On the Question of When Life Begins, and Why I Refuse to Talk About It

Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

This year, the United States has faced a wave of some of the most restrictive anti-abortion bills enacted after Roe v. Wade. Each of these bills appeals to the protection of human life, echoing the same terms that have dominated the abortion debate for decades. The Georgia bill recognizes “unborn children” with a detectable human heartbeat as natural persons, while the Alabama bill effectively bans abortion by including the unborn “at any stage of development” in this category. Other states, including Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri have made similar efforts to severely restrict abortion access. The argument outlined in these anti-abortion bills is nothing new: if the unborn are recognized as legal persons, then it follows that they are also constitutionally protected by a right to life. Abortion, therefore, should be punishable as the intentional termination of a person’s life. Especially for those who regard the unborn as innocent human life, abortion is at least akin to murder, if it is not murder outright.

The emphasis that abortion opponents have always placed on right-to-life discourse is evident in their self-characterization as pro-life. This label’s validity has been challenged on the grounds that many anti-abortionists express relative disregard for the lives of those affected by failing foster care and healthcare systems, poverty, sexual abuse and state violence. Ultimately, however, while calling attention to someone’s hypocrisy may be an effective way to question their character, it does very little to chip away at their arguments. When proponents of choice do address the aforementioned argument itself, it is often done by way of challenging its premise about when human life begins. There is no internal consensus on this question on either side of the abortion debate. Instead, many of us still get caught up in impassable quibbles about the physiological markers of human life and the pace of their development. Is an embryo with a unique set of genes a person? What about a 6-week-old fetus with a beating heart? A viable fetus with a full set of organs? Or an infant already living outside a womb? The likes of Ben Shapiro insist that their pro-life position is objectively grounded in a scientific understanding that human life begins at conception. Science may be capable of telling us about species membership and the characteristics that are observable at each stage of fetal development. It cannot, however, definitively answer the question that has long been at the center of the abortion debate: what is a person?

While our ideas about this question are certainly informed by an understanding of biological differences between and within species, personhood is not a biological category, but a philosophical one. Personhood thus cannot be identified and valued by arguing about biological facts alone. Anti-abortionists, at least, are generally not interested in budging on the idea that human life begins at some point during pregnancy, as opposed to after birth. This position is unlikely to change in light of greater exposure to empirical information about the stages of prenatal development. The same is true for many of those who are pro-choice, including myself. I am no expert on all the stages of pregnancy, and I frankly have no interest in becoming one. As someone who would abort by any means possible, under any circumstances, in the event of an unwanted pregnancy, this knowledge would be irrelevant to my decision.

The focus in mainstream abortion discourse on human life’s origin point has prevented substantive consideration of what is arguably a more decisive question: what ethical responsibilities must we exercise to protect the right to life? In order to shift the focus toward this question, we would either have to convince anti-abortionists that life begins after birth — an unlikely, if not impossible, feat — or to rhetorically concede that a fertilized human egg is a human life. I say rhetorically because, for many of us who recognize a moral difference between a fertilized egg and an infant, this concession could not be made in earnest. Additionally, many legal protections for abortion, including Roe V. Wade, rely on the characterization of a previable fetus as the potentiality of human life. It is crucial to uphold these protections while also making room to consider pro-choice arguments that aren’t founded upon the idea that a fetus is not yet a life. Although such a concession is needlessly generous, it may be worth making if it allows us to move beyond human development debates, which, after all, shouldn’t make or break the case for abortion’s permissibility. I am not suggesting that the questions about human life and personhood that anti-abortionists have focused on are unimportant. Rather, I’m arguing that our inquiry shouldn’t end there; and perhaps the only way to broaden this inquiry is to grant what many anti-abortionists view as an irrefutable truth.

Abortion is but one of many issues concerned with the ethical demands and limits of the right to life. These concerns extend to the ethics of euthanasia, meat consumption, marketized health care, population control and more. Although it is possible to draw parallels between abortion and other right-to-life issues, it continues to be a matter that raises distinctive ethical questions. In no realistic situation, other than pregnancy, is the preservation of another human life contingent on granting that life prolonged, intimate access to one’s body: access that often has permanent physical and emotional impacts. If we concede that a fetus is a not a part of the pregnant person’s body, but an independent life, then it is a life which must occupy the body in order to be sustained.

