May 14, 2011

Abortion Vulnerability

The political right seems much better at coining seductive phrases to promote its agenda than the political left. Consider the likes of “death tax,” “job-killing,” or “pro-life.” Heaven forbid that progressives should combine the inevitable death and taxes, should want to extinguish jobs, or be seen as opposing life itself. Yet each of these examples of right-wing rhetoric is manipulative and disingenuous.

The most recent issue of Trinity, the official publication of Bob Duncan’s Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, has introduced me to yet another crafty neologism from the political (and religious) right—“abortion-vulnerable.”

The Lent 2011 issue contains a story titled “New Pro-life Non-Profit finds Support among Anglicans.” (I don’t know what style guide would permit both “Pro-life” and “Non-Profit,” but grammatical consistency is not really the subject of this essay.) The article promotes a “new Christian endeavor in the Pittsburgh area” Vision for Life logoto discourage women from choosing abortions. The effort is the product of a non-profit called Vision for Life–Pittsburgh.

Both the article and the organization’s Web site describe the effort to drive “abortion-vulnerable women” to “pregnancy medical centers,” where, it is hoped, sonograms will discourage them from having abortions.

Normally, we do not speak of “liposuction-vulnerable,” “Botox-vulnerable,” or “facelift-vulnerable” women. Nor do we speak of “massage-vulnerable,” “shave-vulnerable,” or “financial-advice-vulnerable” men. To do so is frankly demeaning. It suggests that the consumer of a service is not so much an independent actor as a hapless victim of providers or circumstances.

To suggest that women contemplating or seeking an abortion are “abortion-vulnerable” is to deny their personhood. They are not being acted upon by inscrutable forces over which they have no control. Such a woman is not a potential disaster victim, but someone in painful circumstances faced with making an intelligent, informed decision that is necessarily a fork in the road that is her life’s journey.

Having an abortion is never a happy event, but neither is it a denial of “life” or an act of God. Women (and men) can and should make their own choices for their lives and avoid simply being abortion-foe-vulnerable.


  1. Lionel,

    It seems to me just from reading your piece and the links that you have put a highly contentious spin on the Vision for Life initiative.

    You say: “The article promotes a “new Christian endeavor in the Pittsburgh area” to discourage women from choosing abortions.”

    The purpose of the Vision for Life initiative, as I understand it from the article, is to provide the resources which may assist a pregnant woman to avoid abortion. That is a much more positive approach, I suggest, than your wording implies.

    You say the organization aims to “drive” women to their pregnancy medical centres. Again you use contentious language here: No-one, as far as I can see for the links you provide, is seeking to “drive” women to these centres: They are simply advertising and offering the centres as a resource.

    By providing the services described it would seem that Vision for Life assists women both to make more informed decisions and to find alternative ways of dealing with their difficulties. Abortion is, as you yourself observe, “never a happy event”. Why then would you not support this enterprise? And why do you spin your account so negatively?

    As to the use of the term abortion-vulnerable, it seems to me that it perfectly and respectfully encapsulates the reality of the situation of so many (although certainly not all) women with unplanned pregnancies: Where such women are offered no support by friends or family to continue with the pregnancy but rather encouraged to seek an abortion - and then to make the ‘choice’ quickly they are clearly “abortion-vulnerable”. Such description does not demean the woman in any way – rather it truly respects her by acknowledging the reality of her situation and the imperative to offer her true support in her difficulties. To fail to acknowledge this reality is the true disrespect.

    Finally, if neologisms are your concern and you are, as you claim, committed to truth and justice, then here are a few for you to challenge (these are within the UK context but I guess it is much the same where you are):

    “pre-embryo” – embryo in its first two weeks of development

    “termination of pregnancy” – destruction of the unborn child

    “product(s) of conception” – the unborn child (in whole or in parts)

    “contraceptive” - a means for preventing contraception or preventing the newly-conceived embryo implanting in the womb

    “Pro-choice” – pro permitting the killing of the unborn child



  2. PaulineG,

    Thank you for your comments. I will try to address them as best I can.

