No One is Really Pro-Life

Illustration by Eraxion / 123RF

One of the guiding principles in my life has for many years been this: If I hold a strong opinion, I must work as hard as I can to understand the opposing viewpoint, to the degree that I can argue it as well as my own—if not better. From religious issues to gun rights to nearly every political issue, I have gotten pretty good at this. The hardest one for me to tackle was abortion.

My background: I grew up in an extremely pro-life environment, and for decades defended “the sanctity of life” from a nearly blind passion and belief that life begins at conception. Because of this upbringing I found it very difficult to critically examine my stance on abortion, and for years I found that hurdle nearly impossible to get over. However, I finally figured out that it could be argued that I and my strictly pro-life cohorts argue from a place of logical inconsistency, and that freed me to consider some of the deeper issues in the debate.

My argument is that pro-life proponents don’t really believe that at conception a fetus deserves the same rights and protections as a fully developed human. By far the biggest loss of life in this regard is a result not of abortion—but miscarriage. Precise miscarriage rates in our society are unknown, but according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), close to half of all fertilized eggs are aborted spontaneously, usually before the woman knows she’s pregnant. The NIH puts the rate of miscarriage among women who know they’re pregnant at 15-20 percent. Medical technology, along with careful observation and proper medication, could be further developed that could theoretically save a percentage of those pregnancies. Why, then, aren’t we pushing for laws that require women to regularly submit to physician-monitored pregnancy tests and—upon getting a positive result—immediately placing that woman on bed rest and under observation to protect the fetus at all costs?

What I expect the response to be is “miscarriage is an act of nature, or an act of God, rather than an explicit choice to terminate the pregnancy.” This is a straw man, because most medical technology is used to thwart natural deaths for human life that we value—cancer treatments, antibiotics, etc.—and so what you are really saying here is that it is acceptable to knowingly not do everything possible to protect the life of the fetus as long as you are not willfully taking action against it. Can you imagine the parallels for other human life? If your child falls down, isn’t breathing, and you know CPR, is it okay to not save their life if the cause for their lack of breath is natural? If your child has a severe illness, is it okay to not get care because if they die, it will be from natural causes? Of course not. How is miscarriage any different, if we have the technology to detect pregnancy early and take extreme medical action? The answer is, if we really saw the fetus and our five-year-olds as equivalent, there would be no difference. The only explanation is we value the life of the fetus differently than we do the developed child.

This presents some interesting ethical dilemmas. What about a couple that knows the woman is at high risk for miscarriage? If they are trying to have children, they are knowingly creating a defenseless human life and putting it into a situation where it has a high chance of death. Should those couples be prohibited from procreating in order to prevent that loss of human life? Again, consider the parallel—you put your child in a room full of dangerous items (weapons, chemicals, etc.) but you hope they don’t harm themselves. We’d never do that, and would consider anyone who would a monster. At the same time, however, we look at the couple who faces the tragedy of multiple miscarriages and hurt for them, we don’t consider them monsters.

I could go on with example after example of avoidable tragedies we accept and how we look at it differently once the child has reached a certain stage of development, but my point is made. Many who consider themselves pro-life would go to herculean efforts to save the life of a child or to avoid putting a child into danger, but would not be convinced the same extreme measures were necessary for a newly-formed fetus at risk of miscarriage. Thus, they treat them as a separate category, with less of a right to protection, the very thing they say they despise about those on the other side of this issue.

When I came to this realization, I was forced to acknowledge that my argument was one of degrees rather than absolutes. Pro-life proponents may place a higher value on the fetus than someone who is pro-choice does, but they’re not being intellectually honest with their claims of equal rights. Having acknowledged this, the argument is forced to shift from a moral “life begins at conception” debate to a “at what point of development do we consider the fetus to have equal rights?” question. That is a completely different kind of discussion, and one that needs careful consideration without the absolutism of religious zealotry.

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