The Fetus Focus Fallacy
By Joyce Arthur, Pro-Choice Action Network
Like never before, abortion rights are under threat today in the United States. A concerted 30-year campaign by the anti-choice movement has chipped away at a woman's right to control her life, and tried to turn the tables by focusing attention on the fetus. It looks like it's finally succeeded. In the aftermath of Bush's re-election victory in November 2004, Democrats started backing away from their commitment to abortion rights, and pro-choice leaders started talking about the need to recognize and respect the moral value of the fetus. Do we really want to travel down this dangerous road?
American women are drowning in a sea of state and federal laws restricting
abortion. Some of these laws recognize fetuses as persons deserving of
protection, such as a new federal law that makes fetuses a separate victim
when a pregnant woman is assaulted, and many state laws that criminalize
pregnant women for engaging in behaviors that might harm their fetus.
Although these laws specifically exempt legal abortion, that's a meaningless
sop to the war-weary pro-choice movement, which allowed most of these
laws to pass without a fight. Because if the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing
abortion is overturned, as many predict, women can probably look forward
to being prosecuted, jailed, and even executed for "murdering"
their fetuses - something that could never have happened in the bad old
days of illegal abortion when fetuses were still invisible to the eyes
of the law.
Anti-choicers insist that the key question in the abortion debate is whether a fetus is a person or not. If so, abortion is murder, they say, and therefore obviously immoral and illegal. That is not the key question at all, of course - anti-choicers are committing the "fetus focus fallacy." The practice of abortion is unrelated to the status of the fetus - it hinges totally on the aspirations and needs of women. Women have abortions regardless of the law, regardless of the risk to their lives or health, regardless of the morality of abortion, and regardless of what the fetus may or may not be. On average, abortion rates do not differ substantially between countries where it's legal and countries where it's illegal. Which reveals a more pertinent question: Do we provide women with safe legal abortions, or do we let them suffer and die from dangerous illegal abortions?
Some anti-choicers argue that even though women will have abortions regardless, that doesn't mean we should make abortion legal, since we don't legalize murder just because some people will commit murder anyway. This analogy fails because everyone in society agrees that murder is wrong and must be punished, but there is no such consensus on abortion. Second, very few people commit murder, but a majority of women will either have an abortion, or would have one if they experienced an unwanted pregnancy. As we learned from Prohibition (of alcohol), criminalizing behavior that large numbers of people engage in has disastrous consequences for public health and law and order.
The real key question behind the legality of abortion is: How much do
we value women's rights and lives? Because focusing on the fetus always
has dire legal and social consequences for women. It's also insulting
to women because it usurps their moral decision-making, as well as their
bodies and wombs. The best way by far to protect fetuses and children
is to help pregnant women and mothers. When women have the necessary support
and resources to raise kids, we can trust them to be good mothers. If
women have liberty and equality, their mothering will also be willing,
happy, and confident, which further benefits children. But as soon as
we bestow special rights on fetuses, we separate them from their mothers
and create an adversarial relationship that hurts both. For example, pregnant
drug abusers tend to forego prenatal care entirely rather than risk arrest
and prosecution. By protecting the interests of fetuses, we sacrifice
women's rights and autonomy, and end up harming their children in the
long run. Furthermore, it's logically impossible for two beings occupying
the same body to exercise two competing sets of rights - one or the other
has to go.
To shed more light on why it's wrong and inappropriate to focus on the
fetus, let's examine several aspects about abortion. I'm going to clarify
some misleading anti-choice language around the fetus, weigh the claims
that a fetus is a person and has a right to life, and consider a woman's
ethical reasoning behind an abortion decision. Thinking about these issues
will help us understand that assigning moral value to fetuses steals away
a woman's sacred right to resolve this question for herself, and her right
to decide how much it will factor into her private decision to have an
abortion or a baby.
Is a Fetus a Person? (and a Human Being?)
Anti-choicers say not only that a fetus is a person and a full human being, but that this status is an objective scientific fact. Unfortunately, they are assuming the very thing that requires proving, thereby committing the logical fallacy of "begging the question."
Historically, a fetus has never (or very rarely) been considered a person or human being, at least not before "quickening", an old-fashioned term indicating noticeable movement of the fetus. The Catholic Church generally disliked abortion because it represented illicit sex, not because it killed a fetus. The church did not make abortion an excommunicable crime until 1869. Further, the wide variety of laws throughout the world were written specifically to protect born human beings and their property. There is virtually no legal precedent for applying such laws to fetuses. Even when abortion was illegal, it had a lesser punishment than for murder, and was often just a misdemeanor. The anti-choice view of fetuses as persons is therefore a novel and peculiar one, with little historical or legal precedent to back it up.
