On the Tragedy of Deaths of People Who Never Lived

John Scalzi gave us this rather disturbing post, which highlights all the ways in which the GOP’s current legislation around reproductive rights, and their rhetoric about rape, empowers violent men to control women’s lives. Think Sharron Angle, Todd Akin, Roger Rivard, and most recently, Richard Mourdock. If you have experienced any level of sexual assault, I advise you to proceed with EXTREME CAUTION. It’s a very effective post, but for the same reason can be triggering.

I don’t really have anything to add to Scalzi’s analysis. If you think that it would be so much nicer if all those women who are made pregnant by rapists could just have the babies adopted, rather than terminate the pregnancies, I suggest you read the post. Think adoption makes everyone happy? Seriously: read the post.

Scalzi’s focus is on the relationship between sexual violence and reproductive freedom (or the lack thereof), rather than a comprehensive argument in favor of abortion rights, and the comments are mostly very pro-choice and pro-woman. There are some comments, however, that want to convince us of why Abortion = BAD. I want to show you one of them, and I want to respond to it.

I don’t understand why so many people have decided that a woman having rights to make decisions about whether or not she wants to manage the uncomfortableness of pregnancy somehow outweighs killing a human being. I spent the vast majority of my life as a Pro Choice proponent, until I actually really thought about it; ever since then it has seemed crazy to me to watch Pro Life proponents spend so much time missing the importance of the issue by fighting for the rights of women. I am a woman. Women deserve equal rights, and those rights are most certainly worth fighting for, but the fight for women’s rights does NOT exist in *this* issue. This is an issue of death. Intentional death of humans. Intentional killing of humans by other rational humans. Some being scientific humans even, and these are the ones I am really surprised by. It should be quite obvious to them that abortion is extinguishing life. And it seems like it should be appalling to all humans to disregard that they are extinguishing a life in exchange for a woman to feel more empowered. It really seems like a women’s rights crusade run amok, and this just isn’t the place for it. I am very surprised lately by why so many thinkers that I hold in high esteem are so free to throw so much support into the abortion issue. I keep trying to figure out what I am missing, but so far no one has provided me with anything convincing. It seems like so much groupthink or like perhaps this issue about women’s rights has become so important in others areas of society that the intensity of that issue in itself has somehow formed a callous over the core of the abortion issue (death), which has resulted in desensitized women’s right’s supporters who haven’t yet realized that this is an issue of death, not rights.

I certainly don’t support rapists and they deserve to be punished for their crimes, and you have done an AMAZING job getting across just how severely destructive rape is for all women, impregnated or not. It never goes away. But my hope is that you can see how that can non-moronically be viewed as a separate issue. Not that I have been able to whole-heartedly support either side on this issue. It is a tragedy in far more ways than one, but an abortion doesn’t really lessen the horror of the incident by much – and it doesn’t reduce it at all if, after getting an abortion, you realize that your response to getting raped was to murder someone else. This issue is really not about what this article makes it out to be, you really seem like someone who would want to understand that.

Right. This is what I’m going to discuss today.

The commenter whom I’ve quoted without editing managed not to say anything to the effect of “don’t have sex if you don’t want a baby,” though if we continued to press her* on the ways in which women’s lives are restricted if they cannot control their reproduction, she probably would start telling us that most unwanted pregnancies could be avoided if women just kept their knees together.

This person DOES, however, resort to the oft-cited canard that women feel guilty about their abortions, and it’s worded in a way that implies that many of them simply don’t realize what the decision entails. Here’s what we’re dealing with: 35% of American women will have at least one abortion before they lose their fertility. You know several women who’ve had abortions. You may not know which ones they are, but they are in your life. Of that number, most actually do not feel bad about what they’ve done. That is a hell of a lot of women who have “killed babies” and calmly gotten on with their lives.

Does that mean that something like 30% of American women are either murderous sociopaths or too dim-witted to be aware that the “products of conception” they had flushed out of their uteri would have eventually become sweet chubby babies? I’m going to dismiss the second idea based on Hitchens’s Razor: what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. We all know that the embryo is alive and human and an abortion causes it to die. We know that abortion is not the same thing as contraception.