    First, I want to be clear on which side I’m on. I am pro-choice, and I view the “pro-life” lobby as trying to impose its own views upon others who may not share its philosphical assumptions.

    If you believe that human life is infinitely valuable and begins at fertilization, we are going to have a hard time agreeing on much of anything. In particular, I am put on guard by your repeated use of “unborn child.” A baby at 37 weeks is surely an unborn child, but its precursor at, say three weeks is, in my view, something else. It is as much an “unborn child” as a brick is an “unfinished building.”

    I am all for reluctantly pregnant women to have all the information they can possibly use in making a decision about how they might deal with their situation. The objective of groups like Vision for Life, however, is to paint abortion as an unacceptable option, not to list both pluses and minuses of all available options.

    The “abortion-vulnerable” descriptor is simply unhelpful. Surely, the abortion-vulnerable are also motherhood-vulnerable or adoption-vulnerable, terms that are likewise unhelpful. The “vulnerable” suffix is simply used to denegrate an outcome the speaker deplores.

    The anti-abortion lobby acts as though only the “child” is worthy of being considered. But the pregnant woman’s welfare is also at stake. Her mental health, her financial security, and even her life may be threatened by an unwanted pregnancy. Why is being “pro-life” a license to consider only the life of the “unborn,” while ignoring the concerns of the already born?

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the two sides of the abortion debate could come to terms and find some middle ground? That cannot happen as long as there are people defining “pro-life” as “pro permitting the killing of the unborn child.” Would you be comfortable with the assertion that being “pro-life” is pro forcing a women to harbor a parasite within her body—against her will, if necessary?

  3. [Posted for Jeremy Bonner, who was having trouble posting it himself]


    In a sense, the only consistent people would seem to be those who oppose all abortion (except to preserve a mother's life) and those who believe that it is acceptable up to the moment of birth. Anything in between inevitably is caught up with the notion of “viability,” a period that has expanded greatly in the last fifty years (many of today’s premature babies would not have survived had they been conceived when you or I were born).

    I cannot see how a newborn is any less “parasitic” than a near- to-term fetus, since it is utterly dependent and makes incessant demands on a parent’s resources and energy. By that logic, Peter Singer would be right to hold that post-natal abortion, so to speak, is acceptable if the burden is too much for the parent to bear.

    Is that in fact your position?

    What, moreover, is proper Christian response to a botched abortion where the child is delivered alive? Should it simply be left to die?

    As you remarked in the original post, this is fundamentally about “personhood,” both for those of us who are “pro-life” and those, like yourself, who are “pro-choice.” If I understand correctly, the premise of the Anti-Racism seminars in this Diocese before and after realignment (ironically, the seventh Bishop of Pittsburgh won plaudits from progressives for his support of such activity), is that most of us are blithely unaware of our failure to acknowledge the personhood of those different from ourselves and need our consciousness of this to be raised.

    Using a sonogram to show the development of a fetus is a similar species of consciousness-raising. It’s objective in the sense that the camera doesn’t lie.

    I assume that you object to the emotional reaction that a sonogram elicits from the viewer. And yet I assume – my wife and I have not had the privilege – that when a doctor discusses a sonogram with prospective parents, he or she rarely talks about your “prospective baby,” but “your baby.” Yet the fetus at that time is no more or less than what it is inherently by virtue of the language used, so subjectivity creeps in anyway.

    While it’s fair enough to say that you deny the premise that animates those in the pro-life movement, you also write as if you KNOW it’s being promoted by people who don’t really believe it. You also write as if pro-life agencies are all talk and no action, but most are providers of goods and services and of moral and spiritual support; it doesn’t begin and end with a sonogram.

    “The objective of groups like Vision for Life, however, is to paint abortion as an unacceptable option, not to list both pluses and minuses of all available options.”

    This sounds like the sort of criticism made of the Abolitionists during the early 19th century – moral absolutists who don’t understand nuance.

    Well suppose we substitute “racism” or “violence” for “abortion.” You’re not seriously suggesting that if you believe that something is a moral evil (for the mother-to-be also) that you don’t advocate to avoid it?

