Antiabortionists, Patriarchy, and Personhood: A Study in Hypocrisy
Antiabortionists claim to be prolife and to “believe in life,” but they show no concern for life in other contexts. Further, their opposition to modest gun control, to wearing masks to control COVID, and to climate control reveals that they care little about life. What they actually oppose is single female sexual behavior.
They will not support contraception or even teaching about contraception that would reduce pregnancies and thus abortions. They promote ineffective abstinence only sex education. As a result, compared with other countries, American girls have much higher rates of pregnancy, births, abortions, and HIV and gonorrhea infections. Similarly, antiabortionists oppose HPV vaccine in preteen girls that later protects them from deaths due to cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. Antiabortionists believe that the fear of pregnancy and STDs controls what otherwise would be out of control sexual behavior. Thus, opposition to female sexuality is more important to them than preventing abortions or saving lives.
As detailed in Jessica Valenti’s book The Purity Myth, patriarchal opposition to women’s sexual equality is an all-consuming agenda. Women’s sexual abstinence and virginity is valued above all else and is to be maintained until the father gives his (virginal) daughter in marriage to the husband, as if her virginity were a commodity and the woman were property. Single women who have had sex are viewed as whores/sluts.
Antiabortionists embrace the concept of “personhood”: the fertilized egg is a full “person,” making abortion the murder of a person. But “personhood” creates serious problems.
Antiabortionists claim that many contraceptives are “abortifacients,” but this view is inconsistent with the medical view that a woman is not pregnant until the fertilized egg (now blastocyst) has become attached to the uterine wall, which requires 6-12 days. Contraceptives cannot produce abortions, because the woman is not yet pregnant.
Only about one-third of all conceptions result in live births: 30% of fertilized eggs fail to implant, and another 30% are lost following implantation by about 2 weeks after fertilization—preclinical losses because the pregnancy is not detected. Additionally, of the 40% of conceptions that reach clinical pregnancy, 15% are lost before 12 weeks and another 4% between 12 and 22 weeks of pregnancy. Personhood claims that all of these are deaths of a person.
In vitro fertilization is the Achilles’ heel of personhood. It involves the “harvesting” and fertilization of immature eggs (oocytes), which are brought to 5-day maturity for implantation. A large fraction are discarded because they are not of good quality and another large fraction are never used and discarded. Even of those that are implanted, most do not result in a live birth. According to personhood, these clinics are mass murder scenes, yet antiabortionists have never mounted an attack on them. The probable reason is that these women are fulfilling the traditional female role of trying to have babies, but that explanation undermines any argument that the fertilized egg is a person.
Personhood creates problems with respect to rape, incest, miscarriages, and high-risk pregnancies. Antiabortion laws often have exemptions for these, but the restrictiveness and ambiguity of the laws renders the exceptions ineffective. It is famously difficult for a woman to prove rape. It is similarly difficult to prove incest: how is the child to report and document such an event and to whom must she report it? For the clinical pregnancies that end in miscarriage, the woman may be required to prove that she did not induce or facilitate an abortion. In high risk pregnancies the woman may have severe medical problems or the fetus may suffer from a lethal anomaly. Ambiguities in the law make it unclear how probable and/or how imminent the death must be, and medical staff are threatened with imprisonment.
Imagine what policies would/should be embraced if antiabortionists truly cared about abortions. They would champion contraception to reduce abortions. They would recognize the rights and welfare of pregnant women over the fetus in the early stages of pregnancy and pick a reasonable point before which abortion is legitimate. By end of the first trimester 93% of all abortions have occurred, making it a good choice. They should try to make abortions earlier by making pregnancy tests and abortions readily available. In the second trimester, they would eliminate restrictions that create problems with high-risk pregnancies. Finally, in the case of women who do have babies rather than abortion, they should require the fathers to be fully financially responsible for the children they foster.
The religious social conservative right wing of the Republican Party is famous for its passionate and total opposition to abortion. The rationale uniformly given as justification of this stance is that conservatives “believe in life.” These same voters often assert that they are “values voters,” communicating an element of self-righteousness. At times, they seem to imply that those who do not agree with them are secular voters virtually without values.
This positive portrayal of the views of the antiabortion religious social conservatives generally has been accepted to their benefit. The purpose of this writing is to critically examine that claim and to propose the alternative hypothesis that the difference between liberals and social conservatives is that liberals value women’s rights, whereas social conservatives do not. Social conservatives have negative views of, and discomfort with, female sexuality and female equality in terms of reproductive rights, in contrast to liberals’ support for women’s equality. A secondary concern is to urge those who have genuine and strong concerns about abortion to use the issues discussed here to evaluate their own position.