The phrase “women’s rights crusade run amok” is going to run through my head for weeks, I swear. (It would be a great name for a rock album.) I will give the commenter kudos for this much: this is what the pro-life movement would like mainstream society to believe about their opposition to abortion. This is how they would like to frame the debate, before we provoke them into flapping their arms about the selfishness of non-procreative sex**: women’s right to reproductive freedom is trivial next to the tragedy of KILLING PEOPLE. The implication is that women “should” have rights, but in reality they only have rights that do not interfere with their being constantly available for babymaking, to pass on the genes of any man who manages to get sperm up their vadge, from menarche to menopause. When we think about such things as the possible complications of pregnancy and birth, workplace culture, school accommodations, and abusive relationships, it becomes clear that women really do not have equal rights with men if they are compelled to carry every pregnancy to spontaneous completion. If that’s the case, then I guess women just have to accept restrictions on their rights because the alternative is that PEOPLE ARE DYING.

The connotation of using such words as death, dying and murder when talking about abortion is that the death of an embryo has the same impact on society as the death of an already-born, biologically independent person. Like when Ann Coulter joked that George Tiller was terminated in the 203rd trimester, the pro-life movement would like us to feel that the termination of a pregnancy has the same result as shooting a grown person in the head.

That is the idea which I will scrutinize today.

I would like you to think about what exactly it is that bothers us when a person dies.

Why is it that we hold funerals?

What is the purpose of life insurance?

Why do obituaries end with a list of people in the deceased person’s family who are still alive?

Why do gravestones frequently identify the deceased person’s family relationships, such as “Beloved Wife and Mother”?

Why do we allow family members to decide whether and when a comatose, vegetative or dying patient should be taken off life support?

I would argue that the answer to all these questions is that the tragedy of death is not for the dead. The tragedy is in the loss of relationships to the people who are left behind.

Life insurance does no good for the policy-holder, except to assure him that his family will have something to pay the bills in the event of his death.

Funerals are not for the benefit of the dead. Obituaries do nothing to help the deceased. Cemeteries and gravestones offer nothing to the ones who have died. These things are all for the edification and healing of the living people who knew the deceased while they lived.

When an already-born person dies, there are nearly always family members left to mourn. Depending on the stage of the person’s life, there could be friends, co-workers, clients, employees, and other relationships that are curtailed.

That woman’s gravestone is inscribed with “Beloved Wife and Mother” because her husband and children miss her. The young man’s gravestone says “Beloved Son” because his parents have to live without him.

It would be remiss of me to write this post without acknowledging the fact that some pregnancies end spontaneously before viability, and those pregnant women and their partners experience a loss. When a woman (and her partner if applicable) is upset about having a miscarriage, the following conditions apply: a) they were aware of the pregnancy, and b) they were making plans for a baby. The miscarriage means their expectations have been severed and they must change their plans. They were picturing a baby in the near future and that picture has suddenly been altered. If they share the news of their loss, their friends and family may be upset because they sympathize with the grieving parents.

However, there are also women who miscarry and are not upset about it. These are women who didn’t want to be pregnant, and their reaction to the loss is a feeling of relief rather than bereavement. These are often women (and their partners) who already have children and are glad not to have another because they need to focus their energies on the ones who are already running around and demanding their attention. It is possible to experience miscarriage as a blessing rather than a tragedy. The women who are relieved to lose their pregnancies are not inhuman, child-hating monsters; they simply know what their limits are.

If a pregnant woman miscarries, she and her partner may be upset, but if they don’t tell anyone else about their loss, then as far as the rest of the world is concerned, there was never a baby to be expected.

And that brings us to the question of what exactly is lost when a woman terminates a pregnancy. Most abortions are procured in the first trimester, when the woman doesn’t even look pregnant. At that stage, she can go about her life without letting anyone else know there’s a potential baby inside her. She can have an abortion and keep on going about her business without anyone knowing the difference. The effect of an abortion on the rest of society is the same as if she never got pregnant in the first place.

Think back to that 35%. There are some women in your life who have had abortions to your knowledge, and others who have had abortion outside of your knowledge. You might think differently of the ones that you know have aborted, but you are not affected by the babies they declined to have any more than you’re affected by the pregnancies that never got started.

Am I saying, therefore, that there is a hierarchy of tragedy depending on the stage of life? Why, yes, I am saying there is such a hierarchy. If making such a distinction means I’m “dehumanizing” the unborn, then, honestly, I’m okay with that. When we mourn the loss of a fetus—ESPECIALLY if it was someone else’s child—we’re not mourning a person. No, we’re really not. We’re mourning the loss of an idea, an expectation, a picture in our heads. It’s not the same thing as mourning the loss of a baby who has already sat in other people’s arms, squinted up at their smiling faces and wrapped his little hand around their fingers. If that baby dies, we can mourn the baby he really was instead of the baby that might have been.