    “The anti-abortion lobby acts as though only the “child” is worthy of being considered. But the pregnant woman’s welfare is also at stake. Her mental health, her financial security, and even her life may be threatened by an unwanted pregnancy. Why is being “pro-life” a license to consider only the life of the “unborn,” while ignoring the concerns of the already born?”

    Couldn’t that logic be used to euthanize a handicapped child or an elderly parent? The issue of life being threatened is addressed under the principle of “double effect” – you can take measures to preserve the LIFE of the mother, even if they may lead to the death of the unborn child.

  4. [From PaulineG]

    I do, indeed, believe that human life is infinitely valuable. As to whether it begins at fertilization, that is not a matter of belief but of science and reason which together tell us quite clearly that from that point the newly formed embryo is a human life.

    The argument is straightforward: Conception marks the beginning of a new living organism (science). As a living organism it must be of a species (science). Being derived from sperm and egg which are both from the species homo sapiens it must be also of the species homo sapiens (science). That makes it a human being (by definition). Not an entity which may become a human being but a human being from the start. If you can rebut that argument I would be interested in knowing how.
    With respect, your brick analogy does not stack up. The embryo is not merely a part of what will eventually be, requiring to be joined by other such parts to form the whole. It is that which will develop into what all will eventually acknowledge to be a child. It is that same child at an early stage in its development.

    As you yourself argue language can be used manipulatively: The technical, gynaecological terms get used when the issue of abortion is in play. When the child is wanted and not in danger it is a baby. Thus, when I was expecting mine I was invited to see “my baby” at the 13 week scan. Should I, perhaps, have upbraided the nurse for not calling my baby a fetus? I think not. So I use the term “unborn child” to acknowledge the scientific reality but avoid the term “baby” as unnecessarily emotive although also correct in its normal, traditional usage.

    As to the term “abortion-vulnerable”, it acknowledges, as surely we all should, that abortion should be seen as the last resort and not morally equivalent to motherhood or adoption. (If you disagree on that point there is little more to be said.) That being the case the concern must be to assist the woman to avoid a choice which she would rather avoid or may come to regret subsequently when she understands the true nature of what she has agreed to. You say the object of such groups is to paint abortion as an unacceptable option. I think, again, that is a slanted account. If abortion is regarded as the option of last resort do you not think it right that the woman should be offered assistance to explore alternative solutions?

    You caricature the anti abortion lobby in your final comments. No way is it concerned only for the well being of the child. That is what exploring alternative solutions to the issues which arise is about and I am sure that where you are, as here, that support does not finish with the birth of the child but continues as necessary and required until the woman is ready to move on.

    Finally you object to the descriptor “pro permitting the killing of the unborn child”. But that is the accurate description of what being “pro-choice” is and you no amount of pretty neologisms can disguise that stark reality. It is not a descriptor I would normally use but was offered to challenge your highly selective objection to neologisms. By contrast the “parasite” descriptor (per Judith Jarvis Thomson presumably) which you offer as if equivalent is scientifically and philosophically suspect.

    There is a middle ground to be found, and the (married but on opposite sides of this debate) philosophers Sidney and Daniel Callahan did some good work on this. ( I do commend this piece to you and your readers.)

    Gathering together a group of people representing all shades of opinion on abortion, they found they could reject the kinds of caricatures in which you have indulged, Instead they concluded that most agreed that we should be working to help women avoid situations where abortion might be considered and to assist women avoid abortion where these situations do arise.

    And that is precisely where initiatives such as Vision for Life come in. Yet even as you claim to seek a middle ground you work to undermine it.

  5. I intend to answer both Jeremy and Pauline, but, in this comment, I want to get a few preliminaries out of the way.

    First, my post was about rhetoric, and it is with some reluctance that I address abortion per se.

    Regarding the term, “abortion-vulnerable,” it seems to be one of three terms used by Christian pregnancy counseling centers to describe the client’s state of mind. The other two terms are “abortion-minded” and “likely to carry to term.”

