Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Why I Am Pro-Life

‘I drowned a boy,’ Tarwater said.
‘Just one?’ the driver asked.
‘Yes.’ He reached over and caught hold of the sleeve of the man’s shirt. His lips worked a few seconds. They stopped and then started again as if the force of a thought were behind them but no words. He shut his mouth, then tried again but no sound came. Then all at once the sentence rushed out and was gone. ‘I baptized him.’
‘Huh?’ the man said.
‘It was an accident. … I only meant to drown him,’ the boy said.

Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away, p. 209

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Trigger Warning: this post deals with abortion and rape, among other pleasant subjects. Read with caution.


Being pro-life in this country has come to mean something very weird and arbitrary under the capitalist influence of the GOP, especially since the War on Terror began. I’d like to explain not only why, but how, I am pro-life: partly because the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade case just passed on the 23rd and the March for Life is tomorrow1; partly because I haven’t written about it before, out of timidity, and I felt it was time to fix that; and partly because I’d like to clearly articulate what I believe as distinct from what the Trump administration seems poised to enact.

The simplest part is why. I believe that everyone, from the moment they start being alive, has the right to life. If this isn’t granted, I don’t understand how any concept of human rights can hold together—what could we possibly have a right to if even our lives, when we are most innocent and most defenseless, are entirely negotiable?

Now, sometimes lives are in danger and can’t be saved, as in the case of ectopic pregnancies2; sometimes the only way to defend yourself from an aggressor is by killing him; there are such things as hard cases. But the basic premise, the one that has to lie beneath the complexity, is that human life is sacred.

One point that may need clearing up is that fœtuses are indeed alive. This is not a religious dogma, but an observation of medical science. So the ‘lump of tissue’ argument I’ve run across now and then isn’t a good one. A related argument I’ve occasionally heard is that the baby is part of the mother, but since it has its own DNA from the moment of conception, I don’t think that holds water either. Nor does saying ‘It’s not a baby, it’s a fœtus,’ because fœtus is just the name of a stage of development: it isn’t a different kind of thing, any more than an adult is a different kind of thing from a human.

There are a number of other pro-choice arguments in favor of the legality and morality of abortion. I won’t deal with the ones that seem transparently awful—as that babies are parasites that the mother has a right to divest herself of, which would seem to justify infanticide as well. I do not for one moment believe that a majority of pro-choice people, of either sex, believe that. And there is something cowardly in dealing only or primarily with an opponent’s weakest arguments.


The best argument I’ve heard so far came from a friend of mine, who posed me this thought experiment (I forget where he got it). Imagine that you’re knocked on the head, and when you wake up, you’re in a hospital bed with an IV that runs from your arm through a curtain to the next bed over. You ask a nurse what’s going on, and she explains that you’ve been hooked up to a man who needs to share your blood for the next nine months, or he will die.3 All of this has taken place without your consent, and, you know, you have a life which you’d like to live, for the next nine months as well as afterward. Do you have the right to pull that IV out and leave?

The analogy, of course, is to cases of rape. And rape and the mother’s life are certainly the two instances in which the argument for legal abortion is strongest.4 I touched on the latter above, and will repeat here that there are cases where the life of the fœtus can’t be saved, though this doesn’t entitle a person to take it away: you can do things to save the mother’s life, including extracting the baby, even knowing with near certainty that you won’t be able to save the baby’s life (which will hopefully become less true as medical technology advances). What you can’t do is deliberately kill the baby.


And I’m afraid I believe that holds in cases of rape, too. Even in the thought experiment, while I’m not certain, I don’t think you do have the right to pull out that IV and leave. And in the reality the thought experiment is about, we’re not talking about a stranger. We’re talking about a child, in the womb—the most intimate relationship in the world. Yes, the way in which that child was conceived was completely horrible; but that isn’t the baby’s fault. And I don’t believe that violating a woman’s motherhood will actually help her recover from having her personhood violated.


But I don’t just care about getting babies born. When I say I believe in the right to life, I mean life, not birth. And that means a lot of things that the Republican party, for nearly a century now, has been hostile to: in particular, it means making healthcare, food aid, and financial assistance readily available to expectant and new mothers (especially single mothers) and guaranteeing maternity leave,5 as well as making sure that giving a child up for adoption is feasible for women who aren’t ready to raise a baby, or who conceived due to rape. Crisis pregnancy centers provide some assistance, but they only have so much to work with resource-wise, and some of these things have to be enshrined in law if they’re going to happen at all.