Another major fallacy perpetrated by the anti-choice is their interchangeable
use of the word "person" with the terms "human", "humanity"
or "human being". These terms are not synonymous. For example,
anti-choicers often confuse the adjective "human" and the noun
"human being," giving them the same meaning. I'm struck by the
question they often pose to pro-choicers: "But isn't it human?"
- as if we think a fetus is really a creature from outer space. If you
point out that a fetus consists of human tissue and DNA, anti-choicers
triumphantly claim you just conceded it's a human being. Now, a flake
of dandruff from my head is human, but it is not a human being, and in
this sense, neither is a fertilized egg. Anti-choicers will respond that
a fertilized egg is not like dandruff, because the egg consists of a unique
set of chromosomes that makes it a distinct human being. But with cloning,
a cell from my dandruff is enough to create a new human being.
Although it would have my identical genetic make-up, it would still be
a unique individual, because human beings are much more than our genes.
Also, both a fertilized egg and a cloned cell represent a potential,
not an actual human being. It's a worn cliché, but it bears repeating
- an acorn isn't an oak tree and the egg you had for breakfast isn't a
chicken. So the only objective scientific fact we have is that fertilized
eggs are human (the adjective) - not that they are human beings (the noun).
Fetuses are uniquely different from born human beings in major ways.
The most fundamental difference is that a fetus is totally dependent on
a woman's body to survive. Anti-choicers might argue that born human beings
can be entirely dependent on other people too, but the crucial difference
is that they are not dependent on one, specific person to the exclusion
of all others. Anybody can take care of a newborn infant (or disabled
person), but only that pregnant woman can nurture her fetus. She
can't hire someone else to do it.
Another key difference is that a fetus doesn't just depend on a woman's
body for survival, it actually resides inside her body. Persons,
by definition, must be separate individuals who operate independently
of others. They do not gain the status of persons by virtue of living
inside the body of another person - the very thought is inherently ridiculous,
The normal meaning of human being implies a physical body of a certain
size and shape with common attributes (excepting disabilities). Early
embryonic forms do not share basic commonalities that define us as human
beings. For example, zygotes and blastocysts are barely visible to the
naked eye and have no bodies, brains, skeleton, or internal organs. Fetuses
cannot breathe or make sounds, and they cannot see or be seen (except
by shadowy ultrasound). They absorb nourishment and expel waste via an
umbilical cord and placenta, not via a mouth and anus as do all other
human beings. Further, fetuses are not just miniature babies. At various
stages, fetuses have eyes on stalks, notochords (instead of spines), fish-like
gills, tails, downy fur, distorted torsos, spindly legs, giant heads,
and alien-looking faces. In fact, an early human fetus is practically
indistinguishable in appearance from a dog or pig fetus. Finally, the
fetal brain is not yet capable of conscious thought and memory (which
aren't fully actualized until two or three years after birth). But our
complex brains are what set us apart from animals and define us as human
beings. The brain is the seat of personhood.
Anti-choicers also use the phrase "humanity of the fetus,"
by which they may mean its biological human qualities, but it's ambiguous,
and purposely so. The word "humanity" implies compassionate
human emotions and virtues, such as pathos, love, or kindness. The term
is cleverly designed to elicit sympathy for a fetus, and assign it human-like
qualities it simply does not have. The ability to feel joy, sadness, anger,
and hatred are an integral part of our personhood, and we do not learn
to develop such sophisticated emotions until we start socially interacting
Besides the capacity to experience emotions, we generally think of personhood
as possessing the qualities of intelligence, self-awareness, and moral
responsibility. Fetuses do not
share these characteristics. On a more practical level however, the term
"person" is really a legal and social construction. Persons
enjoy legal rights and constitutional freedoms, such as the right to assemble,
travel, protest, speak, and believe as they wish. Persons have birth certificates
and social security numbers. Persons earn income, pay taxes, and vote,
or they are registered dependents of those that do. Under this definition,
it is an indisputable fact that fetuses are not persons. They are literally
incapable of exercising legal personhood in any meaningful way. Although
you could call a fetus a "potential person," a potential person
cannot have personhood rights either, in the same way that a 6-year old
cannot obtain a driver's license just because he's a potential 16-year
old. Potential persons have only potential rights, not actual rights.
