Does It Actually Matter When a New Life Begins?

Should anyone be forced to save a life against their own will?

Photo: Photography is my life/Getty Images

Does it actually matter when a new life begins? A person capable of having an abortion is already life in process. That person is a decision maker — the only one tasked with the very complex job of stewarding the contents of a uterus that may or may not contain human potential. If abortion involves sloughing off some unwanted cells in the interest of health and well-being, or if abortion involves ending a life, that decision belongs to the already formed human to (and inside of) whom those things are taking place.

You might be surprised to learn that, as a culture, we have already decided this — and if it weren’t for the politically precarious position of women (or anyone with a uterus) — this issue would be far clearer.

We already have laws about bodily autonomy on the books. If I am in a terrible accident in which I will die if I don’t receive a blood transfusion — and your blood matches mine — no one can legally compel you to offer your blood to save my life. Your blood is part of your body, and cannot be taken from you without your consent. I have given blood and carried a child to term and given birth; giving blood is no big deal, whereas carrying a child to full term and giving birth was one of the most profoundly transformational and life-threatening events ever to happen to my body. Those without the ability to gestate and give birth can’t know, and that’s only one of the reasons cisgender men should not be the only ones involved in making decisions about women’s bodies. They lack firsthand experience of what life is like with a uterus and aren’t listening very well to those who have them. Even worse, they’re trying to codify women (and people with uteruses) as being not fully human under the law. In essence, they are currently trying to declare that women are exempt from the same bodily autonomy we’ve already decided, as a culture, that all humans share, even after death.

If in that accident, you died and I needed one of your organs to live, a doctor would not be able to give it to me unless you had expressly given your consent as an organ donor before your death. You wouldn’t be using it and I would die without it, and still, a doctor could not give it to me.

It bears mentioning here that, though we’re discussing abortion, some of the legal changes being attempted to limit health care options for women can affect women without uteruses as well. The arguments used in these policy discussions rely on historical precedents about women’s worth that cause many people to not notice that something dire and nefarious is happening in this realm of body autonomy. Though the gender binary is a social construction and there are men and nonbinary people who do have uteruses and can give birth, these new, increasingly restrictive abortion laws are not specifically aimed at curtailing the rights of transgender, intersex, and genderqueer people. Sadly, there are other efforts aimed at forcing or denying medical care to members of that community. Seventeen states still require some form of surgical intervention before people can legally change their sex on public documents and some states require sterilization of those seeking to update their driver’s licenses, birth certificates, etc. (We’re not alone on this in the U.S. — the same is true in countries like Japan, Finland, and Romania.)

So, as we discuss abortion, it’s important to note that public policies are still very much formed around an assumed gender binary and, as such, are grounded in the historical precedent that women should be controlled by men. I’m going to do my best to be as specific as possible throughout this piece, but please know when I say women and men, I’m mostly referring to cisgender women and cisgender men in heterosexual relationships — because that is what the laws I’m discussing also assume.

Should we be forced to save the life of another person — if indeed an embryo or a fetus is a life — by sacrificing our bodies against our will?

Life and death are complex, emotional issues and should be discussed with reverence to the great mystery and respect for one another. We will all face death. The problem with the current politics and policies around abortion is that they are less concerned with the true meanings of life or death, and are much more about deciding whether women are a special, lower class of people who deserve to have their right to bodily autonomy revoked. Should we be forced to save the life of another person — if indeed an embryo or a fetus is a life — by sacrificing our bodies against our will?

I’ve never had an abortion, but I have had a few miscarriages. I’ve also given birth and parented a child to adulthood. Many have miscarried in the process of becoming parents, or on the road to remaining child-free. Some don’t even know it’s happened. It’s a natural thing for the uterus to get itself ready, for the body to occasionally struggle while figuring out the business of baby-making. Gestation is a huge job that requires so much of a person’s physical body. (I’m commenting just on the body here, because of course, the person’s well-being is also involved in myriad other ways: emotionally, spiritually, financially, for starters.) The old saying among mothers, “for every child, a tooth,” refers to the fact that our bodies sometimes lack the resources to make a baby and keep all other systems intact at the same time. I didn’t lose any teeth, but then, I had health care and access to good prenatal vitamins.

When I miscarried, I didn’t feel that I was losing a baby. I was losing the possibility of a baby. For some, that’s devastating. For me, I was losing the possibility of what might’ve been in some alternate reality. The same is true with abortion. Sure, there’s often more volition involved, and still a loss, but also a gain. I didn’t realize how profoundly my life and my body would be overtaken by carrying a pregnancy full term, having a child — until it happened. When I miscarried, I gained the ability to continue going to school each day, rather than hugging the toilet, too sick to move. I gained the ability to keep working and walking further than a few blocks on sore and swollen feet. To me, my miscarriage was a clot, a collection of cells that fell into the toilet, after some sweaty cramping. That’s how it happened both times. One time, it was very painful, the other, not as bad. I may have had more miscarriages during that window of pregnancy in which most abortions are performed, and just didn’t know it.

