|Egg and sperm. Image source.|
Let's talk about the pro-life movement. It is a political movement which works to make abortion illegal or, because that goal isn't practical, put enough obstacles in the way so that people cannot access abortion, even though the law says they should be able to.
The main reason for these goals is that pro-lifers believe that the vast majority of abortions are BAD and WRONG and must be stopped. Yes, most pro-life people say that there should be exceptions, that abortion should be legal in the case of "rape, incest, or life of the mother" but that isn't reflected in their politics. They advocate for more and more restrictions, unnecessarily high standards for abortion clinics, cutting funding for Planned Parenthood, waiting periods between an initial appointment and an abortion- and they rejoice when these actions make it impossible for pregnant people to access abortion. I haven't heard any pro-life people say "But wait, abortion has to be legal and accessible in the case of rape! No no no we can't let all these clinics close!" In a theoretical sense, they say they support these exceptions, but when you look at their politics, you see that they don't care about keeping abortion accessible for people in those "exception" situations. Better to just stop ALL abortions- most of them were for evil reasons anyway.
In the debate over abortion, terms like "choice", "murder", "life begins at conception", and "it's really about punishing women" get thrown around, but I'll tell you what it's really about. The pro-life movement- or at least, the religious side of it- is based around what I like to call The Path. The Path goes like this: If you're not married, you don't have sex. If you are married, you can have sex (and within the pro-life movement, some people think contraception is allowed, some do not). If you become pregnant, well, you're married so you'll be okay. You have a partner to support you.
Before marriage, you don't have sex, so there's no reason you would ever need an abortion. After marriage, between you and your partner you have the means to handle the pregnancy- and God will provide for you!- so there's no reason you would ever need an abortion.
This is basically how I saw it, back when I was a good pro-life evangelical. I was so confused- even offended- when people said abortion was a women's rights issue. No, I thought, it's not a women's issue, it's a women-who-don't-stay-on-The-Path issue. Abortion would never be at all relevant to my life, because I am a good girl who stays on The Path. [note: people who aren't women can also have abortions. For example, trans men.]
And pro-lifers think it's so easy to stay on The Path. The Path is how the world is supposed to work. Obviously. It's God's plan. And isn't it so unreasonable how pro-choicers are advocating for the right to have an abortion- they want to help people who chose to get off The Path, by allowing a morally-questionable (maybe it's murder!) procedure. No no no, OBVIOUSLY that's not right. Everybody should just stay on The Path. We shouldn't help people whose problems were caused by getting off The Path.
If you think in terms of The Path, suddenly a lot of things in the pro-life movement make a lot more sense. (Things that don't make sense if you thought the main point of the pro-life movement was "saving babies" or decreasing the number of abortions.) Why do pro-lifers also tend to be the ones who are against sex-ed, who don't want teenagers to have access to birth control? If unmarried people all had access to birth control, there would be way fewer abortions- isn't that what pro-lifers want? Nope. Because unmarried people are not supposed to be having sex- that's not part of The Path. We can't give birth control and real information about sex to unmarried people. We mustn't help people who choose to get off The Path. Promoting The Path as the only way to live is more important than decreasing the number of abortions.
And why don't pro-lifers make a big deal about in vitro fertilization, where many embryos end up getting destroyed? Because people who do in vitro fertilization are seen as following The Path correctly. They are good married couples who just want a baby- they're not "irresponsibly" having unmarried sex. They're on The Path, so it's no big deal if they destroy a few embyos here and there.
And let's talk about the rape exception. If it really is all about "saving babies", and abortion murders an innocent life, then logically, why would you support an exception for pregnant rape victims? Isn't the whole point of the pro-life movement the idea that bringing a pregnancy to term is much more important than whatever "inconvenience" this would cause to the person who's pregnant? Why would a fetus conceived through rape have any fewer rights than one conceived through consensual sex?
