no violence period: New Perspectives on Abortion

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Kevin Kelly on abortion - The consequences of treating a fetus as a human being

The consequences of treating a fetus as a human being

Reader survey on abortion

by Kevin Kelly, Whole Earth Review, June 22, 1986. This article is part of no violence period.

FOR A WHILE NOW I have been wondering what the specific consequences of treating the fetus as a human being would be. Last summer 1 mailed a query similiar to this page to regular contributors to Whole Earth Review soliciting conceits. I asked them to pass my request on to friends who might have something interesting to say. I said:

I am looking for unexpected effects that would surface if large numbers of our society started treating the fetus as a human being. Certainly a tide of legal, social, moral, and medical questions would immediately arise.

Besides the obvious issue of abortion there would be a host of genetic and biological dilemmas--surrogate mothering, eugenics, test-tube babies, and all the tangled rest we haven't confronted yet. If we treated the fetus as a human being, how would that change things? What would happen? Can we imagine it?

If you don't think the fetus is a human being, how bad would it be?

If you do think the fetus is a human being, how good would it be?

I am not impartial to this. Anne Herbert, the gifted writer and former editor of this magazine who inspired this project (although she has nothing to do with it or my ideas) suggests that if we want peace we must imagine a world without killing in all its particulars as a first step.

I would like us to imagine a world without killing the unborn, where the fetus was treated as a human being. What would the consequences be? I'd like the zealous pro-lifers to imagine that, the consequences of no abortions; and all the women and men in the many details of their lives, what not killing the unborn would mean to them, how it would hurt, the trouble and pain it would cause. I would like the pro-abortion choosers to imagine a world where the fetus was treated as a human being, where the misery of an unwanted child was not dealt with by killing the child. Suppose there's this place where fetuses are treated as humans, so when one is conceived unintentionally, or by force, or by research, it's taken care of, it's dealt with, things are changed at a great price to grant it its existence. It takes courage to even imagine that. Can you see it?

It's sometimes hard to see. Watching women who are unfairly overburdened with the responsibility of kids makes it hard to imagine. I think it's wretched that so many men deny responsibility for the fetus they coinitiate. Abandoning this responsibility brings wretchedness to the women who are wrongly asked to deal with the fetus's compounding demands alone, and it too often brings fatal wretchedness to the unborn fetus. If you regarded the fetus as a human being how would it change your approach to sex?

I think considering the fetus a human being would keep our definitions of "human' wide. We would be less likely to narrow our acceptance of who is human, to cast away those not formed like us. As it is, we find it particularly tempting to eliminate those who don't meet our specifications (white, extra-bright, no defects) while they are yet voiceless and unseen, whereas once they are born we are obliged to accept and adapt to their otherness. Imagine a world where the misshapened were not permitted to live, where everyone was "normal.' That's the opposite of a place where the fetus is treated as a human being.

I imagine not only less violence against the unborn, but more regard for it. One of the consequences of treating the fetus as a human being is that we would treat is as something with its own inherent value, not just something that had potential. It would have worth and meaning merely because it is human, not because of what it has done, not because of what it will do, but because it is.

Usually we fall into thinking of a pregnant women and her fetus as being adversaries battling over exclusive rights, the right of a woman to control her body versus the right of the fetus to live long enough to control hers. I am trying to imagine what it would be like if we choose to help both the fetus and the mother, if we gave them both all the support they needed to live and live well, if we decided they both were valuable and important. What would that mean to us as a society? If we choose to use all our resources, anything it took to make that happen, what do you think it would be like?

I think it would be a royal pain. It would cost a lot. The consequences of treating the fetus as a human being means life for the soon-to-be born and a lot of trouble for the rest of us. It's not convenient. It means sacrifice and going out of our way. It means treating not only the fetus as a human being but also women and the handicapped babies that would be born, treating them as human beings too. It probably also means treating out enemies as human beings, but all that suddenly sounds so difficult that I understand again why we shy away from it, especially when we are in the embrace of one we love.

There are many immediately difficult consequences no matter how we treat the fetus. What do you think the consequences of treating it as a human would be? That's my rap.

I'm sure there would be all kinds of effects, unpleasant and wonderful, that I haven't considered, but you might have. I'm looking for concrete examples of consequences. Details we shouldn't overlook while we imagine. Send them to me at Whole Earth.

The consequences would be that, for the first time in this country since the invasion of the white man, there would be no group of human beings who are lawfully the victims of those with power. The consequences would be a country where no one's life is considered disposable, and all human beings would share equal protection under the law. The consequences would be true equality and not an atmosphere in which rights are designated to a favored majority, or minority, by those who are unfortunately in the position to make such determinations. Whether we could live with such startling consequences remains to be seen, since they are not consequences we have imposed upon ourselves as a nation since its inception.