So even though a fetus is biologically human, it's definitely not a person
(legally and socially), and it's questionable whether it's a human being
(physically). Although we usually consider persons to be human beings
as well, that's not necessarily always the case. We could argue that intelligent
animals like chimpanzees share some qualities of personhood with us, while
a few human beings do not qualify as persons, such as brain-dead individuals.Likewise,
we could argue that fetuses are not human beings by virtue of their non-personhood
and because they have unique physical qualities different from any born
However, there is a wide divergence of opinion on the degree of "human
beingness" of the fetus, and more pertinently - what its moral value
should be. Biology, medicine, law, philosophy, and theology have no consensus
on that issue, and neither does society as a whole. There will never
be a consensus because of the subjective and unscientific nature of the
claim. That's why we should give the benefit of the doubt to women and
let them decide - because women are indisputable human beings and persons
Does a Fetus Have a Right to Life?
Although fetuses cannot enjoy legal personhood, anti-choicers argue that
fetuses do have a right to life that outweighs the right of the woman
to control her fertility and her life. But many anti-choicers support
exceptions to a ban on abortion in cases of rape, incest, a threat to
the woman's life, or even health. This clearly indicates that they believe
the right to life of a fetus is negotiable, certainly not absolute or
paramount. By compromising their "right to life" definition
in order to accommodate a woman's rights, they inadvertently acknowledge
that women's rights are more important than the right to life of fetuses.
Even if a fetus can be said to have a right to life, this does not include the right to use the body of another human being. For example, the state cannot force people to donate organs or blood, even to save someone's life. We are not obligated by law to risk our lives jumping into a river to save a drowning victim, noble as that might be. Therefore, even if a fetus has a right to life, a pregnant woman is not required to save it by loaning out her body for nine months against her will. In response, anti-choicers say that being pregnant is not the same as being a Good Samaritan, because the woman chose to have sex, voluntarily accepting the risk of pregnancy. This argument is sexist and puritanical because it punishes women, not men, for their sexual behavior. Moreover, sex is not a contract for pregnancy - people have a constitutional right to non-procreative sex because of legalized birth control, which implicitly provides the right to have sex without reproducing. Most abortions are caused by failed contraception anyway, but regardless, consent to sex does not entail consent to pregnancy, any more than consent to swimming implies consent to drown.
A fetus' supposed right to life wouldn't automatically overrule a woman's
right to choose anyway, which can be argued to have a higher moral value
under the circumstances. The free exercise of one's moral conscience is
a fundamental right in our society. And since pregnancy entails profound
physical, psychological, and long-lasting consequences for a woman - it
is not a mere "inconvenience" - her freedoms are significantly
restricted if she is forced to carry to term.
If fetuses did have a right to live, one could make an equal case for
the right of unwanted fetuses not to live. This is alien to the
anti-choice assumption that all life is precious and should be encouraged
and preserved at any cost. In the real world, however, some people commit
suicide because they no longer want to live, and others wish they'd never
been born. Life is not a picnic for all, especially unwanted children
who are at high risk for leading dysfunctional lives.Many
people believe that being forced to live is a violation of human dignity
and conscience. To be truly meaningful, the right to live must include
the flip side, the right to die.
Ultimately though, to have a "right to life" requires that
one be an individual capable of living an independent existence. One must
"get a life" before one has a "right to life." A fetus
is not a separate individual - it lives inside a pregnant woman and depends
on her for its growth. In fact, the biological definition of "parasite"
fits the fetal mode of growth precisely, especially since pregnancy causes
a major upset to a woman's body, just like a parasite does to its host.
I'm not trying to disparage fetuses with the negative connotations of
the word parasite; in fact, parasites and their hosts often enjoy mutually
supportive relationships, and this would include most pregnancies. However,
the parasitic relationship of a fetus to a woman means that its continued
existence requires her consent
- if she continues the pregnancy unwillingly, her rights and bodily integrity
are violated. Fetal dependence on a woman's body also refutes the common
anti-choice assertion that fetuses are "innocent" and therefore
deserving of protection. An unwanted fetus has no ill intent of course
- like a parasite, it's just doing what it naturally has to do - but the
physical risks of pregnancy and its total disruption to a woman's body
and life means the fetus is not harmless, and therefore not innocent.
This gives the woman the right to defend herself via an abortion.
The Ethical Abortion Decision
Can a woman's decision to have an abortion be ethically justified even
if we decided that the fetus is a human being with moral claims on us?
Because if so, the moral status of the fetus would become even more peripheral
to the abortion debate.
What goes through a typical woman's mind when she finds herself accidentally
and unhappily pregnant? Why does she choose abortion? The common denominator
is how a woman personally feels about becoming a mother at that time in
her life, and whether she can deal with it or not. A 1998 study by the
Alan Guttmacher Institute examined the reasons why women have abortions.