The deaths of embryos and fetuses through induced abortion is NOT comparable to the deaths of autonomous individuals through homicide. The core issue of abortion is not death. I think the core issue is women’s rights in owning their lives, but if we want to zoom out to the societal level and look at the babies who don’t get borned, the core issue is a reduction in birthrate. If you equate that reduction to “killing of humans by other rational humans,” one might get the impression that you aren’t all that invested in the lives of people who are already here.


*I remain skeptical that this person is a woman. I remain more skeptical that she used to be pro-choice before she “actually really thought about it.” It’s the sort of thing that anyone can say in order to make their position seem more convincing. On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dude who’s been in favor of forced childbirth all his life.

**When we talk about things like blood, bone marrow, kidneys and other life-saving body components that people can donate without killing themselves, and that some people need to get from others in order to live, the clock starts ticking towards the moment at which we are told that unlike blood donors who can say yes or no to saving other people’s lives, pregnant women are uniquely obligated to give their embryos safe passage to live birth. We are inevitably told that pregnancy is different from other ways that healthy people can sustain life for other, vulnerable people, because pregnancy begins with sex.

9 thoughts on “On the Tragedy of Deaths of People Who Never Lived

  1. The issue of abortion was decided decades ago so why does it continue to dominate the political stage? I think the answer can be found by the extent a segment of this society feels threatened by the progressive transition this country is undergoing. Specifically fundamentalists and by proxy Caucasians. Yes, people of all skin colors profess their anti-abortions beliefs but it is the Caucasian segment that wields the economic and political power to overturn Roe v Wade. This country has made remarkable progress in championing women’s rights over their bodies but this is hardly an affirmation of victory. The battle for women’s equality will be fought for most this century when you think of the millions of abortion opponents ripe for political manipulation and the obscene amount of money involved coupled with their realization that the “scared” power to control women is waning. I’m confident I’ll live long enough to tell people how backwards and ridiculous this nation was in the “old days”. Much like we tell people today about the time when women could not even vote.

  2. You’ve put words to my own thoughts on the subject. I have had seven pregnancies (one adoption, one miscarriage, and five lovely children to raise) and soon will have ten grandchildren. I teach natural childbirth. I am very aware of the emotions and and perspective of the pregnant woman. Our bodies menstruate, grow babies, provide milk for babies, and lose babies. The loss of a baby is just one more experience in being a woman. Our response might be sad or relieved, or a combination of both, but most women know it is a natural thing. Abortion is a deliberate action, but it is no less a part of being a woman. Sometimes, it simply must be done, and the woman understands when this is the case for her.

    Society really needs to stop making it a big deal. We need to view it as a natural part of being a woman. I am certain that any society that truly honors women, and makes abortion safe, legal, and private, will find they have a very low abortion rate. Which is a good thing.

    • Abortion is a deliberate action, but childbirth should be deliberate, too. I’m also pro-physiological birth and pro-breastfeeding, and I see reproductive choice as the other side of the coin. Making babies is a lot of work, and I would never ask any woman to do all that for a child she didn’t want.

  3. Pingback: On the Tragedy of Deaths of People Who Never Lived « The Monster’s Ink | Marlene Dotterer

  4. “…but childbirth should be deliberate, too.”

    Absolutely. This is what it comes down to: each woman is most intimate with her own body. This is especially true regarding our reproductive system. We have to deal with it constantly once we begin menstruating. We can’t ignore it – we have to plan for and obtain supplies, we have to clean up accidents, and handle any pain or illness it causes. It’s never far from our minds – can I wear that skirt, go camping without supplies, will I need to change my tampon during a six-hour flight… there is a constant litany of thoughts and decisions we must make from the time we are 12 years old or so.

    It’s completely laughable that any politician should attempt to meddle in the intricate and intimate relationship a woman has with her body. A woman is the only person qualified to make any decisions about her readiness for pregnancy.

  5. I agree with your conclusion, but I think the chain of reasoning by which you get there is deeply suspect – I think an obvious corollary would be that it was OK to murder castaways on desert islands with no living family.

