Natural Law

An Honest Abortion Debate

A patient shows a print out of her ultrasound after a prenatal exam in Phoenix, Ariz., in 2009. (Joshua Lott/Reuters)
A response to Caitlin Flanagan’s essay in The Atlantic.

In the forthcoming issue of The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan has an incredibly thoughtful essay called “The Dishonesty of the Abortion Debate.” In it, she takes the pulse of what continues to make our disagreements about abortion so intractable — and though her conclusion misses the mark in some respects, she comes quite close to the truth.

Much of the piece deals with the gruesome reality of older abortion methods, primarily those involving Lysol, which resulted in pregnant women facing severe medical complications and, in some instances, death. Some abortion opponents are inclined to ignore these horror stories, afraid that acknowledging them cedes too much to the argument that restricting abortion would take us back to when it was “unsafe.” (On this view, keeping abortion legal means keeping women, who will want abortions regardless of the law, alive.)

A better pro-life tactic would be to acknowledge and lament the suffering caused by older abortion methods, even as we insist that no abortion method — no matter how supposedly modern, sanitary, or safe — is good for women.

Others who oppose abortion ignore a second point Flanagan makes effectively: Many women, for a very long time and for very many reasons, have desired not to be pregnant. “To be a woman is to bear the entire consequence of sex,” she writes. At least in a biological sense, she’s certainly correct. Women have plenty of (often good) reasons for wanting to avoid pregnancy, especially given that we often bear the significant risk of being left to raise a child alone.

A better pro-life tactic would be to recognize the unique trials of pregnancy and child-rearing, even as we insist that those trials are never properly solved by extinguishing a life that has already come into being.

But the most powerful part of Flanagan’s essay comes in its latter half, a challenge to supporters of abortion rights, when she discusses the technology that enables 3D ultrasound imaging of the fetus in utero. “These sonograms are so richly detailed that many expectant mothers pay to have one made in a shopping-mall studio, much in the spirit in which they might bring the baby to a portrait studio,” she writes. “They are one thing and one thing only: baby pictures.”

Her next few paragraphs are worth quoting in full:

For a long time, these images made me anxious. They are proof that what grows within a pregnant woman’s body is a human being, living and unfolding according to a timetable that has existed as long as we have. Obviously, it would take a profound act of violence to remove him from his quiet world and destroy him. . . .

A picture of a 12-week fetus is a Rorschach test. Some people say that such an image doesn’t trouble them, that the fetus suggests the possibility of a developed baby but is far too removed from one to give them pause. I envy them. When I see that image, I have the opposite reaction. I think: Here is one of us; here is a baby. She has fingers and toes by now, eyelids and ears. She can hiccup — that tiny, chest-quaking motion that all parents know. Most fearfully, she is starting to get a distinct profile, her one and only face emerging. Each of these 12-week fetuses bears its own particular code: this one bound to be good at music; that one destined for a life of impatience, of tap, tap, tapping his pencil on the desk, waiting for recess.

What I can’t face about abortion is the reality of it: that these are human beings, the most vulnerable among us, and we have no care for them. How terrible to know that in the space of an hour, a baby could be alive — his heart beating, his kidneys creating the urine that becomes the amniotic fluid of his safe home — and then be dead, his heart stopped, his body soon to be discarded.

Flanagan is right to pin the strength of the pro-life argument on the power of the ultrasound to expose the reality of unborn human life. Over the past few decades, there has been no greater boon to the anti-abortion cause than the ability to view in the womb the developing human life, to capture that image, to print out and hang up on the refrigerator and show to the world a picture of the tiny person growing inside his or her mother.

An ultrasound is a baby picture because a fetus is a baby. We all know this instinctively. Some of us begin to deny it only when that human being, that fetus, that baby is unwanted.

She concludes her essay by claiming that the abortion debate is unwinnable, chiefly because each side’s loudest advocates are poor representatives of their cause. On one side, she says, are liberals for whom abortion has become a punchline; on the other are right-wingers who call post-abortive women murderers. One side denies the undeniable humanity of the unborn; the other ignores the often complex reasons that women choose abortion.

Though there is something true in Flanagan’s framing, the overwhelming ethos of the pro-life movement undercuts her case. Every movement has its cranks, and I’ll be the first to criticize abortion opponents who talk about the procedure in the language of “murder,” which requires understanding degrees of intentionality and culpability that are often complicated and unknowable.

But in contradiction to the picture Flanagan paints, those who work to save unborn lives most often do so without denying the personhood or the suffering of their mothers. Look no further than the thousands of pregnancy resource centers that help mothers in need choose life or the groups that provide therapy for post-abortive women — both categories of women ignored by those who push abortion as a one-size-fits-all solution. For anyone with an open mind, it is difficult to deny that abortion opponents are sincere when they say “Pro-life is pro-woman” and “Women deserve better than abortion.”

It is on the other side of the debate that Flanagan hits her target squarely. To be sure, not every pro-choice person favors abortion on demand until birth, and not every abortion-rights advocate is as radical as the group “Shout Your Abortion.” But by and large, those who work to preserve and expand the right to abortion do so without acknowledging the humanity of the unborn.

The chief strength of Flanagan’s essay is its nod to the power of ultrasound technology, which reveals what our abortion debate so often leaves out: These are human lives. The conflict over abortion is dishonest and unwinnable not because both sides make poor arguments, but because only one side is willing to admit that reality.

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