Because of The Path, of course. If you got pregnant through rape, well, it's not your fault. You deserve help. You deserve to have options. But if you got pregnant because you didn't stay on The Path, screw you.
(In practice, though, there is a lot of overlap between pro-life people and people who believe rape isn't really rape. If you were drinking, or going to parties, or dressing "immodestly", or alone with your boyfriend- all things that are very much NOT on The Path- then it wasn't really rape, it was "see this is what happens when you go off The Path. This is why we need to all stay on The Path.")
Occasionally you meet a pro-life person who does not believe abortion should be allowed in the case of rape. You can go ahead and speculate about their reasons. Probably one of the following:
- They really do believe that a fetus's life is so valuable that it overrides all the pregnant person's rights, and why would it matter how the pregnancy came about
- They think most rape victims are probably lying
- They just really hate women
Or, why do pro-life "crisis pregnancy centers" provide some supplies for taking care of babies- like maybe diapers or baby clothes- but you don't really see the pro-life movement in general advocating for policies which would make it easier for pregnant people and parents with babies? Do they advocate for paid maternity leave? How about affordable daycare? No no, they can't advocate for those things- if you stayed on the The Path, then between the two spouses they can handle it- you don't need the government to make policies about it. (The Path turns out to be pretty classist too.) We wouldn't want to give too much help to pregnant people who aren't on The Path- if their hardship isn't big enough, it diminishes the "here's why you need to stay on The Path, because you don't want to get into this kind of terrible situation" argument. And promoting The Path as the only right way is more important than preventing abortions.
Well, pro-life people, I got news for you. You think it's so easy to stay on The Path, but it's not. Sometimes it's impossible. Let's take a look at all the assumptions behind The Path:
If you're not married:
- Assumption: You can just not have sex, if you're not married. Yes, it is possible to wait til you're married before having sex, but that's not what most people do. You can have debates about how easy/hard/impossible it is, but the fact is that abstinence is just not going to work as a general policy that everyone is expected to follow. Maybe pro-lifers think that means people choose to get off The Path and therefore don't deserve any help- but even within purity culture, people are always talking about how hard abstinence is.
- Assumption: Rape and sexual abuse don't exist (or variations on "rape doesn't happen to good girls who stay on The Path" [which is victim-blaming]/ "you can't get pregnant from rape" [which is just not true]). As I said, most pro-lifers theoretically support rape victims' choice to have an abortion. In practice, though, how would that work? Would the rapist actually need to be tried and convicted before the abortion can happen? Because, only a small percentage of rapes are even reported to police- and no wonder, because the legal system essentially puts the victim on trial, scrutinizing their personal life to see if maybe they're somehow to blame for it. What about victims who didn't even understand what happened (because the rapist convinced them they wanted it/ it was their fault/ etc) and can't name it as rape until much later?
- Assumption: If you're married, then your economic situation is good enough that you can handle the costs of pregnancy and having a baby. And God will provide for you. This 2013 article says 85% of people who get abortions aren't married- which means 15% are married. I wasn't able to find statistics on the reasons that married people choose abortion- but obviously, this 15% proves that the stereotype of a promiscuous, irresponsible, unmarried woman is false. Marriage doesn't make you immune to the problems that lead people to choose abortion.
- Assumption: Abuse doesn't exist. Yeah, so what if you're in an abusive marriage, and you want to leave? Being pregnant makes it way harder to leave- and abusive relationships are can literally be a matter of life and death. Yeah, go ahead and try to tell me that it's "pro-life" to deny abortion access to abuse victims, leaving them dependent on their abuser and unable to escape.
- Assumption: If you're married, then your economic situation is good enough that you can handle having another kid, in addition to the bunch of kids you already have. This article says 72% of people who get abortions already have kids. I did not find any statistics on what percentage are both married and have kids- but come on, it costs a lot of money to take care of a kid. It's not negligible- but the pro-life movement would have you believe that adding one more kid is no problem, as long as you're married and on The Path.
