“Pro-life” and “pro-choice” activists oversimplify the abortion debate by using catchphrases. Photo credits: Left to Right, Top to Bottom: Elvert Barnes/Flickr, Sylvia McFadden/Flickr, Jordan/Flickr, Duke University Archives/Flickr, Alan Liefting/Wikimedia, University of Toronto Students for Life/Flickr, William Murphy/Flickr, SimonaR/PixaBay, Collage by WhoWhatWhy


Republican Senator Marco Rubio was steadfast. “What else can it be?” he asked CNN correspondent Chris Cuomo. “It” was a human embryo, and Rubio wasn’t backing down. “It cannot turn into an animal. It can’t turn into a donkey. The only thing that that can become is a human being.” Rubio was making a valid assertion — an embryo is a living being with human DNA — one he kept repeating because Cuomo did not quite concede the point.

The conversation — which went nowhere — was emblematic of the abortion debate as a whole.

People on both sides of the debate usually avoid the deeper realities by repeating the same old party lines. But “pro-life” and “pro-choice” aren’t really useful terms, they are black-and-white abstractions that fail to address scientific, ethical, and moral gray areas, such as the definition of “personhood” and the effects that reproductive-related legislation has on the actual lives of women.

The language used by both camps is akin to the all-caps hyperbole of a direct mail campaign, which leads to an exchange of biased catchphrases, not a nuanced debate about the multifaceted issue of abortion.

“Pro-choice,” in suggesting that abortion is only an issue of personal liberty and women’s rights, fails to address the life of the fetus.

“Pro-life,” on the other hand, considers only the life of a fetus, while failing to appreciate the consequences this can have for a woman.

Legally and ethically, one person’s rights must always be viewed in the context of other people’s rights.

During a pregnancy, the rights of the fetus and the rights of women are uniquely inseparable, and any conversation about abortion must necessarily account for the rights of each party.

The constitutional protection of Freedom of Speech makes provisions for public safety (you can’t falsely yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater); as do gun laws (you can’t carry a gun into an elementary school, at least in most jurisdictions). Even “murder,” taking a life through intentional violence, is legal in cases of self-defense.

During a pregnancy, the rights of the fetus and the rights of the woman are uniquely inseparable, and any conversation about abortion must necessarily account for the rights of each party.

Conflating Life With Personhood

When Mike Huckabee remarked in the recent GOP primary that “we clearly know that that baby inside the mother’s womb is a person at the moment of conception” he had already failed to engage “pro-choicers” in any sort of debate that would make sense to them.

He had imposed his own definition and value on the word “person,” one that the “pro-choice” movement does not accept. Indeed, a “pro-choice” candidate would likely respond to Huckabee with a stack of evidence that suggests a fetus is not a “person.”

But both parties are missing a crucial point.

The quest to mark a precise, scientifically determined moment of “personhood” is unlikely to ever be accomplished with certainty. In many ways, the inquiry is less scientific than philosophical: How do we define “person”?

Is a living being a “person” only if it is conscious of itself? In which case, a new-born baby may not be a “person.”

Does a fetus turn into a baby only when it can exist outside of the womb? If so, does the definition of “person” change as medicine advances?

Gray areas abound, and ethicist Peter Singer, who more thoroughly advances several of the arguments above, takes umbrage at both sides of the classic abortion debate precisely because they fail to engage with this grayness.

The fallacy of the “pro-life” movement’s most basic tenet, Singer says, “lies in the shift from the scientifically accurate claim that the fetus is a living individual of the species Homo sapiens to the ethical claim that the fetus therefore has the same right to life as any other human being.”

In other words, even if we agree that a fetus is alive, that doesn’t necessarily mean it should have equal rights with autonomous members of the species.

Surely this makes some sense. “Rights” are not natural attributes ordained through mere existence. Even though an unaborted fetus could become a child or adult, it is neither. (It doesn’t make sense to give a fetus rights just to protect its potential. We pass by “potential” every day — the 300+ eggs a woman ovulates in her lifetime are not considered “lives that could have been.”)

