A response to the article So What if Abortion Ends Life? from Salon.com, by Mary Elizabeth Williams. The article can be viewed at: http://www.salon.com/2013/01/23/so_what_if_abortion_ends_life/
This article (from a ‘pro-choice’ perspective) argues that although pro-lifers are correct in recognising that life begins at conception, this has no practical or moral implications at all. In my response, I will quote key sections from the article and comment on the points which they raise.
The article begins thus:
‘Of all the diabolically clever moves the anti-choice lobby has ever pulled, surely one of the greatest has been its consistent co-opting of the word “life.” Life! Who wants to argue with that? Who wants be on the side of … not-life? … Yet I know that throughout my own pregnancies, I never wavered for a moment in the belief that I was carrying a human life inside of me. I believe that’s what a fetus is: a human life. And that doesn’t make me one iota less solidly pro-choice.’
These opening statements are strange and rather illogical, as Williams sarcastically poses the question ‘who wants to be on the side of… not life?’, and then suggests that in fact she does want to. It seems that for Williams, choice is more valuable than life, given that she remains ‘pro-choice’ despite correctly and logically recognising that the unborn truly are human lives.
She goes on to lament that:
‘we play into the sneaky, dirty tricks of the anti-choice lobby when we on the pro-choice side squirm so uncomfortably at the ways in which they’ve repeatedly appropriated the concept of “life.”
But Williams does not deny the logic of the pro-life movement who claim that an unborn baby is a human being, choosing instead to claim:
‘Here’s the complicated reality in which we live: All life is not equal. That’s a difficult thing for liberals like me to talk about, lest we wind up looking like death-panel-loving, kill-your-grandma-and-your-precious-baby storm troopers. Yet a fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always.’
To me, Williams’ words ‘all life is not equal’ echo those of the character Napoleon in George Orwell’s classic allegorical novel Animal Farm– “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”. In the novel, the practical application of this principle leads to the death of the loyal horse Boxer, since his life was deemed less valuable than the benefits that his death and the sale of his corpse would bring. Once again, Williams shows her logical competency by immediately trying to distance herself from eugenics, infanticide and so forth because she knows how precariously close she has come to supporting those things.
Her sole argument for a moral difference between those inside and outside of the womb is that of autonomy. What she is essentially saying is that as the ‘ruler’ of her body, a woman can determine the value of a life which exists within it and make any choice she wants regarding it. However, the reason that women (and men) can be considered to have bodily rights is that they are humans. For example, we hunt animals, eat them and use them in scientific experiments because they are not humans and thus have no bodily rights. Williams has already conceded that foetuses are human lives and so it follows that there are only two options available to her. Since she has argued that personhood/life is irrelevant she could also abandon the idea of bodily autonomy and advocate a bestial ‘law of the jungle’ for humans. Otherwise she must admit that as a human life, an unborn baby also has its own bodily autonomy, which is obviously violated by the aggressive act of abortion. I would be very interested to hear Williams argue her view that rights come from something other than being a human, but until then her position seems ridiculous at best and frightening at worst.
Williams goes on to give a clear and intellectually honest view of the ‘when does life begin?’ debate:
‘When we on the pro-choice side get cagey around the life question, it makes us illogically contradictory… Fetuses aren’t selective… They don’t qualify as human life only if they’re intended to be born.
When we try to act like a pregnancy doesn’t involve human life, we wind up drawing stupid semantic lines in the sand: first trimester abortion vs. second trimester vs. late term, dancing around the issue trying to decide if there’s a single magic moment when a fetus becomes a person. Are you human only when you’re born? Only when you’re viable outside of the womb? Are you less of a human life when you look like a tadpole than when you can suck on your thumb?’
This is a sensible and rational position which the pro-life movement certainly agrees with. However, the difference in our views is over the implications of recognising a fetus as a human life and how it should affect our attitude to abortion. Perhaps there is also a deeper question which divides us- ‘is human life inherently valuable?’ I don’t think Williams believes that it is, as is shown by the next quote:
‘They believe that if we call a fetus a life they can go down the road of making abortion murder. And I think that’s what concerns the hell out of those of us who support unrestricted reproductive freedom.’
Once again Williams is spot on, but I think the burden of proof is on her side- why is ending an innocent human life not murder? She attempts to justify her position in the following paragraph:
‘But we make choices about life all the time in our country. We make them about men and women in other nations. We make them about prisoners in our penal system. We make them about patients with terminal illnesses and accident victims. We still have passionate debates about the justifications of our actions as a society, but we don’t have to do it while being bullied around by the vague idea that if you say we’re talking about human life, then the jig is up, rights-wise.’