About half of all women said their main reason was to postpone or stop
childbearing. What women actually say to justify this are things like:
"I just can't have another baby right now." or "I'm not
ready to be a mother." or "I already have three kids."
In the U.S., 61% of women having abortions already have at least one
child. Globally, a large majority of women who have abortions are married
with children. These women are concerned with being able to provide for
themselves and their existing family. Having a new mouth to feed can be
a great hardship that can hurt the whole family. Women who decide to abort
are making a moral decision that is also practical. They are deciding
on the basis of what they know is in the best interests of themselves
and their families. Women love their children. If they know they won't
be able to care for another child, they're not helping anyone by bringing
it into difficult circumstances. Anti-choicers often label women who have
abortions as "selfish." Let's never forget that women are still
the primary caretakers of children in our society. Women know they're
the ones who are going to have to do it. If they aren't even in a position
to take care of themselves, or the children they already have, is it fair
to expect them to make things even worse for everyone involved? In fact,
having an abortion can be one of the most unselfish acts a woman can perform.
What about adoption? - the catch-all solution according to anti-choicers.
First, it's virtually impossible for a married woman or any woman with
children, to give up a baby for adoption. So out of all women having abortions,
we're talking about a minority of women, the single childless women, who
might be in a position to give up their babies for adoption. But overall,
less than five percent of women actually do so. Why? A counselor at an
abortion clinic told me that when adoption is mentioned as an option,
a typical reaction from many women goes something like this: "Are
you kidding!? Give my baby to some stranger? I could never do that!"
What these women are feeling is instinctual - it's a combination of self-preservation,
and a maternal obligation to the child. Giving up a child for adoption
is very traumatic; it can haunt a woman forever. This relates to women's
strong need to control what happens to their children. The fetus is theirs.
It's in their body. And they feel obligated to it. They have a gut feeling
that it's irresponsible to give your children to strangers - good mothers
simply don't do such things. Most women feel that it's better to prevent
the birth of a child than consign it to an uncertain fate.
When a single childless woman has an abortion, she often does it so she
can better provide for future children later in her life. Although single
motherhood is common and more accepted these days, it's still very difficult
to raise kids by yourself. It's hard on mothers and it's hard on kids.
Single mothers tend to be poorer, and have fewer resources and supports.
And almost everyone would agree that kids benefit from having another
Most women give more than one reason for their abortion. There's usually
other problems in the woman's life that play a role. In fact, the second
most common reason for having an abortion, according to the Alan Guttmacher
study, is socio-economic concerns. This includes things like poverty,
inability to afford additional children, unemployment, no father, relationship
problems with the father, or disruption of her education or employment.
A problem with the father is a really common reason, next to having no
money. When a woman gets pregnant, she knows she's going to be tied to
the father of that child for the rest of her life. If that man is abusive,
or dysfunctional, or maybe she just doesn't love him, why should she make
him a permanent part of her life and her child's life? Many women feel
that it's better to sever all ties with that man now, by preventing the
birth of his child.
What do all these socio-economic reasons have in common? They are all
practical reasons, based on the day-to-day stark reality of women's lives.
But they're also moral and compassionate reasons. They indicate a woman's
overriding concern that her baby should have the best chance for a good
life. Not a life with no father, or a bad father, or a life of poverty
and collecting welfare.
So all in all, a woman's reasons for having an abortion are ethical.
The decision to have an abortion is taken seriously and well-thought out.
It's based on her own life circumstances and abilities; the welfare of
her family; her future plans, hopes and dreams; and her determination
to make a good life happen, both for herself and her loved ones. For many
women, the decision to have an abortion is empowering, because it allows
them the freedom to take control of their lives and their destiny, and
protect and improve the lives of themselves and their families. Legal
abortion liberates women, because women can only achieve equality with
men if they have the ability to control their fertility.
Such things are truly ethical consequences of the right to choose abortion.
Since it's also a decision that takes into account the best interests
of the fetus, we can be confident that women recognize the value of their
fetuses and act accordingly.
The Moral Value of the Fetus - Who Decides?
Notice that the above discussion acknowledges the moral value of fetuses
from the point of view of the pregnant woman. All pregnant women know
that their fetus will soon become a baby if they let the pregnancy continue.
