Made-up babies

I have a friend. (I don’t really have a friend – this is a thought experiment, and who wants to be friends with the kind of bore who runs around making up thought experiments?) Anyway, this friend (who doesn’t exist) has a baby. A tiny, squirmy, scrunch-faced, made-up baby. My friend does not want the baby. She is so serious about not wanting the baby, that she decides she is going to kill the baby. She says this quite directly: “I am going to kill this baby.” 

I am of course shocked. Disgusted, actually. Also questioning my taste in imaginary friends. And because I care deeply about this baby and its continued survival, I say to my friend, “You must not harm this baby. This baby is not to be harmed. And to ensure the safety of this baby, I am going to leave it in the sole care of you, the person who wants to kill the baby.” Actually, I don’t say that, because that would be murderously irresponsible, wouldn’t it? Call me some kind of milksop liberal if you like, but if someone told me they planned to harm a child, I would want their parental responsibilities whisked away quicker than you can say “Shoesmith”.

Which is where the logic of anti-abortion campaigners confounds me. They say they believe a foetus is a living entity apart from the woman carrying it, with its own separate rights. I disagree, but I’m happy to accept that this belief is held in good faith. Consequently, they believe that a medical abortion is equivalent to murder. Again, disagreeing here, but I think this is a good-faith extension of the original good-faith assertion, so we can run with it. And that’s where we slip up in a horrible, blood stained puddle – because the end of this logic is that women who want to abort (murder) their pregnancies (babies) should be compelled to carry the pregnancy to term, and care for the child both in utero and postnatally.

You know, I think the anti-abortion campaigners might not have thought this through. Beyond the moral absolutes of the pro-life argument, I wonder whether many of its adherents actually tacitly accept that you can make an arbitrary distinction between a foetus and a unborn baby, and that choosing to end a pregnancy isn’t the same as harming a child. Either there’s a little bit of functional hypocrisy here, or the claims to be concerned about the unborn child’s welfare aren’t really in good faith at all.

The decision to have an abortion is a personal judgement, made by the pregnant woman – the person best placed to understand the consequences of either continuing a pregnancy or terminating it. We might find her reasoning obnoxious, as the Telegraph clearly does in its expose of clinics which offered abortions on the basis of the foetus’ sex. I find sex-selective abortion obnoxious too. Whether it’s driven by a patriarchal preference for boys, or some sort of idiotic gender essentialist longing for a little girl, it’s a stupid and hateful expression of the moronic sexism that runs through our whole society.

But why would I want to force these particular obnoxious, stupid, hateful and moronic people to be parents – and parents to a child that they’ve made it clear they don’t want? Who, exactly, does this help? Not the prospective parents: any social worker can tell you that it takes much more than going through labour to turn someone into an able, affectionate mother. Not the potential child either. The consultants caught in the Telegraph sting acted illegally, and by agreeing to perform sex-selective abortions, they helped to reinforce the unpleasant idea that such procedures are OK, but I’m not convinced they acted wholly unethically. What shocks me most is the inanity of forcing doctors into a position of moral judgement over what a woman wants to happen in her own belly.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2012; photo by Kaptain Kobold, used under Creative Commons

26 thoughts on “Made-up babies

  1. Hello Sarah.

    Exactly. The prolife argument rests on an assumed equivalence, (between potential child and actual child) which if accepted raises exactly the issues you detail above.

    I think part of the background to this, is that some prolifers (especially of a religious bent) feel that sex is procreational in its very nature, and that therefore if you don’t want to be having a child, you shouldn’t be having sex in the first place. However this then invokes the notion that an unwanted child is in some sense a punishment for sin, which doesn’t seem to be the healthiest attitude for a mother to have towards her child.

    As for your suggestion about ‘functional hypocrisy’; given the absence of discussion over this, I think that this hypocrisy is the enabler of the pro-life position, together with plenty of optimistic idealism about how mothers will ‘naturally’ bond with their child, if only they can be persuaded to carry to term. Quite where the desperation obviously felt by women who undergo risky backstreet/illicit abortion fits into this model, I’m not sure.

    Finally, re SSA – I detest it too. I’m a woman, and I want every girl to be valued as an equal human being. Why on earth wouldn’t I? Being pro-choice in the presence of SSA is often portrayed as a betrayal of one’s gender, but I think this is a false equivalence. I want every girl and woman to be of equal value-and part of that is accepting their right to exercise their conscience as they see fit. I want a respect for women AND reproductive rights-however difficult some people may find it to accept that they are mutually supportive ideals.

  2. The problem I have with this thought experiment is that it seems to suggest that if a woman considers an abortion she should be physically prevented from having one and then have her baby forcibly removed.

    I don’t think the people you are having your imaginary argument with would have much of a problem with incarcerating women until they gave birth and then taking their babies to be adopted by nice pro-life families.

