Perhaps my title here strikes you as harsh and the subtitle as mere hyperbole.
But they are neither.
And if you think about it logically, you’ll know that I’m right. A brief story will illustrate the point.
My wife and I have two daughters, both of whom are adults now.
Neither pregnancy was easy (and anyone who says a pregnancy was easy is probably a man), but the first one was especially stressful.
Throughout the first two trimesters, my wife had breakthrough bleeding.
She also, at one point, had a kidney stone.
Then her labor lasted around 14 hours, our daughter resisting birth for as long as possible before a C-section became the best available option.
During most of that time, my wife experienced a piercing headache from the epidural, making whatever numbing effect it was intended to have seem pretty worthless by comparison.
Finally, though, our daughter was born.
When I saw her for the first time, I was overcome with the most profound full-body joy I had ever, to that point, experienced.
It would not be matched until our second daughter came into the world two years later.
If there is a God, those moments were the best evidence I have found to suggest it.
And yet here is what I know to be true beyond all doubt.
Despite the overwhelming love I felt for our daughters the moment I saw them…
…and despite the great affection we both felt for them and the incredibly high regard in which we held them throughout the 40-plus weeks of their gestation…
…and despite the indisputable value they possessed, even before birth — a value rooted in the miraculous potential of all life from its earliest moments of existence…
…they were at no point during that gestation the moral equivalent of the woman in whose body they resided, waiting to be born.
Not. Even. Close.
They just weren’t.
And deep down, most everyone knows that. Not just about my kids and my wife, but about yours if you have them.
About you, vis-a-vis your own mother.
Here’s how we know.
If forced to choose between saving the life of a pregnant woman or the fetal life developing inside of her, virtually every partner or parent of that pregnant woman — every doctor, hell, any stranger — would choose her.
Not merely because she has a 20 or 30 or however many-years head start and thus, wins some presumptive cosmic coin toss simply as a matter of chronological justice.
But because we all know that born life is simply different than yet-to-be-born life.
And not just different but more valuable. It is the difference between being actualized and being potential.
Any father in that situation who would say they couldn’t choose and would just “let nature take its course” or “leave it up to God” is worthy of neither the child nor its mother.
They would be morally vacant — a fool incapable of ethical decision-making, deserving neither of fatherhood nor a life partner nor consultation on anything of importance.
Thankfully, almost no one would act in such a way.
And again, there is a reason.
Because almost everyone knows the difference between embryonic or fetal life and born life.
Yes, in that situation, some women might feel so connected to their developing child as to roll the dice on their own lives to save the baby.
People often sacrifice themselves for others.
And when they do, we can perhaps applaud their courage.
We can applaud their choice.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s theirs.
. . .
Make no mistake: the fetus has value. The unborn life is not nothing.
It isn’t just “a clump of cells,” and certainly not by the time it has reached the fetal stage.
People on the left who sometimes speak of fetal life cavalierly (as a few do) are assholes. But those who say fetal life is unworthy of any moral consideration are a distinct minority within the reproductive justice left.
How do we know?
Because it is we in the reproductive justice left who demand such life have access to comprehensive prenatal care.
It is we — and most definitely not the right-wing fetal police — who insist that when women want a child, they should be able to access all the resources necessary to care for it from the beginning of pregnancy until adulthood.
No one needs to lecture the reproductive justice left about the value of life in utero. We’re the ones pushing for policies that would protect the greatest number of such lives and help them develop into healthy kids.
And women who terminate pregnancies know this too.
They value such life. Almost all either already have a child or will. They don’t need to be lectured about the value of life or children.
But acknowledging that it’s wrong to describe embryonic or fetal life as “just a clump of cells” does not justify a regime of abortion prohibition.
Yes, such life is more than nothing. Much more. It is potential from the very beginning. And that matters.
That said, between nothing and legal and moral personhood is a vast territory.
Within that space, it is perfectly acceptable to try and persuade and educate people about your particular perspective.
But outlawing women’s reproductive autonomy in the name of that life, however valuable, is unacceptable.
And again: it isn’t even a close call.
When women decide to carry a baby, they exercise an awe-inspiring choice. Any time a person sacrifices their body, or an organ from that body, or puts themselves in potential harm’s way for another, it is worthy of the highest admiration.
But to demand it of them — to require that sacrifice as a matter of law — is an abomination of justice and decency.
It turns women into involuntary servants on behalf of fetal life by order of the state.
It would subject those women to suspicion, investigation, and perhaps prosecution whenever their pregnancies ended in miscarriage (as around one-fourth of recognized pregnancies do) or if they didn’t eat healthy or exercised too much, or not enough.
It would subject such women to prosecution if they had a drug or alcohol problem, dissuading them from checkups while pregnant for fear of being arrested— to the detriment of both the women and the children they intended to bear.
In the absence of bodily autonomy, pregnant women will serve the whims of men, the church, and the government, but never themselves.
Even when they choose to carry a child to term — when they desperately want that child — they will not be choosing it in the way my wife and I chose our daughters.
They would merely be assenting to a predetermined path established for them by someone else.
It cheapens motherhood.
It cheapens whatever kind of miracle childbirth represents — whether you think it to be one of nature or God or both.
It turns that miracle into forced obligation.
It doesn’t expand the awe and wonder of childbirth.
It doesn’t make us cherish our children more. It reduces them to things that happened to us rather than beings we invited willingly to be part of our lives.
. . .
The only way one can reject what I’m suggesting here — that fetal life is not the moral equivalent of born life — is by way of one’s religious convictions.
And if that describes you, so be it. I respect that.
But here’s the thing.
Your religious convictions have nothing to do with the making of secular law — or at least they shouldn’t.
Your religious convictions are yours, and you are free to live by them.
But when you begin asking others who do not share those convictions to live by them, you become a tyrant.
And you become profoundly un-American.
This is not a religious republic, let alone a Christian one.
We are not bound by your — or anyone else’s — Biblical interpretations of anything: not fetal life, not sex, not the moral acceptability of rape or genocide or killing disobedient kids (the latter three of which were all blessed by God in the Bible).
Your religious beliefs should count for nothing in this country.
If your beliefs on a subject do not have a clear secular basis, entirely distinct from your theological grounding, they should be ignored in so far as lawmaking is concerned.
To suggest otherwise not only disrespects women in the case of reproductive autonomy.
It disrespects the country you claim to love but have never understood and still don’t.
And while you’re out there pounding the pavement and ripping up the Constitution on behalf of fetal and embryonic life, the rest of us will be here trying to hold together a nation that those potential children will inherit.
We’ll be trying to save it. From you.
This post was previously published on Tim Wise’s blog.
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