You don’t matter just because I care

We can’t erase the fact that abortion is homicide just because we aren’t as attached to the unborn as we are to other humans. The truth is that whether or not your life has value, and whether or not you are disposable, cannot be determined by how I feel about you.

There’s a view that pro-lifers (those who think it is wrong to kill unborn humans) are ignoring the reality that the death of an unborn child is less tragic than the death of somebody else. The death of an unborn is not the death of a human – not really – and actually we all know it, because we react differently to the death of an unborn child than to the death of somebody else. So wrote one blogger:

If you try to get pregnant and fail, it is frustrating. If you have a heavy menstruation slightly late, suggesting that fertilization occurred but the pregnancy failed very early on, it is even sadder. But it is not the same as managing to be pregnant for several months and then finding that the fetus has died. And that in turn is nowhere near as tragic as having your delivery date arrive and the child be stillborn.

Mothers know this. Fathers who’ve experienced any aspect of this know it too. And so how can so many people nonetheless accept the stark and unnuanced claim that “abortion is murdering babies” without a blink?

We can quickly brush aside the straw man that pro-lifers (namely, those who oppose abortion because it takes a life) are insensitive, mouth-breathing knuckle draggers who can’t make any differentiation between the feelings of parents who suffer a stillbirth and those of parents who fail to get pregnant. The phraseology that the writer uses to describe the position of pro-lifers, a “stark and unnuanced claim” that “abortion is murdering babies,” should also be seen as an attempt to portray pro-lifers in language that they, as a rule, don’t use in the way suggested.

But what pro-lifers do – again, as a rule – express is the position that abortion is unjustified homicide. And it is the pro-life position that the writer thinks he can undermine by pointing out that parents feel differently about the loss of their unborn thing (let’s avoid “baby” talk, shall we?) at different stages in the pregnancy.

The mistake – and I think it is a relatively obvious one – is that there is a basic distinction between how we feel about or react to a death and the objective reality of what has taken place. What mothers and fathers “know” here is just that they feel differently, not that one situation involves the loss of human life but the other doesn’t. As I noted in the comments section:

Of course pro-lifers know that we react differently to losing an X (I use that term because any other term would provoke an objection from somebody) very early in the pregnancy and losing an X much later. The psychological reaction is bound to be very strong.

But to infer on this basis that Mums and Dads know that an early embryo has no human status and is disposable is worse than the hardline fundies you devote yourself to railing against. No, Mums and Dads know that they feel differently about the loss. That’s the difference. And it’s not because of their theory of personhood. It’s because they’ve been waiting longer for baby to arrive and their expectation of the baby being born alive and healthy grows as the pregnancy progresses.

Unmoved, the writer protested that “We do not mourn the death of a loved one as differently regardless whether the person is 5, 15, or 25,” as though this somehow undercut my objection. It doesn’t, and I explained why, but I think the issue matters enough to share it here, too.

The truth is that we do mourn differently over death at different stages – and different circumstances – of life. We really do – just look around! The way a mother might sob over her dead 4 year old killed in an accident, “my little baby, my baby!” is different from the way she might mourn her mother, 90 years old, after a long and fulfilled life. This is because her hopes and expectations in each case were different. The way I would mourn if my 18 year old died of a drug overdose is different from the way I would react if I just now discovered that I *had* an 18 year old son out there in the world, who has just died. This is because of my history with the person who dies and my attachment to them.

The reason and the way we mourn death is brought about by all kinds of things: Our history and experience with the one who has died and so the connections we have formed with them, our expectations of a future with that person and the time we have spent building those expectations etc. But our own psychological response to a death is not at all a measure of whether or not a life worthy of protection has been lost. My feelings about you do not set your worth.

Glenn Peoples

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2 thoughts on “You don’t matter just because I care

  1. This is one of those arguments where I have serious doubts that the other side spent even 10 seconds trying to think of any possible holes in it. I’ve suffered far more anguish over the loss of my dog than, say, the news that hundreds of Koreans perished when their ferry sank. But would any sane person think this had any relevance whatsoever to a discussion about the value of life? It may say a lot about human psychology, but it says nothing about the value of human life.

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