth control (an IUD in my case). Why? Because two children are all my husband and I want and can afford right now. Birth control is not something that is only used by those who are not married or those with multiple partners. We consider it normal and desirable in this day and age to be able to plan whether, when, and how many children to have, and that means birth control also for those who are married. I for one have no desire to return to the days when women spent their entire reproductive lives either pregnant or recovering from pregnancy.

15. My Commenting Policy

I know this isn’t a response to an objection, but given that the comment thread on my pro-life movement post ballooned, I think it’s a good idea to make sure everyone knows my commenting policy. If you’re knew, please read it. It’s not very long, but I do try to maintain a specific sort of tone in the comment threads on my blog.

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