[Trigger warning: Abortion.]
“Life begins at conception.” The classic refrain forms the cornerstone of the pro-life ethic, which at its best seeks to extend basic human rights to those who have the least power to claim them themselves, the unborn. The principle enjoys broad popularity when pollsters ask; YouGov found in 2015 that 52% of Americans believed it (as opposed to “when the fetus is able to live outside the womb” or “at birth”). There’s a certain elegance to it: Along the complex and awe-inspiring journey of human development, a natural starting point would be that first biological step.
But I don’t think that nearly that many people actually believe it.
To explain why, I’d like to describe some of the most surprising features of a world where we treated every fertilized egg as a human being worthy of the same rights as the rest of us, someone we could empathize with, a playable character in this video game of life. Under that ethic, how would we think, act and feel differently?
We would all be wracked with survivor’s guilt.
Many who survived the Holocaust, war, natural disasters, and other seemingly random dangers have experienced a form of guilt at having been the one who survived while others in identical or very similar positions have died. “Why should I have survived and not her?”
According to one of his closest friends, Elvis Presley experienced an intriguing form of this type of guilt throughout his life:
I knew Elvis had a stillborn twin brother; my own younger twin sisters had told me after they read a story about him in a movie magazine. It was only after we met in April of 1964, that I came to realize how deeply Elvis had been affected by this unfulfilled relationship.
“I’ll tell ya Larry, being a twin has always been a mystery for me. I mean, we were in our mother’s womb together, so why was he born dead and not me? He never even got his chance to live. Think about it, why me? Why was I the one that was chosen? An’ I’ve always wondered what would’ve been if he had lived, I really have. These kinds of questions tear my head up. There’s got to be reasons for all this.”
This was our very first conversation. I was a virtual stranger, yet for some reason Elvis felt that he wanted to bare his soul about Jesse Garon. I learned over the years that this was one aspect of his life he rarely if ever spoke about. But on this particular afternoon he opened the floodgates freely, revealing something so intimate that it was obvious that he was deeply burdened by the notion that he might have survived at the expense of his twin.
Elvis sat in silence for a moment with his eyes fixed on the ground, then looked up at me. “Larry, listen, I’m going to tell you something, and it might even sound strange, but it’s something I’ve secretly thought about before. Maybe, maybe it was me. Maybe it was something I did, ya know? Who knows, maybe when we were in the womb together we were fighting like Jacob and his twin like it says in the Bible. Man that story always stuck with me. Maybe I was like Jacob who tried to stop his brother from being born first. Hey, I’m just saying…anything’s possible.”
Not all of us have a twin who lived while one of us died. But consider these statistics: In 1989, the year I was born, there were 6.5 million recognized pregnancies in the US. Out of those, only 4 million led to birth, with 1.6 million being aborted and 0.9 million being miscarried. In other words, for every eight kids our age, only five made it to actually being born; two were aborted, and one was miscarried. For every kindergarten class of 25 students, 15 more didn’t make it.
Since then, the numbers have slightly improved but are basically the same: in 2008, 4.2 million out of 6.5 million Americans survived the womb. But both of these statistics are probably underestimates; accompanying the modest decline in abortions, we’ve seen a rise in the number of miscarriages as pregnancy is detected earlier and earlier. Who knows how many early miscarriages we’re still not aware of?
Let’s set aside any guilt that the parents might feel. Instead, consider the perspective of someone — anyone! — who’s living, one of those lucky 60-70%. If a third of our elementary school class had died in a tornado, don’t you think that would at least register with us?
As a Christian, I often thank God for some of the most basic things, like being able eat the food I’m about to eat. It’s part of our daily habits to thank God for his role, however indirect, in the conditions that led to our present state. In doing so, I’ve occasionally thought about how I wouldn’t have the same opportunities to pursue my passions had I been born in a different time or place. Until writing this paragraph, I hadn’t once considered that even if I’d been conceived in the same time and place, roughly a third of the time, I’d be dead.
Let’s put this in terms of life expectancy from conception:
Source: CDC National Vital Statistics Reports, Volume 66, Number 3. United States Life Tables, 2013. Survival rate in the womb estimated from 2008 CDC data cited above.
That big dip on the left is the harrowing process of surviving the womb. In other words, if you’ve already lived to 100, you still haven’t gained as many years since you were young as we all did just for surviving to birth. Almost all of us who were born live a long life compared to the average.
Yes, I know that many families that abort go on to have just as many kids afterwards. But shouldn’t that make us feel even more survivor’s guilt? Some of us are only here because our parents chose us over our older siblings. But this is more than just about abortion.
Miscarriages would be part of the family tree.
One family I know had a son who died in utero at four months gestation, a unusual and heartbreaking story. They graciously added him to their pictorial family tree, bearing the same halo as his great-grandparents. They talk of him as the brother they never got to know, somewhat like how Elvis spoke of his twin.
If life begins at conception, this is how we should treat all miscarriages. We should be willing to afford them the same dignity, worth, and place in our families, as if they were children and siblings that we lost in a tragic accident.