1. Antiabortionists are not pro-life
It would be difficult to find a greater hypocrisy than the claim by antiabortionists that they “believe in life” and are “pro-life.” If their claim were true, we would expect them to show the passion with which they oppose abortion in other domains where they might save lives and, especially, absolutely should avoid causing deaths through their own behavior. Sadly, they fail on both counts.
One looks in vain for other examples of their passionate support for life. Given that there are many opportunities to protect human life, the list of opportunities they do not pursue would be endless. Nevertheless, just a few examples will illustrate the point.
They are not opposed to capital punishment, which is even worse considering that large numbers of those sentenced to death have been proven innocent (usually by DNA tests). For example, over the 45 years prior to 2018, 162 of those receiving the death penalty have been exonerated (Editorial Board, 2018).
A passionate concern for life should support universal health care. A 2002 Institute of Medicine study estimated that about 18,000 deaths each year can be attributed to lack of health care, and a more recent Harvard Medical School study estimated that 45,000 deaths occur each year due to a lack of health insurance (Wilper et al., 2009)—i.e., increasing health care saves lives. Antiabortionists and their fellow conservatives have strongly opposed efforts to provide health insurance/care and even tried to reduce health care by attempting to terminate the Affordable Care Act.
Malaria caused over 600,000 deaths in 2020 with children under 5 accounting for about 80% of deaths in the WHO African Region (WHO, 2020). What an opportunity for those who “believe in life” to save lives, but these conservatives have launched no such initiative.
The above examples illustrate a lack of concern for more or less “natural” deaths. Additionally, these conservative Republicans also oppose policies that would save untold lives: they oppose gun controls, policies that slow the spread of COVID, and policies that slow or reverse climate change.
Many innocent lives are lost in the United States as a result of the widespread availability of guns. These include mass killings, homicides, accidental killings, and suicides. In 2019 there were 15,448 gun deaths associated with “Willful, Malicious, Accidental” events and another 23,941 “Suicides by Gun” (gunviolencearchive.org). These deaths could be substantially reduced by common sense controls that do not restrict legitimate gun ownership. For example, “82 percent of teenage suicides by firearms involve guns left poorly secured or foolishly unprotected by members of their families” (Hauser, 2017).
Based on official counts, COVID-19 has resulted in more than a million deaths in this country. Shockingly, conservatives have refused to wear masks or to social distance, thereby promoting the spread of this deadly virus. While they themselves often may not be at risk of death due to youth and good health, by spreading the virus they directly contribute to the deaths of the elderly and the medically compromised. COVID infections before the availability of vaccines and treatments caused many deaths that did not have to occur. In addition to the deaths officially attributed to COVID, there were many more due to COVID that were unreported. Further, the combination of overburdened hospitals and failure to seek treatment for other life-threatening illnesses out of fear of COVID caused many additional “excess” deaths indirectly attributed to COVID (Kluger, 2022). Yet these conservatives care so little about life that they are unwilling to be inconvenienced by wearing a mask.
Scientists have been warning for decades that carbon dioxide emissions were causing climate change that would produce many thousands of deaths if we did not take measures to stop or reverse it. Among the predicted disasters are droughts, floods, storms, fires, famine, and rising sea levels. Many of those predictions already have begun to come true. Nevertheless, conservatives have consistently rejected these scientific reports, embraced climate denial, and opposed efforts to reduce cardon dioxide emissions to slow climate change.
Clearly, these conservatives (who overlap extensively with antiabortionists) care little for life and in major ways promote policies and behaviors that greatly contribute to deaths. It is the ultimate hypocrisy for them to claim to be “pro-life” and to “believe in life.” Their passion against abortion must have to do with something other than an absolute commitment to life.
2. Female sexuality and patriarchy
If a believe in life does not account for the antiabortionists’ agenda, what, then, is their true political agenda? The answer: controlling single women’s sexuality in the context of patriarchal values is what drives their opposition to abortion. We can see this agenda in contexts where there is a choice to reduce abortions or save women’s lives but at the cost of accepting women’s sexuality. In these cases, they choose increased death and more abortions—showing their true values.
An obvious strategy to prevent abortions is to prevent unplanned pregnancy through contraception. Harvard Medical School physician Atul Gawande (2007) addressed this issue. Half of pregnancies are unintended and, of those, 40% end in abortion. Multiple studies have shown that teen-age pregnancies can be prevented via good parenting that teaches: (1) wait until you are older to have sex and (2) when you ultimately have sex, always use protection. Ninety-two percent of women who have abortions say they used birth control—i.e., ineffective use of contraception is a major problem. We need a national campaign to educate adults in how to use contraceptives. However, Gawande notes that antiabortionists strongly oppose contraception education even for adults—in spite of the fact that the result of their opposition is more abortions. For them, teaching about contraception would be to sanction female sexuality, which they cannot bring themselves to do—i.e., being against single women’s sexuality is more important than reducing abortions (Gawande, 2007; Kaplan, 2015).
