What’s the first thing you think of when you hear “Women’s Rights?” Chances are your first thought was, “abortion,” but then recoiled because you know there’s more to it than that. And yet … abortion … why is abortion the forefront issue of feminism and the women’s rights movement? I have a theory, but in order to unpack it, we need to step back and re-evaluate how we view abortion on both sides of the issue. Abortion is a multi-faceted problem that requires a multi-faceted solution, and there is a silent majority in America who have the power to make change. Who are they and how do we come together in spite of the many nuances divide us on the issue?
Join me, Kerry Baldwin, as we Dare to Think About the Christian Feminist View of Abortion.
Answering the Christian Feminist View of Abortion
Rachel Held Evans and I are at almost polar opposite ends of the spectrum on many things; I’m Calvinist, she’s Arminian. I’m a libertarian anarchist, she’s a social progressive. Evans qualifies herself as a Christian feminist, while I qualify myself as a Christian humanist. This sets the stage for an interesting dichotomy between the two of us on the topic of abortion; we both begin our explanations on abortion with the phrase, “I’m pro-life, but …” and while we share this trait, our perceptions and solutions on the matter are very different.
Evans has written a lot on abortion; I find that we share much in common, but I want to refute her presuppositions about abortion and challenge the “safe, legal, and rare” mantra borne from the Clinton administration, that Evans and other Christian feminists support. In doing so, I’m hoping to clear a path through the mangled mess most of us think of when speaking about abortion. These presuppositions are seen regularly in arguments against pro-lifers, and I regularly see pro-lifers trip over them – failing to make a convincing case against them. It’s easy to claim pro-lifers are taking an anti-intellectual approach to abortion when this happens, but does that mean the pro-choice side has the intellectual high ground?
For Evans, and other pro-choice readers, I offer a critical analysis of the problems facing the pro-life movement in my Dare to Think podcast entitled,What Will it Actually Take to End Abortion: How the Pro-life Movement is Unwittingly Aborting Our Pro-life Era.
My message to pro-lifers is the first in a two-part series; the second part will be a proposal for addressing abortion in a multi-faceted way. But today, I will focus only on the problems that pro-choice advocates face.
I will preface this by saying that I won’t be refuting every single point Evans (or the pro-choice movement) has put forth in favor of their position. Many arguments are rendered moot or can be sufficiently dealt with later. That’s not to say that the problem will go away if we just agree that life begins at conception. On the contrary, I am vastly more interested in doing what it takes to reduce the demand for abortion,than I am interested in simply winning a cerebral debate or passing legislation. However, in order to effectively reduce abortions, and foster an environment where abortion is not needed, we need to understand and agree with what’s at stake here and why reducing abortions is so necessary.
Common Ground and Common Goals
I want to start with the areas where Evans and I agree. The same things that have disenchanted me about pro-life activism have disenchanted her, and we both believe that little attention is being paid to these problems by the pro-life movement on the whole.
We Agree …
- The GOP has little interest in ending abortion, …. and I’ll even go a step further and say that Republican party leaders have zerointerest in abolishing abortion. That’s a bold statement, right? Especially considering how much the topic comes up during election cycles. Having participated in several grassroots political campaigns, and learning the politics of politics, I came to this realization: The GOP has a dwindling voter base, but the thing that is keeping it alive (in part) is single-issue pro-life voters. These are voters who choose their candidates based on whether their stated position is pro-life (I say ‘stated’ because in 2012, Mitt Romney’s stated position was pro-life, but his gubernatorial record was hardcore pro-choice; while Gary Johnson’s stated position was pro-choice, but his gubernatorial record was very pro-life). Campaign strategy is all about “banking” votes and the GOP “banks” pro-life votes because they know that as long as a Democrat runs a pro-choice platform, they are all but guaranteed votes from their pro-life base. This can mean the difference between a win and a loss in a close race. Which means, that if the abortion debate were solved, then suddenly pro-life voters have something else to think about come election time and the GOP would risk losing their pro-life base. So while the Democrats promote abortion in their political campaigns, the GOP exploits abortion in theirs – and I’m not sure which is worse.
