“Choose Life” Means Nothing Without the Right to Choose
Why is life inviolable only when its fate is trusted to the moral calculus of a woman?
(This essay was first published in Slate: https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2022/03/death-of-roe-pro-life-movement.html)
My cousin found out after her routine 20-week ultrasound: the fetus had a severe chromosomal abnormality with critical organs outside the envelope of their body. If born, the child would likely die within hours. If among the very few to survive the first day, they would have severe deformities, require constant care at bankrupting costs, and potentially endure lifelong discomfort or pain. As my cousin and her husband walked through a shadow of private anguish, prayer circle emails were forwarded through my family. Updates cascaded by telephone from aunts and uncles. Our family, dominated by vocally anti-abortion Reagan-enthusiasts, frowned sympathies while speculating in hushed tones about how my cousin and her husband, an evangelical pastor, might resolve their moral crisis. What is critical to the argument I make here is that for some time, she also did not know.
Texas Senate Bill 8, which the Supreme Court has now blessed in contravention of long-established precedent, prescribes a single path for women presented with an unwanted or ill-fated pregnancy: to carry the fetus to term and bear its risks and consequences. Because many women do not know they are pregnant before the government’s 6-week deadline, and getting an abortion is fraught with government-imposed obstacles, the law leaves a de jure skeleton of the Constitutional right, while making that right de facto impossible to access. It makes no exception for the health of the unborn.
“Will he suffer more if I allow him to be born?” my cousin asked, “If he breathes and then gasps and gasps for breath? I was fixated on: I don’t want him to suffer, I don’t want him to suffer. It was up to me.” After gut-wrenching introspection, my cousin chose to carry her pregnancy until her own degrading health compelled doctors to induce. She delivered the child, named him, and held him for 87 minutes until his death. It has become lore in my family that this was as beautiful and healing as it was painful. When I wrote to ask my cousin to tell her story, she wrote back immediately, “I love to talk about him. ❤ He would be thirteen this summer.”
If you ask anyone in my family, including my cousin herself, what made her story healing rather than soul-breaking, or how she pulled beauty from the depths of catastrophe, you will hear us say that she chose the path of her values. You will hear us say that her choice was in alignment with her deeply held convictions, sacred texts, and her understanding of her God’s will. Yet, we cannot tell her story without using the word choice. When even the most dedicated pro-life advocate tells her story, choose and decide are the action verbs that unlock the words courageous, brave, convicted, and her values.
Without that choice, my cousin’s story is a forced-birth, authoritarian nightmare. Another woman may see the risk that her baby could experience pain as intolerable, or weigh differently the risk of death by childbirth or bequeathing the lifelong weight of caretaking to siblings. Another woman may view the child’s quality of life as vastly more important than his time alive, or read Genesis 2:7 to say that life starts not until first breath. Any of these women — with no lesser conviction than my cousin — might see the fetus’s earliest possible termination as more conscionable than the child’s latest-possible death. By taking away the right to choose, Senate Bill 8 disregards a critical truth: how we value suffering, life, love, death, and when life is worth living is inextricable from our spiritual, religious and metaphysical convictions, which cannot be legislated. The case against legislating these decisions becomes more damning when we understand that pregnancies have infinitely complex individual circumstances that legislators cannot anticipate and that pregnant women are singularly positioned to navigate.
It matters deeply whether our laws allow a woman to arrive at the right decision for herself and her family, but the process of how that decision gets made also determines who we are in relation to our government. My cousin told me, “I reached depths that were important to me by wrestling with this and I am thankful for that.” Without the chance to wrestle with the question of when and whether to bring forth a child, a woman lacks the agency to answer fundamental metaphysical and moral questions about her child’s life, and about herself. Without that agency, she becomes a fertility vessel, a regulated host for a ward of the state.
Complicated pregnancies bring these moral questions into high relief for non-pregnant people to understand, but the same unanswerable questions of life and death, love and suffering, risk and reward, quality and quantity of life are in balance in every pregnancy. Every pregnancy presents fundamentally spiritual questions about the tradeoff between the arc of a woman’s life and her offspring.
Six weeks after fertilization, the embryo is smaller than a blueberry. It is not yet a fetus. Obstetricians can identify electrical activity in the cluster of cells that will develop to function as its heart’s pacemaker, but the mitral and tricuspid valves that would flap to make a heartbeat have not yet differentiated from the surrounding tissues. Nevertheless, Texas legislators euphemized Senate Bill 8 as “The Texas Heartbeat Act” to underscore the myth that the embryo has a thumping organ. The mythology of a silenced heart is a form of virtue signaling — the raw political potency of its imagery should make us suspicious of what the politicians advancing these bills seek to gain.
Can we be intellectually honest in calling a position ‘pro-life’ when the solitary life-or-death question it proposes to regulate is the question that biology endows only to women? We give judges the power to order executions. We allow a single head of state virtually unrestricted power to launch missile strikes. We give ordinary people the “stand-your-ground” right to kill. In each of these scenarios, the pro-life lobby is either silent or vocally in favor of an unencumbered right to kill. Why is life inviolable only when its fate is trusted to the moral calculus of a woman?
I think the answer is found by observing just how dogmatically politicians will push abortion laws that lead to horrific outcomes. Senate Bill 8 makes no exceptions for rape, incest, or dangerous birth defects that could result in pain, death or debilitation of the child or mother. Its sole concession to the infinite complexity of abortion’s moral question is the medical emergency, meaning that even a mother carrying a pregnancy with mortal risks must delay the procedure until her life faces immediate danger. Why? Laws limiting women’s reproductive rights are predicated on the assumption that women, given freedom, cannot be trusted to make important decisions. Carving out turf where moral authority is sovereign to a woman would enshrine a place where men assume an optional, advisory role.
This past winter, after a routine 18-week ultrasound, one of my oldest friends learned that the fetus in her womb carried a rare and terminal heart condition. Like my cousin, my friend desperately wanted another child. She found herself midway through pregnancy devastated by loss of what could have been.
Those who oppose a woman’s right to an abortion often suggest that women who terminate pregnancies do so for convenience and are indifferent to the moral questions their pregnancies pose. But those who support a woman’s full and unencumbered reproductive rights fully recognize the moral questions. We believe those questions are simply best answered by an empowered woman, reflecting her own views of life and bearing her own risks and consequences, rather than the views of powerful politicians, who would force her hand through the machinations of police, bureaucracy, religion, and money, while bearing none of the consequences.
My dear friend lost her baby last month. I don’t know whether she considered, let alone used, her constitutional right to choose what happened to her unborn child in the weeks after that ultrasound. For what is perhaps a transient moment in this democratic experiment, the power to choose rested only with her.