Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Pro-Life Movement: selectively protecting embryos since 1973.

Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the past year, you are probably aware that the U.S. government is closer than it's ever been to major healthcare reform. If you're aware of this, you're probably also aware that the debate over this reform has partly turned into a fight over abortion, with the right introducing all kinds of measures to make sure that no one's tax money ever pays for an abortion.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am pro-choice in every sense of the word - I believe that everyone who is able to do so should have the final say in their own medical decisions, and that these decision should ideally be based on their  needs and sounds medical advice. Ergo, I think that if a woman wants to undergo any procedure related to her own fertility (IVF, abortion, tubal litigation, etc.) then the only moral paradigm that she should have to consider in the process should be her own. It's no one's business why she should choose to do any of these things - and unless you're her doctor, you have no right to ask or give your opinion on the matter. Obviously, those in the pro-life movement disagree - they would probably tell me that those embryos are unborn children who have a right to live.

But I've noticed something recently that I find very strange. For all the time and resources that the anti-abortion people have dedicated to putting as many restrictions on abortion into the healthcare bill as possible, they've kept strangely quiet about another medical procedure - in vitro fertilization, or IVF. I haven't seen it mentioned at all, even though it seems logical to me that someone who opposes abortion on the grounds that embryos are people would be equally if not more opposed to IVF. Anyone who consider embryos to be people and abortion to be murder should logically consider IVF to be something like a massacre.

I've seen some anti-abortionists claim that this is different, because a woman undergoing IVF is attempting to give birth to a child, whereas a woman seeking an abortion is destroying one.  And of course, most people know that while IVF usually results in at least one child being born, abortion results in none - that's the whole point. Even so, someone who considers embryos to people should still consider IVF to be worse, if they understand how it works.

To start the process, the woman takes fertility drugs which cause her to release a lot more eggs than the usual one or two - the number depends on her age and health, and the more eggs there are the more likely it is that the procedure will succeed. For this example, let's say our hypothetical woman is in her late 20s and in good health, and gets about a dozen eggs  out of this.

The eggs are removed from her body, injected with sperm, and left in a dish for a couple of days to see if they'll get fertilized. Because our hypothetical women is relatively young, her eggs are more likely to be successful at this part, and in theory all twelve of them might become embryos. Regardless of how many embryos she ends up with, the ones that appear the most likely to make it to full term - usually two or three - are transferred to her uterus. Maybe the remaining nine didn't get fertilized, or maybe some of them did and simply weren't dividing as quickly. In the latter case, those embryos weren't necessarily unlikely to survive - just not quite as likely as the few that ended up being chosen. Those nine or ten perfectly healthy embryos will be thrown out, and in fact this was planned from the start. As for the two or three "chosen" embryos, only one is expected to make it. If more that one of them implants (which, ideally, doesn't happen) and if none of them miscarry, then all but one of them might be aborted, to avoid the complications that come along with multiple births. Again, this was the intent of the procedure from the start - lot of fertilized embryos, but only one baby.

So now let's look at this again. In an early-term abortion, usually only one embryo is destroyed. In our hypothetical IVF procedure, it's probable that at least two were destroyed, and if it was a very successful IVF procedure then the number might be as high as eleven.

Now, the women (and her partner, if she has one) can decide not to discard all of those extra embryos. They could be donated for stem-cell research, or to a woman who wants to have a baby but can't use her own eggs for some reason.  Obviously anti-abortionists would prefer the latter, but a lot of IVF patient are not comfortable with this alternative. The anti-abortionists don't seem to be getting too angry about this, and it's perplexing. Even embryos that are kept in cold storage will eventually die. Why aren't they at least insisting that only one embryo be created during these procedures, instead of several which will almost certainly be destroyed?

A lot of pro-life groups also oppose things like birth control and condom use, and promote abstinence-only sex education in spite of its proven ineffectiveness.  It's pretty obvious that using birth control reduces the number of unplanned pregnancies, and in turn the number of abortions. It's also estimated that up to 50% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, often without the women realizing she was ever pregnant. But if she's using  birth control, the chances of that happening decrease to nearly zero, because pregnancy is only likely to happen if she plans it. Given these things, it doesn't make sense that anyone whose wanted protect all fetuses and embryos from harm would object to the use of birth control and family planning, but be largely silent about IVF.

But many "pro-lifers" will also tell you that sex is for making babies, and anyone who has sex should be fully prepared for the the possibility of pregnancy -  and they don't mean "prepared with some RU-486 or an Emergency Abortion Fund." What's more, heterosexual coupleshave a very low chance of ever dealing with an unplanned pregnancy at all, if they use two forms of birth control correctly and consistantly . Without the specter of an emergency trip to Planned Parenthood hanging over their heads, they could have sex anytime, just for fun, even if they never want to have children.

If we assume that the pro-life movement is about saving every embryo, then to oppose abortion and birth control while tolerating IVF makes no sense. But if we assume that the pro-life movement is not so much about saving embryos as discouraging sex-for-fun and, erm, encouraging sex-for-procreation... well, suddenly these seemingly-contradictory positions make a lot of sense. A single successful IVF treatment might end up killing more embryos than one abortion clinic does in a month, but it's okay because we're getting women pregnant - and we didn't even need to bring sex into at all! For the anti-sex, anti-choice "pro-lifer", that's a win-win.

This is why some progressives (myself included) often refer to these types of pro-lifers as "anti-choice". The only way I can explain their behavior is by concluding that they're not just out to "save the unborn babies". What they're really after is ensuring that no one is able to have sex without a chance of facing the consequences. They don't want women to get a choice, or a chance to plan - just a punishment for being human.


Post a Comment