- Overturning Roe and advancing pro-life legislation will not stop women from seeking abortions.
- Socio-economic standing has a significant impact on the decision to abort, and we cannot afford to ignore it.
- Women seeking abortion need immediate help; not just financially but through empowerment as well.
I give detailed explanations of points 2 through 4 in my podcast mentioned earlier. While Evans and I conclude many of the same things, my process of reasoning is different.
Moving on … I want to now deal with the areas in which Evans and I disagree. Given that we agree (for the most part) on secondary – but no less important – issues surrounding abortion, I want to dive straight to the heart of the abortion problem; life, personhood, and rights.
The fact that life begins at conception is incontrovertible (the real issue is personhood). I’m going to let the science of biology and embryology do the heavy lifting on this point, and then I will dispel one major myth. Biology outlines six characteristics in order to classify something as a living organism – that is, an individual life form beyond the cells that comprise it. Below, I list those six characteristics and I will post links to scholarly embryology resources that you can explore later.
To be counted as a living organism, scientists must observe that the organism in question:
- is complex and highly organized
- maintains homeostasis
- acquires and converts nutrient molecules
- exhibits growth and development
The fertilized egg, or zygote, does all these things.
Before becoming a mother and getting a degree in philosophy, I worked in the medical laboratory. My primary interest was in working toward the field of genetic research and studying cord blood stem cells as an ethical alternative to embryonic stem cells. My job in the medical laboratory was to understand the microscopic anatomy and physiology of the human body; and let me tell you – the microscopic world that exists is a perfect opportunity to see the spontaneous order of life exemplified. It is (literally) a walking machine of systems within systems within systems within systems, with no central entity dictating their functions; and this only entails the empirical things – there’s a great deal we have yet to understand because we cannot observe them.
MYTH: There is nothing unique about a zygote that should give us reason to offer it moral consideration.
Pro-choicers, Evans included, have questioned the uniqueness of the zygote; is there really a difference between a zygote and a skin cell? Or a sperm cell? Or a liver cell? Or a heart cell? It’s true that the mere presence of DNA cannot account for a new and unique living organism; which is why we have to look deeper than its mere presence. Each cell in the human body contains a complete set of DNA – the genetic blueprint that defines (almost) everything about us, but unlike other cells which are highly specialized in their tasks, the zygote does some pretty interesting things: it grows, develops, and evolves.
Regular cells are in a continual state of replication and apoptosis (cell death); most cells have a lifespan in the numbers of days, with some exceptions. DNA is replicated every time a new cell is formed and this is an ongoing basis; but every time DNA is replicated, the copy is not quite the same. Imagine you print this post, then make a photo copy of it, then make a photo copy of the photo copy, and so on. The quality of each copy is degraded. This is why when we age, our look changes, because each subsequent copy of the DNA is degraded in some way.
The zygote is different; immediately following the joining of egg and sperm, a completely new and unique genetic code is written that is different from mom’s. But the presence of a new genetic code within our bodies triggers the immune system to respond and attack. Mom’s body is literally hostile to the presence of the zygote. It would be like me suddenly appearing in the middle of an ISIS camp and yelling, “Surprise!” What do you think would happen? Well, I’d get attacked.
The very first act on the zygote’s agenda is to protect itself; and it shields itself making it impervious to attacks by mom’s immune system. Literally, the first act of a human being is an act of self-defense.
The zygote splits the day after conception and becomes a blastocyst, then goes to work preparing to shelter and feed itself while it develops, implanting itself in the uterine lining by the end of week 1 (for reference, pregnancy tests cannot provide positive results until the time of implantation).
