Twin reduction abortions: Why do they trouble pro-choicers?

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 16 2011 9:12 AM

Half-Aborted

Why do "reductions" of twin pregnancies trouble pro-choicers?

An ultrasound. Click image to expand.
An ultrasound

What's worse than an abortion? Half an abortion.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

It sounds like a bad joke. But it's real. According to Sunday's New York Times Magazine, demand is rising for "reduction" procedures in which a woman carrying twins keeps one and has the other aborted. Since twin pregnancies are generally safe, these abortions are largely elective.

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Across the pro-choice blogosphere, including Slate, the article has provoked discomfort. RH Reality Check, a website dedicated to abortion rights, ran an item voicing qualms with one woman's reduction decision. Jezebel, another pro-choice site, acknowledged the "complicated ethics" of reduction. Frances Kissling, a longtime reproductive rights leader, wrote a Washington Post essay asking whether women should forgo fertility treatment rather than risk a twin pregnancy they'd end up half-aborting.

In comments on these articles, pro-choice readers express similar misgivings. "Even as a woman who has terminated a pregnancy, I totally understand the author's apprehension … something about it just doesn't feel right," says a Slate reader. A commenter at Jezebel writes that "if I were put in the position and decided to/needed to abort a single fetus, I could. But if I knew that I was keeping the baby and it turned out to be twins, I don't think I could have a reduction."

To pro-lifers and hardcore pro-choicers, this queasiness seems odd. After all, a reduction is an abortion. If anything, reduction should be less problematic than ordinary abortion, since one life is deliberately being spared. Why, then, does reduction unsettle so many pro-choicers?

For some, the issue seems to be a consumer mentality in assisted reproduction. For others, it's the deliberateness of getting pregnant, especially by IVF, without being prepared to accept the consequences. But the main problem with reduction is that it breaches a wall at the center of pro-choice psychology. It exposes the equality between the offspring we raise and the offspring we abort.

Look up any abortion-related item in Jezebel, and you'll see the developing human referred to as a fetus  or pregnancy. But when the same entity appears in a non-abortion item, it gets an upgrade. A blood test could help "women who are concerned that they may be carrying a child with Down's Syndrome." A TV character wonders whether she's "capable of carrying a child to term." Nuclear radiation in Japan "may put unborn children at risk."

This bifurcated mindset permeates pro-choice thinking. Embryos fertilized for procreation are embryos; embryos cloned for research are "activated eggs." A fetus you want is a baby; a fetus you don't want is a pregnancy. Under federal law, anyone who injures or kills a "child in utero" during a violent crime gets the same punishment as if he had injured or killed "the unborn child's mother," but no such penalty applies to "an abortion for which the consent of the pregnant woman … has been obtained."

Reduction destroys this distinction. It combines, in a single pregnancy, a wanted and an unwanted fetus. In the case of identical twins, even their genomes are indistinguishable. You can't pretend that one is precious and the other is just tissue. You're killing the same creature to which you're dedicating your life.

Sophie's Choice is a common theme in abortion decisions. To give your existing kids the attention and resources they'll need, you have to terminate your fetus. This rationale fits the pro-choice calculus that born children are worth more than unborn ones. But in the case of reduction, the child for whom you're reserving attention and resources is equally unborn. She is, and will always be, a living reminder of what you exterminated.

This is what tortures pro-choicers. "I just couldn't sleep at night knowing that I terminated my daughter's perfectly healthy twin brother," says a commenter in the Times story. A Jezebel reader worries about "all the poor surviving twins who will one day find out that their other is missing." Another Jezebel reader writes:

I'd have a much easier time aborting a single baby or both twins than doing a reduction. When you reduce, the remaining twin will remain a persistent reminder of the unborn child. I think that, more than anything would make killing that fetus feel like killing another human, even though it wasn't fully developed. It would feel that way because you would have a living copy of the person you killed.

That's the anguish of reduction: watching the fetus you spared become what its twin will never be. And knowing that the only difference between them was your will.

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