But “pro-choice” proponents ignore the glaring ethical leap that Singer calls out, and are  simultaneously reluctant to admit that a fetus is, indeed, a living thing with human DNA. Instead, they look to science in a fruitless search for proof that a fetus isn’t a “person.”

Even if we agree that a fetus is alive, that doesn’t necessarily mean it should have equal rights with autonomous members of the species.

This is precisely what happened when the “Human Life Won’t Become a Cat” meme was born during a recent conversation between CNN host Chris Cuomo and Republican Senator Marco Rubio. Cuomo, who was raised a Catholic, nonetheless challenged Rubio, asking him to provide scientific evidence for his assertion that “life begins at conception.”

Marco Rubio Cat Tweet Twitter Screenshot

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s recent tweet is absolutely correct — an embryo is a living being with human DNA that will never grow up to become a cat. But is this really the issue? Photo Credit: Screenshot from Marco Rubio’s Twitter Account

Rubio responded that it was just a scientific fact, and then added, “Well, if they can’t say it will be a human life, what does it become, then? Could it become a cat?”

Cuomo insisted that a scientific determination of when life begins is essential to resolving the issue — and Rubio insisted it was already resolved.

A few problems occurred here. First, the two seem to conflate “life” and “personhood.” Rubio is absolutely correct that a fetus is a living being with human DNA — a point the “pro-choicers” are loathe to admit, and which often stalls the conversation, exactly as it did in this case.

But the scientific designation of “life” is not the same as the philosophical question of “personhood,” and if Cuomo is calling for science to provide an irrefutable answer to a philosophical question, he is likely to be disappointed.

Instead of looking for a definitive dividing line between person and non-person, Singer thinks we should consider “the fetus for what it is — the actual characteristics it possesses — and value its life accordingly.” (Quote as summarized in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy.)

Thus, Cuomo could have said to Rubio, “Yes, a fetus is alive. But what is a fetus really? And what sort of rights should we give it based on what it is? And how should we value those rights in relation to the woman whose body it is in?” (For a brief expansion on this point see Section III here.)

The Rape Exception

This weighing of values may be incomprehensible to anti-abortionists who believe a fetus has the same value as a child or an adult. To them, “the right to choose” means “the right to choose murder,” and the vocabulary of “choice” seems woefully inadequate.

But the language of “murder” is just as inadequate. Many “pro-life” proponents actually do weigh the value of the fetus against the rights of the mother, as they demonstrate with their attitudes towards “the rape exception.”

Abortion-rights activists especially condemn politicians who oppose abortion even in the case of rape. But those who see abortion as murder would of course believe any abortion is murder.

To the anti-abortionist, “the right to choose” means “the right to choose murder” and the vocabulary of “choice” seems woefully inadequate. But the language of “murder” is just as inadequate.

Fox moderator Megyn Kelly recently asked pro-life candidate Marco Rubio, who had seemed to support abortion in the case of rape, “If you believe that life begins at conception, as you say you do, how do you justify ending a life just because it begins violently through no fault of the baby?”

Like many of the candidates in the GOP primary debate, Rubio claimed he did not, in fact, support exceptions. But those who go on to compete in the national election will likely adjust their morals to suit the wishes of the majority of voters. Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George W. Bush all eventually made platform modifications for “exceptions” while on the national ticket.

But if a candidate really believes abortion is murder, then support for an exemption indicates that a fetus conceived through rape is less worthy than the life of a fetus conceived another way. This fetus does not have the right to life and can be murdered.

Either the popular “murder” rhetoric is far too strong — and middle ground does exist — or the candidate is inconsistent on the issue of murder.

Even most pro-lifers — 59 percent of pro-life Americans, according to a Gallup poll — believe abortion should be legal in the case of rape. Such people, at least unconsciously, are weighing the value of the fetus against the harm to the mother. Put another way, they are weighing the rights of the fetus against those of the mother. In this case, the mother’s rights have already been violated and would continue to be if she were forced to give birth.

But what rights should a woman have when she is not the victim of a crime? And what are the costs of an unwanted pregnancy?

