The religious Right’s position on reproductive rights rests on unprovable theories of personhood. Jay Bodzin proposes a secular test.
The past year has seen an immense and almost unprecedented attack on the reproductive rights of women in the public sphere. The Republican Presidential primary has turned into a competition among the candidates to see who can most aggressively oppose women’s reproductive health. Republicans oppose a rule proposed by the Obama administration that would require employer-provided health insurance to cover birth control, on the grounds that this would interfere with the religious liberty of the employers—the “liberty,” of course, to refuse their employees access to contraception.
State legislatures have gotten into the act, with several bills passed to severely punish women for seeking abortion, requiring them to submit to invasive and unnecessary ultrasonic probes. A federal judge ruled North Carolina’s version of this law to be unconstitutional on March 27th, but a similar law in Texas has been upheld. Other bills have allowed employers the freedom to demand information from their female employees about their use of contraception, and to fire them for using it. The State of Texas also cut all of its funding for Planned Parenthood because that organization offers abortion as one of its services. Federal law required the U.S. government to suspend funding for the state’s entire reproductive health service in response, cutting 90% of the budget for women’s health programs in the Lone Star State.
This is a grotesque invasion of the rights and dignity of women. It’s terrible for men as well: not only because men may want the women in their lives to have access to health care and reproductive freedom for its own sake; but because men need women to have these things, if men want to have sexual relationships with them. Who opposes that?
The Opposition to Reproductive Rights
The Republican assault on choice isn’t as simple as old white men trying to oppress women. Many of the proponents of these anti-women’s-health laws in state legislatures are women themselves. The issue is not men versus women; rather, it represents a particular conservative vision of family life and social order, attacking a modern society that increasingly departs from that vision. In this vision, everyone is heterosexual, has sex only for procreation, and respects the authority of their parents, their pastors, and their leaders. It follows in the conservative tradition of denying the interests of individuals, in exchange for—not the whole, for the whole is nothing but the sum of its parts—but rather, for the status quo and the existing power structure.
This vision is Puritanical, heteronormative, fragile, and fundamentally false. We never really lived in the utopian, castrated, “Leave It To Beaver” world that the Right so desperately harkens back towards; but the idea of it is enough.
Opposition to abortion, and to all manner of sexual liberty, has shaped the modern Conservative movement more than any other force. The opposition to abortion, mind you, has never been entirely about abortion. If the main goal of conservatives was to prevent abortions from happening, then they should support contraception, safe-sex education, and so on, even as they also try to limit abortion rights. They do not. Because the real objective is not (or is not just) to stop the destruction of fetuses; it’s to limit the freedom of women and men to depart from that Puritanical vision of what society should look like. Sex that is intended for something other than procreation (especially the sex that women have) is contrary to this ideal.
This motive is shown in, among other things, the willingness of some abortion opponents to allow the procedure in cases of rape or incest. If abortion really were murderous, then it logically should be prohibited even in such cases—as Rick Santorum recently stated. But not all “pro-life” advocates share that view. And the reason is this: the conservative imperative, the demand of that Puritanical vision, is that no one should have sex except for procreation. The woman who has suffered from rape or incest hasn’t intentionally done that, so she gets a pass. But a woman who seeks abortion for any other reason—she clearly had sex for fun, so she should be forced to have a child. Because that’s what sex is for, or what women are for. Rick Santorum is, perhaps, more sincere in his conviction that opposition to abortion is about fetal life; or perhaps, he simply believes that women who were raped are really sluts too.
However, the argument against abortion has always been phrased in terms of the rights of the fetus. Many conservatives no doubt sincerely believe that their concern is to stop the murder of babies. This argument may not be consistent with the rest of the pro-life movement’s policies, but it deserves a serious response.
Why Abortion Is Not Murder
If you sincerely believe that a developing fetus, however unformed, is a person, and entitled to full human rights, then prohibiting abortion makes perfect sense. So to that extent, any argument for abortion rights has to include an argument that blastocysts and fetuses aren’t people. This requires a comprehensive theory of what it is that makes an entity a person, entitled to human rights.
The Left is handicapped in this by a critically divided ideology: it at once attempts to subscribe to scientific rationalism, and yet to placate religion, and it isn’t willing to alienate adherents of either worldview. This gives the Right a huge advantage, because the Right couches all moral questions in religious terms, and cheerfully contradicts anything it can label as science.
