CW: abortion, racism, homophobia, ableism, Holocaust denialism, school shootings. Come to think of it, you probably just shouldn’t read this.
Have you ever been in the middle of what you thought was a rational discussion and all of the sudden the other person brings up your failure to bring abortion into the conversation as evidence of… something. It might go like this:
You: Black Lives Matter–
Them: Oh? If you care so much about police brutality against black people, why don’t you care about the fact that 50% of pregnancies end in abortion in some African American communities.
You: I mean, children should be able to go to school without fear of a mass shooting–
Them: I don’t hear you saying that fetuses should be able to live without fear of being ripped from the womb. Far more children are killed through abortion each year than through gun violence.
You: I support the proposed ban on single-use plastic bags. Why not save some fish if it’s that easy to do?
Them: Are fish more important than unborn babies?
The whole set up ignores the fact that it’s possible to care about more than one issue at once. For example, we can care about children being separated from their parents as they illegally cross the US border AND care about abortion. And yet, this week, that’s the conversation I’ve seen happen over and over again. One person expresses outrage at the treatment of immigrant children, and another responds by saying “Well, why don’t you care that much about fetuses?”
Above, a political cartoon with two panels: on the left, a grave with the words “Gun Violence” on it and a teddy bear and flowers at its foot. Above the grave are the words “Over 30,000 lives lossed.” At right, a trashcan with the label “Planned Parenthood” on it. Liquid leaks from it, and something–maybe surgical gloves?–peaks out the top. Above the trashcan are the words “Over 300,000 lives tossed.” What gets lost or overlooked when we make this kind of comparison
The hope is to embarrass you into admitting that it’s impossible to hold a pro-choice position about abortion without being a hypocrite about some other issue, from police brutality to animal rights to reducing pollution. The larger goal is to break coalitions to change/prevent the change of laws.
We saw it in the recent Amendment 8 vote in Ireland. In that referendum, Irish voters overwhelming chose to change Ireland’s laws prohibiting abortion. The argument took some wacky turns, like this one:
Above, a poster credited to the American Life League. It includes the outline of a pregnant woman; inside her womb is a rainbow-colored fetus. The text says: “If she suspects the baby she is carrying is gay and wants to abort him will you support her ‘reproductive choice?’. Abortion is bigotry no matter how you color it.
I’ve seen similar arguments about fetuses with disabilities or autism. It also underlies the argument that I see in the US that the much higher rate of abortion among African American women is evidence of a “black genocide.”
Above, an example of the #blackgenocide ad campaign. This billboard shows the feace of an African American toddler. It says “Black children are an endangered species.” Others compare abortion to slavery.
The argument (though poorly worded) is basically “If the lives of X people matter to you so much, why don’t the lives of fetuses who are also part of that group?” So if Black Lives Matter, why aren’t we fighting against “murders” of “pre-born” black people? If you are “born gay,” doesn’t that mean that the fetus has everything within its body (chromosomes or hormones or brain structure) that it needs to already be gay? And if the lives of born gay people are worth protecting, isn’t the life of an unborn gay fetus? Indeed, legal scholars nd medical ethicists have been having this conversation for at least two decades decade. The argument is basically: If we could test for a “gay gene,” shouldn’t homophobes have the right to use that test to decide to terminate a pregnancy? Isn’t it better for queer kids NOT to be raised by homophobic parents?
If those sound like ridiculous arguments, remember that we actually DO use this logic when we invoke developmental or chromosomal abnormalities as a reason for abortion. We wouldn’t argue that the lives of (born) people with certain chromosomal differences don’t matter–but the rate of women choosing to terminate if they find that their fetus has a high chance of having Down Syndrome is so high that we’ve radically reduced the number of people who have Down Syndrome. Worldwide, the number of children born with Down Syndrome is going down dramatically as more women seek abortions if they get the genetic “bad news” that their fetus is likely to be born with this syndrome. In the US, anti-abortion laws aim to prohibit abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy–which is around the time when genetic testing becomes available to women. Twenty weeks, in other words, isn’t a random time frame but when women are more likely to chose abortion due to concerns about fetal health. Anti-abortion activists know that many abortions performed at this point in pregnancy are due to concerns about the results of genetic testing, so they choose this moment to intervene. Ohio has gone so far as to pass a law saying that doctors who knowingly perform an abortion for a woman who is choosing termination because the fetus has a high chance of having Down Syndrome can be fined and lose their license; a federal judge blocked the law, which was to go into effect this past March, but the fact that it was close to being implemented should tell us how important these arguments are to our laws.