- Assumption: Your fetus won't have serious health problems. Sometimes the fetus does have health problems, and the pregnant person has to decide if abortion is better than their baby living a short/painful life. This is a heartbreaking situation, we can't judge the choices they make.
- Assumption: Pregnancy won't cause any major health issues for the pregnant person. Ha. Okay. You are growing another human inside you. You really think that's not going to bring any health risks? Here's a study that found the death rate from childbrith was 8.8 deaths per 100,000 live births, while the death rate from abortion was 0.6 per 100,000 abortions. (And if anyone tells you about a study that says people who have abortions are more likely to die than people who give birth- umm yeah, that one just looked at death rates from ANY cause, not actually related to the pregnancy, and only proved that people who are already in dangerous or unhealthy situations are more likely to choose abortions. Which, OBVIOUSLY.) And okay, those statistics are just about death, but there are many many less extreme health effects from pregnancy, which can be serious and long-term, even if they're not life-threatening. And yes, mental health counts.
- Assumption: Nobody is ever in a situation where doctors tell them pregnancy is completely out of the question, it would just be too dangerous to their health/life. Yeah, not true. If you've already had several C-sections, pregnancy can be risky. If you have high blood pressure. If you're dependent on medication that would harm the hypothetical fetus. Etc.
The Path fails. And when The Path fails, if abortion is not an option, women suffer. Women suffer more than anyone else. When The Path fails, who ends up stuck with a pregnancy they can't handle- economically, physically, or for any other reason? It's people with uteruses. What about cis men, who can't get pregnant? If they go off The Path, what happens to them? Sure, they also get judged by the pro-life movement, but... not much else. They don't face massive health changes. They don't have to figure out how to get time off work to have a baby.
(You can find a lot of statistics about how access to contraception is a HUGE FREAKING DEAL for women's rights. It massively improves women's access to education and their economic situation. Abortion and contraception are different things, but I'm mentioning it here because I didn't find any statistics specifically about abortion access and women's equality.)
In theory, if everyone did follow The Path, it would be possible to have true gender equality. Unmarried people wouldn't have sex, so you'd never have someone stuck single and pregnant while the person who got them pregnant disappears and doesn't have to help. And when they are married, the person who is pregnant receives 100% support from their spouse [who is definitely not abusive]. The non-pregnant spouse is able to cover all the financial costs, accompany them to doctor's appointments, etc. In this way, the burden of the pregnancy is shared equally between people who can get pregnant and people who cannot. [Heh, okay, you can debate whether it can ever be "equal"- one person goes through massive health changes, the other does not- I'm not sure that "my job covers your health insurance, honey" is in any way "equal" to that.] Pregnancy does not introduce inequality between men and women.
That's why, when I was pro-life, I didn't understand how abortion had anything to do with women's rights. I was on The Path. If I were ever pregnant, I would by definition have a man committed to doing everything he possibly could to help me.
(Again, this assumes that health issues caused by pregnancy aren't a big deal, can never be life-threatening, etc.)
The point is, because The Path is unrealistic, we can never have equality between men and women if abortion is not an option.
That's why this is a feminist issue.
(Now I suppose, if you really wanted to make the number of abortions as small as possible AND you acknowledged that The Path is unreasonable, you could imagine what kind of society we would have to have so that unwanted pregnancies don't affect women astronomically more than they affect men. First of all, you'd have to have free health care for anyone who's pregnant. Guaranteed maternity leave. Absolutely no stigma at all for people who are unmarried and pregnant. You'd have to change culture so random strangers didn't feel like they totally had the right to touch a pregnant woman's belly and ask invasive questions. Etc. [And seriously, those of us who are pro-choice absolutely should be advocating for these things. Choice means that if someone wants to have a baby, they can. People shouldn't feel like they have to have an abortion for economic reasons.] And even then, I still don't think you can ever reach equality without abortion- the health effect from pregnancy is just so huge, I can't imagine any cost you can ask cis men to bear that can offset that health cost.)
