Fetal Reality

William Saletan makes, quite compellingly, an argument I’ve advanced for years: that the anti-abortion side has a huge advantage in the debate because the pro-abortion side refuses to acknowledge something intuitively obvious: that the fetus is a human life. Writing on the just-passed bill making it a crime to “cause the death” of a “child in utero” during a violent federal crime, Saletan notes the lack of force of the opposing position:

It’s a strategy of denial. And this week, it ran into too much reality.

On the Senate floor, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, displayed a devastating series of pictures of murdered women accompanied by the viable fetuses who died with them. “The question is simple,” Brownback told his colleagues. “Do we have one victim or two involved in violent crimes such as these?” In one case, Brownback pleaded, “Look at this photo again of Christina and Ashley in the coffin. Is there one victim? Or are there two?” In another case, Brownback noted that the woman survived, but the fetus died. “Any congressman who votes for the ‘one-victim’ amendment is really saying that nobody died that night,” said Brownback, referring to the Feinstein alternative. “And that is a lie.”

Quite so.

Now, it is possible to set forth an argument that abortion during very, very early pregnacy is not the taking of something recognizable as human life. And one could even come up with a reasonably compelling argument that, while a first trimester fetus is a human life, the interests of the erstwhile mother outweigh its interests. I’m reasonably sympathetic to the first argument–although acknowledge the slippery slope counterargument. I don’t find the second argument particularly compelling unless the mother’s health is seriously in jeopardy.

But, regardless, we should have the debate from the starting point of the truth. And, preferably, within the context of a legislative body rather than a shifting majority on the Supreme Court.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Paul says:

    Abortion will go the way of slavery. 100 years from now it will seem appalling that anyone would do that to a child.

    The new 4D color ultrasounds and other imaging sciences are moving the debate as much as anything.

  2. does it matter if it is a human life? the point at which the right to life is invested in any being has always been a matter of power and politics. the states kill many people each year, thousands others are allowed to die, why? because there is no right to life outside of what the state provides. perhaps this is too realist though?

    the real question for me is at what point does the states interest in the preserving the life of child outweigh the parents interest whatever they may be? i think this is part of the conservative christian agenda.

  3. SwampWoman says:

    So, Jeremy, are you saying that only conservative Christians would think that it is wrong to kill an otherwise viable child that may have been within hours of being born?

    I consider myself an agnostic; however, I feel that Connor’s death was murder just as surely as was his mother’s death and should be treated as such.

  4. really? why?

    For me, I don not recognize that the unborn is a person, capable of any action or right until birth, at which point it is invested through its parents with the right to live, though that is tempered severely by other possibilities. to me this seems to be the tradition running through civil society based on the very real question of whether the fetus will be born and survive. now modern medicine has changed the question of viability significantly, but I don’t think it is murder, i think it is horrible, but i don’t think we should consider it to be a life that can be murdered. that is my position more or less. it wasn’t murder because there was no necessity of viable life. which is similar to when a doctor takes a patient off life support that is the only means of sustaining a persons life, it isn’t murder.

    as for the conservative christian agenda, participating in parts of it does not include you in it. it is not as such an exclusive category, such as ‘everyone is x or is not x’, it is more that there is an agenda, and there is a set of beliefs that are being promoted with that agenda, and that people tend to believe some or whole of those beliefs more than in the past, though the it is mostly my opinion on these issues.

  5. John Smith says:

    The trouble with his piece is that his numbers are faulty and his assertion on the vote unsupported by evidence – of having asked the senators concerned, say…