    The reason why (IMNSHO) it’s OK to abort foetuses up to about the 24th trimester in all circumstances, but later than that only in emergencies (although still not nearly as bad as killing someone later in life), is *sentience*. I don’t agree with you that life is precious because it’s precious to other people, and I certainly don’t agree with the religious right that it’s precious because it comes with a soul; I think people’s lives are precious because they’re precious to the people living them.

    To value your life, you have to have to be aware you are living it; which means you have to have a mind, and my understanding is that the best guess of the neuroscientists is that the earliest that could start to develop is at around about 6 months (it may be later, but is unlikely to be earlier).

    It’s not about “dehumanising”, I think, it’s about “depersonising” – the defining characteristic of a person is a mind, and the capacity for sentience and subjective experience, not a soul or a set of human genes or anything else. I’m quite happy to admit that foetuses are genetically human, but they *aren’t* people, and until they’re capable of valuing their own lives – that is to say, until they develop minds – nor should we.

    My view is that any pro-choice argument that doesn’t focus on the chain of reasoning “killing people is wrong because they have minds; foetuses do not have minds, therefor killing foetuses is wrong” is either superfluous (if it would not apply if foetuses had minds) or incorrect and potentially immoral (if it would apply even if they did). And I’m very much afraid that “your life is valuable because it’s valued by other people” comes into the latter category.

    Incidentally, with regards to your first apostrophe, I have read that on average in the USA men are more likely to support abortion rights than women are, so not doing so is not necessarily reason to doubt that the author is female.

    • Regarding sentience, I’m aware of neuroscientists’ finding that the earliest a fetus can develop the brain connections to experience sensations is around 24 weeks of gestation (i.e. the potential for feeling pain), but the stage of “capable of valuing their own lives” doesn’t develop until well after birth. Babies can see, feel and interact upon birth, but they don’t think in terms of “I know who I am and I’m glad to be alive” until toddlerhood.

      Not for a moment does that mean it’s okay to kill a baby post-birth but pre-self-awareness.

      The primary argument for abortion rights that I and other pro-choice advocates use when the issue comes up is one of bodily autonomy: if a woman becomes pregnant when she doesn’t want a child, she should not be compelled to complete the pregnancy, because no other person has the right to use her body against her will. This is not really a question of whether it’s okay to kill someone so much as what kind of responsibilities we have in keeping other people alive. There is also an element of self-defense logic in the bodily autonomy argument: pregnancy is a physically risky and sometimes life-threatening process for the woman, and it is considered justifiable homicide to kill someone who is threatening your life.

      This would put your hypothetical “castaways on desert islands with no living family” in the place of the pregnant woman, rather than the fetus. The castaways are not biologically dependent on the hypothetical killer, they are autonomous individuals looking after themselves, and as a woman is entitled to use her own body for her own purposes, those castaways have the right to live out their lives. Based on self-defense, however, they are allowed to kill a person who suddenly boards the island and tries to murder them.

      So, then, you may wonder: why did I bother talking about our relationships to each other, and how death affects the living? This is not a question of crime, but of tragedy. The commenter I quoted above, and many other opponents of reproductive choice, frame the deaths of embryos in elective abortions as equivalent to killing people who are already out and about and breathing their own air. They imply that by allowing all these embryos to be aborted, we’re doing just as much damage to society as if a similar number of walking-around people were victims of homicide at the same time. I disagree with that. Society views death as a tragedy because it severs relationships. An early elective abortion severs no relationship except the one between the fetus…and the woman who decides to get the abortion. This is a separate issue from the question of whether it’s okay to kill someone, and even a separate issue from whether the fetus is a person. Even if it’s a person, it is not a member of society. If abortion is going to be defined as a crime, it needs to be on grounds that don’t make a false equivalence between the effect of aborting a first-trimester fetus and strangling a breathing infant.

      Finally, I notice that your thoughts on abortion rights make no mention of the concerns of the woman dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. That’s an omission I find deeply troubling. If you still think my logic of how abortion is not a tragedy is “deeply suspect,” to be honest I’m okay with that, because I don’t like to see an abortion debate that erases the pregnant woman from the picture.

      • But why should the bodily autonomy or right to self defence of the woman trump the bodily autonomy or right to self defence of the foetus?

        The only answer, I think, is that the woman is a person and the foetus isn’t.