A truly terrifying thought to pursue is rather: "What are the consequences of NOT treating the fetus as a human being, and what is such a perverse mentality the consequence of?'

--Juli Maltagliati, Wheaton, MD

Every human being now alive as well as every human being that walked the face of the earth is or was at one time a fetus. And that should lead to a more relevant if more somber thought: What are the consequences of not treating the fetus as a human being?

History provides answers enough to such a question if we expand the question to its proper form. What is the consequence of some people treating other people as if they were not human beings? Up until the middle of the last century, the judiciary of this country specified that blacks were property, not people. If the issue had been debated then, and it was, proponents of slavery would have predicted the economic collapse of the South as the direct consequence of treating the Negro as if he were human. The South did suffer an economic collapse as a result of not treating blacks like humans, but the collapse was a consequence of the Civil War. Had they voluntarily emancipated the slaves, the war might have been avoided.

The same point could be made about the Third Reich, Ruin for Germany was the ultimate consequence of not treating the Jew as a human being. Should we expect a different fate? All Jews and all blacks were once fetuses. Abortion simply substitutes ageism for racism. Stage of development becomes the criterion whereby people are selected for extermination. Houses divided don't stand. The ultimate consequence of not treating human beings like human beings is ruin. It happened with blacks and Jews in the past; it's happening with the unborn, half of whom presumably are female, now.

But what about the women? Presumably one half of all those exterminated in utero are female. This seems a peculiar basis for sisterly solidarity, to say the least. Abortion is only plausible if one ignores large amounts of reality, and part of that reality is the state grown-up females find themselves in as a result of abortion on demand. Andrea Dworkin in her book Right Wing Women gives as accurate a description of the state of affairs as anyone:

It was the brake that pregnancy put on fucking that made abortion a high priority political issue for men in the 1960s--not only for young men, but also for the older leftist men who were skimming sex off the top of the counterculture and even for more traditional men who dipped into the pool of hippie girls now and then. The decriminalization of abortion--for that was the political goal--was seen as the final fillip: It would make women absolutely "free.' The sexual revolution, in order to work, required that abortion be available to women on demand. If it were not, fucking would not be available to men on demand. Getting laid was at stake.

I once asked Laura X, the anti-rape-in-marriage crusader, what she thought of Dworkin's statement. She answered that she thought it was brilliant.

"I would also say that that's true about the pill,' she added. "I remember writing a pamphlet in 1970 called The Pill Is a Male Plot.'

"Do you think abortion is a male plot?' I asked.

There was a pause.

"It serves men in the ways that she describes, yes.'

"Why are feminists for it then?'

I never got an answer that made any sense to me. The question came back to me when I saw a film of a suction abortion. Seen from the outside, the fetus is virtually invisible. That leaves one acutely aware of the violation that is being perpetrated on the woman by the abortionist. Her feet are suspended over his head in stirrups. He begins by ramming a number of graduated steel rods into her cervix to expand it to the point where it will accept the suction currette, whereupon he begins sawing away at the woman's vagina, causing the clear plastic tube leading from the currette to the suction machine to fill up with blood--the woman's and her daughter's (at least half of the time) commingled.

Feminists are under a spell. How else could they consider a violation of this sort liberation? If they are our society were to treat the fetus like a human being, the evil spell would be broken. Reality could flow back into their lives like sound into an unclogged ear. No more guilt-ridden protests full of Orwellian euphemisms about "products of conception' and "reproductive freedom.' No more refusing to look into the microscope the way Galileo's contemporaries refused to look into the telescope. Reality may not seem like much at times, but at least it's, well, real. It's better than pretending --pretending, for example, that we were not once what we are now allowing to be killed, and pretending that we can deny humanity to one segment of the world's population without denying it to ourselves in the bargain. The final consequence of treating the fetus as a human being would be a sign of relief. It would be okay to be human again.

--E. Michael Jones, South Bend, IN

I imagine a place where a woman (and possibly her current mate) can go to report an unwanted pregnancy and receive help. This would be much like the unemployment office, where people get help finding jobs and receive intermediary paychecks. In addition to financial help there would be counseling to help the parent(s) decide if they could keep the child. And if they truly can't, then do they want a contact adoption or a noncontact adoption. If they opt to keep the child, will they want further state help in the form of food, shelter, jobs, money, and education (for themselves and the child). Will an unwanted child receive extra points on a civil service exam to make up for being unwanted? Will there be scholarships for them much like the ones currently available for the orphaned children of military personnel? Will parents who truly want a child declare this child to be unwanted simply to get some of these extra helps?