The placenta (shelter) and the umbilical cord (source of nutrition) are developed by baby, not mom – we know this because the DNA in the placenta and umbilical cord belong to baby. The second act of the human being is literally self-preservation through the creation of its own property.
Unlike other cells, the zygote evolves and reproduces through mitosis; it exhibits growth and development; building and improving on itself – and this process of development doesn’t end until we reach adulthood, which, if we’re including brain development, doesn’t end until your mid-20s.
The problem with the strictly “living organism” argument is that mammalian animals go through the same process too; what’s unique about a human being? This is where the question of personhood arises.
Aside from the genetic distinctions between human and non-human (animal) zygotes, is the matter of the human zygote being – or existing – as a person; our being is the nature or essence of our personhood, thereby giving human beings greater moral consideration than animals. Personhood is an interesting thing; for some background info, I’ll encourage you to watch the Crash Course episodes on the philosophy of personhood that I’ve linked below; they’re at least good summaries.
By its very nature, personhood is not empirical; that is, it’s not something testable, addressable, or answerable by scientific methods of any kind. The crux of the personhood debate is instead a necessarily philosophical question; always has, and always will be. To this end, the question of personhood is sort of like an unsolvable Rubik’s cube, and making personhood a political issue is sort of like watching the know-it-all bully snatch the Rubik’s cube from your hands, thinking it’s an easy puzzle to solve; only to find him mangling it and ripping the stickers off in order to fake solving it.
Science is not going to solve this problem; government is not going to solve this problem; and unless all philosophers are willing to concede the same metaphysical assumptions and agree with the subsequent implications with universal consistency, then they won’t solve the problem of personhood either.
So if we can’t solve the problem of personhood, then why does this even matter?
Personhood is inextricably tied to ethics and in ethics we must be able to determine what is right and what is wrong, apart from personal subjective feelings. How do we define murder, or theft, or slavery, without understanding how personhood is related to these things? We can’t even establish what rights are much less that they exist, or even know when rights have been violated, without an understanding of personhood.
Despite the inevitable perpetual disagreement on what constitutes personhood, we must be willing to err on one side of the line or another. Where are we going to err? Where do we want the state, or civil magistrates, to err? Where do we want our neighbor to err?
One practice in ethics is to gauge the soundness of an ethical theory through consistent application. If it cannot be consistently applied, then it is a bad theory. So let’s test some pro-choice presuppositions.
If we say, …. We cannot determine when personhood begins, therefore we should leave the decision to abort between a mother and her physician …
then we must also say … We cannot determine when personhood begins, therefore we should leave the decision to drone bomb a village between a president and his military advisers.
Or, if we say … A fetus doesn’t have the ability to do X, therefore, the mother is not obligated to carry it to term …
then we must also say … a toddler doesn’t have the ability to do X, therefore, the parents have no obligation to care for it through to childhood.
My hope is that you’re feeling some cognitive dissonance with these statements.
Recognizing that personhood necessarily exists (because we cannot have a concept of rights or ethics without it), but not understanding how, or why, orwhen it starts, means we have only two choices: err on the side that personhood is inextricably tied to human life, or arbitrarily decide which humans do not deserve to be persons.
Since this is not a scientific question (ie. it has no empirical answer), then we must ask ourselves, “are these standards that I would want used against me?” Ask yourself these questions:
Should my personhood be dependent upon particular parts in my body functioning properly, or at a particular level of development?
What if you were physically or mentally disabled?
Should my personhood be dependent upon my place of residence?
What if you lived in a poor neighborhood? Or a village in the way of deforestation? Or you were homeless and living on public property?
Should my personhood be dependent upon my lack of independence from others? (This is viability)
What if you lived in an abusive relationship? Or under the tyranny of a despot? Or dependent on entitlements (such as food stamps or Medicaid) from the state?
Should my personhood be dependent upon whether other people value me?
What if the color of your skin meant you were less of a person than those with another more predominant skin color in society? What if your female reproductive organs meant that you were inferior, or the only thing that gave you value?