In addition to all this, I think it’s important not to criminalize getting an abortion. I think performing abortions should absolutely be criminalized, because it’s taking a human life, i.e. murder. But the woman who gets an abortion for fun does not exist. Everything I’ve come across, whether in person or through reading, says that having an abortion is deeply traumatizing, and that women who get one mostly resort to it because they feel they have no other options. They don’t need a trial thrown on top of that.6 There are two victims in an abortion: the child and the mother. And the latter, in my opinion, has suffered enough from her experience.

And now, commence the river of flame that my social media will become. It was very nice knowing you all.

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1I will not be going to the March for Life; I’ve been in the past, and judging from those experiences, the point is to stand in the freezing cold on the National Mall for a couple of hours listening to a fury of self-congratulation, and then do the actual marching. The appeal of this is, to me, opaque.
2An ectopic pregnancy is the implanting and development of the fœtus outside the mother’s uterus, usually in the fallopian tube. The fœtus has to be removed, or the mother will die; unfortunately, the baby usually cannot be saved (though there are rare cases of survival).
3Hey shut up, it’s a thought experiment, it doesn’t have to be plausible.
4Incest is traditionally a third, but I’ve never quite understood why rape and incest are distinguished in this context. If the incest wasn’t consensual, then it’s rape, by definition. And if it was, then it may be gross but it’s still consensual sex, so I don’t see why it should get special treatment (or, if you prefer, why the baby should lack special treatment).
5I’d also be in favor of guaranteed paternity leave, though I consider it a slightly lower priority.
6I have similar thoughts about prostitution: I’d be hesitant about legalizing soliciting or purchasing the services of a prostitute, but I think I’d be in favor of decriminalizing being a prostitute. The way it’s done now, where (so far as I can tell) the johns usually get away with it while the hookers are treated as the scum of the earth, seems completely backwards to me.


  1. Well let me be the first to comment here and say you'll get nothing but high fives from me.

  2. You seem to think that the Trump administration is about to propose criminalizing the mother who obtains an abortion. While Trump said one time that the mother should be punished (when he was trying to prove his pro-life bona fides), he almost immediately backtracked when somebody told him, "No,no. That's not the pro-life consensus. Since then, I've never heard any suggestion that he'd seek to penalize the mother.

    1. Oh, I didn't have Trump in mind when I wrote that. I just wanted to be thorough, since I've seen the topic come up in these discussions.

  3. What should the criminal punishment for performing an abortion be? I can only assume it would be life in prison, if not execution, correct?

    1. I don't know. I'm opposed to the death penalty -- I don't think it makes much sense to execute people on the grounds that life is sacred. As for life imprisonment, I'm reluctant to advocate that; I think our prison system is pretty messed up, and even if it weren't, imprisonment isn't the only way of punishing crimes, nor necessarily the best. Where it's possible, I think restitution is preferable, though of course violent crimes (especially if they result in a death) are harder to make restitution for.

    2. If you're serious about believing abortion to actually be murder, I can't see how you would settle for any punishment less severe than what you would expect for any other murder.

    3. Well, circumstances do matter. They don't change what right and wrong *are,* but they do affect a person's responsibility. I'm exceedingly wary of imposing legal penalties on a person for doing something that was legal at the time; the precedent that sets is, to me, terrifying—it seems to undermine any notion of civic law as a standard of conduct that both citizen and government are responsible to, in favor of law being defined by the current whims of the powerful. That isn't safe for anybody's life. If I have to choose, I'd be lenient with the guilty rather than tyrannize the innocent, every time.

  4. Here in the UK before abortion was legalised (actually it's still technically illegal, all abortions which are carried are considered in principle to be exceptions to the law) the position of criminalising those perform abortions rather than the women themselves was apparently the norm, due to concerns that a woman suffering complications from a botched procedure might be too frightened to seek medical help. This of course brings in the spectre of the backstreet abortionist, though I believe many now agree this is a dated argument due to the advent of modern antibiotics. The "abortions happen anyway, so why not legalise them and make them as safe as possible" has in any case always struck me as a bit silly. Murder happens frequently - does that mean I should be granted legal permission to throttle my supremely annoying work supervisor, because, in my judgement, his bossiness and ceaseless demands are negatively impacting on my quality of life and job satisfaction?

  5. This makes a lot of sense. It's consistent with everything I know about you. (It also helps that I agree, but those other things are important, too.) Maybe all pro-choice posts should be illustrated with baby animals. I am one of those weirdos who doesn't like pets, but even I can get behind a photo of a fuzzy kitten.