Fetal Reality II

Monday, in response to a piece by William Saletan, I argued that the pro abortion rights side would be far better served if it simply acknowledged the fact that the fetus is human. Slate commentator Thrasymachus takes up the challenge today:

I think you’ll agree that I’m a person. I have hands, feet, a law degree and a bewildering array of romantic entanglements and student loans. I am, in short, a living human being entitled to the full range of constitutional amendments that this entails. Moreover (although you’ll have to take my word for it) I’m an American Citizen and a mentally competent adult, which endows me with even more rights.

That means, for instance, that if I’m caught in a snowstorm and I’m freezing to death, I have a legal right to break into your empty hunting lodge and seek shelter, as long as I pay for the damages. If I’m piloting a ship and a terrible storm is coming, I have a right to tie up at your dock. Under the Constitution, life is regarded as precious, and my right to live trumps your right to be free of trespassers and damage to your property.

But if I should somehow find myself lodged in your abdomen (no, I mean ALL of me. . . and you have a dirty, dirty mind!), and if you, as a result, are undergoing massive hormonal changes, severe personal and professional inconvenience and a not insignificant risk to your physical health, then my rights in this position must be balanced with yours.

You might not wish, after all, to carry a tiny attorney around in a body cavity for nine months; you might not wish to undergo significant physical changes and risks to your health. And if I was to tell you that IF you let me stay there, then even after I exited your physical body you’d be utterly and comprehensively responsible for my well-being for the next 18 years. . .


I think that in the final analysis, basic ethical and philosophical issues like “life” and “choice” and “personhood” and “rights” are a cop-out. That’s not what we’re really fighting over, and deep in their hearts, both sides of the abortion debate must know it. We’re not fighting over the moment when a lump of protoplasm (or, if you prefer, two lumps) becomes a human being.

We’re fighting over the instant when a missed period, a positive pregnancy test or a lump of protoplasm in a woman’s belly becomes her child, in her thoughts and in her soul. The heartbeat when she looks into its future and sees it enwrapped in her own. And whether she tells you by words, or by shuddering sobs, or by shy secret smiles; if she tells you at all; there’s no mark on that clock but her own.

For a variety of reasons I won’t rehash here, I come to the opposite conclusion: that, to the extent they clash, the life of the fetus outweighs the rights of the mother once she’s pregnant. Still, we get much further with this debate having it on these grounds: acknowledging that, yes, the lives of two human beings as involved and the understanding that there is balancing to be done. While we may not resolve it even under those terms, I can’t help but think the debate would be far less acrimonious.

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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. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Steven says:

    The problem with Thray’s arugment: the baby didn’t “break into” the woman’s abdomen.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Exactly. One could argue the point in cases of rape, I suppose, but otherwise the argument is strained at best. Still, it’s at least on the right terrain.

  3. I hate those counter-arguments, though, because they reduce to a recommendation that women avoid unplanned pregnancy by means simply of chastity. This might be a good sort of theoretical ideal, but is pretty ineffective in the real world. In the real world, there are a lot of unplanned pregnancies, and it’s unfair that women have to bear the burden for this. Real, but unfair.

    However, there is one problem with the analogy as given, and that is that the woman doesn’t have to deal with the fetus for 18 years. She has to deal with it for nine months, and then let someone else raise it. Pro-abortion people always like to pretend that adoption doesn’t exist. And if one mentions it they make it sound as if it’s a sort of long-shot, and there are all these babies languishing, unadopted, in the care of the county. The reality is the opposite, of course: there are many couples in line to adopt every unplanned baby that’s born in this country.