Should my personhood be dependent upon whether someone can see me?
What if you are punished for a crime by being put in solitary confinement?
Should my personhood be dependent upon whether my present state is the result of someone else’s crime?
What if you were a war refugee arriving on the shores of the United States as the direct result of the war crimes that destroyed your home?
I could keep going with these, but I won’t belabor the point; even if you are willing to have any of these standards applied to yourself, what gives you – or me – the right to use them against another human being?
To err on the side of any of these standards, means risking violations of basic human rights of those who fail to meet these standards. And if you, or I fail to meet these standards ourselves, then neither you nor I have the an inherent right to even assert the existence of our own rights, much less exercise them.
Should my personhood be dependent upon the fact that I’m alive?
To stand on this side means protecting the disabled, the poor, the homeless, the “uncivilized,” the inconvenient, the abused, the oppressed, the needy, the minority, the woman, the criminal from cruel and unusual punishment, and the refugee.
Why, then, should the disabled baby, the poor baby, the homeless baby, the “uncivilized” baby, the abused baby, the oppressed baby, the needy baby, the minority baby, the female baby, the criminal’s baby, or the refugee baby be any different?
Yes, women’s rights are important! To discount them is a detriment to humanity. Now, how do we square them with the rights of the unborn?
The word “rights” is flung around in politics; we often say that we have a right to free speech, or healthcare, or firearms ownership, or education. But what are rights? Are they as ambiguous as personhood? Or is there a simple standard we can follow? To better understand the philosophy that undergirds rights, and the function of rights, I’ve linked two more videos in the footnotes, in addition to scholarly sources.
Negative rights are those things we can act upon without permission from anyone else and it obligates others to not interfere with our negative rights. Limitations on our rights are the equal rights of others.
So as a woman, I have a negative right (based in natural rights) to take charge of my reproductive health; anything and everything that involves my body – by virtue of the fact that I own my body – is something I have a right to be in charge of. And any other person is obligated to not interfere with what I decide entails how I exercise this right. With rights though, also come responsibilities; they are two sides of the same coin. So I have a right to take charge of my reproductive health, but I have a responsibility in accepting resulting consequences. (Hold your rape argument, I’ll get to that).
In the video, you see how rights are tied to life, and how the rights to liberty and property relate to life. And suppose, with regard to personhood, we’re going to err on the side that rights begin when human life begins. And we also know that negative rights are those things we don’t need permission to do; we simply do them. What are the first two things a zygote does?
It defends itself and it preserves its own life through the creation of it’s own shelter and access to nutrition; and it does this without the mother’s permission. The philosophy of liberty affirms then that the right to life (self-defense to protect your future), liberty (the freedom to preserve your own life), and property (your creation of those things required to sustain and improve your life) are the most basic of human rights; AND not only does this new life have the right to life, liberty, and property, but that entails the obligation on the part of others to not interfere.
At the very least, we can establish that the zygote has the negative rights to be free from the initiation of aggression; an interference that would result in the loss of life, liberty, and it’s property (the placenta and umbilical cord). At most, there may even be grounds for an argument in favor of the positive rights of the child that both obligates the mother and entitles the unborn child to protection, by virtue of the responsibility the woman has in association with her natural right of reproduction.
What about fertilized eggs that fail to implant and are lost in menstruation? If the natural right of the zygote entails only an obligation by mom to not interfere with the process, then an unobstructed natural failure to implant and pass through menstruation is not a “murder” on mom’s part. In fact, if we’re going to say that the zygote has a natural right to life (as outlined above) then it is the zygote’s responsibility to successfully implant itself. Mom need only not interfere with attempts to implant, but once implantation occurs, a pregnancy begins and she has a positive obligation to protect that unborn life.
The Tough Cases: Rape, hormonal contraception, life of the mother, emotionally abusive marriages, etc. will be discussed in the 2nd part of my podcast mentioned earlier.
