Pro Life is a Lie - dismantling the anti-choice spin


When pro-choice militants argue that their struggle is the continuation of a historical fight against the oppression of women, they are met with a pro-life movement which attempts to symmetrically paint itself as fighting for the rights of ‘‘the unborn child’’, a category which would otherwise remain defenseless and be sentenced to life or death by their bearers.

But both sides are far from holding symmetrical views. For one thing, while people who can get pregnant initiated the pro-choice movement, there is no doubt embryos didn’t start the pro-life movement. No pro-life advocate would deny this trivial statement, if anything they would use the voicelessness of “the unborn” as an argument to emphasise the unfair nature of abortion rights.

While it is easy to understand why one group would be motivated to fight for their own interests, explaining why a group would me motivated to fight on behalf of another group is not as straightforward. Pro-life advocates would have us believe that they are fighting for the “unborn child” first and foremost out of a strong sense of empathy and out of an unremitting commitment to defend the human right to life. The problem is that this is demonstrably untrue. Far from being satisfying explanations, empathy and adhesion to moral principles don’t even qualify as partial explanations for the commitment of pro-life advocates.

Although human beings are capable of empathy (here defined as the capacity to experience pain when witnessing someone else’s pain) this aspect of our psychology can easily be influenced by other factors which can at times dim our empathy or make it selective. In the context of the abortion debate, if empathy is what is motivating pro-life advocates, then we are at best dealing with a very selective form of empathy, where the few minutes of assumed pain experienced by the foetus during the abortion are more important than the definite psychological and physical pain of a person going through an unwanted pregnancy, which depending on the case might imply carrying the baby of a rapist, going through a predictable and sometimes deadly postpartum depression, being involuntarily committed, dying from sepsis, having to live a life that you do not want, having to live in fear of a violent partner who didn’t want the child but whom you cannot leave for economic reasons, exposing yourself to the violent reaction of a partner who believes not to be the father, practicing stressful and unsafe backstreet abortions… the list could go on and could be extended to the psychological consequences of growing up as an unwanted child, or to the psychological suffering of a family who has to witness their mother/wife being transformed into an incubator after her death so as to keep the embryo alive for as long as possible... but you get the idea. One can’t help but ask why the empathy displayed by pro-life advocates is so selective despite the insistent claim that they “love both” (to be fair, they never said “love both equally”).

To this, pro-life militants have a clear answer: keeping the child doesn’t necessarily lead to the mother’s death (they would deny it ever does), but abortions will ALWAYS kill the foetus. This brings us back to the myth according to which at the root of the pro-life stance lies a commitment to the defence of human being’s right to life. Yet under closer examinations it appears that pro-life militant’s attachment to the human right to life is just as selective as their empathy.

If it can be shown that pro-life advocates are not willing to apply the right to life across the board, then one is entitled to ask why this is applied selectively in the case of abortion. Many pro-lifers will claim that a pregnant person does not have to keep the child because adoption will allow this child a chance at life. Under the current Irish law, unless there is a real risk of death from the pregnancy, adoption is the only legal option for pregnant people who do not want to be parents. In this scenario the pregnant person is basically a life-support system for another person.

What if this was a requirement for everyone in society?
If everyone had the legal duty to keep alive any citizen they can, what would that look like? Imagine that everyone is a mandatory donor, organ donor, blood donor, bone marrow donor, etc. Everyone is on a list and when someone has need and is matched to another person, that other person must donate as long as the donation does not kill them. This would be the closest approximation to the Irish abortion law if it were expanded. If the right to life is truly universal then the proximity to the patient should not matter, whether that person resides within my body or not, if this is a separate person with equal status under the law, then everyone should have the same access to the resources of other people’s bodies, a foetus should not be a special case. In fact, the more this principle is examined the stranger it becomes since the same right to life of an embryo to the pregnant person’s body ends as soon as it is born. The parent of this newborn has no legal mandate to offer any part of their body to keep this child alive. So once outside the womb the child has a dramatically reduced right to life. Which begs the question: if pro-life people are really pro-life, why are they seemingly unconcerned with what happens outside of the womb? Why are they not campaigning for every citizen to become compulsory organ, tissue and blood donors? Why should pregnant people be the only ones forced to make this sacrifice?

One response to this argument is that it ignores the distinction between killing a person and letting a person die. Pro-lifers argue that if it is possible to save someone with little or no risk to yourself, then these are ordinary circumstances and not saving the person would qualify as killing. For example, if I see a severely injured person in an isolated place, I am the only one who is there to help, there is no danger to myself and I just leave this person there, then I have effectively killed them. However if there is a person only I can help, but I must risk my own life to save them and I do not, this is an extraordinary circumstance so I have simply let that person die.

