Texas Gov. Rick Perry is a plainspoken man, but on Thursday he waded into an ageless existential debate. Speaking to the National Right to Life conference, Perry pointed out that state Sen. Wendy Davis—who filibustered at the Texas Capitol for 13 hours on Tuesday to block a draconian abortion bill—was born to a single mother and became a teen mother herself, yet overcame those “difficult circumstances” to attend Harvard Law School and enter politics. “It is just unfortunate,” Perry said to his base, “that she hasn’t learned from her own example that every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters.”
“Every life matters” may scan elsewhere as an uncontroversial sentiment, but at the National Right to Life conference, you can be sure that life is defined as a zygote, embryo, or fetus granted full personhood. Which means that Perry is using a kind of transitive property: Wendy Davis was once a zygote, and Wendy Davis matters; therefore, every zygote matters.
At the heart of this rhetoric is the checkmate question that people opposed to abortion rights often ask of their pro-choice opponents: “What if your mother had aborted you?”
This is a fantastic question! “What if your mother had aborted you?” (WIYMHAY) has the makings of the pro-life movement’s very own Butterfly Effect, or some morbid parody of Back to the Future wherein time-traveling Marty McFly commits suicide by introducing Lorraine to her friendly local abortionist. WIYMHAY is a neat booby trap, and the trigger is “you”: To answer the question, the pro-choice respondent risks wrapping herself in Clintonian knots parsing the meaning of “you” or “me” or “I” when actually referring to a former blastocyst. (Frances Kissling, former director of Catholics for a Free Choice, has written about responding to anti-choicers wielding WIYMHAY: “I’d note that the ‘I’ that stands before them is not the ‘I’ that was once a fetus.”)
WIYMHAY is also the launching pad for countless philosophical arguments. Reductionist philosopher Derek Parfit—author of the aptly titled On What Matters—writes that you cannot harm someone by failing to cause them to exist. (The blastocyst reading Parfit in the womb may conclude: “If my mother doesn’t abort me, I matter, but if she does abort me, I don’t not matter, because there is no ‘I’ to matter.”) Princeton’s Elizabeth Harman contends that “early-stage fetuses” can have different moral statuses based on what she calls the Actual Future Principle. (The blastocyst reading Harman may conclude: “If my mother doesn’t abort me, she grants me an actual future in which I matter, therefore I matter now. If my mother does abort me, I do not matter in the future and thus don’t matter now.”) Then there’s Eric T. Olson, who in his paper “Was I Ever a Fetus?” posits and then rejects the notion that a fetus’ lack of psychological continuity with a future person known as Eric T. Olson means that Eric T. Olson was never a fetus.*
“I” could go on. Intriguingly, a lot of philosophical arguments in favor of abortion rights have something in common with anti-abortion rhetoric: a tunnel-vision focus on the imagined interests and rights (or lack thereof) of a fascinatingly ambiguous entity, instead of the actual interests and rights of an unambiguous actual woman. WIYMHAY is a brilliant tactical leap because it speeds past all that ambiguity to an unambiguous actual child, then dares us to imagine that child stone-cold murdered, like our mom turned out to be Bruce Willis in Looper or something.
Once we’ve made that leap, we’re no longer dealing in abstruse philosophical quandaries—instead we’re dealing in anecdotes, and pro-lifers will always have better anecdotes than pro-choicers. Pro-lifers will have legitimately heartening and inspirational stories about, as Perry put it, “children born in the worst of circumstances [who] grow to live successful lives.” Pro-choicers pummeled with WIYMHAY will be left arguing retroactively against their own existence.
But as long as the Rick Perrys of our political landscape are happy to concern-troll feminist heroes like Wendy Davis, I am happy to argue retroactively against my own existence. My husband’s, too. It’s easy to do, because we were both extremely unplanned. My husband’s late mother was 18, rural poor, and unmarried. My mother was 39—this was the 1970s, when pregnant 39-year-olds were rare and, at least in our corner of the Rust Belt, a bit strange—with three increasingly self-sufficient older children, ages 15, 11, and 9. She had two first cousins with Down syndrome, so after a few failed amnios, my mother knew exactly what she didn’t know about me. The first thing her obstetrician did after delivery was make sure she saw the palm of my hand.
In different circumstances, with different women, perhaps neither my husband nor I would be here. And that’s fine, or rather, we wouldn’t be around to declare it fine or not-fine. We are both rabidly pro-choice, and knowing our mothers’ stories—and Wendy Davis’—only deepens our convictions, just as pro-lifers have anecdotes that deepen theirs. To me, the pro-lifer position is I love my mother, and I’m so grateful she had me. The pro-choice position is I love my mother, and I’m so grateful she had the right to choose what was best for her and her family. Both positions are honorable in their way. But only one of them imagines my mother as more than my mother—as a person autonomous of me, and certainly autonomous of the blastocyst that turned into me.
Before I started writing this piece, I called my mother to ask for her permission. As we were getting off the phone, she said, “I’m just glad you’re here.” I’m glad I’m here, too. But she was here first.
Correction, July 17, 2013: This article originally misrepresented Eric T. Olson's position on whether or not a person can ever be said to have been a fetus. In his paper "Was I Ever a Fetus?" Olson answers yes. (Return to the corrected sentence.)