Thursday, August 23, 2012
The 'Magic Birth Canal' Theory of Rights
An article appears in the September/October 2012 issue of The Humanist, entitled "Are Atheist Pro-Life Groups Promoting Sound Science?" which quotes Secular Pro-Life leaders. The article was written by Marco Rossi, a man who once worked for Planned Parenthood-- so it's no surprise that the article is unflattering. He comes right out of the box with the baseless accusation that we have a secret religious agenda, akin to the intelligent design movement. Nevertheless, there is no such thing as bad publicity.
What fascinated me most is that Rossi actually comes right out and states his adherence to the "magic birth canal" theory of rights, which most pro-choicers avoid:
There is in fact a major difference between human beings as fetuses and human beings as persons: human beings as persons are born. [. . .] Rights only exist within the context of a community where they have the potential to be realized and the possibility of being threatened. Birth is our universal entrance into any community. It is the point at which we are able to break away — literally — from the absolute dependency of our mothers. The fact of the matter is birth transforms us. It simultaneously makes us into individuals and members of a group, and thus embeds in us rights-bearing protections.
Why, exactly, does the right to life not have "the potential to be realized and the possibility of being threatened" in the womb? (Certainly, abortion constitutes a threat!) And why are we not "individuals" or "members of a group" before birth? He never answers either question. It's simply a case of saying it makes it so.
He goes on to make the fair point that human rights are "interdependent" with each other: "No right is absolute and can be used to justify canceling out another right." Indeed, even the right to life, while fundamental, is not absolute; this is the basic premise behind the morality of lethal self-defense. But Rossi errs when he argues that "The only way that this interdependence can exist between a child’s right to life and a woman’s right to her body is by demarcating the moment of right-bearing at birth as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states." This is not interdependence at all. It is simply declaring a winner, without considering which party has more at stake.
Rossi then addresses four topics on which he believes that secular right to life groups have been unscientific: abortion and breast cancer; post-abortion psychological problems; ultrasounds before abortion; and fetal pain.
Starting with breast cancer:
In an email exchange about the validity of this claim, Monica Lynn, SPL’s blog coordinator, responded that the group found the evidence conflicting, but that its president, Kelsey Hazzard — who has studied law, not medicine — believes that women should be informed of the “conflicting” nature of this evidence before an abortion.
Monica has written extensively about the debate on abortion and breast cancer. In fact, Monica herself came out against such a link, but of course we acknowledge that conflicting evidence exists. What is so radical about presenting all of the evidence for women to examine themselves? (Of course, this is all a side issue; the risk or non-risk of breast cancer has absolutely no bearing on the morality of abortion.)
Similarly, the research on abortion and psychological stress has shown that the phenomenon of PASS — Post Abortion Stress Syndrome — doesn’t exist either. Recently, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study from Danish researchers which confirmed that the majority of women who underwent an abortion in the first two trimesters were no more likely to seek out psychological counseling after their abortion than they were before. While Lynn says the PASS label is problematic, SPL believes women should be informed of the possible psychological repercussions and their risks before having an abortion.
One study does not a consensus make, particularly when that study relies on women overcoming the stigma of post-abortion stress to seek out counseling. Many studies have shown an increase in negative emotions after an abortion, particularly where risk factors like youth or ambivalence are present. (An extensive list can be found in the footnotes to this article.)
Frankly, Rossi has outdone himself here. In general, the debate between pro-life and pro-choice is on how common it is for women to feel guilt or depression related to their abortions, and whether it's a significant enough risk to warrant a pre-abortion disclaimer; that's a legitimate debate. But Rossi appears to be claiming that no woman has such an experience; it "doesn't exist." Such a claim can be disproved with a single incidence of post-abortion depression. I invite Rossi to attend a Silent No More event some time.
Then comes the discussion of ultrasound, which is truly baffling:
The new Virginia law requiring women to undergo an ultrasound prior to an abortion was designed by the organization Americans United for Life — another nonreligious pro-life group. According to Charmaine Yoest, CEO and president of Americans United for Life, the Virginia bill was necessary to protect women with ectopic pregnancies from the possibility of dying during a medication-induced abortion. Warnings like these are half-truths that only serve to whip up hysteria around the risks of abortion. An ultrasound before an abortion is a standard practice for most providers, and is an essential tool for helping determine gestational age, viability, and yes, the possibility of an ectopic pregnancy. However, doctors determine ultrasounds based on medical necessity — not ideology. In reality, the risk of a medication-induced abortion in the case of an ectopic pregnancy is phenomenally rare, and the possibility of the mother dying is even more remote.
It's remote, so therefore we shouldn't mandate something that can easily prevent it, and which is already standard practice for most providers? There is absolutely no risk of medical harm to the mother from an ultrasound. But there is a risk to Rossi's former employer-- clients might change their minds. That's what this is really about, and that explains Rossi's next sentence:
When asked about the ultrasound requirement, Secular Pro-Life responded that doctors should not only be required to offer women an ultrasound twenty-four hours prior to an abortion, but they should also be required to explain the stages of fetal development with the women [sic] before she agrees to an abortion.
Oh, the humanity.
Next, we get to fetal pain, where Rossi begins by stating that there is "no clear consensus from doctors or medical researchers as to when a fetus feels pain." He then goes on to cite two studies suggesting that the ability to feel pain comes at the later end of pregnancy (29-30 weeks and 35-37 weeks, respectively), while citing none of the research suggesting an earlier stage of development. Finally, he bashes Secular Pro-Life for failing to recognize the "medical consensus" on fetal pain.
Rossi concludes by celebrating the fact that 25% of Americans support his view that abortion should be legal in all circumstances. He would also like to claim the 51% who support abortion in "certain" circumstances, to create a pro-choice majority. That's highly problematic, since "certain circumstances" would include people who only support abortion in cases where the mother's life is in danger (such as myself). Rossi's abortion-until-birth position-- which, even accepting his favored studies, would allow for abortions on pain-capable unborn babies-- is extreme. It will continue to fall out of favor as groups like Secular Pro-Life work to educate the public.