These experiences are not standard, and neither are people’s feelings about them. We can either make loving space for the diversity of human stories and experiences with the potential for life, the beginning of life, or we can disregard some people’s stories because they don’t conform to our preferred narratives. We can learn about the full range of human experience, rather than offering shame and censure. There is already a precedent for women not sharing their experiences with sex, reproduction, and the end of pregnancy. As a culture, we often don’t acknowledge — let alone know — what we’re missing. And that lack of knowledge has a pesky way of working its way into our laws.

Most men are not aware of — or learning about — the full range of human experiences. They are also certainly not listening clearly enough to women, or we wouldn’t be in this political mess about abortion. If these men better understood the process of impregnation, gestation, and birth from the perspective of those around them who endure it, it would be clear to them in screaming Technicolor: Even when the life of a viable fetus is involved, the same bodily autonomy that allows someone to decline giving a bit of blood, or a corpse from donating an organ, would place decision making only with the person whose body might possibly be used to potentially save the life of another.

Not only are these men socialized to not listen to women’s experiences, but women are also socialized to not share the details of their sexual and reproductive lives, particularly with men. It’s a nonverbal, largely unconscious pact men and women make not to share the specifics of horrible experiences with one another. We each think we’re protecting the other from our pain, which sets a precedent for not sharing fully about our joys and other nuances of human emotion and experience. I think we need to acknowledge it far more often: men are socialized to be hard and stoic, and women have been socialized to like it. Even more, women have been socialized to enjoy cracking the male façade, becoming the only person with whom he can open up, just a little bit because usually, he keeps things to himself. We say “poor guy,” when we discuss male emotional constipation, but really, many women have learned to see it as evidence of love.

Similarly, though women are thought to excel at emotional expression, women are discouraged from sharing the depth and breadth of our experiences with sex, our genitals, our pain, our harassment, our victimization, and our pleasure. We don’t learn to share with our partners about our sexual pleasure because we are socialized to believe it isn’t important. Men often don’t want to hear too much about their female lovers’ sexual histories because women are seen as more valuable to a partner if they are more chaste. Men are supposed to be better for their sexual experiences, though so little is expected of their expertise with the female body.

Very little has been expected of men, historically, when it comes to gestation and childbirth. Relegated to hospital waiting rooms or pubs while midwives did their work, the last few centuries have seen men mostly uninvolved with the birthing process. Things are changing for sure, and yet, those precedents remain.

Despite men’s lack of involvement with gestation, their role in impregnation is pretty clear. As the title and thesis of Gabrielle Blair’s brilliant article “Men Cause 100% of Unwanted Pregnancies,” points out: each and every pregnancy — 100% of them — are caused by sperm. And unwanted pregnancies specifically, are caused by men “orgasming irresponsibly.” If there’s an ethical question about whether abortion is okay, controlling sperm would be the clearest way to go. Plenty of sexual acts do not result in even the possibility of pregnancy. When sperm is not present, even though a uterus and vagina are involved, there will be no baby. We’ve culturally enshrined male orgasm to the point where this basic fact is rarely even considered. To my knowledge, no one has ever been accusingly asked, “Why did you let your sperm get anywhere near that woman knowing the potential consequences?”

What if two people needed to file for a license, and set a clear intention before sperm could even legally make an appearance between them? Sex wouldn’t be regulated, of course. Just sperm, due to its ability to create a whole person and put another person’s body and life at risk. Imagine. Perhaps it seems dystopian, but it’s far less dystopian than forcing the person with the uterus to hold on to and nurture that sperm because it may become a human someday. We need to acknowledge sperm as the root cause of pregnancy and move discussions forward from that point.

WWhile there are politicians at work to curtail the freedoms women can enjoy in alarming numbers, there is also one example of the government enacting eminent domain over men’s bodily autonomy: involuntary military service. Though America is not currently drafting men for military service, men are still required to register for selective service within 30 days of their 18th birthdays. Many don’t. It’s been more than a generation since those registered have felt the fear of being called to fight.

While many rules curtail what humans do with our bodies (using certain drugs, for example) the draft seems to be the only one that forces only men into potential peril against their will. Abortion bans and selective service are supported by people across the two dominant political parties in the United States, but more Republicans than Democrats support abortion restrictions and bans.

How is it not completely absurd for Republicans to say they want smaller government, but then spend so much time repealing human rights and liberties? How are people within the party not questioning this doublespeak? I claim no allegiance to either party and can only speculate. What’s clear is that, in one instance, women are rendered inconsequential when it comes to making decisions about their bodily autonomy. They are considered secondary to a clump of cells with the possibility of becoming a baby. In the other instance, bodies — men’s — are being elevated to the status of a weapon. They are considered too important to the nation, in a particular moment, to be governed by individual interest. No one is saying their will is inferior, only that the perception of their superior strength (compared to women, who are not required to serve) is needed for a common goal. When men are drafted, their bodies are being called to service, but their value is not being called into question.