A pregnancy prevention study initiated by a private grant in Colorado in 2009 provides an illustrative example (Bowerman & Hughes, 2015; Popovich, 2015). The state-run Colorado Family Planning Initiative (CFPI) provided intrauterine devices (IUDs) or implantable birth control free or at reduced cost to 30,000 women from 2009 to 2013. Births to teen mothers dropped by 40% and abortions dropped by 35% during that period. Nevertheless, conservative Republicans blocked public funding for CFPI. One Republican explained it: “It basically comes down to political positions—what people support and don’t support ideologically.” The benefits of reducing both pregnancies and abortions in teens did not overcome their negative concerns about women’s sexuality.
Indeed, conservatives seem to have a fear of out-of-control unrestrained female sexuality and want fear of pregnancy to be a threat that constrains sexual behavior and actual pregnancy without abortion to be an outcome that punishes sexual behavior. Several authors have made this point. Political and social issues author Katha Pollitt (2014, p. 30) comments that antiabortionists oppose both contraception and abortion because they “let unmarried women escape detection and punishment for having sex outside marriage.” Rutgers law professor Margo Kaplan similarly says that antiabortionists ‘view contraception, like abortion, as a “license” to have non-procreative sex’ and quotes Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee as saying that “Women . . . don’t need contraception — they just need to control their libido.” Jessica Valenti (2010, pp. 128-131) has a more extensive discussion of this topic, including the reluctance of the FDA to grant nonprescription over-the-counter status for emergency contraceptives. In those discussions FDA members raised concerns that ‘young women would become out of control if given the chance to have sex “without consequences,”’ and in an internal memo one FDA medical official expressed the bizarre concern that nonprescription status could result in “extreme promiscuous behaviors such as the medication taking on an ‘urban legend’ status that would lead adolsecents to form sex-based cults centered around the use of Plan B.”
The New York Times columnist and political commentator Nicholas Kristof (2005) made a similar point during the Bush administration. Conservatives lobbied hard and successfully for funding “abstinence only” sex education, in which no information is provided on contraception (as opposed to abstinence + contraception information). No sound studies show that abstinence only programs are effective, and they appear to reduce the use of contraception. Our country’s lack of focus on contraception compared to Canada and some European countries results in worse outcomes for our teenagers. Although sexual activity is comparable across the U.S. and other countries, American girls become pregnant at four times the rate of German girls, have a baby almost five times as often as French girls, and have an abortion over seven times more often than Dutch girls. Young Americans have a five times higher rate of H.I.V. than young Germans, and our teenagers' have a rate of gonorrhea 70 times more than teenagers in the Netherlands or France. Conservative opposition to contraception causes more abortions, as well as other destructive health outcomes.
Even death is less important than controlling sex. The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine inoculates preteen girls to protect them from most of the cancers (e.g., cervical, vaginal, vulvar) caused by HPV infection, which spreads through sexual contact. Public health officials from the Center for Disease Control estimate that Annual death rates from these cancers are 4,020, 880, and 1,030 for cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers, respectively. Conservatives have opposed these life-saving inoculations, because they fear that the inoculations sanction sexual behavior by young girls (Filipovic, 2012; see also Valenti, 2010, pp. 70-71). Conservatives choose to oppose female sexuality at the cost of thousands of deaths.
These examples show the fundamental point that opposition to female sexuality is a stronger value than preventing abortions or saving lives. How hypocritical to claim that their opposition to abortion is based on a “belief in life.”
This difficulty with female sexuality can be understood in the context of patriarchy. Patriarchy is strong throughout our culture, but it is strongest among certain religions: the Catholic Church, Southern Baptists, and other fundamentalist/evangelical Protestant denominations (Pollitt, 2014, pp. 31-32). The white evangelical Christians at the center of antiabortion politics strongly embrace patriarchy (Du Mez, 2020).
In the present context, the patriarchal attitudes toward women’s sexual behavior is the key concern. This topic is comprehensively covered by Jessica Valenti in her 2010 book The Purity Myth, which leaves no doubt that opposing women’s sexual freedom is the all-consuming agenda of these patriarchal social conservatives. Women’s sexual abstinence and virginity is valued above all else and is to be maintained until the father gives his (virginal) daughter in marriage to the husband, as if her virginity were a commodity (pp. 22, 30) and the woman were property (pp. 22-23, 29, 31, 67, 147). Single women who have had sex are devalued (p. 147), being viewed as whores/sluts in the virgin/whore and sluts/not sluts dichotomies (pp. 10, 11, 13, 14, 18, 41-43, 45, 51, 82, 83, 148, 159) and sex—at least where women are concerned—is dirty, dangerous, and shameful (pp. 42-43, 45 51, 55, 72, 83). In the extreme version of this view, a woman with any sexual history at all can be blamed for being raped (pp. 14, 147, 157). This demand for virginity in women (pp. 22, 23, 31, 176-177, 180) is part of a desperate effort to return to traditional gender roles (pp. 31, 39, 48, 52, 58) in which females are to be kept subservient (pp. 57, 83, 96), to stay home to support their husbands, and to have children rather than work to provide a second income (pp. 138-139). This stigmatization of female sexuality plays a central role in the antiabortion movement: sexual independence in single women constitutes an unforgivable challenge to the patriarchal system. When unplanned pregnancies occur, they are not to be “rewarded” with abortions.