All right now let's talk about when most abortions take place. Accordine to this site, 65.8% of abortions occur within the first 8 weeks of pregnancy, and 91% occur within the first 13 weeks (the first trimester). What does a fetus look like at 13 weeks? According to this site, it is 3 inches long and weighs about 1 ounce. Personally, though, I am very suspicious of arguments (on both the pro-life and pro-choice side) that assume that the possible human rights of a fetus should be determined by how much it "looks" human. I'm not going to put a picture up here and tell you "here's a fetus at 8 weeks, see how it looks pretty blobby and not very human, therefore it totally doesn't have a 'right to life'" because that argument is ridiculous. Is there any difference between that argument and the racist/ableist/bigoted "this demographic of people looks weird to me, therefore they are less human than me"?
But seriously, how do we judge the "humanity" of an embryo or fetus? Pro-lifers always say "life begins at conception", but what does that really mean? It's obvious that at the moment of conception, the embryo is a living, human cell- but so are all bits of skin that fall off your body every day, that you don't even care about. It's obvious that at the moment of conception, the embryo has human DNA that is distinct from its parents' DNA- but does that mean it is equal to an actual person? No, and let me tell you why: identical twins. Identical twins are formed when an embryo splits in two, and later develops into 2 fetuses. How can "life begin at conception" when, at the moment of conception, you don't even know if you're going to have 1 baby or 2? How on earth can anyone say an embryo has the same value as an actual (born) person, when the embryo could eventually become two people?
The existence of identical twins makes it obvious that "life begins at conception" is complete nonsense. Like, seriously. This is how that argument should go:
Person A: "Life begins at conception."If you're going to argue that an embryo or fetus is equal in value to a (born) person, the best you can do is argue that it's equal in value beginning at the moment where it can no longer split to become identical twins. NOT at conception. According to this wikipedia page, in 99% of cases, the split occurs within 8 days of fertilization, BUT a split could even occur after 12 days, which would result in conjoined twins. This page says that most twins split around day 4 or 5. So... hmm. Looks like there's no exact line we can draw to say exactly when "life begins"- which must be very hard to conservatives to deal with- they tend to need everything to be black-and-white.
Person B: "What about identical twins?"
Person A: [is dumbfounded and never utters the words "life begins at conception" again]
In any case, it's completely absurd to say that, just after conception, an embryo "is a person." Because what if it becomes twins? Twins are TWO PEOPLE. Two DIFFERENT people. (Or, and this will blow your pro-life mind, it could even become identical triplets. That's THREE people. Count 'em.) So if the embryo was "a person" right after conception, which person was it?
Hmm okay. So we can't say that conception is the moment where human rights begin. But there must be some such moment, right? How about birth? A minute before birth, that fetus is developmentally the same as it is a minute after birth. And actually, some babies are born premature- they may actually be less developed than a one-minute-before-birth fetus, but because they're already born, they are humans with all the applicable human rights.
No, there's nothing that happens at birth that suddenly makes the baby become human. It wouldn't make sense to say "life begins at birth" (when you're using the defintion of "life" used in "life begins at conception", that is). But. Here's what does happen at birth: the fetus is no longer dependent on the pregnant person's body. The human rights of the fetus and the human rights of the pregnant person no longer conflict.
Because really, pro-choice people aren't hung up on the question "when does life begin?" The issue is not whether a fetus has human rights, but how to handle the conflict between the rights of the fetus and the rights of the pregnant person. Even if a fetus is equal to a born person, does that mean a pregnant person should be required to sacrifice their health in order to keep the fetus alive?
Imagine one day you wake up and find that another person has attached themself to your body. You don't like it, you don't want them there, it's taking a toll on your health, but if they get disconnected, they'll die. Should the law require you to drag them around for 9 months, or allow you to cut them off? While you consider that question, keep in mind that we don't force people to donate organs even when it will save someone's life.