--Lois Wickstrom, Tampa, FL

If fetal life is not to be terminated--if pregnancy is "irreversible' and a woman, once impregnated, must pretty much "bear with it'--then a man's obligation to support grows proportionately larger, too. It would certainly be sad and disappointing, as well as unjust, if the obligations for nurturing new life were to weigh solely upon the bodies and minds of women. Men have a capacity for benevolence and devoted love which can be activated when, through their sexuality, a pregnancy occurs. Men's emotional--as well as material--support for their families can make the difference between procreation as a biological slavery imposed on the female, and procreation as an ongoing, life-giving partnership which brings out a generous response from both the man and the woman.

Attitudes relating to family planning would change if abortion were eliminated as an option. The IUD and the Pill, morning-after and month-after methods would be ruled out because of their destructive effects on already-transmitted life. (There is a good case to be made against the IUD and the Pill on the grounds of women's health as well. Perhaps they should be banned as a consequence of "treating the woman as a human being.') The other, nonabortifacient forms of birth control --except for sterilization--all have a comparatively higher "failure rate'-- this means that both women and men would be expected not to engage in reproductive-type intercourse unless they were willing to accept the distinct possibility that they might become parents by doing so.

Random sexual hunger and the vagaries of passion being what they are, we'd be expecting a fairly high level of sexual wisdom and self-control from people. This is turn requires a critique of our culture's very high levels of public sexual stimulation, much of which comes down to commercial pandering, i.e. trying to get at your wallet via your crotch.

The use of developing human begins as subjects for medical experimentation would halt if we treated the fetus (and embryo and zygote) as a human being. This would slow down, and perhaps stop entirely, the development of extrauterine methods of human gestation, which some reproductive technicians have proposed. That research goal might be permanently foreclosed if manipulations upon human offspring at very early ages were seen as being unethical; human procreation would thus stay within women's bodies rather than being transferred to laboratory equipment.

If we treated fetuses as human beings, it would be inconsistent to cease giving them the same consideration after they were born. It might therefore lead to treating girls and boys, in general, as if they were human, too; and then, perhaps, men and women.

That could, without exaggeration, be termed unprecedented; and its consequences have yet to be seen. I can only say I think it would be quite wonderful.

--Juli Loesch, Erie, PA

When human beings begin to treat human beings as human beings, they will understand what human beings beginning to be human beings are.

--Heathcote Williams, Cornwall, UK

When my wife saw your topic, "The consequences of treating the fetus as a human being,' she said, "What else would it be? A pig, or a sheep?' And that is the way I would approach your problem. A human fetus is a human being because a human being is what it is.

The first mistake may have been in calling it a "fetus.' In the tongue of our real experience we don't say "fetus.' We say "child' or "baby.' When we talk, like clinicians, about "aborting a fetus,' we are implicitly acknowledging that it is wrong to kill a child. "Let us destroy this fetus,' we are saying, "before we have imagined its human face and suffered its human claims.'

And this is what we mean when we speak of our warheads destroying an "enemy city': "Let us kill them abstractedly and far away, before we have seen them clearly enough even to hate them.' Suppose our government should begin to say to us, "Let us be ready to kill all the Russian men, women, and children.' It would be different. The greatest difference would be made by the thought of the children. Humanity has always understood that it is a horrible thing to make an enemy of a child.

What if we did treat our "fetuses' and our "foreign enemies' as human beings? It would be fearful indeed, no one can doubt it. For then we would have to take up living in reality. And reality always instructs us, when we become bold enough to venture into it, that we do not know enough to kill a human being. We are not eligible to accept that responsibility. Reality informs us that we live in mystery. A child may be a great burden or a great privilege. An enemy may become a friend, a friend an enemy. The value of a human life can only be determined by experience. That is our problem, and we have plenty of reasons to regret it. But the problem is only made worse by the assumption that there are simple technological remedies.

What is most disturbing about the acceptance of abortion as a normal solution is its association with "sexual liberation.' One of our prominent characteristics as a nation now is the wish to free sexual love of its consequences--which is to say that we have become a nation of fantasists. In reality, sexual love has consequences. It has consequences even if it does not result in babies. But until recently, babies were understood to be among its expectable consequences. Sexual love, that is, was understood to be connected to fertility. And this connection gave sex the power of an endlessly ramifying wonder and joy: It renewed our kind and therefore our hope. (It involved us also, of course, in the history of the failure of hope; not all babies, by any means, have been a joy to their parents or a credit to humankind, though these failures do not license the destruction of babies.) But with us, sex no longer has a place either in human nature or in human culture. We have made it a specialty, degraded and industrialized, an energy mined and merchandised for quick consumption, exhausted in use.

Surely it is too much to expect that the "freedom' and "naturalness' of technological sex should prepare us to become proper nurturers of children. In general, it seems likely that we will care for our children neither more nor less than we care for one another as adults. And the true caring of adults for one another always involves respect, devotion, fidelity, restraint--all the cultural means of preserving the natural life.

