Monday, June 18, 2012


A ruckus in the Michigan state legislature has seen a pair of female legislators censured for, depending on whom you believe, either a lack of decorum or their impertinence in challenging male attempts to own the abortion issue. Representatives Barb Byrum and Lisa Brown were barred from speaking on the floor of the house after they proposed an amendment to an abortion bill making proposed restrictions on abortion apply to vasectomies. The dispute, which does not feature especially high levels of statesmanship or rhetoric on either side, seems to center on Brown’s use of the word ‘vagina’ in her remarks.

The Republican boss who refused to allow the women to speak is an easy target here; whether he was genuinely shocked by hearing the anatomical term or simply intent on shutting down debate, he has hardly advanced the cause of democracy by clamping the censor’s hand over his fellow legislators’ mouths.

But outrage over his high-handedness should not obscure the sleight of hand constituted by the women’s proposed amendment. Byrum was quoted as saying, “If we truly want to make sure children are born, we would regulate vasectomies.” This is an egregious and perhaps willful misconstrual of the objection to abortion. Byrum’s implication is that opposition to abortion is based on the idea that any prevention of pregnancy is wrong. But abortion opponents are not outraged by the idea of preventing pregnancy (leaving aside the most devout Catholics); they are outraged by the idea of ending pregnancy by terminating the life of the fetus. A vasectomy prevents pregnancy, but there is no fetus involved. Byrum’s attempt to conflate vasectomies with abortions is therefore totally irrelevant to the central question. She is attempting to sell us the notion that opposition to abortion has nothing to do with the fetus.

Abortion arouses profound passions on both sides, which is all the more reason to discuss it dispassionately. Some claim that only women are qualified to debate the issue, since they are the only ones directly affected by it; this line of reasoning collapses if we ask whether men are the only ones qualified to debate, say, the military draft or chemical castration. Matters of public policy affect everyone, and logical premises and conclusions have no gender. The most that can be said is that men should approach the topic of abortion with a measure of humility.

Let me start by saying that I think a case can be made for abortion in the early stages of pregnancy; let me continue by saying that I think Barb Byrum’s equation of vasectomies and abortions is dishonest. She must certainly understand that the central question in abortion is whether or not the fetus has rights. Bringing vasectomies into the discussion can only be an attempt to distract. If the central question about abortion is simply whether or not women have a right to prevent pregnancy, then it’s an easy issue. But it’s not, because there is another living being involved besides the mother. The question has to be when and how that being acquires the rights we attribute to a human being.

If you are going to make a case for abortion, you have to tackle the question of the rights of the fetus head-on. Attempts at misdirection only make people suspect that your case is weak. So what about it? When does a fetus become human?

Saying that life begins at conception establishes a nice bright line of demarcation, and there’s a lot to be said for bright lines in debating complicated matters. But if life begins at conception, then does a miscarriage have the same status as the death of an infant? Millennia of human practice seem to indicate that it doesn’t. The parents may mourn, but there is generally no inquest, no funeral. We have chosen to act as if very early on, a fetus is not yet a fully existing human being. This view allows the use of intrauterine devices for contraception, which do not prevent conception but rather prevent implantation in the uterus. They are in fact abortifacients. Again, there is an implicit recognition that conception does not produce a fully realized human life, only the potential for one.

But if we concede this, we have to take very seriously the fact that the fetus does indeed develop into a human being. What other outcome is there? Advances in pre-natal medicine that allow the survival of premature infants at earlier and earlier stages make it very clear that the fetus inexorably builds a claim to full humanity, and no amount of insistence on the mother’s rights over her own body can trump that. How can a human being’s right to life depend on the will of another? A woman may understandably waver in her attitude toward an unwanted pregnancy; if one day the mother decides she doesn’t want the child, then changes her mind, does the fetus’s array of human rights switch on and off depending on the mother’s state of mind? At some point, we must concede that the fetus is vested with human rights, independently of the mother’s desires. Calling the fetus a parasite hardly disposes of the issue; children are totally dependent on others for their survival for years after birth. Declaring them parasites does not strip them of their rights.

I don’t claim to know when a fetus becomes vested with human rights, but I do claim that there has to be such a point. I’d suggest that fetal viability outside the womb in line with current medical capabilities might establish a reasonable criterion. But I’d argue for strict adherence to that criterion once established. It’s tough to see any justification for late-term abortion except danger to the mother’s life.

So I think you can make a case for abortion in the early stages, but once the fetus is viable I don’t think it is any longer exclusively a question of a woman’s rights to her body. There are two sets of rights involved now, and no amount of misdirection can change that. The questions get tough at that point, even if you are passionately committed to choice. The increasing incidence of sex-specific abortion in some immigrant communities in the U.S., favoring male children over female, has to pose uncomfortable questions for the pro-choice movement. If you don’t squirm, you’re not thinking.

Abortion is a harder issue to think through than Barb Byrum wants us to believe. And men are not the only ones who need to approach the topic with humility.

Sam Reaves