Clear Thinking When They Throw the Book at You
By Scott Klusendorf
Feminist Katha Pollitt wants us to stop apologizing for abortion. In her book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights (New York: Picador, 2014), she contends that abortion is both a moral right and a social good, a common event in the reproductive lives of women. “Why can’t a woman just say, ‘This wasn’t the right time for me’?” Only those with a deep contempt for the female sex question her saying so. Sure, in American public discourse, the safest place to be is in the middle, lamenting the extremes on both sides. But this concedes too much ground to abortion opponents. If we don’t turn over a woman’s decision to marry or go to work to authority figures, why turn over her personal choices about motherhood? In short, Pollitt insists that it’s an affront to women when pro-choice advocates settle for anything less than legal abortion “on demand” and without apology. And she’s not the least bit sorry if that offends her opponents.
In fact, Pollitt has no intention of converting pro-lifers. Her stated purpose is to awaken a sleeping giant—namely, the millions of Americans with “pro-choice” sentiments who remain uninvolved and complacent in the abortion debate. At the same time, she hopes “that by laying out the logic—or rather, the illogic—of the anti-choice position,” she can persuade a few people in the middle to embrace abortion-on-demand.
Yet careful attention to logical reasoning is precisely what’s missing in much of Pollitt’s book. What exactly is the “anti-choice” position she finds so illogical? Reading through the text, I kept waiting for a decisive blow to the following pro-life syllogism:
P1: It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being.
P2: Elective abortion intentionally kills an innocent human being.
P3: Therefore, elective abortion is wrong.
That blow never came. Instead, Pollitt more or less responds with a mix of ad-hominem attacks, poor science, and assertions masquerading as arguments. Suppose we grant that pro-lifers are anti-woman, anti-birth control, religiously motivated, insensitive to poor women, and just want to control women’s sexuality. Let’s further suppose they grieve the loss of five-year-olds more than they do the loss of embryos in fertility clinics. What follows? How do those alleged flaws refute the pro-life argument that the unborn are human and that intentionally killing them is wrong?
Pollitt fares no better with science. Again and again she calls embryos “fertilized eggs” when in fact anyone who’s ever consulted a standard embryology textbook knows she’s substituting a label for an argument. Embryos are not “fertilized eggs” for the simple reason that sperm and egg die in the act of fertilization. That is, each surrenders its constituents into the make-up of a new living organism—in this case, the human embryo. T.W. Sadler’s Langman’s Embryology states: “The development of a human begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote.”1 In short, Pollitt confuses parts with wholes. Sperm and egg are parts of larger human beings while the embryo is a whole (albeit immature) human being at the earliest stages of development.
At times, she simply assumes the unborn are not human, as when she writes that abortion “is a good thing for society” because it’s “good for everyone” if women only have the children they want. Question: Are the unborn part of that society? And does “everyone” include the unborn? Meanwhile, after a dozen or so references to “fertilized eggs,” I couldn’t help but recall a 1970 editorial in California Medicine which conceded the scientific ground to pro-lifers. The authors—sympathetic to abortion—note that language can be used to get around inconvenient truths: “The result has been a curious avoidance of the scientific fact, which everyone really knows, that human life begins at conception and is continuous whether intra- or extra-uterine until death. The very considerable semantic gymnastics which are required to rationalize abortion as anything but taking a human life would be ludicrous if they were not often put forth under socially impeccable auspices.”2
Though dismissive of embryos as “pea-sized,” “lentil-sized,” and “shrimp-like,” Pollitt concedes their humanity on page 68: “Obviously, a fertilized egg is human—it isn’t a feline or canine—and it’s alive and it is a being in the sense that it exists.” But she does not think all humans are equal. There’s a class of human non-persons that we can kill and a class of human persons that we can’t. Embryos are not “human beings in the ordinary sense of the term” and they are not “persons” in the same way a woman is. Oh? Why should we believe that? Given Pollitt concedes the humanity of the unborn, an inquiring pro-lifer might ask what essential difference exists between Pollitt the embryo and Pollitt the adult that would justify killing her at that earlier stage of development. Her reply: Embryos fail to qualify because they are too small, too undeveloped, can’t think or feel, can’t communicate, aren’t conscious, aren’t self-aware, etc.
But why are those characteristics value-giving in the first place? Pollitt presents no argument why any of them are decisive. She merely asserts they are so. Suppose we pick consciousness as decisive. Do we mean one must be able to immediately exercise it or do we mean something else? As Christopher Kaczor points out, requiring actual consciousness renders us non-persons whenever we sleep. Requiring immediately exercisable consciousness excludes those in surgery. Requiring the basic neural brain structures for consciousness (but not consciousness itself) excludes those whose brains are temporarily damaged. On the other hand, if having a particular nature from which the capacity for consciousness is present makes a being a person—even if one can’t currently exercise that capacity—then those sleeping, in surgery, or temporarily comatose are persons, but so also is the human embryo, fetus, and newborn.3
Moreover, Pollitt’s functionalist account of human value proves too much. As abortion-advocate Peter Singer points out, if self-awareness determines value, and newborns and fetuses lack it, both are disqualified from the community of persons. You can’t draw an arbitrary line at birth and spare the newborn. Nor can you adequately account for human equality. If humans have value because of some degreed property like self-awareness, why shouldn’t those with more of that characteristic have a greater right to life than those with less—born or unborn? After all, development doesn’t end at birth.
At the end of the day, the abortion debate is not about a surgical procedure, but a more foundational question: Who counts as one of us? Thoughtful defenders of abortion such as David Boonin, Peter Singer, Michael Tooley, and Jeff McMahan—though I disagree with their conclusions—engage pro-life thinkers on that fundamental question and in so doing make a helpful contribution to the debate. In return, pro-life thinkers are crafting scholarly responses that have caught the attention of some of their most vocal critics. In a January 2008 LA Times piece, abortion-choice advocates Kate Michelman and Francis Kissling lament that a new generation of pro-life advocates present “a sophisticated philosophical and political challenge” to a previously settled debate.
Pollitt largely ignores that challenge. She dreams of a day when cleaning out wombs is just another form of housekeeping. Nowhere in her text do you get the sense she’s interacted with leading pro-life thinkers like Francis Beckwith, Maureen Condic, or Christopher Kaczor. And while Pollitt may indeed awaken like-minded abortion advocates, she’s no pro when it comes to engaging the best arguments from pro-life apologists.
1. Sadler, T.W. Langman’s Medical Embryology, 7th edition (Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins 1995), p. 3
2. “A New Ethic for Medicine and Society,” California Medicine, September, 1970.
3. Christopher Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice (New York: Routledge, 2011) p. 53.