        There’s an old and probably-apocryphal story about a Muslim warlord who burned a library (I think it was the Great Library of Alexandria) because all the books in it either agreed with the Qu’ran (and were therefor superfluous) or disagreed with the Qu’ran (and were therefor heretical).

        That’s rather my position when it comes to explaining why early and mid term abortion should not be restricted, (and why late-term abortions are not morally equivalent to murder): if your argument includes the step “a foetus is not a person, because it is not self aware” then pretty much everything else is superfluous; if it doesn’t contain that step then it’s either insufficient or incorrect.

        I think you may be using a rather tighter definition of “sentient” and “capable of valuing its own life” than I was – the standard I was referring to as “self-awareness” was “capable of subjective experience”, rather than any kind of higher-level thought. I’m certainly not arguing that anything capable of experiencing pain or pleasure is not a person or should be legally aborted.

        My talking mostly about foetuses rather than women is partly logical (as I’ve said, I think that if you’ve said “a foetus is not a person” then you’ve already proved your case) and partly pragmatic – I think that the big point of disagreement between supporters and opponents of abortion rights is not their views on women (it would be lovely to believe that opposition to abortion was all about men trying to control women’s sexuality, but actually I believe that men in the USA are, on average, more pro-choice than women, and I suspect that the arguments set out by the person you were commenting on are fairly close to the views of most people who vote against abortion rights) but their views on foetuses, and that the best way to convince them to change their minds is to get them to think about what a person is, why killing people is wrong, and whether that applies in the case of presentient foetuses.

        In particular, I think it’s important to *avoid* any argument which might give the impression that one would still support legal abortion if foetuses *were* sentient/conscious/capable of subjective experience. I’ve clearly failed to do that, and I’ll try to make it clearer what I mean by “sentient” from the get-go next time I have a similar discussion, but in general I think it’s a much bigger risk if one talks about women’s rights than about foetuses lack of them.

        Incidentally, please do say if you mind a complete stranger turning up on your blog and arguing with you – I’m aware that it could very easily come across as a hostile act, and if you’d rather I refrained then I’m happy to do so, obviously.

        • But why should the bodily autonomy or right to self defence of the woman trump the bodily autonomy or right to self defence of the foetus?

          Because the fetus is not an autonomous entity and has no capacity for self-defense.

          Everything that keeps the fetus alive and growing—food, oxygen, climate control, waste disposal—comes from the woman. At the stage at which the overwhelming majority of abortions are procured, if the fetus is removed from the woman’s body, it has absolutely no chance of survival. Autonomy has no meaning for a fetus.

          The woman is a biologically independent person. She is transporting herself around, responsible for her own respiration, nutrition, bathing and personal care, and depending on her age and degree of socioeconomic success, earning a living and/or going to school, and with interpersonal relationships that already make claims on her time. She has preferences, aspirations, survival instinct and the ability to make decisions.

          The pregnancy could put her ability to earn a living or complete her education in jeopardy. Sometimes, and pregnancy goes seriously wrong and does major damage to the woman’s health and quality of life. There are some women who die from pregnancy complications.

          In order for the fetus to survive, it must stay inside the woman’s body, live off her physiological processes and impose those risks to her health.

          We don’t compel anyone else to devote their bodies to keeping someone else alive. Some people need blood transfusions, bone marrow or kidney transplants to survive. They need other people to donate blood, bone marrow, kidneys or other body parts to keep them alive. Those people are members of society, with responsibilities to fulfill and relationships to maintain, but they cannot demand that other people donate so much as a pint of blood. If they die for lack of donations, it is a tragedy, but it is not a crime.

          Ergo, if a pregnant woman is compelled to support a fetus for a full pregnancy against her will, she is assigned responsibility that we do not assign to other autonomous individuals, and the fetus is entitled in ways that no one else is.

          The conclusion is that EVEN IF a fetus is defined as a person, the woman still has the right to have it removed from her body pre-viability. This is not homicide so much as removal of life support.

          ncidentally, please do say if you mind a complete stranger turning up on your blog and arguing with you – I’m aware that it could very easily come across as a hostile act, and if you’d rather I refrained then I’m happy to do so, obviously.

          Don’t worry; I post these rather confrontational opinions on a public blog with the understanding that some people may express their disagreement.

          That said, I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year and my Internet connection at home is currently on the fritz, so I can’t devote time to the comment section like a blogger should. If I turn off comments, it’s not personal; I just have other claims on my time. If I don’t respond, it’s because I have other stuff going on.

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