    These terms seem to have been devised and defined by Focus on the Family’s Physician’s Resource Council. I would find “willing to consider abortion” more straightrforward and less demeaning than “abortion-vulnerable.” (See questions 12 and 13 of Care Net Statistical Report - FAQS.)

    Second, I think that we could all agree that it would be desirable for there to be no need for abortions because all pregnancies are welcome. This is certainly a goal to work for, although a former college administrator I spoke to last night suggested that such a goal is hopelessly naïve. Religious opposition to contraception generally and to the morning-alter pill specifically doesn’t help.

    Finally, we should distinguish between personal morality and public policy. The discussion here has been about the former, not the latter, and it is probably best to keep it that way. I have no problem with anyone advocating for his or her position, whether intended to affect private behavior or public policy, however.

    With all that out of the way, I intend to address particular issues that have been raised later today.

  6. For those who oppose access to an abortion, only making it illegal will satisfy. A fact they never consider is that abortion takes place, legal or illegal, only with less safety illegally.

    I suggest that if one opposes abortion, one should never have one or recommend one. It is disingenuous to lie to people to get your way in a disagreement. I despise the term "abortion vulnerable" in that it suggests women to be so stupid that they could never think through a difficult situation. Texas has just passed a few measures to make abortion much more difficult to obtain because the GOP majority believe women don't have the capacity to understand what they are doing.
    I refer to it as the Harassing Women Bill.

    Now they are extending their governmental grasp to demonizing and defunding Planned Parenthood as doing nothing but abortions and plan to put 40,000 lower income Texas women with no access to all the reproductive, general health care, and cancer screening services. Evidently if you are a live person with live children, it doesn't matter if the state causes you to die. FYI lower income includes students, women beginning careers, and women who don't get health plans at work in the bad economy.

  7. Jeremy,

    Your point about consistent positions is well taken if we insist on objective criteria. To your discussion, however, I would add rape, though not necessarily incest, as reasonable exceptions to any general prohibition. (Some incest, but not all, is rape.) “Health of the mother” acknowledges that two lives are involved—the double effect thing is impossible to avoid—and “rape” acknowledges that the pregnancy is not, in any sense, voluntary.

    The rape exception, which is widely accepted, even by some abortion foes, is curious. The effect is to allow a medical procedure as long as the person for whom the procedure is done did not herself create a need for the procedure. This sort of logic is almost never used in the cases where other conditions are involved. We regularly try to save those who have attempted suicide, and we do not refuse to treat smokers with lung cancer. Refusing abortions to rape victims, however, surely adds insult to injury.

    I find it curious that you mentioned no medical criteria related to the fetus—I use this as a general term of the growing product of conception in the womb. It is not hard to justify an exception for a fetus with a condition judged to invariably lead to death before delivery.

    Viability is something of an arbitrary criterion, and a slippery one if, by viability, we mean viability with extraordinary medical intervention. It is a fuzzy criterion, though not a moving one, if, by viability, we mean the ability to live outside the womb without medical assistance.

    Essentially, you asked me what my position is. For a fuller answer to that, I will refer you to a comment I will make after this one, which is addressed to PaulineG. The case of the aborted fetus extracted alive is tricky. I’m not going to try to answer that one, but you might be able to predict my position from other statements I will make here and in my next comment. I will also deal with the “personhood” issue there.

    I have no problems with sonograms, although I do object to attempts to make them mandatory. Anyone has a right to advise a pregnant woman against having an abortion, but they should make their philosophical assumptions clear to the “client,” whose assumptions may be quite different.

    There are difficult issues involved in abortion, but I think that absolutes such as “never kill a human being” can be counterproductive. Euthanasia is tricky business, too, though I think voluntary euthanasia is less so. Aborting a fetus with serious illness or deformity is likewise tricky business. I do not claim to have all the answers and, when I wrote my original post, I really didn’t pretend to have any answers at all.

    Anyway, thanks for the conversation, which is certainly useful and—getting back to the public policy concerns—necessary.

