Is It Totalitarian To Recognize a Right To Be Born?

What Women Really Think
Oct. 27 2011 4:21 PM

“What if I Had Never Been Born?” The Debate Goes On

Sonogram
Sonogram

Photograph by Isabelle Limbach/iStockphoto.

Over at the American Prospect, E.J. Graff responded to my post from earlier this week on abortion and the question, “What if I had never been born?” E.J.,  who has also written for Slate and DoubleX, and with whom I’ve enjoyed lively friendly debates over email, invited me to respond back. Here goes.

E.J. brings up two big topics, first suggesting that it was inaccurate for me to describe “fetuses” being aborted because “nine of ten abortions take place in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy” and are done on embryos. In 2008, the most recent year that the reliable Guttmacher Institute cites in its most recent fact sheet, there were 1.21 million abortions performed. If 10 percent of those abortions were done on fetuses, that’s still 120,000 dead fetuses. That is roughly three times the number of Americans killed in car accidents that year, and, similarly, three times the number of deaths caused by breast cancer in a given year. As to whether they are human, this photo of a 10-week-old embryo clearly shows limbs and eyes and organs and a brain. It might look like an imagined Roswell-esque alien, but if it’s not human, I don’t know what is.

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E.J. then raises a larger, and quite frankly, thorny question: Is there an individual right to be born? She makes her point eloquently, imagining what would happen if her own mother’s diaphragm hadn’t failed or if she’d been miscarried: “There would be no ‘me’ to regret not existing. Someone else would have enjoyed the privileges of being the beloved first great-grandchild, first grandchild, and first child. Those people who love me would love someone else—just as passionately and richly, I have no doubt.” Any woman who has had a miscarriage and then quickly becomes pregnant again understands this well. You wouldn’t have had the child in your arms if things had turned out differently, but you don’t love her any less.

But here’s the thing. Our government protects our right to our lives as much as it reasonably can—it’s illegal to murder or assaulting someone, and you can be severely punished for causing accidental deaths—but it can’t guarantee us life. Tragedies happen: People die in accidents, or prematurely from cancer. To suggest that society shouldn’t recognize a right to be born just because some pregnancies end in miscarriage is like saying the government shouldn’t protect us because we could get hit by a bus anyhow.

E.J. writes that she doesn’t see “why any woman should be a mandatory incubator.” It’s not in a way that most pro-choicers would like, but I do actually kind of agree with her. It’s just that (cliché alert) I believe that the time to choose whether or not to be an incubator is BEFORE having unsafe sex. If you don’t want to be a vessel, don’t pour in the juice. It’s shouldn’t be considered “totalitarian” to ask women to have the babies they conceive when there are myriad forms of birth control (especially starting in 2013, when insurers MUST cover birth control). It always amazes me that feminists fought hard for decades to prove that women are fit to rule boardrooms, sit on judicial benches, preside over universities, and win elections, and yet still argue that, like Barbie with math, “Birth control is too hard.” It’s barbaric to kill 1 million babies a year. here is no reason the number needs to be that high.

And in the end, I guess that is really why I wanted to get the “What if I had been born?” question out there. As I wrote in my previous post, I don’t consider myself to be especially important or special. The world at large is not a better place just because I make a mean jambalaya or volunteer in my son’s classroom or rescue that dog running around my neighborhood. But it’s a damn good life to me, and if raising an uncomfortable question can make even a few people think about how precious life is, to make them realize that it’s possible for someone who “shouldn’t have been born” to grow up in a loving home with caring, dedicated, hardworking parents and turn out OK herself, well, then I’ve accomplished something.

Rachael Larimore is Slate's managing editor.

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