I don't mean to underrate the danger of the "population explosion' or to rule out "birth control' as a consideration. I do think that the belief that "there are too many people' is potent with violence toward some people--"fetuses' or any other unpowerful group or class or race. And I think that the now almost universal insinuation that sexual love may properly go free of sexual discipline is as gross a danger to humanity as any other that we face.

--Wendell Berry, Port Royal, KY

It's a misconception, really, that the Supreme Court decision on abortion ruled that fetuses of human parentage are not human beings. What they said was that they didn't have to decide when life begins; the issue was whether or not unborn children were legally "persons in the whole sense.'

When abortion was illegal, the fetus was often spoken of in the law as "an unborn child.' Many legal rights had been granted--the right to sue, through a guardian, for prenatal damages, even wrongful death, the right to inherit property, to be considered a Social Security survivor, among others. But the Court decided that all of these rights were contingent upon live birth; therefore, unborn children were not considered persons with the full legal rights of persons.

Why this should have led to the conclusion that they could be legally killed is beyond me. Dogs and cats aren't persons, either, but if someone chopped them up or killed them, needlessly, in brutal ways, he'd find himself in a heap of trouble. Furthermore, if full legal rights are necessary to ensure personhood, then why are children under eighteen to whom some legal rights are denied considered to be persons under the law? Why is it murder to kill illegal aliens who have no legal rights at all in this country? And why isn't it murder to destroy a corporation which happens to be a legal person?

The Court--and everybody else, it seems--got hopelessly confused about "personhood' and "human beings.' As a result, there's all sort of concern over what would result from declaring unborn children to be human beings/legal persons. "Legal chaos!' That's the rallying cry of those who prefer the current status, as if legal neatness is preferable to protecting human lives. Sorry, kid, we can't keep anyone from cutting you up because it wouldn't be legally tidy. Is the bloody procedure neat? Well, no, but look at the turmoil it would cause if we gave you the right to live. Why, little one, they say we'd have to count you in the census, deny your mother the right to vote because there can't be two persons in the voting booth, require a passport for you if your mom is traveling overseas, get you a conception certificate, count your age from conception instead of birth--all sort of horrible things, you see. (There are perfectly practical answers to all of these arguments, but the claims themselves are too frivolous to waste the time and space.)

More serious are the claims that if the unborn child is a person, abortion would have to be denied even if the mother is in danger of dying without one; that pregnant women who smoke, drink or use drugs could be charged with harming another human being; that women who have abortions could be charged with murder and even sentenced to death. None of these outcomes ever happened when abortion was illegal and an unborn child was not regarded as anything but human. Doctors, indeed, always knew they were treating two persons when they dealt with pregnant women. Abortion to save the mother's life was legal in every state except Louisiana long before the Supreme Court decision was made. And the sacrifice of one life for another isn't illegal in other circumstances if both can't be saved. Take the matter of Siamese twins who by all legal standards are both human beings and persons. When in the course of surgery to separate them, it has been discovered that a vital body part is shared and must be given to one or the other, no one has been accused of murder when the deprived twin dies.

Will pregnant women who smoke, drink, or use drugs be accused of some crime? Child abuse? Child endangerment? Possibly. But nursing babies are human beings and legal persons, isn't that so? And it's known that drugs and alcohol can pass through to them from breast milk, but nursing mothers haven't been charged with committing criminal acts.

As for murder, the killing of a human being is always regarded as some sort of homicide. But it isn't always murder; it's rarely capital murder. In the case of the aborting mother, in all likelihood, she could claim innocence by reason of emotional distress. Even in the killing of a child already born, I can't recall a single case of a mother being executed, although in a few instances, fathers have been.

Other popular procedures besides abortion would be affected by recognizing the human and legal status of unborn children, but there are reasonable treatments of most of them. Surrogate motherhood, if it involved embryo transplants, probably would be denied because of the danger of killing the child. But the woman could still have a baby for someone else through artificial insemination (or the old-fashioned way!) Test-tube creation of babies could still be allowed so long as "extras' were not developed and discarded. Killing fetuses for eugenic reasons could not be allowed, but it shouldn't be, in any case. How far would medical science have progressed if killing the patient were allowable as the "cure'? Lives ought not to be disposed of for being imperfect. That's a Nazi concept--killing the "unwanted.' Fetal experimentation would be forbidden (as it is, anyway, under current laws) unless it were intended to help the child on whom the experiment is performed.

All in all, the legal chaos deplored by those who want unborn babies to be left in their present status as nonpersons wouldn't be so terrible. It's the killing that's terrible. No rational, reasonable person would ever do to other living creatures what's being done to human fetuses.

--Frances Frech Kansas City, Missouri

Copyright 1986 Information Access Company, a Thomson Corporation Company