The vehemence of this hostility to single female sexuality was illustrated clearly by Rush Limbaugh, often viewed as the head of the conservative movement, in his response in February 2012 to Georgetown Law School student Sandra Fluke’s advocacy of insurance coverage for contraceptive pills. Limbaugh called her a slut and a prostitute and said that Fluke wanted the government to pay her to have sex (Rush Limbaugh—Sandra Fluke Controversy, 2022). There was only a modest conservative backlash to his comments. Along the same lines, Naomi Wolf attributed abortion to “lazy sluttishness” (Pollitt, 2014, p. 37). In an insightful observation, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni (2012) noted that we do not even have comparably stigmatized words for single males who have sex: what male descriptors would be parallel to, and as stigmatizing as, slut, whore, prostitute, hussy, harlot, hooker, floozy, and strumpet used to describe a female who simply has sex? In the sexual double standard (Pollitt, pp. 10, 21, 33, 39-40, 42) none of this applies to males, which shows that it is not about any moral principles but rather about controlling women.
Many authors focused on abortion have shared this view that antiabortion values derive from patriarchal rejection of women’s sexual independence. Valenti discussed abortion in the broader context of the cult of virginity. She found that the agenda of the antichoice movement “is so similar to the virginity’s movement’s that the two seem inextricably linked” and that “abortion is just one small part of a much larger goal” (p. 126). Pollitt states, “The anti-abortion movement . . . is also a protest against women’s growing freedom and power, including their sexual freedom and power. That is why it is based in churches with explicitly limited roles and inferior status for women” (pp. 31-32). Similarly, “. . . the concept of personhood … [is] a mask by which people opposed to the sexual revolution and women’s advancement obscure their real motives and agenda: turning back the clock to an idealized, oversimplified past when sex was confined within marriage, men were breadwinners and heads of families, Christianity was America’s not-quite-official religion, and society was firmly ordered” (p. 34). In his 2017 book Willie Parker, an Ob-Gyn physician who grew up as a fundamentalist Christian and who ultimately decided that providing abortions was the Christian moral choice, articulates the same view: “the abhorrence of abortion expressed by men who place themselves at the barricades in front of abortion clinics is actually a misplaced horror at women’s sexual autonomy. . . women’s sexual independence is the thing that men have always wanted to control” (p. 8). Parker (pp. 2, 9-10, 22-23, 29-30) also refers to the patriarchal context of the religious opposition to abortion. Journalist and academic Thomas Edsall (2021) reports a personal communication from Katherine Stewart (author of the 2019 book “The Power Worshipers”): Abortion opponents “are more likely to be committed to a patriarchal worldview in which the control of reproduction, and female sexuality in particular, is thought to be central in maintaining a gender hierarchy that (as they see it) sustains the family, which they claim is under threat from secular, modern forces.” Edsall himself ends by commenting that “For decades, the Republican Party found political success fighting a rear-guard action against the sexual and feminist revolutions,” and wonders whether the opposition to abortion and some forms of contraception may “represent a deepening determination on the right to fight to the bitter end.” In her discussion of the absence of opposition to in vitro fertility clinics by antiabortionists, Kaplan (2015) commented that the abortion restrictions are less about protecting life than about “controlling women’s bodies” and to ‘use unwanted pregnancy as a punishment for “irresponsible sex”.’
Antiabortionists’ true agenda is to control women’s sexuality—so much so that they accept increased deaths and/or increased abortions rather than women’s sexual independence. This opposition is embedded in patriarchal attitudes that view women as subordinate to men and women’s sexuality as reserved for marriage, perhaps even just for reproduction. If a woman engages in sexual activity outside of marriage and gets pregnant, she is stigmatized and deserves no rights or concern.
3. The antiabortionists’ personhood problem
A core principle for antiabortionists is the concept of “personhood”: the idea that as soon as an egg is fertilized by a sperm, the fertilized egg (called a zygote) is a full “person” (Edsall, 2015; Zernike, 2022). This assertion then permits the claim—crucial to their political agenda—that any measure that prevents the growth and ultimate birth of this fertilized egg is the murder of a person, or the broader notion that any failure of development of a zygote is a human death.
