Pro-Life rhetoric demeans us all.

Posted on April 27, 2012


According to the pro-life movement, the bottom sperm has inalienable human rights. All the rest are just microbes.

I’ve avoided the abortion issue thus far for a few reasons. Firstly, the recent prominent political debates around abortion in Canada have centred around local questions of access which, while incredibly important, deal primarily with finicky policy issues that I don’t know very much about. The much more important reason for my silence on the issue is that I am neither a woman nor a doctor, and so there has been little of substance for me to offer to the discussion. Unfortunately, however, the war on women going on south of the 49th parallel appears to have migrated North. Most well-known is that Conservative MP Stephen Woodworth has succeeded in re-opening the abortion debate in parliament, but equally distressing is the fact that Ontario Catholic schools have been encouraging their students to sign an anti-choice petition. The imposition of religious prejudices on Canadians’ bodily autonomy is completely unacceptable and needs to be opposed by everyone who can oppose it. It is for that reason that I currently find myself wading into the fray. Even if I can’t say anything new, I feel I have a responsibility to support a woman’s right to choose in any way I can. The following  is unlikely to change any minds, but it is my personal take on the issue.

I first need to say that a woman’s right to choose what happens with her own body should not even be up for discussion. There are a lot of interesting ethical issues that play our values against each other and thus make for tantalizing brain candy, but reproductive autonomy is not one of them. The bottom line on the ethics of abortion should always come from women, so I’ll let Maija make the central point. If you read just one thing in this post, read the following:

“Politicians in the United States and in Canada use incredibly stupid arguments in their pushback on women’s rights. “It’s a case,” they argue, “of women simply not having enough information.” All their motions straight up argue that somehow women don’t know that their lack of period, and nausea, and fatigue, is the result of a baby. We know. There was something incredibly profound and immediate about my knowing. And we have the capability of making these decisions. The difficulty is not the lack of knowledge, it is finding the strength to make a choice: whether it be abortion, adoption, or keeping the baby.  Your legislation is not to inform us, it is to restrict us. To keep us from exercising autonomy over our bodies. To cut off our power.

Our bodies, our choice.”

That and millions of similar sentiments should be the end of the discussion. Unfortunately, the pro-lifers have not really received  the message. The argument around abortion has been so frustratingly circular that I think I can faithfully sum the whole thing up with this short dialogue:

Pro-Life: Abortion should be illegal.

Pro-Choice: Absolutely not. A woman has the right to choose what happens with her own body.

Pro-Life: But it isn’t just her body. There is an unborn child that has the human right not to be murdered.

Pro-Choice: It is not yet a human child and it does not yet have that human right. Criminalizing abortion will cause full-grown women to die as they seek unsafe illegal abortions.

Pro-Life: It’s not acceptable to make something legal just because its illegal pursuit is dangerous. We don’t legalize theft because sometimes thieves get hurt running from the police.

Pro-Choice: But robbers hurt other people. A woman having an abortion is harming a part of her own body that is not yet a full-fledged person. It has the potential to become a person, but if destroying the potential to become a person was the same as destroying a person then abstinence would be murder. Eggs and sperm are also potential people, after all.

Pro-Life: The sperm and egg become a full person at conception when the future human being’s genetic code is formed. A genetic code is the basis for a unique individual, and therefore abortion destroys a unique individual.

And therein lies the impasse. The pro-life position rests on the belief that the act of conception has produced a unique human being with all the moral rights of adults. This is something of an a priori assertion based on the entirely subjective matter of what actually constitutes a human being. The pro-choice approach to this subjectivity is to embrace it: the ethical value of a fetus is precisely the same as the ethical value its mother ascribes to it. I’ve been thinking about this impasse for a while now, and I’ve realized something that I haven’t yet seen in the debate: the pro-life belief that a complete human being with moral rights is contained in a complete strand of DNA is not only repulsive because it implies that women lose ethical agency over their own bodies once they become pregnant. It is also repulsive because it reduces humanity to something much smaller and less impressive than it actually is.

To illustrate this, I’m going to use my very limited and likely flawed knowledge of biology to look at what exactly happens on a molecular level when a sperm fertilizes an egg. In fertilization, two haploid nuclei originating from the sperm and the egg respectively come together to form a diploid nuclei, in which the DNA contained in the two nuclei is fused into single genetic code through a process that I can’t possibly hope to have the scientific background to understand. What I do know, however, is that the fusion of the two nuclei is a chemical reaction. One string of amino acids reacts with another string of amino acids and a series of catalysts in such a way that a new string of amino acids is formed. These chemical reactions are themselves nothing more than an exchange of electrons between a large number of atomic nuclei. When broken down to this level, the pro-life position is that a simple exchange of subatomic particles is sufficient to grant inalienable human rights to a string of proteins which were just inert, insignificant matter before the chemical reaction occurred.

It is also a bit silly to suggest that this genetic code has any kind of final say on the outcome of the organism that it will become.  Human development is characterized by the construction of physical structures, and while the DNA provides the blueprint for these structures, the conditions under which they are constructed also plays an important role. Developmental Systems Theory suggests that fertilization is only a starting point for a developmental process that relies on environmental factors to shape its outcome. It is not be the case, therefore, that an entire human life as we understand it has been created at conception.

Greek has two words for life: bios, which refers to the finite life of an individual and zoe, which refers to the infinite phenomenon of life. When pro-lifers talk about life beginning at conception, they are correct to say that the developing fetus is an instantiation of bios, but they make a very subtle fallacy of equivocation when they suggest that the presence of bios implies the presence of zoe. When we condemn murder, we are not condemning the destruction of a self-replicating colony of human cells, but rather the destruction of a human mind and all that it contains. Murder occurs when bios, not zoe, is destroyed. By arguing that a recently conceived zygote is ethically the same as a full-grown human being, pro-lifers do more than just undermine women’s autonomy; they undermine our basic human dignity. I am more than just a string of genetic code. I am the sum of my experiences, choices, feelings, hopes, fears, desires, affections, and beliefs. A fetus has none of those things, and thus does not possess the qualities about human life that demand we value it as priceless. The pro-life position has reduced all of human life to a replicating string of chemicals. That is oppressive to women’s autonomy, and to all of our human dignity.

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