Frederica Matthewes-Green, a founding member of Feminists for Life, is the author of the book, Real Women, Real Choices, and is a frequent contributor to numerous magazines.
The abortion debate stands or falls on a single question: is the preborn a person? One would not necessarily know this from the great heat and little light that usually surrounds the issue, as pro-lifers target additional social ills caused by abortion license and abortion defenders charge that pro-lifers only want to punish women for sexual activity or keep them pregnant and out of the work force.
However, so much passion would not arise if the issue was not literally a matter of life and death. In the Roe v Wade decision, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote that, “(If the) suggestion of personhood [of the preborn] is established, the [abortion rights] case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life is then guaranteed specifically by the [14th] Amendment.” Thus, the personhood of the preborn child is the single point on which the entire debate turns.
Abortion defenders generally concede that the preborn is both human and alive, but still they harbor a half-focused and ill-expressed feeling that he is not quite yet “one of us” — not really a person. This position is one which is impossible to defend logically or scientifically and can set a dangerous pattern for any other living human decreed to be not “one of us.” Let us examine some of the arguments used to depersonize the preborn.
The preborn is not a person because she is so small.
The charge that, “Every good argument for abortion is a good argument for infanticide,” finds confirmation here. Size remains relative throughout human life; the six-week fetus is very small compared to a newborn, but one could also justly compare the newborn’s size with that of Hulk Hogan. The argument about size is a version of one of human society’s most durable, least honorable assertions: might makes right. Big people can throw away small people. As most women are smaller than most men, it is a dubious assertion for women to champion. Too many of us know in our own bodies what violence at stronger hands is like.
The preborn is not a person because he is unwanted.
We speak here of a woman’s disabling fear: “I’m nothing without a man. If no one wants me, I don’t exist.” If worth depends on someone else’s approval, then we may in turn eliminate our own children who do not please us. Worth based on wantedness, that chimerical achievement, is ominous for children, blacks, women, the disabled, and other living things.
The preborn is not a person because she does not have human form.
This is in fact untrue; that “glob of tissue” finds order quickly, and every baby aborted has a face, hands, eyes, gender, and a beating heart. But even if a method were available that could strike during that rush to recognizable form, it would be an ominous precedent to embrace. Discrimination against living human beings because they “look funny” has a long and ignoble history. The truth is that even the earliest embryo has a human form, though it may be a unfamiliar one. We are “globs of tissue” of changing form from conception until death.
The preborn is not a person because he would be disabled.
Our disabled friends may well feel a chill; if we’d only caught them before they were born, we would have “spared them” their “unhappy, unsightly” lives. Killing in the name of compassion has had a tenacious appeal throughout this ruthless and sentimental age. We stand with Scrooge, with the strong and healthy, and locate the “surplus population” in the weak and sick. It is worthwhile to recall that we are each only temporarily able bodied, each potential candidates for lovingly-administered death.
The preborn is not a person because she could be abused.
Prenatal dismemberment is indeed an effective preventative for postnatal abuse, though the net result to the child may not be what she would have preferred. Implicit here is the assumption that the lives of the abused, like the lives of the disabled, are not worth living; that the rape survivor, the battered spouse, should never have been born. When this future abuse is only theoretical, as in the case of a preborn child, we make a devastating affirmation of the abuser’s power and undermine the hope of those who believe the past can be overcome. The hope that abortion would prevent child abuse has been cruelly mocked by statistics which indicate that, though every child in America could have been aborted during the past nineteen years of legality, reported child abuse has in that time increased 500 percent. The notion of the disposable child persists after birth.
The preborn is not a person because he is not sentient.
Consciousness, self-awareness, is a trait which gradually emerges and then fades during the course of a normal human life. It is by no means fully present in a newborn. The average house cat is capable of more intelligent interaction than a month-old child. Some would choose six months fetal age as the point that the potential for this future awareness is present; however, potential is a slippery concept, as all the potential abilities of a lifetime are present at the moment of fertilization. To attach increasing value to those of increasing awareness is no doubt flattering to the intelligentsia who developed the standard, but a bit worrisome for the rest of us — especially for our mentally disabled friends, who may grow up to star in their own TV shows for all we know. The preborn child is only temporarily lacking in awareness, in consciousness, and daily moving toward its completion. To rush to kill him before he achieves it is as repulsive as rushing to kill a recovering coma victim before she can open her eyes.
The preborn is not a person because she does not yet have a soul.
Although a person’s body unquestionably begins at the moment the sperm dissolves in the ovum, some say their religious beliefs decrees that the soul is invested later. This reflects pre-scientific belief that the preborn was an inert lump until she came to life and the mother felt movement. While some of our ancestors sincerely believed the pre-quickened fetus not to be alive, modern proponents hold the eerie notion that she is a living body without a soul. Religious people have every right to enter the abortion debate with vigor, but quirky religious ideas that the soul arrives at six-months gestation, departs at age 48, or takes the day off alternate Wednesdays cannot be the basis of law — especially as the defense of the right to kill. Venerable religious traditions calling for immolation of children or throwing of virgins into volcanoes should likewise be ineligible for exception from laws that protect life.
The preborn is not a person because he lives inside his mother’s body.
The preborn is not a part of his mother’s body any more than an astronaut is part of the space ship. The fact that neither is viable without necessary access to oxygen, food, and shelter does not prove that they are not persons. Both the fetus and the astronaut are tenants, though in the case of the preborn it cannot be denied that he can be an uncomfortable and demanding one. Does this give the mother the right to evict her unwanted tenant? The situation may be like that of a sea captain who discovers a stowaway and considers whether to throw him overboard. The missing factor in the analogy is that the preborn did not take up residence in his mother’s body under his own will but was called into being (in virtually all cases) by a consciously-chosen act that the participants were aware could have resulted in pregnancy. For both parents, undertaking to have sexual relations must be accompanied by a responsible recognition that (even with careful contracepting) a child may result. That this result disproportionately taxes the woman, that the man can walk out abandoning his responsibility to her and his child, does not prove that it is right for the woman to do the same. Choices that lead to greater responsibility, greater accountability, are choices that lead to a stronger society for women and their children, and men as well. Choices that feed the cycle of heedless abandonment hurt us all.
This century has already taught us, in too many bloody lessons, that it is a dangerous thing to designate any human life as an “unperson.” Devaluing, rationalizing, renaming, discarding seem to spread outward in concentric rings of expediency. When women so desperately agree to depersonalize their own children as a condition of full participation in society, a lot more is at risk than those tiny lost lives. Better check your size, your sentience, your wantedness; there’s no telling who is next.