A major advantage of this “personhood” assertion is that it makes all abortions murder, providing a clear reason to make all abortions illegal. A second advantage is that it avoids the difficult problem of deciding when during pregnancy to decide abortion is illegal. Any such choice later in pregnancy requires accepting abortion as legitimate prior to that time, which they are loath to do.
In order to evaluate the zygote personhood position, it is useful to consider the medical/biological facts of pregnancy. Each sperm or egg is a potential person but without the capacity to undergo cell division. The fertilized egg is qualitatively different inasmuch as it contains a full complement of genes and can undergo cell division, but it still is only a potential person. There is no obvious reason to declare that it is a person.
Pregnancy versus Fertilization (Pregnancy, 2022; Pollitt, 2014). It takes the fertilized egg six to twelve days to travel down the fallopian tube and become attached to the uterine wall to become a blastocyst. At that time, the blastocyst consists of 70 to 100 cells. Medically, this implantation is the point at which pregnancy begins—i.e., the point at which the woman’s body begins to change in a way that supports the blastocyst (see also Edsall, 2015). Logically, an abortion cannot take place until the woman is pregnant—i.e., until the blastocyst is attached to the uterine wall—and that is the medical view.
A second, and extremely important, consideration is that a large percentage of fertilized eggs/blastocysts fail to attach to the uterus and pass out of the woman’s body and another large percentage are lost after implantation (Larsen et al., 2013). Only about a third of conceptions (i.e., fertilized eggs) result in live births. About 30% are lost prior to implantation and another 30% are lost following implantation but before the first missed menstrual period (i.e., approximately 4 weeks since the last menstrual period or 2 weeks since fertilization). These are called “preclinical losses,” because pregnancy is not diagnosed. Of the 40% of conceptions that reach clinical pregnancy, about 15% are lost before 12 weeks of pregnancy (early clinical pregnancy) and another 4% are lost between 12 and 22 weeks of pregnancy (late clinical pregnancy)—accounting for another 7-8% of failed fertilizations.
In the zygote-is-a-person view each of these failures of possible pregnancies represents the death of a person. If so, we should have death certificates and funerals for these “persons,” and we should initiate a crisis program to reduce this massive loss of human lives. Hardly anyone really believes that these failures are the same as deaths of newly born babies. That is, personhood is untenable.
Interestingly, many social conservatives reject evolution and claim to believe in “God’s intelligent design.” If a naturally occurring massive failure of fertilized eggs/blastocysts to survive is part of God’s intelligent design, these failures must be okay with God. Why then would the antiabortionists view them as horrible?
Contraception. The personhood claim has led many conservatives to argue that some contraceptive methods prevent implantation of the fertilized egg and thus are “abortifacients” (Edsall, 2015). Specifically, they believe that two intrauterine devices (ParaGard and Mirena) and two “morning-after” pills or emergency contraceptives (Plan B One-Step containing a type of progestin called levonorgestrel and Ella containing ulipristal acetate) have this effect. As noted above, the medical field views pregnancy as beginning with implantation and abortion as terminating pregnancy—i.e., preventing implantation is not an abortion. The emergency contraceptives Plan B and Ella prevent pregnancy by delaying or inhibiting ovulation, and the best available evidence shows that they do not prevent implantation of a fertilized egg (Hatcher, R. A., et al., 2018, pp. 337-338). The IUDs primarily prevent fertilization rather than preventing implantation (Hatcher, R. A., et al., 2018, p. 161). Mirena works by thickening cervical mucus to impede sperm transport, and it may also prevent ovulation in some users. ParaGard emits copper ions that are toxic to sperm and prevent fertilization. Again, they do not prevent implantation.
Thus, the abortifacient argument puts extreme conservatives in the unpopular position of opposing some very effective forms of contraception, makes claims about inhibition of implantation that are not supported, and is in conflict with medical science’s definition of pregnancy and abortion. Additionally, there are many effective forms of contraception for which there is no question about preventing implantation of a fertilized egg—e.g., the oral contraceptives, which prevent fertilization by preventing ovulation (Hatcher, R. A., et al., 2018, p. 265), and condoms. If antiabortionists really want to prevent abortions, they should champion the use of all contraceptives that do not prevent implantation and make them readily available.
In Vitro Fertilization. In vitro fertilization is the Achilles’ heel of the personhood antiabortionist. If human life begins at fertilization, then every in vitro fertilization clinic is a mass murder scene, yet antiabortionists have mounted no attack on in vitro fertilization comparable to attacks on abortion (Kaplan, 2015)—revealing that they really do not believe in personhood.