As is, the common lexicon is focused primarily on the parents: “We suffered a miscarriage.” It’s also telling how often we talk of them as a statistic: “After three miscarriages, we finally conceived and gave birth to our first son/daughter.”
This isn’t exactly surprising; with miscarriages, there is frequently not enough time for the parents to emotionally and socially invest in the child, like giving him or her a name. We often value the lives of those we are emotionally invested in more than anyone’s life, and there are perhaps good reasons for that. But this sort of differential treatment is still evidence that we don’t really follow the pro-life ethic.
To be clear, I’m not saying that parents who miscarry should talk about having killed their children, or feel even more guilty for doing so. There is still a lot we don’t understand, and miscarriages still occur when there are none of the risk factors. My point is that if we take the pro-life ethic, we should see the loss as more than just a tragedy for parents hoping to bear children, but as a tragedy for those one out of eight children whose lives are lost.
We would be super careful about when and how we have sex.
Christians have been of two minds these days when it comes to sex, as was vividly on display at a Veritas Forum conversation at Harvard Divinity School back in Fall 2015 (the relevant conversation starts at 1:09:29):
Peter Berger, essentially representing the liberal position within Christianity, talked about how he would tell evangelicals he taught that “God isn’t all that interested in your genitalia, and if people focus on that, it will make them suspicious of religious strictures.” As a conservative Catholic, Ross Douthat couldn’t help but respond that sex is “the locus of the begetting of the future of the human race, the locus of family relationships and community relationships, and kinship and so on,” closing with “My conception of God wouldn’t make sense if he didn’t care who we were having sex with.”
With all respect to Berger (and granting his point about messaging), if people actually believed that life begins at conception, this would naturally make them super careful, and encourage their friends to be careful, around sex. No one disputes that sex is often a very enjoyable experience, but who are we to mess around when someone’s life could be at stake? It’s the same moral outrage and disgust many feel at poaching or dogfighting, which provide enjoyment at the expense of an animal, only more so, since these are humans we’re talking about.
Naturally, one big component of the sexual revolution was the advent of the pill and the proliferation of contraceptive methods reducing the link between sex and pregnancy. But for most methods, that link is by no means eliminated. Just soak in their (in)effectiveness rates (source):
Yes, with typical use of a condom, there is an 86% chance of pregnancy over 10 years of sexual activity. Somehow no one ever seems to measure the effectiveness of multiple simultaneous contraceptive methods…
We would treat children as individuals with the right to make decisions about themselves, someday.
As I get into my late 20s, I’m starting to see more and more pictures of my friends’ children on Facebook. It’s nowhere near as overwhelming as I hear it is for some people, but I’ve always been struck by how the children are presented, and I can’t help but to try to imagine their perspective. After all, they’re just as human as I am! Or do we see them that way?
Social media is new, so most of us haven’t had to deal with this before, but how would you feel if your parents posted a bunch of baby photos of you on their Facebook wall for all of their friends to see? Personally, I’d be fine; I have a good relationship with my parents, and I’d probably just see it as my mom being nostalgic. But I know some of you would be mortified, even if they aren’t the most embarrassing photos.
I posed this to one of the moms in our church while on a church retreat, and she called over her 5-year-old daughter to ask her opinion. After some thought, she answered that she was okay with her mom posting photos and videos of her, but only if they looked nice. Each kid will react differently; she’s more outgoing than most, but she still had to think about it, and it hadn’t previously occurred to her mom to ask.
I’m not a parent yet, so I don’t know first-hand the joys of seeing one’s own cute children and the corresponding desire to share that joy with the rest of the world. But we’ve all been children once, and many of us at least have been somewhat embarrassed by what our parents found cute in us. If we really followed the pro-life ethic that encourages us to empathize with our children, we’d realize that we should probably at least ask before essentially creating our children’s online identities for them.
We would be willing to make significant sacrifices to help mothers bear the costs of pregnancy and childbirth.
And finally, we come to the most politically controversial consequences. Taking a pro-life ethic, there’s simply no way to ignore the horrifying fact of the widespread prevalence of abortion in the United States and around the world.
The political solution has been beaten into everyone’s heads so frequently that it hardly bears repeating. Pretty much the only thing Donald Trump has actually been able to accomplish in his first 100 days has been successfully nominating to the Supreme Court Neil Gorsuch, a well-credentialed justice who has come about as close to ruling on pro-life matters as possible, having written a book against assisted suicide. One can fully understand why so many on the right held their nose and voted for Trump, all other consequences be damned. A million abortions per year!
But that can’t be the only way to actually reduce the abortion rate. If they actually care about the unborn, pro-lifers would seek every possible means to help them, especially given how slow and often ineffective those unelected judges tend to be. Despite Republicans winning six of the last ten presidential elections running on this issue, Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land.