The social assumptions on which these policies suspending bodily autonomy rest are very important. We need to handle this issue directly: men are thought to be of greater use as weapons, women are thought to be of greater use as baby-makers, but the practical reality is that men are often more successful at exerting their will as sovereign individuals. Even when they dissent, though shamed, they have not faced the kinds of punishments currently being devised for women and their doctors in regards to abortion. Sure, draft resisters sometimes faced punishment during wartime. In 1997, however, hundreds of thousands of draft resisters were pardoned by President Jimmy Carter. Selective service is a related, though dissimilar phenomenon that we’d do well to discuss further.

WWhen it comes to making public policies about bodies and the pregnancies that can result from sex, our ability to discuss sex and pleasure, privately, amongst ourselves as individuals is quite relevant.

I currently see no evidence that most policymakers are able to discuss sexuality with poise and clarity, let alone acknowledge the current patterns of intimate gendered interaction in the U.S. If we find it too shameful or embarrassing or untoward to talk about how fewer heterosexual women orgasm during sex than their male lovers, or the fact that men are more likely to be rapists than women, or that more women experience pain during intercourse than men, or that more men are prone to violence (and using sex as a form of violence) than women, how can we expect rational policies to emerge?

Imagine a world in which people come of age, feel physical yearnings, and begin to explore with one another with a mutual understanding of lust, respect, and a curiosity for what those feelings bring, not just in their own bodies, but in the bodies of those with whom they’re exploring. This scenario would come with an understanding that sperm is dangerous to those who want to remain child-free, because in a scenario of mutual respect and curiosity, of course, everyone involved would take responsibility for the outcome of their actions. If young people placed more value on prioritizing female pleasure, anatomy, and safety we’d be a lot closer to this ideal. Girls don’t masturbate nearly as often as their male peers, and many boys aren’t interested in seeing, touching, or tasting the female sexual anatomy either.

From the time heterosexual teenaged boys and girls get together to explore sex, social programming has already led them to believe that the most important aspects are a male’s pleasure and a female’s desirability. The widespread prevalence of female emotional discomfort and physical pain isn’t part of mainstream conversations and is rarely researched. In fact, according to a study reported on in The Week, “30% of women report pain during vaginal sex, 72% report pain during anal sex, and ‘large proportions’ don’t tell their partners when sex hurts.”

From childhood, we have a cultural precedent that says women’s pleasure is secondary to men’s and women’s pain doesn’t matter much at all.

That’s because, from childhood, we internalize a cultural precedent that says women’s pleasure is secondary to men’s, and that women’s pain doesn’t matter much at all. So common is “the shoulder push” now as a sexual prelude to a girl sucking a guy’s dick, the saying has emerged: “A hand job is a man’s job. A blow job is yo’ job.” Where is the mutual exploration of bodies? The idea of both people acting on their pleasure? No, we live in a world where men are recipients of pleasure and women are tasked with delivering it. And, if a girl is emotionally disturbed by this situation, she often learns that giving a blow job isn’t even considered sex by many people these days. Suck it up, babe. Literally.

Of course, despite social conventions, people of all genders and sexual orientations are capable of discovering that sex is totally magnificent when everyone’s engaged and coming. But that discovery is counter-cultural because the idea that women’s bodies exist independent of men’s needs is also counter-cultural. So common is the dismissal of women’s daily harassment, assault, and pain, as is the significance of our pleasure, that we don’t even see it as a baseline when we discuss public policies affecting those of us with uteruses.

WWhile I am completely certain that the miscarriages I had did not involve the death of a baby, something different happened when I got pregnant and stayed pregnant. When I gestated my son’s body, I experienced the beginning of life inside me as an ineffable miracle. At some point, I was aware of not just having “something going on” inside of me. I was aware of a person there. Experiences with pregnancies differ a great deal; this is how it was for me. During those last few months of pregnancy, I came to know my son as a distinct and definite human being. I feel I’ve known him longer than anyone else in this life has known him. I knew him while he was still in my body.

Would I have given my life for him at that point? I might have. I’m glad it was never a question of who lives and who dies: him or me. But, should it have come to that, my right to bodily autonomy and the ability to make the best decision for me — and for him — would’ve been more important than ever. I’m grateful we both survived his birth and that I know him as a full human being, now with his own son and his own set of human challenges in his own autonomous life, which he guides with aplomb.

I do know this: if abortion were safe and easy to get, there would be so very few people who delay the opportunity to have one when they know they need or want one. We would not be discussing “babies” as often; it simply wouldn’t be relevant. We’d be discussing cells sloughed out of the uterus, and only the potential for a child having been lost. That same potential is lost when people decide not to have sex, or who chose to use protection or birth control or get a vasectomy. There are many realities we could be living but are not, every day, in so many ways.

For those who make the difficult choice to abort later term pregnancies (rare though they may be), we must offer support and careful listening to their stories; they can teach us a lot about one of the many trials of being human.

We all have the right to make decisions of consequence. Just as individuals who choose to withhold an organ or a blood transfusion from someone whom they could’ve helped, those who choose to have an abortion have made a deeply personal decision about their life and bodily autonomy which deserves the same level of respect.

As humans, that’s what we must each learn to do.

Kimberly Dark is a writer, sociologist and raconteur working to reveal the hidden architecture of everyday life, one clever story, poem and essay at a time.

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