The process of in vitro fertilization is complicated and involves massive failures of fertilized eggs to produce full-term pregnancies. A small study (Patrizio et al., 2007) provides a helpful summary of the process and the fate of fertilized eggs. There were 31 cycles or attempts to produce pregnancy in which women were stimulated to produce a large number of oocytes (immature eggs). A total of 356 oocytes (i.e., an average of 11.5 per cycle) were retrieved or “harvested” and 333 were inseminated. Of the 333, only 209 fertilized. The next step involves evaluation of the quality of the resultant embryos on days 2 and 3. At the end of this process, only 33 were found to be normal and, of these, only 26 developed to blastocysts or early embryos (the cluster of cells produced by day 5) suitable for attempted implantation in the uterus (called transfer) on day 5. Only 5 of these embryos successfully implanted and only 3 produced pregnancies that went to term. Assuming that a personhood antiabortionist requires fertilization rather than just insemination for personhood, the 209 fertilized eggs produced only 3 babies and, therefore, 206 deaths of “persons.”
All of the unsuitable embryos are discarded, but a major issue concerns what happens to good embryos that are not used to produce a child. Given the uncertainty regarding successful pregnancy, these embryos usually are frozen to preserve them, allowing them to be used for repeated attempts at pregnancy. Once the attempted pregnancy is successful, they become surplus embryos (also called supernumerary embryos) with a question of what to do with them. There are three choices: discard them, donate them for research (e.g., stem cell research), or donate them to other infertile couples to produce a pregnancy. In the first two choices the embryos will never become a child. Donation to infertile couples seems like an attractive option, but it has its own problems. Couples who want to preserve the life of the embryo may come to think about it as their own child, which raises the kinds of issues associated with giving a child up for adoption (Simopoulou, 2019)—will the child have a good home, will she feel that her biological mother rejected her, will she worry that better embryos were already used and her’s were of lower quality, will there be contact between the biological parents and the child? A common outcome is no decision, in which the embryos are left with the clinic frozen without a specified endpoint and without even maintaining contact with the clinic—characterized as unclaimed, abandoned, or unattended (Goedeke et al., 2017). As a result, there are 400,000 frozen embryos in the U. S. (Simopoulou, et al., 2019) and many more around the world, almost all of which eventually will be discarded, as most countries have storage limits that range from 1 to 10 years (Goedeke et al., 2017). Another perspective on this issue is an older estimate (Wade, 2001) that between 1991 and 2001 in Great Britain, in vitro fertilization produced 50,000 babies and 294,584 destroyed embryos with perhaps twice those numbers in the United States (this analysis probably did not count the embryos that were discarded immediately as damaged—hence the higher percentage of babies than in the study above).
Why have antiabortionists attacked abortion clinics but failed to attack fertility clinics? The difference between abortion and fertility clinics probably is that the fertility clinics are serving women fulfilling their traditional role of trying to have babies rather than women trying not to have them (Pollitt, pp. 165-166), whereas abortions are associated with stigmatized female sexuality. That explanation undermines any argument that the zygote is a person and underscores the importance of stigmatized sexual behavior in connection with abortions.
Additional Problems. The personhood construct creates many additional problems. If the zygote/blastocyst/embryo/fetus is a person, then there can be no abortions for any reason, and any abortion is a murder—a view with profoundly negative implications. The most widely discussed of these implications is to ban abortions even in the case of rape or incest. Such a ban makes antiabortionists seem extraordinarily callous, but an accommodation for rape and incest is under attack by antiabortionists (Ziegler, 2019). Antiabortionists are trapped in the logic of personhood. To allow exceptions is to concede that personhood is false—no one would permit the killing of an actual baby in the case of rape or incest!
However, even if antiabortionists should allow exceptions for rape and incest, the problem remains. Raped women often are not believed or even are blamed for the rape (Pollitt, p. 50, Valenti, pp. 145-165). How would a raped woman prove rape to get an abortion? Statutory rape (sexual activity with an adult male before the age of consent) raises other questions: would antiabortion laws permit abortions in all such pregnancies?
Incest raises similar complexities of documentation. Must the child openly accuse a family member of rape or coercion and, if so, how soon and to whom must she report it? How is she to prove it? Requirements involving parental consent and police reports can be prohibitive for the victims (Goldstein & Sasani, 2022). Once one outlaws abortion, there is no solution to this problem.
Now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade and the red states are getting serious about making abortion illegal, there is a serious issue as to whether women who have abortion should be convicted of murder. In the past, for political reasons “mainstream” antiabortionists opposed criminalizing women who have abortions and have targeted abortion providers instead (Dias, 2022). To avoid the obvious inference that a woman who chooses to have an abortion is a criminal, the women were described as “victims” of those who urged them to have abortions (Valenti, 2010, pp. 134-135). Nevertheless, this stance is inconsistent with the logic of personhood. If an abortion is murder, then the woman who chooses to have an abortion is a criminal. Many in the antiabortion movement now are pressing to adopt this view (Dias, 2022).