Even the Democratic presidents who have managed to win election have tried and mostly failed to make progress on reducing abortion. In one of the most disheartening chapters of Michael Wear’s Reclaiming Hope, Wear describes how the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce abortions were unable to achieve consensus. That such efforts existed at all was news to me, but Wear describes how the president made efforts to go beyond (Bill) Clinton’s rhetoric of making abortion “safe, legal and rare.” In a speech at Notre Dame’s commencement in 2009, despite what some of his advisors suggested, Obama went straight to the heart of the matter, saying he would seek to reduce abortion. Wear describes how the administration hoped to follow up that speech:
Our work was focused on identifying policies in five buckets: preventing unwanted pregnancies, supporting maternal and child health, opening up pathways of opportunity for women and mothers, promoting healthy relationships, and strengthening adoption. There was ample common ground available, and we made great progress in defining it: strengthening enforcement to prevent pregnancy discrimination in employment, combating sexual coercion in relationships, improving access to information regarding prenatal care, and supporting innovative partnerships between adoption service providers and women’s health providers. I have no doubt that with the White House’s focused leadership, and a willingness to spend political capital on the effort, the president’s vision could have been realized.
But zero-sum politics won. Pro-life groups, most of which might as well be legally incorporated into the Republican Party, did not want to give a pro-choice president the victory of leading the charge to reduce abortions. […] The White House and progressive allies weren’t always constructive either. After eight years of President Bush, who opposed abortion and spoke about a “culture of life,” pro-choice activists (and policymakers) were looking to advance their views on women’s rights; they decidedly did not want to use political capital on an initiative that ceded an inch of rhetorical or policy ground.
Wear goes on to describe how nearly all of the common ground they built was eroded by the way the ACA drama played out, first regarding taxpayer funding of abortion and later the contraception mandate. Apart from the lone bright spot of adoption, his account illustrates the difficulties inherent in using the political process, and how even groups that claimed to be pro-life failed to actually rally to the cause of reducing abortions, instead opting for political posturing.
There is also some evidence that restrictions on abortion don’t do as much as we would hope to lower its rate. This is tough to honestly assess because the field is so politicized. Much of the highest-quality research is done by the decidedly pro-choice Guttmacher Institute, and as Douthat points out, many of their arguments are rather flimsy. Still, it’s important to keep in mind that we likely will not be able to eliminate abortion in this country to anywhere close to the same extent as we eliminated slavery. (We also wouldn’t want to take another Civil War to do it!)
No, we need to go beyond politics. If we really believed that human beings were being killed, we’d think of every possible way to rescue them.
Taking this call, my church supports a non-profit called the Boston Center for Pregnancy Choices, which provides women and men with free counseling for the pregnancy options of abortion, adoption and parenting. Many who come to them are unaware of the adoption process or free resources available for parents. Rather than shame women who choose abortion, they offer post-abortion counseling and generally care for the women who come to them in any way they can, hoping that more information will help them make better decisions. I’ve supported BCPC financially, but I honestly haven’t felt comfortable volunteering in other ways, like holding baby showers for mothers who choose to keep their children, since I’m not a parent yet.
Beyond supporting such organizations, I wonder if we can’t do more on a personal level. If we really believe that life begins at conception, shouldn’t we do everything we can to save the lives of children?
Trying to live out this conviction, I’d like to make the following offer. If any of my Facebook friends are considering an abortion at any time, either for themselves or their partner, I will offer to pay them if they choose to keep their baby (whether they put him or her up for adoption or raise him or her themselves). For now, I’ll commit to giving a minimum of $100, no questions asked, but depending on the situation, I could be willing to give up to $1000.
A few notes/clarifications:
- This isn’t a bribe or a ransom. It’s a simple recognition that pregnancy is costly, and a willingness to help bear a small part of that cost so the baby doesn’t have to pay with its life.
- $100 probably doesn’t even begin to stack up against those costs, but I’d hope that I’m not the only one willing to support you. Depending on where you live, I might not be able to do much else to help, but I can try.
- Some might fear this could be taken advantage of by parents who aren’t considering abortion but simply want some more cash. That’s one reason why I’m restricting to my Facebook friends; the social awkwardness should somewhat constrain demand to those who actually need the help. This isn’t a public policy suggestion, in other words.
- As a personal policy, I don’t tend to accept Facebook friend requests to people I haven’t met in another context.
- I could rescind this if it becomes unwise or unbearable, but as long as it appears on this blog, the offer is still active.
- Of course, I’ll grant complete privacy to anyone who approaches me about this. I might some day report on the number of people who have taken me up on this, but I’ll ask for permission first.
What would the world be like if everyone who claims to be pro-life made a similar offer? Rather than being judgmental, I imagine it would be more caring towards new parents.
I hope this post has been enlightening to you, wherever you fall on the question of when life begins. For those who tend to agree with the pro-life ethic, I hope it has challenged you to live that out more fully, to treat the lives of fetuses, infants, children and adults as deserving of the same amount of respect, dignity and worth. For those who tend to place the beginnings of life somewhat later in the process, I hope it helps you understand and empathize with the pro-life perspective.
There’s much more I could say, and has been said already, about how a pro-life ethic should extend to all other aspects of life, like supporting refugees. I’ve chosen to focus on the simplest extensions of this ethic to children, and even then probably only barely scratched the surface. I hope others can continue in this fashion to grapple with what it means to be pro-life in more than just our politics.