Facebook led me to an interesting blog post by Libby Anne the other night about how she was originally pro-life and, due to disillusionment with the movement, gradually became pro-choice. The crux of her position was that pro-choicers were also in favor of contraceptive use, and one of the best ways to prevent abortion is to prevent undesired pregnancies.
If you’ve read my previous posts, then you already know that I’m strongly in favor of contraception, particularly for this very reason. But Ms. Anne’s post brings up a unique point that I haven’t previously heard as an indictment of the pro-life movement. Even in a woman who is not on birth control of any form, an estimated 50% of zygotes (fertilized eggs) will be lost before the woman’s missed menses (aka her period). If we operate under the pro-life assumption that life begins at conception, these are also lives that ought to be preserved. And yet, as Fred Clark points out in a tongue-in-cheek manner, there is “no 5k or 10k. No walkathon” to raise awareness or money to protect these lives.
This is certainly a thought-provoking point, and to those who are already pro-choice, it may be quite compelling. Still, allow me to step out of my own biases and try to play the devil’s advocate role here. I think you will find that while you may still disagree with the fundamental position, the pro-life stance here is self-consistent.
If I were to sum up the beliefs of those who are anti-abortion and anti-contraception it would be this: “we ought not to play God.” There is a natural order of things, and that is God’s will; interfering with this and substituting our own logic would be hubris. While I myself am agnostic, I can absolutely see how this world view would make sense to someone more religious than I. But even for people who aren’t religious, a similar thought process may subtly present itself in certain circumstances.
Consider a runaway train barreling down the tracks. It is headed straight toward a massive crowd of people. Upon impact, tens, maybe hundreds of people will be killed or injured. But, there is a lever that you have the option to pull. If you do so, the train will be diverted and head straight toward a sandbox where five children are playing, oblivious to the train. Would you pull the lever?
The point of this thought experiment is to ask, are you willing to inject yourself into a situation and make a change knowing that the blood of those children is on your hands? Many people would say no. (If the above scenario was too easy, feel free to add more children.) This brings to light a fundamental difference in how we see consequences that result from action vs. inaction. The people in the crowd had bad luck, but we chalk this up somehow to their fate. But the children in the sandbox did not have this fate, and so we believe that their deaths would be directly our fault.
It is for this reason that people who believe life begins at conception protest so hard against contraceptive use, but pour little or no effort into saving those zygotes that never implanted. In the former case, contraceptives are an active attempt to prevent something that would otherwise have happened. Meanwhile, we can comfortably see the failed zygote as simply something that was fated to be. It would be akin to the difference between being a murderer and being an eyewitness to the crime.
Now, many birth control options prevent conception in the first place, either by preventing ovulation or impeding the travel of sperm into the Fallopian tubes. This may put the minds of pro-choicers at ease, but unfortunately this logical position won’t hold in the pro-life world, where this is all a matter of principle. Preventing conception is still preventing the possibility of life that may have occurred otherwise. There is no two ways around it; once we try to mess with fate, we are somehow replacing God’s (or, if you prefer, Nature’s) will with our own.
I am not asking you to agree with this position (after all, I don’t myself). But if we are to make any headway in this national discussion, it is important that both sides at least be able to understand each other.
Your Turn: Where do you stand on contraception, and how would you answer the train problem?