Kristin Luker’s Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood 1: What Is the Embryo?

I started Kristin Luker’s 1984 book, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood.  One reason that I decided to read this book was out of interest in the history of the pro-life movement.  Specifically, I’ve wondered when or how a pro-life stance on abortion became a part of the ideology of the religious right and much of the Republican Party, for it has been disputed that political conservatism as a movement was always pro-life.  Maybe Luker addresses this question, and maybe not.  We’ll see!  Another reason that I’m reading this book is to get an academic, scholarly perspective on the abortion issue.

In my latest reading, Luker went into the perceptions towards abortion throughout history and through the nineteenth century, but I’ll talk more about Luker’s narrative on that in my post tomorrow.  Today, I will use as my starting-point something that Luker says on page 2:

“Early in the process of becoming involved in the abortion issue, people on each side (pro-life and pro-choice) often feel compelled to ‘share the faith’ or to ‘enlighten’ their opposition.  In most cases, they rehearse those details about embryonic life that have led them to believe that the embryo is self-evidently either a ‘baby’ or a ‘fetus’…A pro-life person can confound a pro-choice attacker by simply stating that it is obvious that the embryo is a baby, pointing out its very evident similarities to a newborn child and brushing aside its dissimilarities.  Conversely, a pro-choice person can enrage a pro-life person by admitting that although the embryo is human (it is not, after all, some other species) and alive (it is not, after all, dead), this nevertheless does not prove that the embryo is ‘a human life’—-in any case, not a ‘meaningful’ human life.”

I should note that Luker uses the term “embryo” as a neutral term, although she recognizes that it is inaccurate as a general term for the unborn.  The thing is, calling the unborn human being a “baby” or a “fetus” carries a lot of ideological baggage, and so Luker opts for “embryo”.  I’ll do the same in my write-ups on Luker’s book.

I appreciate that Luker in the passage that I just quoted focuses on the embryo.  In the past, when I (as someone with pro-life convictions) talked about abortion with some pro-choicers I knew, I often felt that I was beating my head against the wall.  Pro-choice women told me that they had the right to do what they want with their own bodies, but I was arguing that, technically-speaking, the embryo was not their own body but was a separate human being, and they had no right to take the life of a separate human being.  And then there were pro-choicers, both men and women, who said that they personally were opposed to abortion, but they didn’t want to force their morality on others.  That made no sense to me.  Why were they personally opposed to abortion?  Because they considered it to be murder?  If that is the case, then why would they oppose a law that would ban this act of murder?  In these debates, I often wished that pro-choicers would give me an idea as to what exactly they thought that the embryo was, rather than repeating the usual platitudes about “choice”.  Luker, however, highlights where pro-lifers and pro-choicers disagree in terms of what the embryo is.

But how can we tell what the embryo is?  In some of my debates about abortion with pro-choicers, they pressed me on the basis for my belief that life begins at conception.  They weren’t satisfied with Bible passages about God shaping people in their mother’s wombs or knowing people before their birth, and so I had to find another foundation for my belief, at least for the debates.  I could say that we know that the embryo is a person because—-although it seems to have gills at some point in the womb—-it becomes a human being.  But then certain pro-choicers responded that this makes the embryo a potential human being, not an actual human being.  Their question about the basis for regarding life as beginning at conception is difficult, in my opinion, for it requires one to define what exactly makes somebody a human being, and then to justify that criteria.  But then I wonder if that can also pose a problem for pro-choicers who do not regard the embryo as a human being, for I could ask them why they consider the already born to be human.  What is it exactly about humans that makes them human?  Is it intelligence?  Then what about newborns, who lack the intelligence of adults?

Granted, the way that Luker presents the debate, even pro-choicers acknowledge that the embryo is human, but I’ve met some pro-choicers who equivocate on that point.  Moreover, in the passage that I quoted, Luker says that pro-lifers are trying to convince others that the embryo is human by basically pointing to a picture of the embryo and saying, “See!  That looks like a baby!” (my loose paraphrase).  And yet, as Luker notes, the embryo differs from a newborn baby, in areas.  But does the embryo differ from a newborn baby enough that the embryo can be characterized as something other than human?

More tomorrow.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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