Katha Pollitt begins her op-ed. column today with an excellent question: “Why does the pro-choice movement so often find itself in a defensive crouch?” She is reacting to the apology issued by the president of Planned Parenthood for the PP doctor who, caught in a sting operation by undercover anti-abortion activists, used cavalier language in discussing the use of fetal body parts. Pollitt is right: PP had nothing to apologize for. The unedited video produced by the anti-abortionists reveals that PP does not sell fetal tissue for profit. The “compassionless” doctor’s language reflects the simple fact that dead human tissue is not a reasonable object of compassion. Neither is the fetus from which it may have come. But Pollitt, one of our most articulate and passionate proponents of abortion rights, doesn’t say this.
Pollitt instead goes on to bemoan the failures of the pro-choice movement to aggressively make its case. She wants pro-choicers to affirm proudly and proactively that abortion is a social good, that the whole society benefits when motherhood is voluntary. The many women who’ve had abortions, their male partners, the scientists who use fetal tissue to find treatments for disease, all need to take the offensive and speak out. This is all well and good, but by omission Pollitt shows that she has not confronted the single most consequential failure of the abortion rights movement: it has not figured out how to talk about the fetus.
We can talk all we want about a woman’s right to control her own body and the human suffering imposed by restrictions on abortion, but the “pro-lifers” always have the same apparently devastating reply: “You want to kill babies! How is that different from murder?! How can a woman have a right to choose murder?” The claim that abortion is murder is easily refuted logically, but pro-choicers usually don’t try. They generally prefer to evade the issue by talking about women’s right to choose. This evasion is readily understandable: logic is hard put to counter the pro-lifers’ images of helpless little protean human beings, with their cute tiny incipient body parts, crushed and mangled by heartless abortionists.
Still, the argument has to be made: abortion is not murder because a fetus is not a person. (I have made this argument before, so much of the following will be familiar to longstanding readers.) A fetus isn’t a person because it possesses none of the attributes that we associate with persons–it lacks not only intelligence, but even consciousness. In fact, until well into the second trimester–long after most abortions are performed–it isn’t even sentient. That means that it literally has no feelings. And by “feelings” I don’t mean just mean emotions–obviously, a fetus has none–but physical sensation. You cannot inflict pain–physical or emotional–on a fetus until well into the second trimester. Even then, it is at best highly problematic to talk of “pain” in a being that lacks consciousness.
A fetus is less like a person than is a typical household pet, which does have some kind of consciousness if not intelligence, interacts with other animals including humans, and can certainly feel pain. It is less like a person than are animals that we routinely kill for food.
The only thing a fetus has in common with you and me is a complete set of human chromosomes. It has the potential to eventually be like you and me, but potential is not actual, and there is no reason that mere potentiality should be protected and accorded “rights.” That is, unless you believe that there is a moral imperative that every possibility for increasing the number of human beings on this earth must be preserved.
Needless to say, the readers of this blog are pretty smart and sophisticated people. You all can readily understand the foregoing, and hopefully agree with most of it. But it is not a line of argument that can easily be communicated to what sociologists call “mass publics.” The anti-abortionists will always intercede with images of those little helpless bodies gradually taking on humanoid form. And those images will tend to triumph over any logical argument. I’m not a PR person; I don’t know how to get around this conundrum. But surely the pro-choice movement has enough resources to try to figure out how to explain to ordinary people why abortion isn’t murder. Otherwise that defensive crouch will continue to be a familiar posture of abortion rights advocates.