Three decades after Roe v. Wade, abortion is still the hottest button in American society; scientific advances, from pre-natal testing to stem-cell research, have only raised the temperature. Cold logic, the author argues, requires us to accept the tragic conflict between potential humans and existing ones.
by Christopher Hitchens
I claim an absolute right to be interested in the condition of the human fetus because … well, I used to be one myself. I was in my early teens when my mother told me that a predecessor fetus and a successor fetus had been surgically removed, thus making me an older brother rather than a forgotten whoosh. I hope the thought of this hasn’t made me unusually self-centered, or more than usually so. And I’ve since become the father of several fetuses, three of which, or perhaps I had better say three of whom, became reasonably delightful children. There was a time, it seemed, when I couldn’t sneeze on a woman without becoming a potential father. Then there were warped coils, tattered sheaths, missed pills, even moments of grim abandon. I could have been like P. G. Wodehouse’s male codfish, which, suddenly discovering itself to be the parent of several million baby codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all.
But nature and nurture were both lenient. Some of those start-up operations never made it to full term for mysterious reasons, and at least once I found myself in a clinic while “products of conception” were efficiently vacuumed away. I can distinctly remember thinking, on the last such occasion, that under no persuasion of any kind would I ever allow myself to be present at such a moment again. (Having once written a mildly “pro-life” essay, I now find that “christopherhitchens.com” links you instantly to a Web site called abortionismurder.org, emblazoned with a ghastly photograph of a dead 21-week-old baby. I resent this crude, uninvited annexation.)
The decision I took was mine and taken for myself alone. If it doesn’t have a moral basis, it does at least have a very strong instinctual one. But can I or should I be able to make it for anyone else? Three decades ago this month, in the matter of Roe v. Wade, the United States Supreme Court ruled that this question was circumscribed by a privacy right which resolved the whole agony into a matter of personal choice. Ever since then, the abortion “issue” has been the most fervently debated social problem in America. And, as a mobilizing matter, it has gained rather than lost potency. (Most of the Democrats I know still cling to the wreck of their party for this reason above all, or in some cases for this reason alone.) And in no other country or culture has the struggle of “choice” versus “life” been fought so hard, or for so long. This isn’t surprising when you reflect that:
• The United States is the birthplace of the modern feminist movement.
• The United States is the nation par excellence that decides its most grave matters in its courts rather than its legislature.
• The United States is the most religious as well as the most secular of societies.
• The United States is the country most wedded to the idea of individualism.
• The United States is the special site of medical and scientific innovation.
• The United States is the chief bastion of puritanism as regards the family.
• The United States is the great bridgehead and laboratory of hedonism as regards everything else.
The 1973 Roe v. Wade decision is therefore the perfect hinge for a full-dress cultural war. It was, in strict political time, a late triumph of the 60s ethos of “liberation” from social and sexual constraint. It was achieved by the courts rather than by the voters, George McGovern having been obliterated in the preceding year’s presidential election amid jeers about his endorsement of “acid, amnesty, and abortion.” But the trick was turned back on the conservatives by a shrewd tactical maneuver, which redefined the uterus as a location of private property and individual liberty. Ever since, and in a drama which becomes at times quite surreal, the “left” in this dispute has defended the right of the autonomous person to be let alone by the state, while the “right” has called for the deployment of “big government” intrusion into the most intimate of all conceivable spheres.
In the brisk paragraphs above, you will note that I have semiconsciously employed the terms “birthplace,” “grave,” and “conceivable.” This idiom of this argument is basic and elemental. It’s about the essentials. Thus, the justification proposed by the “right” for its intrusiveness is that the fetus is also an autonomous individual, and that society cannot decently permit one body (or soul) to be owned or disposed of by another. The echo of the slavery argument is often intentional here and has been used to justify violence against abortion clinics on the grounds that John Brown did the same to slaveholders. Fortunately for the slaves, I have often thought, their liberation became necessary in order to preserve the Union. The same cannot be said for the blissfully unaware occupants of American wombs. (And I can’t help noticing that quite a few pro-life activists revere the fetus second only to the way in which they cherish the Confederate flag.)
