This morning someone on Facebook wrote a long post that included the sentiment that “As a conservative Christian, I believe unborn children have certain inalienable rights, including the right to life, and I wish President Obama would work to protect them.”, and I asked for clarification- what, precisely, did he mean by protecting a fetal right to life? It’s a commonly bandied-about phrase, but whenever I come across it, I’m left wondering how that would actually play out, legislatively. I’d written this earlier in an e-mail correspondence, and Beth encouraged me to put it on Tumblr, so without further ado:
As I wrote about not all that long ago, by the very nature of human pregnancy, at least until later in the pregnancy, it is not evident to the naked eye; as such, that makes it nearly impossible to know someone’s status as pregnant or not without violating their bodily autonomy. Considering that any sexually active woman within her fertile years can potentially be pregnant (whether she’s aware of it yet or not), if the government were entrusted with protecting embryonic and fetal life, it would necessitate tracking all that life. Leaving out for a moment the impossibly of such a vast increase in size of government and funding required to do so, are we ready to mandate pregnancy testing of every single sexually active woman in her fertile years, every month, until she undergoes menopause? To keep up regular checks of women confirmed as pregnant to ensure they are remaining so, and if they have a miscarriage, start a criminal investigation to clear her of any wrong-doing? Or would it be more of a supply-side problem to tackle- making sure all female citizens of reproductive capacity cannot get pregnant, perhaps with chastity belts, or mandated IUD placement (which would presumably still require regular testing to check and make sure they had not been removed)? Or I suppose we could just keep them locked or monitored- bring back the ol’ chaperone system, so no single ladies are ever hanging around a man alone (but what of married ladies- they get abortions less than their single counterparts, but still make up 17%?).
I’m being facetious, obviously- nobody suggests we go to such lengths (that I’ve seen, at least). But to grant legal personhood to an embryo or a fetus, carried to its logical conclusion and full protection under the law, means doing exactly that. Criminalizing abortion doesn’t seem to act like much of a deterrent; the abortion rates in countries where it is illegal are roughly the same as where it is legal. And of course abortion is very different today than it was decades ago when it was criminalized- before, non-surgical methods of induced abortion (usually herbal concoctions) were either ineffective or dangerous to the mother, but with the advent of mifepristone (a.k.a. Mifeprex or RU-486) and misoprostol (a.k.a. Cytotec), a self-induced abortion with these drugs bought illegally is quite safe and effective- still less so than if taken under the prescription and instructions from a doctor, but nonetheless). Even if the danger associated with self-induced abortion was any deterrent prior to 1973 (and it really wasn’t), that has disappeared with such safe and effective self-induced methods of abortion.
Not to mention that to solely/primarily deal with abortion provision by doctors as criminal would be somewhat discriminatory- we expect our government to protect us when we call for help (and fetuses can’t do that, so y’know, you have to monitor their safety regularly, if not constantly) and when they fail to protect us, we expect them to prosecute murderers, not just the guy who sold them poison, say. To expect anything less for an embryo is to say you don’t find them entitled to actual legal personhood, but something lesser.
The choice, then, seems to be between criminalizing abortion without fetal personhood, meaning that the provision or self-induction of abortion is illegal (and thus still widely prevalent, only more dangerous), and a state with the power and the obligation to protect embryonic and fetal life (and thus the obligation to monitor and track it), which will necessitate intensive and intrusive monitoring of any and all fertile women. Most countries seem to opt for the former, but there has been the latter- in Romania under the rule of Nicolae Ceauşescu (in power from 1965 to 1989), a total abortion ban (and ban on contraception) lead to, in the words of Michelle Goldberg “a kind of pronatalist police state, where women were subject to random gynecological exams and all miscarriages were investigated”.
So really- when you say you believe the government should protect unborn life, what sort of protection are you arguing for? Ineffective bans? Measures that require government control over any fertile female body? Or a symbolic ban that would carry no punishment for those who abort? I really, truly want to know.