  3. Excellent post. The whole argument that women should be forced to carry to term when they don’t want to is ridiculous. Dorries et al always say “Well lots of people want to adopt, so it’s fine”. Yes, because being pregnant for nine months because someone else thinks they have a right to tell you what you can do with your body, then giving a baby up for adoption isn’t remotely traumatic.

  4. — “The decision to have an abortion is a personal judgement, made by the pregnant woman – the person best placed to understand the consequences of either continuing a pregnancy or terminating it.”

    Well, that’s the thing though, isn’t it? The people who fantasise about forcibly preventing women from having abortions (or in an even more dystopian/BDSM version, about forcibly penetrating them with phallic objects to symbolically punish them for having sex in the first place) don’t think a woman is the best placed person to make ANY decisions. At all. Decision making + women = ultimate baddie badbad Satan scary stuff.

    Hence, there’s no you or I point trying to engage with them. Our opinions to them are not only a-priori invalid – they are made obscene by the very fact that we are women who dare to have opinions.

  5. Great post. Reminds me of a YouTube video (lost in the sands of time) where a guy asks pro-life protesters what sentence they they think women should get for aborting their babies. It’s the woman who decides to abort after all, therefore she is the murderer and should be punished, right? So how long should she be put in jail? It’s not something the protesters have even thought through, which is surprising considering the amount of reasoning they’ve put into the rest of their belief system.

  6. I wonder why women bother to admit that it’s for sex selection reasons when it’s legal to have non medical abortions up to 24 weeks, which seems quite far on in pregnancy in my opinion, particularly when hospitals are equipped to keep babies born that early alive. It’s a good point that you make about the seeming hypocracy of expecting a woman who wants to abort to be a worthy mother, though I do challenge that to a degree in defense of the transformative power of – a good – labour and the extent that a woman can change once she has her baby in her arms, though I’m no romantic and know there are exceptional circumstances.

  7. Well in this case, they “bothered to admit” because it was for a sting – they had to admit the purported reason, or the doctors wouldn’t be caught out. (Worth remembering that late term abortions are very rare – 89% of abortions took place before 13 weeks gestation in 2005, so those those in the 24th week account for some rare and desperate cases.) I think the period just after birth is critical for bonding, but however good a labour, it can’t transform someone into having enough money or social support to raise a child.

  8. Surely the problem is that, however good your argument may be (and it is good), if someone has strongly held views about abortion being murder and it being something that should be prevented, then you’re probably never going to change their mind. If only people could just mind their own business. Worrying about whether other people have abortions or marry someone of the same sex or do something else that you don’t like, but doesn’t actually affect you, is just really annoying.

  9. Either there’s a little bit of functional hypocrisy here, or the claims to be concerned about the unborn child’s welfare aren’t really in good faith at all.

    Well, I think it’s pretty obviously the latter. The issue is holding women to account for their sexual behaviour, it’s not the “unborn child” at all.

  10. Wendy – yes, I think that the current field of Republican candidates in the US have made that thinking pretty explicit, certainly Santorum and Cain; and you definitely find it expressed at the leading edge of anti-choice campaigning in the UK (eg Dorries, who’s anti=abortion *and* anti-sex ed). But I don’t think it’s shared by most people, which is why the public argument in the UK tends to be “ooh, babies” rather than “look at the dirty sluts”. What bothers me is that anti-choicers seem to have propelled the “concern for the unborn child” approach to the point where public attitudes become neglectful of women’s needs and rights. Perhaps, as with vaccination, some people have lived long enough with the benefits of medicine to forget why it was needed in the first place. Women killed by illegal, unsafe abortions and children born into perilously awful circumstances look like historical artefacts, something that could never happen here – forgetting, of course, that the reason legal abortion seems less urgently needed is because it’s successfully ameliorated the problems that made the case for its existence in the first place.

  11. I’m not so sure I understand. If we alter your thought experiment and place it instead the that woman is pregnant beyond the current legal requirement (24 weeks?), what do you say should happen?

  12. Which woman? The one in my thought experiment has already given birth. If you’re trying to shift back the boundaries of babyhood in utero, please see my comment above: the huge majority of abortions happen early in pregnancy. Shifting the focus to late-term is misleading, because they’re fringe cases. In fact, most efforts to restrict abortion access (eg the counselling amendment) would do more to increase the number of late abortions than to decrease the number of abortions overall.

  13. I appreciate the care you’ve taken in outlining the fundamental pro-life argument: if there’s nowhere to draw the line between a fetus and a child, then abortion is murder and should be illegal.

    To a person who believes the assumption of the argument, there is no disrespect meant to women in prohibiting abortion–with the consequence of forcing them to endure pregnancy and all the frightening, inconvenient, humiliating, and hazardous changes that entails, all to possibly surrender the child to strangers for adoption at the end of it. This is unquestionably traumatic. But physical and psychological trauma does not weigh the same as death.