The right to life is then apparently in tension with other fundamental rights, such as bodily autonomy; and in the case of life-threatening pregnancies, the right to life is in tension with itself. Although life is prior to autonomy, a right to one does not guarantee unconditional protection for a right to the other. It would be a mistake, furthermore, to assume that because autonomy cannot exist without life, it’s the right that is necessarily more disposable. I would not be alone in saying that my own will to live would expire in a world where my body, my thoughts, and my moral decisions were no longer my own. My right to autonomy is an indispensable part of what makes my right to life worth defending. These rights share a particular relationship in the case of a fetus, which may be said to have life, but does not have autonomy in any conventional sense of the term — and whose guarantee of sustained life may infringe on another person’s autonomy. Pregnancy and abortion would seem to encompass situations which cannot be fully analogized, ethically, to any other right-to-life issue under scrutiny today.

The unique character of abortion has meant that some analogic pro-choice arguments have depended on the construction of comically absurd hypotheticals. The most well-known among these can be found in Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion,” an essay that has refined my own understanding of what is ethically at stake in the abortion debate. Thomson also grants, for rhetorical purposes, that life begins at conception. Let us consider her arguments as an example of how a pro-choice position may still be defended following this concession. The first analogy she introduces goes like this: a famous, unconscious violinist has a kidney ailment that will kill him unless his circulatory system is plugged into that of the only living person — you — who has the necessary blood type to save his life. The Society of Music Lovers has decided to link your circulatory systems for nine months without giving you any say in the matter. Thomson’s analogy raises the question of whether a person’s right to life entitles them to everything necessary to sustain their life, including a claim to the bodies of others. Upon considering this example alone, many would conclude that it doesn’t.

However, there are further doubts about whether this an appropriate analogy for those who experience unwanted pregnancy as a consequence of consensual sex. Your prior decisions would have no effect whatsoever on the Society of Music Lovers’ decision to forcibly link your body to that of the violinist. On the other hand, if you decided to have sex with full knowledge that it would mean risking unwanted pregnancy, would a fetus’ right to life imply a claim to your body? Thomson anticipates this doubt and analogizes further:

“If the room is stuffy, and I therefore open a window to air it, and a burglar climbs in, it would be absurd to say, ‘Ah, now he can stay, she’s given him a right to the use of her house — for she is partially responsible for his presence there, having voluntarily done what enabled him to get in, in full knowledge that there are such things as burglars, and that burglars burgle.’’’

This is not intended to compare a human body to a house or other forms of non-sentient property, but this imperfect comparison makes Thomson’s defense of choice even stronger. If we believe that people have no claim to someone’s house because they chose to open the window, why should people have a claim to someone’s body because they chose to have sex? Our reasons for choosing to have sex are far more varied and complex than our reasons for opening a window. Sex can be a means to pleasure, bonding, self-exploration, stress relief and even survival (e.g., for some of those working in the sex industry). For all her examples, Thomson suggests that it may be “indecent” to take action that would result in the other person’s death in order to protect your own rights, particularly if their use of your body causes minimal harm to you. She maintains, nonetheless, that indecency is distinct from moral impermissibility. While these colorful examples are useful for conceptualizing the ethical questions that are, in reality, unique to abortion, we may take issue with applying the language of (in)decency to this choice — regardless of the circumstances that influenced it. The decisions we make about sex, contraception and pregnancy are all deeply personal, and those who choose abortion should not have to prove their own victim status just for that choice to be accepted as a decent one.

The role of such personal factors cannot be captured in even the most well-constructed thought experiments that strive toward moral equivalency with pregnancy and abortion. I wonder, too, about the effect of averting our attention from the real, lived experiences of people who choose abortion, whether those experiences are colored by remorse, relief, or anything between and beyond these responses. While attention to their experiences can allow us to more fully appreciate why abortion access is so important, it should have little bearing on our judgement of whether that access should be protected. The reasons and circumstances that lead to voluntary abortions all boil down to a single, perfectly decent choice: the choice to end an unwanted pregnancy. Any demand for pregnant people to further testify to their innocence with respect to this decision is a demand for apologies that are owed to no one.

I, for one, will not apologize for having sex that enriches my life and strengthens my relationships, nor for having sex which I’m indifferent toward, nor for being raped. I will not apologize if my birth control fails, or if I am unable to use it in the future because of monetary or health issues. I will not apologize for terminating a pregnancy that I know would be tremendously burdensome, for a messy array of reasons: a dysphoric relationship to my body’s reproductive functions, an aversion to most preventable bodily changes, and a refusal to sink into total economic instability. I will not apologize for insisting that no reasons for terminating an unwanted pregnancy should be seen as more decent or moral than any others. And I will not apologize for rejecting responsibility for protecting life whose survival demands a claim to my body. Just as importantly, I will continue to fiercely defend life which has been willed into this world by other living beings, and which shows promise of existing in harmony with their rights.

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