(And if you want to make the argument that this analogy is totally not the same thing as pregnancy because people choose to have sex, please see my above points about how abstinence doesn't work as a general, society-wide policy, and that only people with uteruses run the risk of pregnancy, so this is a huge issue in terms of gender equality. How many times have you heard that women should just not have sex in order to avoid unwanted pregnancies? Okay, and how many times have you heard that men should not have sex, in order to not cause unwanted pregnancies? Yeah, didn't think so.)
Pro-lifers aren't simply trying to argue that a fetus has human rights. They are arguing that the fetus has human rights which completely override any rights that the pregnant person has. But in reality, it's not about "is a fetus human or not?" It's about "how do we handle a situation where a not-yet-developed human is inside an adult human, and their needs are in direct conflict with each other?"
And I believe the person who is pregnant is the only one with enough knowledge of the situation to make that choice.
In other words, I do believe abortion is a hard moral question. A few days after conception, the embryo is not "a person" at all and there's nothing immoral about abortion. A few days before birth, and it's developmentally the same as a baby, and abortion is DEFINITELY immoral, unless there's some horrific, life-threatening health problem involved. But what about in between? At what point does the fetus gain rights? What counts as a "good enough reason" to justify ending its life- because, it is alive.
That's such a hard question- so hard and complex that it can't be addressed by male politicians making laws and restrictions. It can't be answered by the public, whose views are affected by rape culture and stereotypes about women and pregnancy. It can't be resolved by bloggers like me- I've never been pregnant, what do I know?
It has to be the person who is pregnant. Only they know their own situation. Only they know how much they want or don't want a baby, and the risks that come with pregnancy. Only they know their own health status and financial situation. Pro-choice. They need to be able to make that choice, because no one else in the entire world is qualified.
If someone decides to carry a perfectly healthy pregnancy for 8 months and then suddenly get an abortion just for fun, yes, that would be horrifically immoral- maybe I would even call it murder. But let's be real- why would anyone do that? Why would they allow their body to go through such drastic changes if they don't even want a baby? Why would they subject themselves to attention from random strangers in public- the "congratulations", the well-meaning-but-invasive questions, the nonconsensual belly rubbing? Seriously. Is that ever going to happen?
And yet, that's what pro-lifers imagine late-term abortions are. (Keep in mind that only 1.3% of abortions occur after 20 weeks- this is generally what "late-term" means.) The pro-life movement paints women who get abortions as heartless murderers- I only recently realized that people don't get late-term abortions because they don't want a baby, they get late-term abortions because they REALLY REALLY want a baby but something terrible has happened. [Or- they wanted to get an abortion earlier but did not have access. Yeah, go ahead and try to tell me it's "pro-life" to put so many restrictions on abortion that people can't access it until their pregnancy is really far along and there's a much greater health risk to the pregnant person and the fetus is more developed and closer to being "a person."]
I once read an article on a pro-life website where the writer talked about seeing women come in to an abortion clinic for late-term abortions, and this writer was so sad seeing "their bellies full of life." Umm. NO. Or a tract I saw at a church one time about "partial-birth abortion" and how, if only they had waited a few minutes longer, the baby would be happy and in a nursery instead of dead. Oh COME ON. Seriously, think about it. Who is going to carry a pregnancy they don't want, for months and months and months, and then kill it at the last second for no reason? But when I was pro-life, it never would have occurred to me to ask that question. Women who have abortions are heartless murderers who must be stopped.