There was a time when the feminist movement replied to this with militant indignation. What “individual”? What “person”? The most famous title of the period—Our Bodies, Ourselves—captures the tone to perfection. If we need to remove an appendix or a tumor from our own personal spaces, then it’s nobody else’s goddamn business. I used to cringe when I heard this, not so much because in the moral sense fetuses aren’t to be compared to appendixes, let alone tumors, but because it is obvious nonsense from the biological and embryological points of view. Babies come from where they come from. The diagram of a vacuum-suction abortion in Our Bodies, Ourselves gave the female anatomy in some detail but showed only a void inside the uterus. This perhaps unintended concession to queasiness has since become more noticeable as a consequence of advances in embryology, and by the simple experience of the enhanced sonogram. Women who have gazed at the early heartbeat inside themselves now have some difficulty, shall we say, in ranking the experience with the planned excision of a polyp.
Even so, the case is most often stated at its extremes. Who, we are asked, dares claim the right to force a woman to give birth, perhaps to a child that is the product of rape or incest? And then, if it is mildly pointed out that contraception is widely available to forestall such nightmares, Holy Mother Church steps forward to forbid it, to describe an ectopic pregnancy as a fully human life, and to denounce the IUD as an abortifacient or, in effect, little better than a murder weapon. Ignorant armies clash by night. On receiving her Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 (never having done, or even claimed to have done, anything for peace), Mother Teresa informed her stunned Scandinavian audience that the greatest threat to world peace was abortion. On several other occasions, she made contraception morally equivalent to the termination of pregnancy. Thus the condom is among the greatest threats to world peace … It is quite wrong to accuse only feminists of hysteria on this question (and here again the language is loaded, since the ancient Greek word for uterus is hystera).
As the evidence about early “viability” mounted, and as advances in medicine made it ever easier for even a distressingly premature fetus to survive outside its mother, the argument showed a tendency to shift. Suddenly, we were talking trimesters. And there was no longer much dispute about whether the unborn subject was alive. It certainly couldn’t be dead, since the whole battle consisted in how or whether to stop its growing and developing (not metastasizing). Now and then there would be a tussle over whether it was a fully “human” life, but this was casuistry. What other species of life could it be? Some states even announced laws on fetal personhood, conferring the moral equivalent of citizenship on every fertilized egg, thereby presumably extending to it the warm embrace of the equal-protection clause and voting rights at age 17¼.
That the most partially formed human embryo is both human and alive has now been confirmed, in an especially vivid sense, by the new debate over stem-cell research and the bioethics of cloning. If an ailing or elderly person can be granted a new lease on life by a transfusion of this cellular material, then it is obviously not random organic matter. The original embryonic “blastocyst” may be a clump of 64 to 200 cells that is only five days old. But all of us began our important careers in that form, and every needful encoding for life is already present in the apparently inchoate. We are the first generation to have to confront this as a certain knowledge.
For the theologically minded, this provides what they never much desired before: a scientific confirmation of “life from conception” morality. But then, in theory, any of our cells could be used for cloning. The merest drop of blood or piece of skin is also pregnant with the great secret of life. And, as I hinted when discussing Wodehouse’s codfish factor, this life is incredibly profuse. Men produce much more generative fluid than anyone can possibly require, and spend much of their lives trying to deal as gallantly as possible with this embarrassing surplus. And the resulting disposal problem does not end there. Either god or nature aborts an enormous quantity of unborn children at an early stage, either because of some early warning of unviability or—given the high number of birth defects that make it to full term—not. Miscarriage and stillbirth have made mourners of as many women as abortion has. If there truly is a divine or natural design, it is a ruthless and selective one.