Real-Life Consequences

A New Yorker article on Planned Parenthood bluntly states: “If a fertilized egg has constitutional rights, women cannot have equal rights with men.”

In the world we live in right now, this is absolutely true. The consequences of anti-abortion laws are almost fully borne — metaphorically and literally — by women. And the politicians who spout “pro-life” rhetoric have “traditionalist” values and can’t appreciate how an unwanted child can negatively affect almost every aspect of a woman’s life.

“Women’s rights” don’t just mean a woman’s right to give birth or not — though that’s part of it. Pregnancy alone has significant costs — physical, mental, financial, and societal. Varying levels of stigma are attached to pregnancy, especially for single women or teens. If pregnancy is considered the cost of indiscretion, then the male party gets off with comparatively few repercussions for the very same “indiscretion.”

The consequences of anti-abortion laws are almost fully borne — metaphorically and literally — by women.

Once a baby is born, someone must care for it. Some women get abortions because they cannot adequately do this themselves. (If a mother is addicted to drugs or an alcoholic — and this is a whole other issue — she may not even be able to properly care for a fetus, never mind a baby.) Approximately one million abortions occur in the US each year. Already nearly 400,000 children are living in the US’s notoriously fraught foster care system — over a quarter of these children are eligible for adoption but have not been adopted.

Some women will raise their children themselves. Of the women who have abortions, 85 percent are unmarried, so an abortion ban is bound to create a plethora of single mothers, causing a far greater burden on women than men. Women who raise children may take a career hit, losing wages and opportunities for advancement while working part time jobs or taking time off to care for children. There is no such career hit for men.

Even without a career hit, the financial burden of raising a child is nothing to sneeze at (more than $245,000 for a middle-income family in the US), and over 40 percent of abortions are performed on women living below the poverty line. Who will support these women financially?

As comedian George Carlin remarked, anti-abortion advocates “are obsessed with the fetus from conception to nine months. After that, they don’t want to know about you. … No neonatal care, no day care, no head start, no school lunch, no food stamps, no welfare, no nothing. If you’re preborn, you’re fine; if you’re preschool, you’re fucked.”

(The inability to care for “unwanted” children could account for some of the larger societal “benefits” of legal abortion — Freakonomics has reported that the access to abortion significantly decreases the crime rate years later.)

Even the burden of preventing pregnancy falls primarily to women. Easy access to birth control is probably the best path to reducing unwanted pregnancies, but it currently consumes significant time, energy, and money — though it’s hard to imagine that if men experienced the same obstacles to having safe sex, and the same potential consequences if they didn’t, that the whole system wouldn’t be run differently. (Gloria Steinem once remarked that if men menstruated, sanitary supplies would be “federally funded and free.”)

The Republican-proposed bill to make birth control available over-the-counter seems like a step in the right direction at first glance, but it could make birth control extremely expensive, costing women up to $600 a year. (As for those opposed to any kind of birth control except for abstinence, their reasoning is almost always purely religious, which should hold no water in a secular society that has its foundations in the separation of church and state.)

If adamant anti-abortionists can’t or won’t advocate for fair access to birth control, how will they meet the much more difficult task of advocating for the women who have no choice but to become mothers? And how will they support the approximately one million children that those mothers give birth to?

If a “pro-life” politician could clearly see the effects of his position, would he be willing to fight for women’s right to birth control, men’s participation in reducing unwanted pregnancies and in child rearing, and health care for pregnant women and infants?

The Larger Issue

It is difficult to take the political abortion debate seriously when both sides endlessly recycle trite, over-simplified language that ignores and even denies the complexity and nuances of what’s at stake. Both liberals and conservatives have repeatedly failed to engage in a real conversation that ventures beyond dogma and rhetoric. If opposing advocates have already chosen their corners and shut their ears, then we have little hope of arriving at an ethical, practical resolution of this issue.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Left to Right, Top to Bottom: Elvert Barnes/Flickr, Sylvia McFadden/Flickr, Jordan/Flickr, Duke University Archives/Flickr, Alan Liefting/Wikimedia, University of Toronto Students for Life/Flickr, William Murphy/Flickr, Collage by WhoWhatWhy

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