“There is something wrong with the fetus” is often invoked in defense of abortion. Indeed, along with concerns about rape, it’s the argument that is supposed to pull on our heart strings. But it’s a poorly considered approach in defense of abortion rights because it centers the validity of abortion on the fetus rather than on the pregnant person. That ambivalence is built into Roe v. Wade, which is one reason why the law is so often challenged: it says right in there that the state can proscribe abortion after the point of viability except in cases of risk of life or health of the mother–and it recognizes that viability may change as medical technology changes. The most important law we have about abortion makes fetal development (except in cases of life or health of the mother) the criteria for judging when the state can prohibit the procedure. In sum, both pro-life and pro-choice arguments appeal to fetal life (at least sometimes).
The goal of the poster above is to force pro-choice voters to say, “Yes, she would have the right to abort if her fetus is gay and she decided she didn’t want to have a gay child, because the right to terminate a pregnancy isn’t rooted in the value of a fetus (even though gay people’s lives matter) but in a woman’s right to choose to make choices about her own body. Even if we think her logic is hateful, we think her right to choose something hateful trumps our belief that queer lives should be protected.” The goal of the #blackgenocide billboard is to force pro-choice people to say, “Black women who chose to kill their own black babies are participating in the further devaluing of black children’s lives, but I’m willing to allow that because her ability to make that choice is more important than their lives.”
It’s an easy argument to fall in to. We can look with horror at people who file “wrongful life” suits (lawsuits against doctors who fail to warn pregnant women that they are likely to have a child with a disability) or the white lesbian who ended up giving birth to a biracial child when the sperm bank made an error and gave her sperm from a black donor rather than a white one–but the strongest defense of abortion rights is that the pregnant person gets to decide. That means that they have the right to make an ableist or racist (or homophobic) decision.
Above, a billboard shows a young girl hugging the pregnant belly of a person who is mostly out of the shot. The words say “A person is a person NO matter how small,” a line from Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who that has been adopted by pro-lifers. The phrase frames abortion as a kind of discrimination against people of a certain age or at a developmental moment.
If we don’t like that, we need to defend the right to abortion differently. (In saying this, I recognize, of course, that some people do make the argument for abortion rights differently. But our pro-choice politicians and major reproductive rights organizations often continue arguments that are just too easy to read as ableist and can be twisted into thought experiments that are racist or ableist. I recommend some other ways of talking about abortion here.)
Many people who make this kind of argument don’t think that queer lives or black lives or the lives of children with disability matter. They DO reject their own gay children. Their hate DOES contribute to high suicide rates among queer youth. Their attitudes and behavior and policies DO kill queer kids every day. It’s not like they are making this argument because they love LGBTQ+ people. They very often support policies that keep black and brown children hungry, that set up them to move from schools to prison, and that funnel them to the foster care system in the meantime. They undercut health care for people with disabilities and refuse to imagine an economic system that makes space for people who do not “contribute” to the economy. While I’m proud to know a few people who live out their pro-life beliefs by actively supporting families and caring for children, many prolife voters hate both abortion and all the acts we could collectively take to reduce the abortion rate. You have to wonder: If a person really thought that abortion was bad as the Holocaust, wouldn’t they support the things we know that could stop it, like comprehensive sex ed, free access to long-term reversible birth control, universal health care, a guaranteed basic income, and paid family leave? How could abortion be the worst thing in the world but also not worth preventing with some subsidized daycare?
They are making it because they think it shows pro-choice people (and “liberals” in general) out to be hypocrites. And they don’t mind basically using queer and black lives and the bodies of people with disabilities as a weapon in that argument. It’s hard, then, to take their claim to care about the dignity of human life very seriously.
**Thanks to my friend JS and Nigel for the inspiration for the title of this blog.