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The Pro-Life Continuum

From sperm to zygote to fetus to baby, isn't it time we brought some precision to the language of the reproductive rights debate?
 
 
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In anticipation of the upcoming hearings on the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court I offer the following modest proposal: we should dispense with all-encompassing and ultimately meaningless labels like pro-life and pro-abortion. I've never met anyone who is anti-life, and very, very few who might be considered pro-abortion. Engage the issues involved more precisely. Label people based on where they fall in the chronological continuum between life and birth.

Let's begin with sperm. Many "pro-lifers" are really pro-sperm. Basically, they insist that the sperm has an inalienable right to try to get to the egg. Joe Scheidler, founder of the Pro-Life Action League once even flatly announced that he thought contraception was "disgusting."

The Pope and many Christian fundamentalists fall into the pro-sperm category (although as we shall see, only relatively recently did the Catholic Church itself adopt that position). In the 1990s, after 300 out of 1,000 students in one Chicago high school became pregnant and the school established a birth control clinic, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin lashed out at the "contraceptive culture."

When Judge Bork advocated reversing the 1965 Supreme Court decision overturning state laws that made it illegal for married couples to buy contraceptives, he was clearly pro-sperm.

The vast majority of the U.S. population are not pro-sperm. Despite admonitions about the sinfulness of contraception by the last dozen popes, two-thirds of all American Catholic women now practice birth control.

I suspect that most conservatives aren't pro-sperm, either. They belong in the next chronological category: pro-zygote. They believe that once fertilized, the egg must be protected at all costs. The furor over the morning-after pill has thrust the pro-zygoters onto center stage in the reproductive rights debate.

Last July, when Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney vetoed legislation that would have allowed Plan B, the morning-after pill, to be sold without a prescription, he insisted, "If it only dealt with contraception, I wouldn't have a problem with it." In other words, if the morning-after pill prevented fertilization, he would support it. But it doesn't. Rather, it prevents the fertilized egg from attaching to the uterine wall. Romney intervened to protect the zygote.

Those who would invoke the name of the Lord to justify protecting the zygote run up against a challenging reality. Over 50 percent of all fertilized eggs are spontaneously aborted, washed out before they attach to the womb. Some 15 percent of the attached eggs themselves are aborted spontaneously. It is hard to figure out God's will in all of this.

I firmly believe that mainstream America is neither pro-sperm nor pro-zygote. It is pro-fetus. Within this category, the debate revolves around when in the fetus' development it gains the right of personhood.

For 1,400 years the Catholic Church did not teach that life begins at conception. It embraced the view that a fetus is first endowed with a vegetative soul; then an animal soul; and when its body is fully developed, a rational, human soul. At the beginning of the 13th century, Pope Innocent II proposed that "quickening," the time when women first feel the fetus move, should be the moment at which abortion becomes homicide. In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV proclaimed that quickening occurs after 116 days, or 16 weeks.

Only in 1869 did Pope Pius IX declare conception itself the point at which human life begins. This was written into Canon Law in 1917.

All popes before Pius IX likely would have supported Roe v. Wade . In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court permitted states to impose increasing restrictions depending on the age of the fetus. In the first 12 weeks, largely coinciding with the traditional definition of the time before "quickening," the Court prohibited states from imposing any restrictions. In the second trimester, states may regulate abortion procedures to protect the health of the woman. In the third trimester, after 24 weeks, when fetuses can live outside the womb, states may restrict abortions.

To inform pro-fetus advocates, it may be instructive to know that about 90 percent of abortions occur before the 12th week. Only 1 percent occur after the 20th week. And many second-trimester abortions occur, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, because state laws erect barriers to pregnant women having the procedure more quickly.

One more category should be added to our pro-life continuum: pro-baby. Regrettably, many religious conservatives act as if life begins at conception and ends at birth. It is remarkable how closely pro-life and anti-baby policies track one another. A comprehensive review of abortion and child welfare policies in all 50 states found that states with the most restrictive abortion laws spend the least on education, facilitating adoption and nurturing poor babies.

The labels we use should more precisely reflect the complexity of the reproductive rights debate. One way to do this is to abandon the empty term, "pro-life," and adopt labels that more accurately reflect a person's values and policies. Pro-sperm. Pro-zygote. Pro-fetus. Pro-baby . Where do you stand?

David Morris is co-founder and vice president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnnesota and director of its New Rules project.