This is another unpublished essay that I thought would be apropos for my series on criticizing the “culture of life.” I wrote it to address a major inconsistency in pro-life rhetoric, namely that legalized abortion supposed to be worse than the Holocaust and the Atlantic slave trade combined, yet the women who obtain abortions shouldn’t be subject to legal punishment. I know that if you go to places like “Fish Eater Forums,” “Renew America,” and other hard-right sites, you will see people advocating for putting women who get abortions in prison, but such individuals seem to be a minority. The consensus among most pro-lifers seems to be that women who want abortions are being deliberately misled by a number of sources (e.g., abusive men, abortion doctors, the sex-obsessed media, feminists who support abortion rights) to the point where they can’t be held responsible for their actions. I think this is morally inconsistent and condescending; if you really believe that abortion is murder but aren’t willing to put the women who procure abortions in prison, that suggests that you don’t really believe that a zygote or fetus has the same moral status as a newborn baby or a toddler. Either that, or you’re just temporarily moderating your tone to win new converts.
The newest and most radical tactic to come out of the anti-abortion movement is the push for so-called “personhood laws” that would extend legal rights to fertilized eggs, even those that have yet to be implanted into the uterus. Declaring zygotes to be legal persons would not only ban abortion, but IUDs, the “morning after pill,” in-vitro fertilization, and stem cell research, which is why such measures are controversial even within the anti-abortion movement itself. Older anti-abortion groups, such as Americans United for Life, the Susan B. Anthony List, and the Catholic bishops have distanced themselves from personhood laws, which they see as lacking in legal and biological nuance, and too radical to be accepted by the average American.
The crux of the personhood movement is that there should be no moral or legal distinction between a newly fertilized egg, a four-week old fetus, a two-year child, and a mature adult, as all are examples of human life, albeit at different stages of development. Personhood advocates dismiss the pragmatism of older pro-life groups who are willing to allow abortion in the case of rape, incest, or to protect the life of the mother, because doing so violates the rights of a unique human person who has no control over the unfortunate circumstances under which he or she was conceived. This hardline, uncompromising view is summed up by Daniel Becker, founder of the National Personhood Alliance, who said the following in a press release upon the establishment of his organization in June of this year:
The pro-life movement is more than 40 years old. From its inception in the late 1960’s, the focus has primarily been on ending abortion. Our concern must be expanded to encompass the dignity and value of each human being at any developmental stage through natural death. To achieve that goal, we must ensure that our strategies are consistent with our policies and objectives. Compromise is not possible. This is not like roads or highways or agricultural subsidies; when we compromise – someone dies.
Although the personhood movement believes that voluntarily ending a pregnancy is the moral equivalent of killing a toddler, both the websites of Personhood USA, the primary organization pushing personhood laws, and the National Personhood Alliance are silent on what would happen to women who obtain abortions were to zygotes become legal persons. However, the consensus among anti-abortion activists is to view post-abortive women as victims who have been failed by society in some way. This view is summed up by the Pro-Life Action League, which says on its “Frequently Asked Questions” page that,
The pro-life movement does not want to put women in jail for having abortions. Pro-lifers consider women to be victimized by abortion, whether it is legal or illegal. Laws against abortion would impose penalties on the abortionist, not the woman.
Anti-abortion activists assert that women who seek abortions are being misled by a variety of sources, including abusive partners, unscrupulous abortionists who convince them into believing that a fetus is “just a clump of tissue,” unsupportive family members, and an over-sexed secular society. In other words, women who get abortions are too mentally incapacitated to understand that they are (according to the rhetoric of anti-abortion activists), commissioning a hit for their unborn child, and must be treated with compassion and pity.
The problem with the “post-abortive woman as victim” narrative is that it clashes with the declaration of “abortion is murder.” The anti-abortion movement claims that killing unborn human life is the one of the worst acts imaginable, but has no interest in imprisoning the person responsible for ordering the murder. To say that abortion is “murder” implies that there is a murder, a person who is directly responsible for the death of another person. Otherwise, abortion is manslaughter, self-defense, justifiable homicide, or possibly no offense at all. Casting women who have abortions as tragic “fallen women” smacks of condescending paternalism, as if women by nature are too emotionally fragile to understand the ramifications of their actions.
To appreciate the absurdity of asserting that abortion is murder, while also claiming that the women who request them are innocent, consider the way in which Susan Smith, perhaps the most notorious filicide in recent memory, is viewed by the public. In many ways, Susan Smith would fit the profile of a woman wronged by society that anti-abortion activists like to portray; her biological father committed suicide when she was six, her step-father, a high-ranking Christian Coalition official, molested her throughout her teens and young adulthood, she attempted suicide numerous times, had a rocky marriage, and had an affair with a wealthy man who told her point-blank that her children were the reason why he could not seek a long-term relationship with her. Smith may have had a tragic past, but that didn’t prevent the judge and jury assigned to her case from sentencing her to life in prison or the media from branding her a moral monster. Quite simply, the societal consensus is that whatever personal problems Smith may have had from did not absolve her of the culpability for being the direct cause of her children’s deaths.
This is the dilemma that advocates of zygote personhood face; they can say that abortion is murder and the women who abort their fetuses are the equivalent of Susan Smith and are deserving of the same punishment, which is unpopular but logical, or they can say that abortion is murder, but the woman seeking the death of her fetus is confused and needs help, which is more compassionate but illogical. Taking fetal personhood seriously by definition requires not just the incarceration of post-abortive women and the doctors who would clandestinely provide abortions, but also of women who miscarry under suspicious circumstances or have substance abuse problems while pregnant. The state would have to deputize individuals that would give women and girls of childbearing age exams for signs of pregnancy to ensure that they are not secretly hiding evidence of illicitly procured abortions. Some readers might scoff at the aforementioned scenario, but these “menstrual police” actually existed during Romania’s communist period, when the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu forbad all forms of birth control in an irrational attempt to raise the country’s population. Women have already been jailed for “fetal harm” in Mississippi, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and many other states for being addicted to drugs and/or alcohol while pregnant. If fetal life, even at its earliest stages is really the equivalent of a two-year old child, then these types of invasive procedures would have to be instituted to protect it from possible harm, much like how we currently have departments of child protective services.
The reality is that most Americans, regardless of where they fall in the abortion debate, do not believe that a recently fertilized egg is the moral or legal equivalent of Michael and Alex Smith, the two young boys Susan Smith killed almost twenty years ago. This is probably why the personhood amendments that have come up for votes at the state level have been roundly defeated, including in ultra-conservative Mississippi. Most tellingly, even conservative Latin American countries where abortion is criminalized don’t mete out the same punishment for procuring an abortion as they do for wantonly killing a newborn baby or toddler; Chile, for example, which has some of the most punitive anti-abortion laws in the world, gives women who seek abortions 3-5 years in prison, while abortionists receive three years. While pro-choicer are offended by the notion that any aspect of abortion access should be criminalized, three to five years is a remarkably brief sentence, given that modern Catholic moral theology singles out abortion out as the major moral scourge of our age. The ramifications of declaring a fertilized egg to be a legal person will lead to a place that few people wish to tread.