And on that note, one of the biggest factors in my journey to becoming pro-choice was the phrase "trust women." [Note: other people besides women can have abortions. For example, trans men. Go ahead and trust them too.] Because I do believe that a fetus has value and shouldn't just be killed for no reason. It's not "a person" yet, but there are definitely moral issues. (When does it become "a person" with human rights? Is it okay to kill it as long as it doesn't feel pain? What about abortions that happen because the baby would have been born with a disability?) And you know what? People who choose to get abortions understand those issues. They're not clueless and weak little girls who need someone smart to tell them what to do, to make their decision for them. Is it possible to imagine a situation where someone's reasons for getting an abortion aren't "good enough" reasons and therefore their choice is immoral, along the lines of a human rights violation? Yes. But the tiny possibility of that happening is NOTHING compared to the human rights violations that pro-life policies continually commit against pregnant people. There have been cases where a fetus died and the pregnant woman was forced to keep carrying it- she wanted a baby so much, and then she had to constantly be reminded of how that hope was lost. There are cases where survivors of rape are forced to have a rapist's baby. There are cases where women were jailed for abortions or miscarriages. There are cases where "pro-life" hospitals refuse to give a pregnant woman life-saving medical treatment until the point where the problem has progressed far enough to count as an "emergency."
Trust women. You really think your list of possible situations where an abortion is moral is more "right" than the decison of a person who's actually in that situation? People aren't going to go and have abortions for no good reason. A fetus is a developing human life, so I believe they should have a "good reason" for ending its life- but guess what, pregnant people know that. I trust that people who choose to get abortions have a "good reason", and they don't have to justify it to me or anyone, it's their life, they know what counts as a "good reason." They know better than anyone else.
The pro-life movement is built on the idea that people who get abortions are either evil or clueless, and must be stopped. The idea that 1 in 3 women are heartless murderers with no sense of morality. That if abortion is legal and accessible, tons of fetuses will be killed for no reason. That "pro-choice" actually means "death to all fetuses!!!!!!" (It's pretty common for pro-choice activists to face bewilderment when they decide to get pregnant and have a baby. Everyone is like "but... don't you believe having a baby is BAD and everyone should always get abortions?") Really? No. People aren't going to end their pregnancy just because "eh, I don't feel like having a baby" but that's the stereotype the pro-life movement pushes. If you want to know real reasons they choose abortion, here is some data. But I trust them. I'm not going to judge their reasons. I'm not starting from the assumption that "you're probably a heartless monster and it's your responsibility to prove otherwise."
To sum up: The pro-life movement is NOT about "saving babies" or "protecting women's health" or reducing the number of abortions, or anything like that. It's about The Path. Everyone should just stay on The Path- it's unreasonable for society to make accomodations for problems that could have easily been avoided if everyone had just stayed on The Path. But in reality, The Path is impossible, and going off The Path punishes women far, far more harshly than men, if abortion is not an option.
Furthermore, the existence of identical twins makes the "life begins at conception" argument completely laughable. But saying that "life begins at birth" would also make no sense- a baby that is born prematurely may be less developed that a typical fetus a minute before birth, but the premature baby is definitely "a person" deserving of ALL the human rights. So there is definitely a discussion to be had about morality and what rights a fetus has at various stages of development. However, the important thing that happens at birth is the baby and parent are physically separated- their needs and their human rights no longer conflict. But for the duration of the pregnancy, the question of "when the needs of the fetus conflict with the needs of the pregnant person, what constitutes a good enough reason for ending the fetus's life?" is a hard moral question- and therefore a question that cannot be answered by politics or by opinions from people who aren't involved in the situation. It is a question that can only be answered by the actual pregnant person. They understand their specific situation better than anyone else, and I trust them. Contrary to what the pro-life movement wants you to believe, people who have abortions are not murderers with no concept of morality. They are just normal people who are fully capable of weighing the options and making their own decision. Yes, if someone wanted to kill a perfectly healthy, almost-ready-to-be-born fetus for no reason, that would be immoral- maybe I would even say it was murder. But is that really going to happen? And any attempt to make laws to prevent this hypothetical murder would only result in blocking access for people who really do desperately need abortions. And that's not okay.
Pro-choice. Because abortion is a hard moral question, and there is no one more capable of making a decision, no one with more knowledge of all the factors in that decision, than the actual pregnant person. They need to have the right to make that choice, because I don't trust anyone else to make it for them.