What’s at stake for the unborn, is what’s at stake for all of us.
I think Evans has hit the nail on the head in identifying the socio-economic problems that impact women and their decision to abort, but like many of those pro-lifers who’ve migrated to the pro-choice side, we have to understand the “why” beyond the problem; why do we need to address the socio-economic problems? Why do we have a desire to reduce abortion? Why is abortion a problem to begin with?
Abortion is viewed by 69% of Americans as either never right, or tolerable only under certain circumstances. In other words, abortion is viewed by a majority of the population as wrong, but sometimes a necessary evil.
- If we accept abortion as a necessary evil, we must prove that ending the life of an unborn baby is a lesser evil than the reasons why women seek abortions to begin with.
- The reasons women seek abortions are primarily due to poverty and bad relationships.
- In order to prove that poverty and bad relationships are greater evils than ending life, then we must quantify and qualify the value of human life in arbitrary terms.
- But quantifying and qualifying the value of human life in arbitrary terms is a practice that cannot be consistently applied.
- Therefore, accepting abortion as a necessary evil is not sound ethics without dehumanizing other marginalized groups of people – including fellow women.
Arguing for abortion as a necessary evil, means that poverty and bad relationships are a greater evil than initiating death against another’s will. But to argue this in an intellectually honest way (as we explored earlier) entails excluding nearly every marginalized group in human society. In other words, the socially progressive argument in favor of abortion is self-defeating.
The self-refutation is why Clinton’s “safe, legal, and rare” mantra is such a misnomer; it provides a false hope that human life – in any standing – is of any value.
If we untie personhood from the living organism that we call “human,” then we can only tie rights to a unique subset of human beings; this is eugenics; this is elitist; this is fascist; this is completely opposed to what marginalized groups (like feminists, the LGBTQ community, and Black Lives Matter) are fighting against. It is logically inconsistent to say you defend the rights of marginalized groups, but support abortion. Being pro-choice is anti-intellectual; it’s anti-feminist; it’s anti-humanist; and it’s anti-Christian.
An Olive Branch and a Plea
As Christians, if we’re going to say that all of human life is valuable, then we cannot untie personhood from human life – to do so is antithetical tothe Gospel, which inextricably ties personhood to the image of God.But even from a secular standpoint, if we want the rights of marginalized groups recognized, then we cannot untie personhood from the existence of human life. What is the point of embarking on an effort to reduce abortion – or even stand up for the rights of marginalized groups – if even the personhood of women can be called into question based on our perceived value?
Those of us whom Evans describes as “stuck in the middle” are the very people who can bridge this divide, but it is fundamentally necessary that the pro-choice among us ascend to the pro-life ethic – that life, personhood, and rights necessarily begin at conception – even if we can’t prove it empirically, because what’s at stake here is fundamentally essential for marginalized groups across the board.
So, how do we do it? How do we reduce abortions while maintaining that all human life is valuable? How do we solve the problem of poverty? How do we solve the problems related to women specifically?
The old guard of the pro-life movement is becoming a thing of the past, and a re-invigoration of pro-life activism is taking shape; one that I believe will have detrimental effects if they don’t heed the warnings in my message to them. This new movement radicalizes the issue further which will cause a greater schism.
Rachel, those of us who are “stuck in the middle” see the problem differently than they do; it’s seeing this through the lens of compassion that is necessary, it’s seeing that putting the “woman first” is necessary, but we also need to get wise about how to deal with it and neither liberals nor conservatives have this answered correctly – government intervention will not solve this problem on either side. Both sides of this debate are wrong and we can’t solve this problem with the same reasoning used for the past forty years. It’s time for a paradigm shift.
This is where the second half of my pro-life podcast comes into play; because the answers to the problems facing pro-lifers are the same answers to the problems we’ve discussed here for pro-choicers. In a few weeks I’ll be publishing my follow up podcast: Dare to Think About How to Birth a New Pro-life Era.