In that case, humans are only acting rationally when they seek to achieve control over their reproduction. In poor countries, the ability of women to limit their childbearing is the absolute key to the escape from poverty and ill health. In the United States, it has become something more like a middle-class entitlement. In a penetrating essay, “The Conservative Case for Abortion,” published in 1995, Jerry Muller of the Catholic University of America phrased it like this: “The prime obstacle to the right-to-life movement is not feminism. It is the millions of more or less conservative middle-class parents who know that, if their teenage daughter were to become pregnant, they would advise her to get an abortion rather than marry out of necessity or go through the trauma of giving birth and then placing the child up for adoption.”
Muller went on to stress that it was family values as much as anything which mandated the abortion of fetuses with hereditary disorders such as Tay-Sachs disease, because many couples carrying the gene would not risk having children at all if they were deprived of a choice in the matter. Ronald Reagan may have spoken at “right to life” events and even endorsed anti-abortion horror videos such as The Silent Scream, but in the eight years of his presidency he didn’t feel like really challenging the middle class on this point. Nor did Bush Sr., whose wife is pro-choice. Nor did Mrs. Thatcher, the views of whose husband on the subject wouldn’t have counted. Nor, I predict, will Bush Jr., whose mother and wife are pro-choice.
And, just as refinements in medicine have made it apparent that a fetus acquires human characteristics earlier than we used to think, so competing refinements have blurred the distinction between abortion and birth control. The RU-486 abortion pill, initially developed in France, and more advanced emergency contraception induce an experience more akin to a heavy period than an abortion, and do not involve a surgical “procedure.” It’s a sure thing that such pharmaceutical solutions will become more advanced, and more available, which in turn will leach much of the pity and terror from the debate. It won’t even be possible to find out how many abortions, as opposed to how many live births, there have been in a given year. Nor will there be so many clinics to blockade, or shoot up. It really will become a “privacy” question.
That will leave us with the extreme cases, where a fetus is apparently too human (as in the so-called partial-birth operation) or not human enough (the anencephalic fetus—one without a cerebral cortex). But these in a way are the problems of success: if it weren’t for improvements in medicine, neither “god” nor “nature” would present us with such dilemmas. The unborn would simply die in the womb or, if born, expire shortly after delivery. So the issue is really this: are we coarsening ourselves, and eroding moral thresholds, by making life-and-death decisions at all? The fundamentalist pro-lifers earnestly maintain that by holding the line on abortion they are fending off euthanasia, reproductive cloning, and other hellish assaults on human dignity and the human essence. And it is true that early “family planning” advocates, such as Margaret Sanger (who wrote, “Birth control must lead ultimately to a cleaner race”), were keen eugenicists who wanted to stop the unfit and the inferior from reproducing themselves. (That is why a number of conservatives still secretly approve of the idea of Medicaid abortions. After all, look who’s having them.) In contrast, the Catholic Church, which seems unconcerned by the number of impoverished women and children yoked to the wheel of uncontrolled childbearing, doesn’t have that good a record on caring for children who are out of the womb and apparently fair game.
Having for so long been the territory of this draining and exhausting argument, America may well be the place of its resolution. The quest to enlarge the span and quality of life is itself a struggle for mastery over nature, which left to itself would have us dying toothless and smelly and malnourished after about three decades. And the impulse to have a say in how many children we have, and how, is an indissoluble part of that ambition. In consequence, we have to shoulder decisions that would once have been made by fate. (Shall the terminally ill be taken off the drip-feed? Shall we resuscitate the comatose? Shall we bring the hopeless fetus to full term? Shall we, or can we, push back abortion techniques so that they pre-empt any definition of viability?) It doesn’t seem to me that we have become any less human by confronting these decisions and finally accepting our responsibility for them. In the same way, I might have been better off as a younger brother than an older one, and I always did wish for a big sister, as opposed to the baby brother I did get, but if my mother had the heart and soul of a double-murderess, you couldn’t prove it by me.
By rightly expanding our definition of what is alive and what is human, we have also accepted that there may be a conflict of rights between a potential human and an actual one. The only moral losers in this argument are those who say that there is no conflict, and nothing to argue about. The irresoluble conflict of right with right was Hegel’s definition of tragedy, and tragedy is inseparable from human life, and no advance in science or medicine is ever going to enable us to evade that.
Vanity Fair, February 2003