In fact, it's quite likely that most pregnant woman - those with wanted
pregnancies - already believe it's a baby. A happily pregnant woman probably
feels love for her fetus as a special and unique human being, a welcome
and highly anticipated member of her family. She names her fetus, refers
to it as a baby, talks to it, and so on. On the other hand, an unhappily
pregnant woman may view her fetus with utter dismay. She cannot bring
herself to refer to it as anything other than "it," much less
a human being. She is desperate to get rid of this unwelcome invader,
and when she does, she feels tremendous relief. Both of these reactions
to a fetus, and all reactions in between, are perfectly valid and natural.
Both may even occur in the same woman, years apart. Because both spring
from the same ethical source - the biological imperative to be a good
mother, at the right time, in the best circumstances possible.
Abortion is an extremely personal decision. It's difficult for anyone
to understand how it feels to be host to an unwelcome pregnancy, until
it happens to them. When Canada's Supreme Court threw out the country's
abortion law, one of the female judges said: "It is probably impossible
for a man to respond, even imaginatively, to such a dilemma, not just
because it is outside the realm of his personal experience
he can relate to it only by objectifying it, thereby eliminating the subjective
elements of the female psyche which are at the heart of the dilemma."
An abortion provider from Kansas put it more poetically: "Abortion
is not a cerebral or a reproductive issue. Abortion is a matter of the
heart. For until one understands the heart of a woman, nothing else about
abortion makes any sense at all."
Perhaps an effective way to convey this is to explain how I felt about
my own abortion 15 years ago, obtained under Canada's old discriminatory
system of therapeutic hospital abortion committees. The thing that enraged
me then, and still does today, is this single overriding thought: How
dare they. How dare anyone tell me what I can do with my body, my
life. How dare anyone tell me I should submit to their preconceived ideas
of how a woman should think and feel, decide and act, live and breathe.
How dare they. My life is no-one else's to lead, no-one else's
to make stereotyped judgments upon, no-one else's to paternalistically
manage. If I want advice and support from others over difficult life decisions,
I'll seek it on my own and take what I need from it. Ultimately, I am
the final arbiter when it comes to my life. And my decision-making ability
includes deciding the fate of my embryo or fetus. Since it lives inside
my body and is completely dependent on me and no-one else for its survival,
it literally belongs to me and no-one else. I'm solely responsible for
it. It has no independent rights because it has no independent existence.
This is not selfishness or a lack of caring for my fetus - quite the opposite.
It represents maturity and respect, based on a gut-level belief that I
shouldn't inflict myself on a child who deserves better.
Anti-choicers claim that nobody's looking out for fetuses except them.
They ignore the fact that only pregnant woman are qualified to make decisions
on behalf of their fetuses. Not only can we trust women to make the best
decision - whether it's to give birth or have an abortion - but we must
allow women to make mistakes they might regret, too. With rights come
responsibilities. In the end, a woman's decision about what to do with
her fetus is nobody's business but hers. Any unwanted interference with
her decision is not only immoral, it's an outrage and an insult, because
it says a woman can't be trusted to make responsible decisions about her
own life. It reduces her to the status of a child or a piece of chattel.
That's why the abortion issue should have no place in politics or law.
It's a private health decision that women make based on their personal
ethics and life circumstances, not a political football to be kicked around
at election time. Women's lives and rights should never be up for debate
in legislatures and editorial pages.
We all have our own opinions about what the moral status of the fetus
might be. Some people believe a fertilized egg is a full human being with
an absolute right to life that supercedes any right of the woman. Others
believe that a fetus attains moral value only after it becomes viable,
or upon birth. But that's all these beliefs are - opinions. There's no
way to decide between them, because they're entirely subjective and emotional.
Therefore, the only opinion that counts is that of the pregnant woman.
The status of her fetus and any moral value accorded to it is entirely
her call. A fetus becomes a human being when the woman carrying it
decides it does.
Pro-choice leaders and activists are wrong to encourage debate on the
status of the fetus. They are wrong to publicly speculate on its moral
value. Their opinion about the fetus is just as irrelevant and just as
dangerous as the opinion of the most fanatical anti-choicer. Because when
we inject our opinions about the fetus into the public square, it just
shows our lack of respect and trust for the moral authority of pregnant
women. We insult their dignity, invade their privacy, and trample on their
personal relationship with their fetus.
Let's not fall into the fetus focus fallacy. The abortion debate is about ensuring fundamental human rights for women - their right to life, good health, education, economic justice, autonomy, privacy, and equality - in short, women's right to control their own lives and destiny on a par with men. Because with those rights in hand, women have everything they need to protect and care for their fetuses and children themselves, in the best way possible.
Author's Note: This article incorporates several arguments from a previous article I wrote in 2001: Personhood: Is a Fetus a Human Being?
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