    Anti-Abortion should never (though it is, both from within and from without) be tied to punishing women for sexual activity. When we keep the human hyenas looking for someone weak to tear down out of the debate, it’s about protecting babies when we (pro-lifers) don’t know when to stop assigning them human rights.

  14. Thanks for this comment, but I wish you’d addressed some of the contradictions I see in the pro-life position. As I mentioned above, I think the fact the (in general) pro-lifers appear to believe that a woman who wants an abortion can nonetheless become a happy, capable mother implies that those who hold a pro-life position tacitly agree that there *is*a distinction between foetus and child.

    It’s interesting that there’s some uncertainty to you language – you write of being “not sure” what rights to assign the foetus. Yet what you don’t say, rather tellingly, is that there should be no doubt at all about the rights available to the woman: the right to physical autonomy, the right to privacy in her medical treatment. So, in a dispute between the rights of the foetus (which are uncertain) and the rights of a woman (which are indisputable), pro-life gives precedence to the ambiguous case of the foetus. Which leaves me to ask the question: what rights does the pro-life position believe women have?

  15. Thank you for the response, especially to such a late comment.

    I would personally be surprised (pleased, but surprised) if a woman who wants an abortion at present could become a happy, capable mother in the future. Pro-life people who expect this are indulging in wishful double-think.

    The pro-life position on women’s rights has variations, because the movement contains many different highly motivated faiths and secular groups. The core dogma is that no one has the right to kill a fetus; beyond that, there is no consistent position on personal, sexual, or reproductive rights.

    I think that a woman has rights over her own body, and that the fetus is not part of her body. A woman has a right to buy and use contraceptives that act before conception; when there is a potential person living in her uterus, assuming potential persons have the rights of actual persons, her right to alter her uterine environment ends. Every woman has the right to decide not to get pregnant, but nobody gets to kill babies. (What this means, of course, depends on our definition of a “baby.”)

    As for rights for medical treatment, all adults of sound mind should have the right to obtain what medical care they can pay for through personal funds, insurance, or a government program, including elective procedures, so long as their actions do not cause immediate harm to others. Abortion is the exception because it’s the only medical procedure I can think of that causes immediate harm to another (potential) person.

    Few (none I’ve ever heard of) pro-life factions would like to curtail the rights of women after birth. Most see a two-parent household as a desirable ideal, some going so far as to incentivize marriage, but this is more a “good idea” than a “prime imperative.” I think that every woman has the right to manage her own personal life as she sees fit.

    The uncertainty I admitted in my other comment in assigning rights to the fetus arises because while the fetus can’t ask for rights, neither can a newborn baby, and therefore we’re stuck trying to reason out when to label something a human being using logic alone. Logic doesn’t always yield the most practical rulings. Many times, we ignore logic for convenience’s sake, and the uncertainty in my previous post refers to whether or not we are morally required to force women to suffer for nine months or more for the sake of protecting a non-conscious person we can’t see yet and whom no-one would miss, on the basis of a logical conclusion alone. It’s not like logic hasn’t given us bogus ideas before.

    I think it’s better to err on the side of not killing people (or wads of cells that have the potential to become people) than on the side of protecting people’s rights to control their quality of life. As humorist William Goldman wrote, “Life’s not fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”

    I’m not a pro-life activist and I don’t contribute to abortion debates, so I’m just articulating my personal position on women’s rights here, not the universal (if there is one).

  16. I appreciate you taking the time to explain your position. Still, the question of what happens to the baby resulting from an unwanted pregnancy is unanswered. You say nobody has the right to kill babies, and I agree (I maintain a distinction between foetus and baby, of course). However, the result of restricting access to abortion is that babies are killed through deprivation, neglect and sometimes infanticide. This piece I wrote for the Guardian includes data from Taiwan showing that the legalisation of abortion led to decreased mortality in baby girls: in other words, parents who could select for sex before birth were less likely to select for sex after birth. I at least am more squeamish about the suffering caused to existing unwanted children than I am about serving some abstract ideal of the sanctity of life.

    You say “logic doesn’t always yield the most practical rules”, as if your position is both less logical (more humane?) and more practical. But you have applied your own logic – the same logic you praised me for acknowledging in the original post, the logic that a foetus is a potential human and so has a right to life that supersedes the pregnant woman’s rights. (I would argue that the pro-life position’s definition of life is woefully mechanistic: a child’s life depends on care, affection and the fulfilment of physical needs, and it seems correct to me that when a woman recognises she cannot provide those things, she should choose to terminate her pregnancy.) And your position does entail harm: besides the consequences for unwanted children, pregnancy and childbirth are a good deal more dangerous to a woman than abortion.

