My latest reading of Kristin Luker’s Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (copyright 1984) was interesting because it brought to my mind discussions that I have had with people about abortion, as well as pro-life Republican Todd Akin’s controversial comments during the 2012 elections.
Luker was talking about what the pro-life and the pro-choice movements may have to do to be successful in a country (namely, the United States) in which most people have middle-of-the-road views on abortion. On the pro-life side, Luker believes that pro-lifers in some sense undermine their own position when they support exceptions for rape and the life of the mother, for that compromises their stance that the right to life is absolute and places them on a slippery slope. Why, she asks, should we prioritize the mother over the embryo in these cases, but not in other cases? And, if a woman who was raped should not have to bear her rapist’s baby because the pregnancy was unexpected, why shouldn’t women with other unexpected pregnancies be allowed to have an abortion? Moreover, Luker notes that anti-abortion laws in the past had an exception for the life of the mother, with the result that some doctors interpreted that exception strictly, whereas others interpreted it broadly (since one could arguably be saving a mother’s life through abortion if the pregnancy would harm her mental health or lead her to suicide).
Luker refers to pro-life attempts to justify abortion to save the life of the mother. One way is to say that this occurs rarely, but Luker responds that its lack of frequency has nothing to do with whether it’s ethical or not. Another way is to say that directly killing the embryo through abortion is wrong, but performing a procedure that has the consequence of taking the embryo’s life (even though that is not the procedure’s main purpose) is acceptable. For example, on page 231, Luker refers to the view of Thomas Bouscaren: “In the case of ectopic pregnancies, where an embryo begins growing in the Fallopian tube rather than in the uterus, Bouscaren argued that although it would be wrong to surgically remove the embryo, thus causing its death, it would be acceptable to remove the diseased tube, thus causing the death of the embryo indirectly.” Luker’s problem with this argument is that it emphasizes the subjective intent of the physician. A third way is to treat the embryo as an “unjust aggressor” when it threatens the life of the mother, and thus it can be aborted, the same way that killing an aggressor is justified for the sake of self-defense. But Luker does not think that portraying the embryo as an “unjust aggressor” will help the pro-life cause.
Regarding pro-life treatment of the rape exception to an abortion ban, Luker says on page 235: “Most of the pro-life people we interviewed said that women who are raped simply don’t become pregnant very often, and many of them said they thought this was because something biological happens to rape victims that precludes the possibility of pregnancy.” This sounds like what Todd Akin said, which means that Akin was probably drawing from a belief that exists within the pro-life movement, at least as early as the 1980’s. Luker does not agree with this view, for she said that women “who promptly report the rape” don’t become pregnant very often because they undergo procedures that eliminate pregnancy “in its earliest stage” (page 235).
On the pro-choice side, Luker says that its emphasis on women being able to do what they want with their own bodies can strike people as rather selfish. But it was mainly Luker’s treatment of the pro-life side that brought to my mind discussions that I have had and things that I have read about abortion. In college, a pro-choice friend of mine once asked me why we should have an exception for the life of the mother, when that exception assumes that the mother is more valuable than the embryo. He was probably wondering why, if I were to regard the mother as more important in that case, I couldn’t regard her as more important in other cases, as well. My friend did not buy into the “unjust aggressor” argument, which he read in one of Ronald Reagan’s anti-abortion writings, for my friend said that the embryo was not intentionally causing the mother’s death. I also heard the argument that it’s acceptable to indirectly cause the death of an embryo when I was talking on the phone with a pro-life, pro-family activist, looking for an internship in a Christian conservative organization, and I’ve come across it when reading the views of Republicans who don’t believe in an exception for the life of the mother. Usually, they say that a procedure to save the mother’s life whose intent was not to kill the embryo, but which ends up killing the embryo, is acceptable.
When it came to exceptions, they did not particularly disturb me when I was more of a pro-lifer. Granted, I could not answer my pro-choice friend’s question of why we should regard the mother’s life as more important when an embryo was threatening it, but I didn’t think that this one ambiguous case was enough to overthrow the entire notion that, in most cases, a woman should not be able to kill her unborn baby. After all, there are exceptions to all sorts of ethical rules (i.e., don’t kill), but that does not invalidate the rules. And yet, there are usually sophisticated philosophical justifications for those exceptions. Luker does not think that there is a sufficient justification, however, for pro-lifers to allow abortion to save the life of the mother.
There’s something that I wonder, though: Couldn’t arguments that pro-choicers use to justify abortion also be used to justify infanticide? If a mother can justifiably have an abortion because she can’t afford to raise kids or feels that she wouldn’t make a good mother, why couldn’t she justifiably kill her children for those reasons after they come out of the womb? On some level, Luker interacts with this question on pages 229-230, as she points out what she feels are weaknesses in pro-lifers’ exception for the life of the mother:
“Thus the dilemma: if all embryos really are ‘babies’ and by definition ‘innocent’ and physically dependent, on what moral grounds can the lives of some of them be ended? For example, it is not hard to imagine that the activities of a healthy, active three-year-old could threaten the life of an overburdened, anemic mother with active cardiac disease. But even the most active abortion supporter would recoil from the suggestion that this three-year-old should have its life ended in order to save the life of its mother. In part this is common sense: three-year-olds can be cared for by others, but embryos, at least for now, cannot. But if pro-life groups concede that the physical dependence of embryos makes them different in this critical way from already-born children, then they have seriously called into question their own argument that there is no moral difference between an embryo of three days and a child of three years.”
Luker is pointing out what she believes is a weakness in a pro-life position that has an exception for the life of the mother: if an embryo’s life can be taken because it threatens a mother’s life, why couldn’t the life of an already born child be taken when it threatens a mother’s life—-if the mother has heart problems, for example? But I think that the same sort of question can be asked regarding the pro-choice position, and so pro-choicers need to address more fully why abortion is acceptable, but taking the life of an already-born child is not. A pro-choicer can say that an already-born child is part of a social network, but I think that we’re on slippery ground if we assume that this is what gives someone value as a living human being. After all, some people after their birth aren’t social or particularly cared for by their family or others, and yet I doubt that pro-choicers would deny their right to live. Perhaps a pro-choicer could say that a mother could give her child to someone else after the child is born, whereas she can’t while she is still pregnant, but why couldn’t a pregnant woman make plans to do that after the child’s birth?
In any case, I think that both pro-life and also pro-choice positions are rather slippery.