The distinction between killing someone and letting someone die becomes dubious at best once it is understood that a lot of preventable deaths are the result of an economic system that can be replaced through political action, and that not challenging a system that benefits oneself at the expense of others is itself a political act. On top of that, where to draw the line between ordinary and extraordinary circumstances is largely subjective. But even if we accept these distinctions, and even if we accept that the degree of risk involved in saving a life defines whether or not a person is committing a murder, this still doesn’t work in the case of pregnancy.

Pro-life advocates claim that having an abortion is killing because pregnancy poses a minimal risk to the pregnant person’s life and therefore the embryo’s right to life must be respected. However, if this is so, then it should apply to society as a whole for this to be a truly universal right. Everyone being blood, tissue and organ donors is not extraordinary since it does not pose a high threat to the donor’s life which means that any time a donation is refused it can be considered killing a needy recipient. Remember that in the example above the moral duty assigned to pregnant people who do not want to be parents is to not kill the foetus, so they are being asked to carry a pregnancy and then offer the child to adoption. In this scenario the pregnant person is simply life support for a stranger, a person they will never know. If they have an abortion it amounts to withdrawing life support from this other person, which will result in death. But how is this different from asking anyone to undergo a difficult, painful and time-consuming procedure to save a stranger? For instance, the rates of severe complications for bone marrow and kidney donations are of the same order of magnitude as pregnancy, meaning that both are relatively low risk and preserving life.

One way around this difficulty would be for pro-life advocates to claim that the situation of the embryo cannot be compared to that of a person needing a transplant. The argument would go like this: unlike a patient who needs to get the consent of a donor before being treated, the embryo is already receiving life support from the moment of conception. In other words, once a person is pregnant, we are past the point where consent can be granted or refused. This argument would imply yet again a selective use of a moral principle: consent. By that double standard, a registered bone marrow donor or a person engaged in sexual intercourse may withdraw their consent at any point, but a pregnant person cannot. It also implies that any person consenting to a sexual intercourse is simultaneously consenting to bear a child. This is of course untenable when the pregnancy occurs despite the use of contraceptive, and it is oblivious of the fact that not all pregnancies are the result of consensual sex.

What comes out of his overview of the moral argument put forward by pro-life advocates is that it is impossible to defend the 8th amendment without making a selective use of moral principles. What this selective use reveals is that the pro-life stance is not founded on moral principles. Rather, moral principles are opportunistically used to justify legislations that coincide with a preexisting belief according to which an embryo has more value than a pregnant person (after all, the embryo might be a boy). To be more precise, people who can get pregnant are valued by pro-life advocates only insofar as they bear and raise children.

It is not life that the pro-life advocates are interested in preserving, but rather a specific version of society. Under the surface of the ‘right to life’ argument lie gendered assumptions about the nature of men and women. In this misogynistic worldview the essential function of people who can get pregnant is to bear children and spend their lives raising these children, thus providing a regular supply of future workers and caregivers. This worldview sees the traditional family as the basic unit of society. While they see it as a source of social stability, it is a means of perpetuating inequality between the sexes and controlling the sexuality of people who can get pregnant. As long as people who can get pregnant bear the burden of parenthood they are less able to engage politically, especially in a legal system where having a uterus makes a person the de facto legal guardian of any child they bear. And when pro-life advocates point to adoption as the humane option this conveniently ignores the brutal history of forced adoptions, mother and baby homes and slave labour in the Magdalene laundries. Even in the organ donation example, the stigma attached to adoption is not accounted for: if a person is willing to sacrifice 9 months and endure physical trauma to save another person, they are not further stigmatised for not looking after that person over the next 18 years.

In the end pro-life advocates simply want to preserve the status quo of a society based on gender inequality, but rather than state this explicitly, they claim to found their stance on a moral argument and to be primarily concerned with the protection of the “unborn children” who cannot defend their “right to life” by themselves. in a culture that is increasingly questioning and challenging inequalities across the board, it is difficult to defend a model of society by voicing sexist and antiquated views about the nature of men and women. Besides this, as Irish society moves further away from religious institutions, the church can no longer be used as a source of legitimacy to control reproduction. Moral arguments centered around the right to life have become the only tools left to pro-life advocates, but this tool can be made useless if it is shown relentlessly that the pro-life stance is founded on a reactionary belief system. The belief system is what shapes the moral arguments, not the other way round.

So the next time you hear a pro-lifer trotting out the same tired argument about the sanctity of life simply ask them why the unborn are more deserving of life then everyone else.

Words: Nic & Emmanuel