    Let me part with this question—but see my next comment—how can we justify euthanizing our pets but not our relatives?

  8. PaulineG,

    I cannot agree that life is infinitely valuable so long as we live in a world of limited resources. We are all reluctant to put a dollar value on a life—though doing so is in some people’s job description—but I will concede that the value of a human life in the abstract, is large.

    All things being equal, I would value the life of a healthy six-year-old above that of a 100-year old and would be interested in knowing if you disagree. How much would you be willing to spend to save the life of each, even if, because of limited resources, you would necessarily be limiting the resources available to treat others?

    From the above discussion, you have no doubt concluded—correctly—that I am very wary of absolutes.

    In any case, I want to examine your life-begins-at-conception argument, whose validity I reject. Yes, conception marks the beginning of what we would normally consider a particular human organism. I do not dispute that the product of human sex (or its equivalent) produces, almost invariably, a new human, but I note in passing (and at the risk of provoking a fight) that, from an evolutionary perspective, the mating of two of the same species must occasionally produce offspring of a new species.

    Anyway, to say that, for example, a fertilized egg is a human from the start is not a scientific fact, but a scientific convention. Whereas the egg shares some important characteristics—largely hidden ones, I might add—with the full-term, 9-pound baby, it is, in a very real sense, not the same thing. To suggest that this is not a crazy thing to assert, let me remind you that a tadpole is definitely of the same species as its parents, but we nonetheless call it a tadpole, not a frog.

    Although it is not strictly true, the old saying that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” captures an essential feature of, for example, human development. A “human” one month after fertilization is probably, from an evolutionary point of view, less developed than the aforementioned tadpole and certainly less capable. I have a difficult time investing such a creature with anything like “personhood,”

    So, when do I consider a fetus a person? In particular, at what point should the law consider it a person? Frankly, I don’t know, Possibly at the point of viability without medical intervention outside the womb, as I suggested in my previous comment to Jeremy.

    I’m not sure my brick analogy is quite as farfetched as you suggest. In any case, both the brick and the fertilized egg cannot reach their “maturity” without the right environment and additional building materials. (I’m not going to fall on my sword defending this particular analogy.)

    In ordinary discourse, I see no reason to make the kind of distinctions I have made here. It is perfectly reasonable to talk about “our baby” after the first missed period, but serious moral reasoning or discussion of public policy demands more precise language.

    In any case, the point I am trying to make here is that I do not consider an abortion early in a pregnancy to be—at least not in any effective sense—the taking of human life.

    Getting back to the likes of Vision for Life–Pittsburgh, I have no problem with the existence of such groups as long as they make it clear that one of their fundamental goals is to prevent abortions. Such organizations become problematic when they advertise themselves as helping pregnant women assess their options when they either do not mention the possibility of having an abortion or they misrepresent the consequences of abortion.

    Thank you for your comments. I am willing to discuss this further, but I am not an expert on the subject and, although I have considered these matters to a degree, I am somewhat flying by the seat of my pants. Perhaps others will be interested in adding their two cents’s worth.

  9. I find it extremely hypocritical for those who are pro-life to say they promote providing information to "vulnerable" women so they can make informed decisions. This is the same group who supports the infamous federal "gag rule" that does not allow tax money to any organization that even mentions abortion as an option. So much for informed decisions. For the pro-life side, information for women is good only if it coincides with their viewpoint. I wonder how they would like it if pro-choice groups tried to pass laws making it mandatory that all young women be provided with information about the disastrous effects of teenage pregnancy and the desirability of waiting to have children until parents are mature enough, stable enough, and financially secure enough to truly be good parents - we could call these young women "ill-advised pregnancy vulnerable". Were my teenage daughter to become pregnant I would consider it a terrible tragedy and not something to be celebrated at say a political party's national convention.

    But most disturbing about the pro-life movement is their combination of ignorance (not stupidity, simply the lack of knowledge about the subject matter in question) and arrogance (purporting to be knowledgeable about a subject when in fact they are not).