If opponents of abortion argue that a fetus is a person because God says so and don’t ask questions, then the counterargument must either advance a different theological claim, which says that fetuses aren’t people—and at that point, who’s to say which is right?—or, it must say, no, we reject that kind of argument entirely, and instead will decide what constitutes a person based on empirical evidence, not spiritual claims. But most people on the Left are very afraid of saying that, and of alienating people who still find theological arguments to be compelling.
So I will say it. What makes an entity entitled to human rights is whether it is sapient: whether it can feel and understand and experience fear and suffering. The best evidence seems to suggest that this ability is created in some way by the immensely complex architecture of the brain. Newly gestating embryos lack that cognitive architecture. It is exceedingly doubtful that they experience anything at all; and we need feel no moral revulsion at destroying them before they do. Nothing in this argument needs to deny free will or the soul or even God, if you believe in one; but whatever else you believe, the connection between the nervous system and consciousness is well-developed, and is a reasonable basis for moral choices.
There is no basis, besides religious decree, to believe that a brand-new embryo is “human” in any ethical sense. The fact that it is “a human cell” is not dispositive: your fingernails and scabs are human cells, and you destroy them with nary a care. The fact that it could, potentially, develop into a human, given the right conditions, is not dispositive; the same could be said of an unfertilized egg, or, with the right advances in science, of any cell in your body. The argument that an early embryo is human is wholly dependent upon religion, upon claims about the nature of the soul that are impossible to disprove or to test.
One of the major schisms in modern American politics is the degree to which religious belief ought to factor into political decisions. One’s beliefs cannot possibly be kept out of politics, because they inform our understanding of the physical world. The devout cannot accept the argument that “you believe this, but that’s a religious belief, so the state won’t act on it.” The counterargument cannot compartmentalize religious belief; it must contradict it. We must be able to say that some people’s beliefs are just not true, even if they are religiously motivated.
For fetuses at later stages of development, the question becomes harder. It is no coincidence that courts have consistently held that fetuses may enjoy more legal protection at later stages of development—though it is not clear whether this is due to a comprehensive epistemology on the parts of the judges, or just a general sense that older fetuses look more “human.”
Gender Inequality in Abortion Decisions
The abortion decision is, of course, not nearly as personal for men as it is for women. Men face the prospect of becoming parents, with all the overwhelming responsibility that entails, the same as women; but women face the additional risk and personal invasion of carrying that pregnancy in their own bodies. The danger and difficulty they face are far beyond what men endure. It’s an inequality inherent in nature.
And for that reason, men—at least, liberal and enlightened men who want to support the feminist project—face a daunting paradox when confronted (or when their female partners are confronted) with this choice. Every decent man today knows that, if his partner is faced with an unplanned pregnancy, his only response must be “Whatever you want to do, I’ll support you.” He cannot ethically try to compel his partner to end the pregnancy; but neither can he shirk his responsibilities as a parent if she chooses to go forward and have the child.
For this reason, it’s incredibly important for any person to not have a potentially-pregnancy-inducing sexual relationship with anyone else, unless they’re prepared, as a couple, to either a) choose abortion if a pregnancy results, or b) to have a child with that person. This burden inevitably falls most heavily on women, but we should all share it. Contraception is good but imperfect, so any couple may find themselves presented with this choice. And, while every child is a new being of incalculable value, an unplanned child is also a potential disaster, for itself and for its parents.
I speak in this as a domestic relations lawyer. Many of my clients have been people who failed to make this calculus, and found themselves with a child they couldn’t support, shared with a partner they found that they didn’t like or couldn’t communicate with. They weren’t all necessarily irresponsible; sometimes, you do everything right, and these things still happen. (And even if they were irresponsible—so what? Does that justify ruining three lives? The idea that anyone who makes a mistake deserves all the consequences of that mistake is another hallmark of modern conservatism, but it is cruel and false.)
Opposition to abortion is founded on both a moral claim—society should look like a Normal Rockwell painting forever—and on an epistemological claim—a fetus is a person from the moment of conception. Neither claim can be disproved, to someone who truly believes it – but neither claim deserves our unquestioning deference. None of this is intended to trivialize the dilemma, at times agonizing, that a woman must face when presented with that choice. But the dilemma need not be seen as one that calls for murder. Men who care about women should emphasize that point. And women should recognize that men too have an interest in that decision, even if not as visceral and urgent as the woman’s interest, and should communicate clearly where they stand.