Williams seems to equate unborn babies with criminals and enemies in war, which hardly seems fair or rational. It appears she has completely ignored the distinction between innocent and guilty humans, the latter of whom have already demonstrated a lack of respect for life. The fact is, a just war or a death sentence (which many pro-lifers, including LifeChoice Sydney, do not even support) is supposed to save and protect many more lives than it ends. Abortion never saves more than one life and it barely ever even does that. Certainly there are plenty of unjust wars and sentences, but just because something happens doesn’t mean it is good or acceptable. And contrary to Williams’ opinion, we SHOULD in fact ‘bully’ our politicians and the leaders of our society by demanding respect for all human life in war and justice. Accident victims and terminal patients are also a completely different story which is too complex to cover here, but pro-lifers believe that every attempt possible should be made to preserve their precious human lives. In summary, it is very disturbing that Williams subtly compares babies, the most precious gift to their parents, to criminals, enemies and accidents or catastrophes. The most harmless and innocent members of humanity deserve the chance to simply be born and live their life, because a civilised society believes that people are innocent until proven guilty.
‘It seems absurd to suggest that the only thing that makes us fully human is the short ride out of some lady’s vagina.’
Agreed 100%, it is absurd!
‘I’m a mom who… is over 40 and in an experimental drug trial. If by some random fluke I learned today I was pregnant, you bet your ass I’d have an abortion. I’d have the World’s Greatest Abortion.’
The mention of the experimental drug trial shows that Williams is concerned that this hypothetical baby would be born with some kind of defect. Her position implies that this negatively affects the value of the life of the baby, which raises the question of what is stopping her having the same opinion about disabled adults? After all, she has already claimed that the unborn are just as human as an adult, and that not all human life is equal, so it is a simple logical step. It is then only another small step further for someone to take this attitude and apply it to, say, a particular race- the possibilities are frightening. Without an equal and inalienable value placed on all human life, there is nothing to protect the vulnerable from having their lives valued, or devalued, by the powerful.
‘My belief that life begins at conception is mine to cling to. And if you believe that it begins at birth, or somewhere around the second trimester, or when the kid finally goes to college, that’s a conversation we can have, one that I hope would be respectful and empathetic and fearless.’
This is what LifeChoice Sydney is all about- debate, conversation and education. Williams understands that this is not an issue to be swept under the rug and ignored, so credit to her for that.
‘In an Op-Ed on “Why I’m Pro-Choice” in the Michigan Daily this week, Emma Maniere stated, quite perfectly, that “Some argue that abortion takes lives, but I know that abortion saves lives, too.” She understands that it saves lives not just in the most medically literal way, but in the roads that women who have choice then get to go down, in the possibilities for them and for their families.
This is a gravely flawed statement. If abortion was reduced to only those which medically saved the mother’s equally valuable human life, then over 99% of them would have to stop. Williams doesn’t mention this because it would destroy her argument for the necessity of ‘unrestricted reproductive freedom’. The other argument which she puts forward is once again that of ‘choice’. The reality is though, that our choices in everyday life are constrained by respect for the human lives around us. If we violate them, even if it makes things easier or better for us, we are guilty of a crime. Why the double standard then, seeing as Williams has already acknowledged that the unborn are fully human?
‘I would put the life of a mother over the life of a fetus every single time — even if I still need to acknowledge my conviction that the fetus is indeed a life. A life worth sacrificing.’
It is worth noting, as I already have, that it is almost never ‘the life of a mother over the life of a fetus’. Usually (over 99% of the time) it is just a choice which will allegedly make the mothers’ life easier or better- whether it does this is another matter of course. I think Williams needs to face up to reality and do some serious thinking about who gains from this grisly ‘sacrifice’. Is it women? Surely not- millions of unborn women are aborted because of their gender, while mothers have their bodies violently invaded with surgical instruments during an allegedly ‘harmless’ procedure. Some men certainly gain a lot though. Irresponsible fathers, rapists, pimps, sex traffickers and paedophiles all avoid responsibility and avoid the consequences of their awful crimes or their selfish decisions. Abortion clinics certainly gain too- where is their incentive to provide full information for an informed choice? Only one choice is going to bolster their bank balance. So before Williams rejoices in the sacrificing of lives, she should consider who this sacrifice is being offered to.
Finally, and in summary of the entire discussion, comes the most important point of all. Williams thinks that a human life is irrelevant and that it does not have an inherent value or any inalienable rights when it is inside the womb. So why does it have these things as a newborn baby or as an adult? Williams has not offered any serious justification for this and perhaps her assertion that ‘all life is not equal’ should be amended to ‘life is only valuable if you can see the person and talk to them’. But one day someone, maybe even a whole nation, will take her principle and apply it evenly to everyone, stripping them of all value, dignity and rights- it has happened before in history after all. The only logical and humane way to approach human life is to respect its inherent value, dignity and beauty in all people: born or unborn, rich or poor, healthy or disabled.