    One simple question for the pro-lifers who want to take away basic constitutional rights - name one pro-choice book you have ever read. I have read Pope John Paul II's The Gospel of Life: Evangelium Vitae and while I find it facile and unpersuasive I am glad I read it.

    One book that absolutely would rock the smug pro-life world is The Facts of Life by Dr. James Trefil and Dr. Harold Morowitz. They make a very compelling case that human beings acquire the qualities of humanness later than conception and also that it is a myth that fetal viability will keep being pushed up earlier in pregnancy.

    Our society (especially the press) has bent over backwards to placate the pro-life side. It is time to politely but firmly challenge them to educate themselves first before forcing their views on the rest of us.

  10. Lionel,

    Is life infinitely valuable in a world of finite resources?

    Yes it is: There is an essential and profound moral distinction between, on the one hand, the imperative to choose who will receive medical treatment and who will not when resources are finite and, on the other, intentionally killing a human being. That human life has a finite value can not be inferred from the finite nature of resources.

    Does human life begin at fertilization?

    You have followed the usual path of those who start by denying that human life begins at fertilization by offering a weak defence to this challenge conflated with introducing the alternative approach of making a distinction between human life and personhood.

    On your weak defence: Either it is of the human species or it is not. The tadpole which develops into a frog is of the same species as the frog. So with the human embryo. By definition it is a human being but you still argue that it is not human.

    You say “Anyway, to say that, for example, a fertilized egg is a human from the start is not a scientific fact, but a scientific convention.” No it is human by a definition which follows and reflects the science. To claim the fertilized egg is not human you must first unilaterally redefine “human” in a way that differs from the conventional understanding. What if I were to assert that Pittsburgh is not in the US? Why? Because for me the USA is so defined. So there! Wouldn’t wash would it?

    Further, even if the meaning of the term “human” were to be changed to exclude the early human embryo this would do nothing to change the moral status of such embryos since that is a function of the scientific truth which underlies the conventional definition and is not challenged by politically motivated neologisms, however useful these might be for propaganda purposes (eg ‘pre-embryo’).

    continued ..

  11. On the personhood approach: Personhood is a different and arbitrary construct used by those who would seek to deny to some the moral status otherwise accorded to all human beings. Historically I believe it has been used to justify the abuse, for example, of aborigines and American slaves.

    The modern construct for personhood originates, I believe, from Joseph Fletcher who, writing in the 1970's, proposed that personhood status should be accorded only to those human beings who satisfied certain criteria (he included a minimum IQ). His argument was essentially that we should no longer be accorded ‘personhood’ status simply by virtue of our status as human beings but that our status should depend upon whether we were able to manifest the attributes characteristic of human beings - such as the ability to reason.

    Whether you are aware of it or not you are essentially following the Fletcher line of argument. For you being human is not sufficient and you, like so many others, are left with the problem of how to choose what is inevitably an arbitrary, negotiable and vulnerable criterion. Good luck with that one!

    “I do not consider an abortion early in a pregnancy to be—at least not in any effective sense—the taking of human life.”

    Wow! Most serious “choice” advocates do, are at least candid enough to acknowledge that it is human life which is taken at any stage.

    “Serious moral reasoning or discussion of public policy demands more precise language”.

    I’m all for precise language, Lionel. So let’s deal with “products of conception”, “termination of pregnancy” and the “right to choose”. Again your double standard is betrayed here.

    Enough for now. I haven’t gone back to your previous two responses because I can’t afford too much more time on this and also don’t want this to descend into repetition.

    You have acknowledged that this subject is not familiar ground to you so I do hope you will take the time, in the spirit of the true philosopher, to read the strongest arguments on both sides and then reflect.

    Very best regards,


  12. Pauline,

    Thank you for engaging in the conversation here. It is clear that our assumptions are radically different. It would take a long time simply to identify all our assumptions, much less come to a common understanding of the implications of those assumptions.

    If it’s any consolation, I think I understand your position and consider it logically consistent. Even if I were to agree with you completely, I might still oppose a ban on abortion, however, simply because women will seek abortions whether legal or not, and women (and unborn children) will die in the process.


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