The next step in this logic is to view miscarriages as possible criminal abortions or as being the result of something the pregnant woman did to contribute to the miscarriage (Goldberg, 2019; Martin, 2015; Aspinwall et al., 2022), including drug use that probably did not contribute to the miscarriage. From this perspective, every naturally occurring miscarriage (about 19% of clinical pregnancies as noted above) can be considered a crime scene in which police could arrive at the grieving woman’s door to threaten her with prosecution if she cannot prove that she did not cause the miscarriage. The women most likely to be prosecuted are poor with little ability to defend themselves (Aspinwall et al., 2022).
A more subtle and perhaps surprising consequence of personhood is the devastating effect such laws have on women who actually want to have a child but have pregnancy complications that require an abortion. In many cases, the fetus has a lethal anomaly that will cause the child to die after childbirth and that creates severe medical risks (including death) for the woman if it is not aborted. In states, such as Ohio, where there are no exceptions for lethal anomalies, the woman is forced to carry the fetus to term against her will with great risk to her life (Hackney, 2022). Even when the law has an exception to save the woman’s life, ambiguities in the law result in, at best, delays and, at worst, failure to perform the essential abortion. The core problem is deciding how probable death must be and how close to death the woman must be in order to perform the abortion. This uncertainty again places the pregnant woman at serious risk of injury or death (Healy, 2022; Goodman & Ghorayshi, 2022) with an increase in pregnancy-related deaths. Physicians are at risk of prosecution with long prison terms, preventing them from practicing medicine as they should. In this context, personhood places all pregnant women potentially at risk, not just those who seek an abortion.
All of these considerations converge to show that the zygote-as-a-person position does not withstand examination and creates a nightmare of negative consequences. Actual pregnancy begins six to twelve days after conception and thus the preimplantation zygote or blastocyst cannot be aborted. Only about one-third of fertilized eggs result in live births and about 60% of them do not even produce clinically recognizable pregnancy. It is difficult in the extreme to view all of these unsuccessful fertilizations as human deaths. The demonization of contraceptives as “abortifacients” is based on ideology rather than the actual mechanisms of contraception, and the opposition to contraception is hypocritical for those who claim to want to reduce abortions. The absence of major attacks on in vitro fertilization also is hypocritical, revealing that antiabortionists do not really believe that blastocysts 5 days old are persons. Among the obvious nightmare consequences are the absence of exceptions for incest, rape, and threats to the pregnant woman’s life. Even if exceptions are written into law, in practice they help little, because proof of incest and rape is difficult and because the threshold for deciding that a woman’s life is at stake is legally ambiguous. Antiabortionists need to find an alternative, less hypocritical and more humane, approach to abortion.
4. What if antiabortionists were in good faith?
I have attempted to show that antiabortionists do not believe in life and are inconsistent in their opposition to abortion. Fundamentally, they are against women’s sexual independence and will choose to oppose that over both saving lives and reducing abortions. This opposition to women’s sexuality reflects patriarchal values in which women are subservient to husbands and are to support the husband and have children. The attempt to embrace personhood for the fertilized egg is a cover for denying abortions based on the patriarchal desire to control women. Their arguments and positions are not in good faith.
What would an antiabortion position look like if the advocates acted in good faith—if they tried to embrace positions that showed concern about abortion but also accorded women equal status and equal rights and took into account the reality of contraception and reproduction?
The first consideration would be to take into account the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy for women, which they have not done in the past. They have shown zero concern for the rights, perspective, and welfare of the woman: the woman’s wishes, her right to control her own body and reproduction, the impact on her life goals, her emotional or physical health, the health of the fetus, the often severe poverty experienced by the mother and child when abortion is precluded in an unwanted and/or untimely pregnancy, and the serious consequences for the child and its siblings born into such adverse, harsh conditions. As noted, many antiabortionists would deny abortion even in cases of rape or incest. The penetration of the egg by a sperm turns the woman into a breed cow, in which the state controls her body and declares that she must carry the zygote to full term, regardless of everything else.
The point was strongly stated by Justice Douglas in his concurring opinion in Roe v. Wade. As summarized by Sarah Weddington (the attorney who represented “Jane Roe” in the Roe v. Wade case) in her 2013 book (A Question of Choice, p. 177), ‘He noted at one point that statutes against abortion “struck the balance between the woman and the State’s interests wholly in favor of the latter,” . . . In essence, he said, those who oppose abortion place the entire value on the fetus and none on the woman; they seem to look right through her, as if she were invisible, and see only the fetus’ (italics added).
If they are not to be totally sexist and patriarchal, the antiabortionists need to abandon this contempt for women and strongly embrace women’s equality and their right to control their own reproduction. Women are not breed cows. This respect for women is the first step in the rehabilitation of antiabortionists into good faith actors.
