Do fetuses matter more than women?

A developing fetus, pictured here with a grown fetus who could not be avoided.

A developing fetus, pictured here with a grown fetus who could not be cropped out

Over at The New Republic, Rebecca Traister has written a provocative essay titled Let’s Just Say It: Women Matter More Than Fetuses Do. Kombat! Kids: can you cut two words from that headline? Extra credit: can you explain why declaring that an adult woman has more rights than a cluster of cells feels transgressive? About two thirds of the way through, Traister suggests that it might feel that way since Roe v. Wade. As women gained rights not just to legal abortions but also to economic and political parity, they lost the aura of sanctity that came with purely reproductive value:

What rose up instead was a new character, less threatening than the empowered woman: the baby, who, by virtue of not actually existing as a formed human being, could be invested with all the qualities—purity, defenselessness, dependence—that women used to embody, before they became free and disruptive.

The way we talk about abortion suggests that we are most comfortable with people who don’t exist.

The fetus is the perfect American, in that it has rights but no freedom. Since Locke and Hobbes, our philosophies of how humans might live in a society have had to contend with the problem that one person’s liberty necessarily infringes on another’s. Be they the freedom to steal or the freedom to yell into your phone about Katy Perry while we wait to get off the plane, your liberties are my constraints. The hard work of modern democracy—particularly the American experiment—is deciding which freedoms are important enough and infringe on others little enough to give to everyone. We call such freedoms rights.

Consider the rights of black Americans to vote, own property, receive wages in exchange for work, et cetera. For the first century of the extant United States,1 black Americans in the south did not get any of these freedoms. It was partly because of racism and other irrational expressions of hate, but it was mostly because recognizing these freedoms as rights for black people would have reduced the freedom enjoyed by powerful white people.

The United States didn’t fight a civil war because southerners hated black people. We fought it because the southern economy and caste system was predicated on slavery. Giving southern blacks the right to decide whether/where they worked and get paid to do it would have taken away southern whites’ freedom to sit on the porch drinking mint juleps all day and still have a lucrative rice farm.

One person’s freedom necessarily infringes on another’s. In a civil society, discourse decides the balance. The problem with our discourse on abortion is that it has become inordinately focused on the rights of fetuses, probably because it is inordinately moralistic. Rather than acknowledging the practical realities that prompted Roe v. Wade—e.g., women will seek out abortions whether they are legal or not—we have been seduced by the hypothetical moral perfection of people who have never been born.

The phrase “unborn child” is dumb. We don’t call adults “grown children,” except in the context of their parents. No one talks about abortion as a question of whether grown children should legally be allowed to abort unborn children. “Unborn child” has been such a successful conceit for anti-abortion activists because it makes a fetus the killer app in the Hobbesian problem of individual freedom: all the rights of a real person, but with no infringement on others’ rights.

Except the rights of the woman who carries that fetus, of course. A fetus infringes the hell out of its mother’s rights, but fuck her: her unborn child is completely innocent, whereas she wants an abortion. She must have done something wrong. The moral discourse that awards rights based on innocence decides against this woman; she had sex2 and got pregnant when she didn’t want to.3

A non-moral calculus focused on how to make a good society approaches the fetus itself as the problem. It will impel the woman toward abortion, and that abortion can either be legal and safe or illegal and risky. History suggests that we don’t get to choose whether women have abortions; we can only choose under what circumstances it happens. But the conceit of the unborn child tries to make abortion a question of individual rights, then suggests that rights should be awarded not on the basis of being a human with freedoms, but rather on the basis of guilt or innocence.

In that paradigm, fetuses definitely matter more than women. The whole discourse is rigged to privilege people who don’t exist, because it makes the very act of being a pregnant woman who wants an abortion into a sin. It is not. The sin is making up a class of person who does not exist in society and then demanding we restrict the freedom of real people to support them. The sin is making women matter less than an idea, and a nonsensical one at that.

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