Donald Trump was asked a hypothetical question recently. He gave a candid answer, as is his wont, for if there is one thing that can be said about Mr. Trump it is that he does not overthink his answers, if he thinks them at all. The question was whether, in the event that abortion lost its current constitutional protection and became illegal again, women receiving abortions as well as physicians giving them should be subject to punishment. Trump’s response was that he would expect both parties to be sanctioned.
This provoked an immediate uproar, not only from pro-choice groups as one might expect, but from pro-life ones as well. Trump beat a hasty retreat: he had touched the third rail of American politics, and gotten well burnt. The politically correct answer to have given was that, assuming Roe v. Wade to be overturned, it would be up to the wisdom of individual state legislatures to grapple with the question of which laws to write within the compass of the Supreme Court’s new writ. That would have been a non-answer, but of course that is exactly what the best political answers are. Instead, Trump gave not a correct but a reasonable reply, which was that persons violating the law are normally subject to the penalties that accompany them.
If one remains strictly on the plane of reason, it is hard to see this reply as objectionable. Laws are not laws if there is no penalty for breaking them; otherwise, they are mere suggestions or advisements. In a medical abortion there are two responsible agents, the woman requesting it and the doctor performing it, and if such abortions are declared illegal then, subject to whatever extenuations there may be, it is not evident why both parties should not be liable to whatever prosecution the law provides.
For pro-choice advocates, such laws would necessarily be unjust, and the penalties that came with them would likewise be so. What surprised me, however, was that pro-life groups were as vociferous in denouncing Trump as pro-choice ones were. Surely, if the taking of an unborn life were a heinous crime, then a woman requesting or consenting to it would be guilty of a very grave act. One might, according to circumstances, wish to counsel or educate such a woman rather than punish her, but to say that no woman should ever be punished for it, no matter how deliberate her conduct or how often she repeated it, would be to say that women should not be held accountable as responsible legal agents, and in that sense were not educable at all. Such a conclusion would put our attitudes toward women back a good two hundred years and more. It would entail a view of them as perpetual children needing constant male supervision and control.
Pro-choice advocates don’t get off the hook so easily either, though. If the pro-life view of women seeking abortions seems to be, at best, as victims of circumstance needing guidance and support, pro-choicers depict such women as bravely electing to arrange their own lives and assert their autonomy. But abortion on demand means that any reason for an abortion is as good as any other, and that it is therefore an act without moral implications as such. One woman may regard her abortion as an affirmation of personal freedom. Another may simply not wish to ruin her time-share vacation in Cuernavaca. But neither choice, objectively, is more significant than the other. This is why, when pushed to the wall, pro-choice advocates prefer to describe those who seek abortions as needy or desperate in some way—very much, indeed, as pro-life groups do. In both cases, the logic of their positions drive them to infantilize women. Those who support ‘life’ are reluctant to acknowledge that some women who seek abortions are perfectly knowledgeable about them. Those who support ‘choice’ are equally reluctant to concede that some women seek them purely as a matter of convenience. The preferred models, therefore, are either Little Nell or Joan of Arc. There isn’t much room for actual women between them.
No sooner had the Trump furor died down when Hillary Clinton, fearless champion of choice, found herself equally under attack. Clinton’s sin was to refer to the developed product of a fertilized egg as an “unborn person.” Team Clinton immediately claimed that the candidate had misspoken, but, in fact, Hillary was reaching for a term that, in the world of choice, does not exist. We refer to the stages of pre-natal growth as those of a zygote, an embryo, and a fetus. A fetus is generally described as a developing organism from its third month to its ninth, but it seems awkward to many if not most people to apply the same term to a tiny, featureless creature and to one fully formed and prepared for birth.
The problem is far simpler for a woman who wants to give birth. She doesn’t think of what she’s carrying as a fetus, unless perhaps she’s a medical professional. She thinks of it as her “baby” or her “child,” precisely the terms she will apply to it after its birth. She is in no doubt that it is a person, and fantasizes or attempts communication with it. When it moves in the womb, she may regard its activity as intentional and purposive. A woman who decides against birth, however, especially if she has done so only some weeks or months after discovering conception, must sharply revise her vocabulary. Few women are willing to ask to have a baby or a child removed from them. The term ’fetus’ doesn’t fit the case any better. The typical reference would be to an ‘unwanted pregnancy,’ or, more discreetly, a ‘problem.’ The trick is to convert a concrete thing, a developing life, into an awkward or unwanted situation. A situation is something that can be remedied, and a remedy is a good, a positive thing. The remedy in the case of an abortion is an intervention or ‘termination.’ One terminates a mortgage, a vacation, a game of cards. One terminates a pregnancy. The idea that one is extinguishing something, let alone killing it, becomes, literally, unthinkable. And, as Hamlet says, there is nothing but thinking makes it so.
This brings us back to Clinton’s faux pas. Hillary wasn’t pregnant, but merely trying to describe the situation of someone who was. She found herself in need of the word to describe the subject of that situation. The subject was unborn, yes, but an unborn what? Child, baby, fetus wouldn’t do; “life” was perhaps better, but that would beg the question of what kind of life it was. And, of course, the only kind of life a woman can carry is a human one. Hillary was not going to say, “unborn human.” So, still looking for the most neutral, noncommittal term, she reached and tripped over “person.”
Ouch. If a “human” is not something you kill, especially in the womb, then a person is no better, because ‘person’ is a term applied only to humans, and it suggests moreover not only biological but ontological status. The Catholic Church (and other religions) speak of the person not only as a being with human form and capacity, but as one with a soul. And a soul is that which is inseparably connected to a person, a thing than can belong to nothing else and has a value both absolute and independent of any and all circumstance—in short, of any situation. To separate a soul from its body, especially an innocent, dependent body, sounds like a pretty terrible thing to do. And that, Hillary assured the pro-choice community, was absolutely not what she meant to say.
To be sure, the term ‘person’ does not necessarily imply commitment to the concept of a soul (though I doubt Hillary would want to wrangle with that problem, either). It does, however, suggest in secular usage a being endowed with rights, and the idea that an unborn, uh, offspring (a term favored by some medical dictionaries) possesses rights is precisely the trap that pro-choice advocates are most anxious to avoid. Which is why they jumped all over Hillary.
Hillary, of course, backtracked at once, just as Trump had. That solved her political problem. It did not solve the problem that advocates of choice have, however, and which they persistently fail to confront. One woman’s unborn child—perhaps the dearest, most precious thing in the world to her—is another’s unwanted pregnancy, and the same woman can come to hold both views. I have heard the subject of an unwanted pregnancy described as a thing, a blob, or even a cancer. Can it be that in a given case, though, a being previously described as a baby, a child, or a person can become a clump of unwanted tissue simply as a matter of choice? Is the fetus something on which we can confer or withdraw rights simply at pleasure? We have, and approve laws that make the killing of a pregnant woman a double homicide. If a woman is killed on her way to an abortion, though, by what standard do we say that two “persons” have died? If we confer on the dead fetus the condition of someone who had a right to life, on what basis do we overrule its mother’s decision that it was a merely a growth that had no such right and could be excised at will?
I have no simple answer to these questions, and I find the idea of compelling a woman to carry a child to term against her will repugnant. But I would like to know, from those who favor choice, on what basis they would ground human personhood, and with it any system of morality that is not subjective and arbitrary. It seems to me a question that has been ducked for too long.