The second and minimal step is to stop the senseless claims that contraceptives are abortifacients. Given their comfort with in vitro fertilization, which destroys embryos at about 5 days post fertilization, their opposition to contraception is hypocritical. At the least, they should welcome the use of all contraceptives and emergency contraception. Indeed, they should promote the widespread availability and minimal cost of these measures, as they can greatly reduce abortions—an outcome antiabortionists should like.
The next step is more difficult. Taking into account women’s rights to control their lives, antiabortionists should accept abortion early in pregnancy as a tradeoff between fetal rights and women’s rights. Some antiabortion laws have embraced the “heartbeat” standard to limit abortions to about 6 weeks. Such laws indicate that antiabortionists can embrace allowing abortions well past conception and that they believe earlier abortions are better than later abortions, but they are not in good faith in these laws. There is no heart, not even chambers of the heart, and thus there is no heartbeat. What they call a heartbeat is electrical activity of fetal cardiac cells that beat, not a fetal heart (ACOG Guide to Language and Abortion; Parker, 2022). These laws also are a sham inasmuch as they outlaw abortions at such an early stage that most women will not even know they are pregnant. To be in good faith, antiabortionists must endorse abortions through a later, more practical point in pregnancy.
The end of the first trimester is a good option (McArdle, 2022). A large majority of Americans endorse abortion availability through this early stage. Perhaps more to the point, 93% of abortions are performed in the first trimester. Just think how it would transform the political landscape if antiabortionists said, “We’re okay with the 93% of abortions performed in the first trimester.”
If this acceptance were in good faith, then they should positively embrace abortions during this period. Many states have passed laws that cause significant delays in access to abortion. Most people would, all other things being equal, prefer abortions to be earlier rather than later. Antiabortionists should agree with this perspective and promote easy access to widely available abortion clinics without any barriers and at low cost—in order to facilitate abortion as early as possible. Additionally, they should support the availability of pregnancy tests to promote early detection of pregnancy. As a fringe benefit, this first trimester approach should greatly reduce the terrible difficulties about rape and incest: with the absence of barriers to abortion this time period should be long enough to handle most cases.
The next step is the difficult one of addressing second trimester pregnancies. There are major issues regarding abortions to protect women facing severe health problems or fetal anomalies in high risk pregnancies (e.g., Hackney, 2022; Healy, 2022). Although even many antiabortionists acknowledge the need for exemptions to spare the mother’s life, the laws lack clarity. As one physician said, “How almost dead does someone need to be?” (Healy, 2022). There is an inherent tension between restricting abortion and giving medical staff the freedom to provide optimal medical care for high risk pregnancies. It will not be easy to resolve this problem, but it is essential for a rational approach to abortions.
If antiabortionists can find a solution to high risk pregnancies, the areas of disagreements with women’s rights groups may be reduced. To the extent that there still are differences, let the political battles center on the second trimester, while doing everything we can to facilitate first trimester abortions. That at least would considerably reduce the problems.
Resolving these high risk pregnancy medical issues may have a major benefit for red states. At present, they are at risk of being unable to hire obstetricians/gynecologists and may well lose many that they do have: it is impossible to practice medicine with ambiguous antiabortion laws that threaten to imprison physicians and cause the death of patients.
Finally, if they actually care about women and babies, antiabortionists should show concern for the financial welfare of those single women who do have babies rather than abortions. Those mothers and their babies, as well as any other children in the family, very often face extreme poverty. In many cases this poverty could be ameliorated by obligating the father to provide financial support, but antiabortionists fail to talk about the fathers (e.g., Pollitt, 2014, pp. 43, 91, 160). Note that with DNA testing paternity can be confirmed with certainty. Antiabortionists should pass laws requiring the father to assume full responsibility for the children they foster, pay serious alimony and child support, and to give this obligation first call on his income.
In the present system, mothers bear the cost of having a child. They must give up their financial career or give up college, while the father continues without any burdens. It is useful to consider what would happen if, instead of being in a patriarchy that stigmatizes and punishes women, we were in a matriarchy: the father would be required, for example, to quit college and go to work to provide financial support and child care, allowing the mother to pursue her college education or her financial career! The contrast underscores how unfair the current system is.
This train of thought calls to mind the comment, “if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” Although men do not get pregnant, they could be totally responsible for their child they foster. There is an excellent chance that such policies would reduce pregnancies and thus abortions. The majority of the fathers in the case of abortions presumably failed to use condoms. If they should become fully responsible for their child, most likely that would change and there would be fewer pregnancies. I would bet that antiabortionists’ attitudes toward sex education, contraception, and abortion very quickly would become more supportive, as well.
If antiabortionists cannot abandon their patriarchal attitudes toward women’s sexuality, we should hold them accountable for their hypocrisy and should not accord respect for the claims to be prolife. If they can embrace a genuine concern about abortion while respecting women’s rights, we might go a long way toward resolving the abortion issue. That would be a great help in our presently divided body politic.
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