    An honest pro-life position has to say that it considers all this death – maternal mortality, child mortality, child deprivation – to be an acceptable cost for the preservation of foetal lives. Few pro-lifers seems willing to do this, though. Perhaps people are simply so used to living with the benefits of abortion, they’ve forgotten what desperation and neglect look like, and instead have ignorant faith in the maternal imperative or generous adopters. Or perhaps some pro-lifers know their position would cause harm, but see that harm as morally justified. I do not, and that is why I support free access to abortion.

  17. I really don’t understand how pro-life apologists can assign rights to unborn children over the right of a mother to decide whether she’s able to look after a baby. Forget about the distinction between a foetus and a baby: the mother isn’t just a container in which new life is bred, she’s the one who for the most part will be responsible for feeding, sheltering and nurturing that new life – and if she doesn’t feel ready for that responsibility, it should be her right to refuse it. It’s not about the choice between the life and death of a being that’s unable to look after itself or even articulate its needs, it’s about the right of the person who’ll be responsible for that being to refuse the burden, for her own good as much as the good of the “potential human” involved.

    All talk of the choices before that moment are irrelevant, because that’s the choice that really matters. No mother wants motherhood forced on her when she doesn’t feel ready for it, not only for her own sake, but for the sake of the son or daughter she wants to have when she’s ready.

  18. I have a problem with this idea of being ‘ready’ for motherhood. In my experience it was the process of pregnancy, childbirth and bonding in the first year and beyond which prepared me, more the journey rather than some decision. How can you be ready for something that you have no concept of? I’m sure many mothers are with me in the belief that no one can prepare you for motherhood, that you just have to live it and see what happens.

  19. In order to live with it and see what happens, you have to have a reasonable expectation that what happens will be tolerable to good. Remember, I don’t mean “ready” in a vague emotional sense: I mean ready as in, do I have the money, the security and the social support to care for another wholly dependent human as well as myself. There a difference between reasonable trepidation which many experience with a wanted pregnancy, and absolute certainty that this is not the time or situation to become a mother. When a woman feels the latter, we should respect her own judgement – and not kid ourselves that if only she carried to term, everything would be OK.

  20. Thank-you for linking your article on Taiwan. Your respect for research and ability to see both sides of a debate are some of the many reasons I’ve come respect you and your thoughts and opinions since I discovered your blog.

    What I meant about logic and practicality was ambiguously worded; I actually meant the opposite of what you interpreted. Prohibiting abortion is logical, but impractical. People have been inducing abortion since the discovery of poisonous plants. It will always have an urgent demand, and banning it will drive women back to unsafe techniques.

    I suppose I do hold the honest pro-life position. Banning abortion comes with suffering, risk, and death. It may be harmful to society as a whole, certainly economically harmful. Nonetheless, with the underlying assumption that the freedom to live is a human right that supersedes human suffering, it is morally justified. One way (filled with emotional blackmail, sorry) of expressing this is to say that it’s the child’s right to decide whether or not they want to live. Even in the worst possible circumstances of emotional and economic deprivation, most children do.

    The preservation of freedom and the prevention of suffering are competing “greater goods,” each with strong arguments from an impressive roster of philosophers at its back. Usually, achieving one will as a side benefit achieve the other, but not in the case of abortion, where one person sees the freedom of the child to live outweighing the freedom of the mother to end the pregnancy, and another person sees a net reduction in suffering when the child’s life or death is left in the hands of the mother. I think this is where we are at odds.

  21. I don’t think it’s the only way we’re at odds. I think there’s a question about what results can be expected about any course of action. With abortion, we know that abortions took place before the process of liberalisation began in 1967, and we know that they were dire. So, restricting access to abortion doesn’t prevent the practice, but does make it considerable more lethal. Given that, I see the illegalising of abortion as not only wrong by my own moral frame of reference, but as a failure in its own terms as well. It achieves nothing but bad effects; legalisation is the best way to ameliorate those.

  22. I think where some of the commenters are at odds with the OP is that they view unborn babies as children – with all the emotional baggage that attaches itself to that word – rather than as unconscious bundles of flesh and bone.

    We have to make a distinction between this non-sentient proto-human and a real child. At one end of the spectrum, you could argue that even children don’t have rights until they reach the age of 18, while at the other end there are those who would regard masturbation as a waste of potential life.

    AngharadQ talks about a “child’s right to decide whether or not they want to live” – surely a human child isn’t even capable of making conscious decisions until a few years old? Assigning the right to decide to an unborn foetus is plainly absurd. Mothers are there to make decisions for their child until a late age.

    The point I was trying to make earlier was that this is the right way to approach it: you can’t ask a child when they are 18 whether they wished their mother had waited until she was in a better position to have a child, because it’s plainly too late by that stage and in any case, if the mother had waited it wouldn’t be the same child. So society should just leave it to the mother to decide when she is ready to have a child, and the resulting offspring will be patently better off because their mother is more prepared to care for them.

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