Wednesday, February 18, 2009

More on fetal personhood

by Chloe Angyal

Here's what Planned Parenthood had to say about the personhood bill that passed in North Dakota today:

"The bill was specifically crafted as a challenge to the Roe v Wade decision. HB 1572 could also outlaw contraception as well as medical procedures used to treat tubal pregnancies and infertility.

HB 1572 is dangerous, far reaching and allows the government, not women and families, to make critical decisions about health care. Women and families, not politicians, should decide what’s best for their unique circumstances. Whether the issue is abortion, birth control, or in vitro fertilization, women, in consultation with doctors should make these personal medical decisions."

I couldn't agree more. Where life begins is an issue on which we're never going to agree, but that's no reason to take the decision of whether or not to have a child out of women's hands. Even more than taking the decision away from women, personhood rhetoric takes the woman totally out of the equation, as though the fetus gestates in some magical place that has nothing to do with the woman carrying the pregnancy. But pregnancy is about women, as well as about the fetus.

Some of us see the fetus as a fully human life, with the same rights to life and happiness as the woman carrying it. Some of us don't, and worry more about the life that's already fully actualized and that might be seriously damaged by bringing an unwanted child into the world. And we're never going to agree, for a whole host of reasons. But taking away the option of abortion is not the answer. Taking away the option of abortion leaves women powerless and desperate, which fosters an even less compassionate attitude towards the fetus than exists already. Forcing pregnancy on women, millions of whom don't share the view that the fetus is person, leaves those women with no choices and no say in their own future. And for those of us who care deeply about women's health and women's lives, leaving women with no say in their own future is simply not acceptable.

If you don't believe in abortion, no one's going to force you to have one. No one's going to tell you what's right for you; no one should have that right, least of all the state congressmen of North Dakota. In the same way, no one should have the right to tell a pregnant woman who isn't prepared for motherhood what's right for her. Your beliefs that the fetus is a person or that abortion is a sin shouldn't be forced on women who don't share those beliefs. Just as you've been given the choice to have a child, perhaps the best decision you've ever made, so should another woman be given the choice not to have a child; that might be the best decision she'll ever make.

This world is cruel, and for children who aren't wanted, who aren't properly cared for, it is crueller still. We owe it to future generations to ensure that every single child who comes into this world comes into is wanted, loved and cared for. When we force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, we guarantee that that won't be the case. And children deserve better than that.

By now, pro-life readers will be livid with me, just pro-choice readers were livid when they saw the results of today's session in the North Dakota House. But there's good news for both sides: There is a solution that will allow us to bring down the number of abortions in this country. That solution is a combination of contraception, accurate sex education and better support for mothers and children. If you really want to stop abortion, fight for those things, not for legislation that slaps a "person" label on the fetus. That label is a cure. But contraception, sex ed and support for mothers and children, that's prevention. Without those things we cannot hope to even begin eliminating unwanted pregnancies. Without those things, abortion will remain inevitable, and far more frequent than any of us would like.


At February 19, 2009 at 11:00 AM , Anonymous Dan said...


The issue of when a new human life begins is a matter of well established scientific fact, and not a matter of opinion or relgious belief. Perhaps you mean to say "the issue of when personhood begins" or "the issue of what moral respect, if any, is owed to human embryos". But even if that is what you mean, I reject your assertion that we will never agree. I have seen many people become convinced. I am one of them, and I am married to another.

Here is a thought experiment for you:
What if you really could see the embryo as a person? What if it was *obvious*? Just try to visualize that and then imagine how that would change the way you live your life. Would it still necessarily be true that "Taking away the option of abortion leaves women powerless and desperate" or could you imagine that there are other ways to deal with an unplanned pregnancy that respect the dignity of both mother and child? What does sexual morality look like (for both men and women) in such a world?

If you can't visualize this, if you can't let go of the notion that "taking away the option of abortion leaves women powerless and desperate", then how can you expect to objectively evaluate the personhood of human embryos? You are allowing your deeply entrenched notions about the "necessity of abortion" to interfere with your ability to think objectively about questions of personhood.

Ultimately, I believe that justifications for abortion that are based on denying the personhood of embryos are bound to collapse. It seems that only very few who take a "pro-choice" position have the guts to face up to this-- see for example Camille Paglia:

Here, Paglia describes abortion as "the extermination of the powerless by the powerful". Once you realize that this is true, you have to ask yourself whether abortion is really consistent with feminism. I submit that it is not.

At February 19, 2009 at 4:35 PM , Blogger Roscoe said...


Great post. It isn't until you can truly put yourself in the other side's position that you can truly understand and objectively analyze their arguments. I agree that denying embryos their personhood and their rights will eventually collapse, just as all other civil rights issues in the past and present.

Along those lines, and to sympathize with the "other side" as they say, Judith Jarvis Thomson provides a really good philosophical paper about the moral permissibility of abortion, even in cases where the fetus is a person with rights and all that other stuff. This is the paper that has the violinist thought experiment and all that. While seemingly unscientific, Wikipedia has a truly wonderful and well-structured page written about this essay. I urge you to read the actual essay, but for starters and warm-ups, this page is great. Happy reading and feel free to come talk to me if you want about this stuff.

At February 19, 2009 at 8:14 PM , Anonymous Dan said...

Thanks Roscoe. I've got Thomson's paper and I will read it.


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