A Pro-Choice Argument that Isn’t

In response to all the anti-woman legislation disguised as anti-abortion legislation passing through statehouses this month, there has been ample anger out on the internet. Much of it seeks to draw attention to the ways that legislators seek to police the bodies of women while ignoring the role that a man plays in every single pregnancy–a role that he could choose not to play if he opposes abortion.

Here’s one example:

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I get why the argument is appealing. At the heart of the anti-abortion legislation passing in Ohio, Georgia, and Alabama isn’t a concern for ending abortion or for saving “fetal life.” If that were the motivation, lawmakers would do what works to end abortion, and pro-life activists would be picketing outside of fertility clinics, which destroy embryos as part of their businesses. Voters would be asked to swear off voting for any candidate who supported forms of artificial reproductive technology that fertilize eggs outside of the body, and Congress would be trying to prevent private insurers from covering fertility treatment plans that include such technologies.

But the argument also ignores what we know about reproduction.

In the analogy above (and other variations of it), sperm are being compared to fertilized eggs. But that’s a dishonest comparison. Pro-lifers don’t think that sperm are equivalent to fertilized eggs. They think that sperm is equivalent to unfertilized eggs.

While people who oppose all forms of artificial contraception think that’s it’s wrong to do anything except avoid sex in order to prevent pregnancy, the large majority of people, including those who oppose abortion, don’t think it’s problematic to prevent the fertilization of an egg.

Depending on their perspective, they think it’s either wrong to prevent the implantation of an egg and sperm that have been combined (the zygote) or the growth of an implanted zygote.

Anti-abortion laws have many sinister intentions, but their primary claim is primary claim is to prohibit technologies and procedures that prevent an implanted zygote from growing into a fetus or a fetus from being born.*

You can argue that such laws are wrong, for sure. But they have nothing to do with masturbation or Elle Wood’s speech in Legally Blonde.

Humor and anger both have their place in political commentary, for sure. But this comparison is sloppy, and I think that makes it dangerous. Human embryos are fascinating, and there is so, so much we don’t know about human reproduction. We’ve already discovered that embryonic stem cells turn into what look like human embryos pretty quickly–a discovery that prompted surprised researchers to start destroying them for fear that the “embryoids” would continue to diversify their cells.

For these reasons, it might not be wise for abortion rights advocates to root support for pro-choice policies in human biology. Roe explicitly states that, as medical technology advances, the state may have more authority to control abortion at an earlier stage in pregnancy. (This is just one reason why Roe isn’t the pro-choice decision many people think it is–and why Justice O’Connor said that the decision was “on a collision course with itself.”) Implied is that, as we learn more about zygotes, embryos, and fetuses, we may need to re-evaluate how our abortion laws balance the rights of women against the authority of the state to regulate the procedure. It could be that the more we know, the less value we give to these forms of life (a term I use neutrally–we can recognize that zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are human (they’re not equine, bovine, porcine, etc.) and that they are made of living cells without advocating that they are legal persons)–or it could be that, the more we know, the more value we award them.

But, either way, arguments based on false comparisons don’t help achieve reproductive justice. Instead, they signal that the pro-choice side is willing to misrepresent the basic pro-life argument AND that they are willing to make faulty statements about reproduction, such as the implication that sperm is equivalent to a fertilized egg, even though there is a clear and obvious difference (sperm contains only genetic material from the father, while a fertilized egg contains genetic material from both parents) that matters deeply to many women–including pro-choice women. And that’s unwise, I think, because one of the distinctions that the pro-choice side has over the pro-life one is a greater commitment to scientific accuracy and intellectual honesty. 

I don’t think that abortion rights advocates have to listen to pro-lifers and try to understand them. I do think, though, that they have a duty to themselves to be honest and accurate.

Persuasion that is based on faulty comparisons is dishonest–and honesty is central to the concept of choice of all kinds. If we don’t know have accurate information about our choices, then they aren’t really consensual. That abortion rights advocates would circulate false information undermines the pro-choice cause.


*Some also take aim at birth control that they claim prevents the implantation of a fertilized egg. Birth control doesn’t work this way, and we need to stop treating such anti-contraception arguments as if they are valid science, because they are not.



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