Answering Christian Questions for Pro-Choicers

In an article on the Gospel Coalition website, a Christian writer named Trevin Wax asserts that anti-choice politicians are held to a higher standard than pro-choice ones. He lists ten "hard questions" that he thinks pro-choice candidates aren't asked often enough. I'm not a politician, but I thought I would take a shot at answering them.

1. You say you support a woman's right to make her own reproductive choices in regards to abortion and contraception. Are there any restrictions you would approve of?

Although this list is supposedly ten questions, several of them are the same question, just asked with different wordings. See my answer to question #4.

2. In 2010, The Economist featured a cover story on "the war on girls" and the growth of "gendercide" in the world - abortion based solely on the sex of the baby. Does this phenomenon pose a problem for you or do you believe in the absolute right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy because the unborn fetus is female?

Abortion based on the gender of the fetus is deplorable, and I'd like to see it ended, but it doesn't happen in isolation. It springs from a deeper culture of endemic sexism that values women less than men and makes daughters more of a burden on their families than sons. (Need I add that this sexism is often based on religion?) Banning sex-selective abortion without remedying this underlying sexism is treating one symptom without curing the disease. Conversely, if we could convince everyone that boys and girls were equally valuable, sex-selective abortion would disappear on its own as an incidental benefit.

Also, I think that while sex-selective abortion is deplorable, it's likely that any legislation to outlaw it would cause even worse harm. Enforcing a law like that would necessarily entail a humilating and invasive interrogation of the woman's motives, and would require some kind of external authority to decide whether her stated reasons were "good enough". Obviously, this would leave a huge loophole for anti-choicers to issue blanket denials.

3. In many states, a teenager can have an abortion without her parents' consent or knowledge but cannot get an aspirin from the school nurse without parental authorization. Do you support any restrictions or parental notification regarding abortion access for minors?

This is a question where I personally haven't made up my mind, and I'm open to arguments either way. In general, I think that parents should have a role in medical decisions for their minor children. But I also think that if a teenage girl needs an abortion but doesn't want to tell her parents, there's probably a good reason for that. And I definitely don't think that parents should be allowed to force a teenager to carry a pregnancy to term against her will.

4. If you do not believe that human life begins at conception, when do you believe it begins? At what stage of development should an unborn child have human rights?

Human development is a continuous spectrum, not a black-and-white discontinuity. That said, I think that what gives us our moral worth is the possession of consciousness, and this in turn depends on a functioning brain. That's why I argue, as Carl Sagan did, that personhood status and human rights should be granted at the point when characteristically human brainwaves are detectable in a fetus, generally around the beginning of the third trimester. Before this point, abortion should be legal for any reason. After this point, I think it'd be defensible to prohibit elective abortion (although realistically, abortion is virtually never performed after this point anyway, except in cases of medical necessity).

I have to add one important point, which is that this applies if and only if a woman is given a meaningful choice at an earlier stage of the pregnancy. It's a vicious perverse incentive to suggest that if anti-choice legislation can stall and delay a woman seeking abortion for long enough, then she's obliged to carry the pregnancy to term.

5. Currently, when genetic testing reveals an unborn child has Down Syndrome, most women choose to abort. How do you answer the charge that this phenomenon resembles the "eugenics" movement a century ago - the slow, but deliberate "weeding out" of those our society would deem "unfit" to live?

Eugenics was a moral atrocity because it entailed violating the rights of human beings - the killing or forcible sterilization of people who were deemed unfit by others to live or procreate. Since abortion doesn't entail the death of a sentient human being, it violates no one's rights, just as it violates no one's rights for parents to use IVF and genetic screening to eliminate genes for hereditary diseases from an embryo.

6. Do you believe an employer should be forced to violate his or her religious conscience by providing access to abortifacient drugs and contraception to employees?

No employer has to "provide access" to any kind of drug or medical procedure. (I guarantee there's no provision in Obamacare requiring Plan B to be handed out at the company canteen.) What employers provide is health insurance, which employees earn as compensation for their work, and which they then use to cover the cost of medical procedures in consultation with their doctor.

What this question is really asking, then, is whether employers should be permitted to intervene in the employee-doctor relationship and decide which medical procedures their employees have access to, by decreeing how employees may spend the compensation they earn in exchange for their work. And my answer to that question is an absolute no. If I work for a Jehovah's Witness, he's not permitted to tell me that I can have any kind of medical procedure I might need except for blood transfusion. If I work for an Orthodox Jew, he's not permitted to tell me that I can't go to a hospital on his Sabbath day. If I work for a Christian Scientist, he's not permitted to tell me that I can only have faith healing through prayer. If I work for a Wahhabi Muslim, he's not permitted to tell me that I can only see a doctor of the same gender as myself. And that same principle holds true for any legal medical procedure which some employers happen to object to on religious grounds.

7. Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King, Jr. has said that "abortion is the white supremacist's best friend," pointing to the fact that Black and Latinos represent 25% of our population but account for 59% of all abortions. How do you respond to the charge that the majority of abortion clinics are found in inner-city areas with large numbers of minorities?

My answer, which I'd think is obvious, is that abortion is most common, and the need for it is greatest, in places where people have insufficient access to birth control or inadequate education in how to use it. Those places are often low-income communities that are home to stigmatized minorities.

Also, I'd add that Alveda King's comments come close to suggesting that black people or Latinos should have more children for the good of their race, irrespective of their individual circumstances in life. This is a grossly offensive and ignorant sentiment, if it hasn't been quoted out of context. Racism should be counteracted by better moral education in society, not by more prolific breeding of the disenfranchised.

8. You describe abortion as a "tragic choice." If abortion is not morally objectionable, then why is it tragic? Does this mean there is something about abortion that is different than other standard surgical procedures?

Abortion is tragic when, and only when, the pregnancy that's aborted was a wanted pregnancy that the woman finds herself unable to carry to term - for example, because it would endanger her life or her health. If the pregnancy was unwanted and unwished-for, I don't regard abortion as a tragic choice but as a rational decision.

9. Do you believe abortion should be legal once the unborn fetus is viable - able to survive outside the womb?

As explained in question #4, I believe the permissibility of abortion should be decided by the possession of a functioning brain, not by progress in incubator technology. And at the other end of life, my answer is the same. We may get better and better at keeping brain-dead bodies biologically alive, but it doesn't follow that we should.

10. If a pregnant woman and her unborn child are murdered, do you believe the criminal should face two counts of murder and serve a harsher sentence?

I don't see what the point of this question is. How many jurisdictions impose a harsher sentence for two murders than they do for one?

A better question would be: if a pregnant woman is assaulted in a way that kills the fetus but not her, should the assailant be prosecuted for murder? And my answer is the same as in #4: if the fetus has developed to the point of possessing a functioning brain, then yes; otherwise, no.

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