Reply to Kyffin on Abortion

Yesterday I strongly criticized Colorado Right to Life (CRTL) for promoting the prohibition of abortion even of fertilized eggs and even in cases of rape and risk to the life of the mother.

Bob Kyffin offered several arguments in reply. However, he did not address the central point: a fertilized egg is not a person, as CRTL claims. Kyffin states:

Is there ever a case where slavery should be allowed? Ever a case when a Jew should be allowed to be killed? Never.

And there should never be a reason to take the life of an innocent human being…

Nobody doubts the evils of slavery or murder. But a fertilized egg is just not a human being (a person). It is alive, and it has human DNA, but so does every cell in our bodies. It is a potential human being, but a potential person is not a person.

The overwhelming majority of abortions occur in early stages of pregnancy, when the embryo is barely developed and still only a potential human person. As a matter of ethics, women who get abortions should do so in the early stages whenever feasible. (As a matter of ethics, people should have sex responsibly and take reasonable steps to avoid unwanted pregnancy.) Individual rights apply only to actual people, individuals who live a “biologically independent existence” (in Diana Hsieh’s words.)

As a matter of rights, women have the right to get an abortion for whatever reason they deem fit. This is true even if some women get abortions for bad reasons or come to regret them. Similarly, women have the right to decide their sexual partners, even if some have sex for bad reasons or come to regret it.

A fertilized egg is not a person. An embryo is not a person. Neither Kyffin nor CRTL has offered any reason for thinking otherwise, beyond the pseudo-reason that God allegedly said so.

In his more specific arguments, Kyffin begins by addressing risks to the life of the mother:

They [CRTL] say you don’t kill a baby to save the mother because it’s a truism. It’s never medically necessary to take active measures to kill the baby in order to preserve the mother’s life. That’s an abortionist’s lie, and a popularly believed myth.

A Caesarian section is one of the safest and quickest medical procedures that exists. It takes 5 minutes, and if the baby is capable of living outside the womb, then she will live.

A late-term abortion, on the other hand, takes many hours, at the very least, and often takes days. If a woman’s life is in danger, a doctor would be criminally incompetent to take the time to kill the baby before removing her, rather than simply delivering the baby alive.

A doctor should always try to save the life of the baby and the mother — to do anything else is negligent.

Kyffin claims that in medical emergencies the interests of the mother and fetus usually coincide. This I do not doubt. However, it is not always the case, and unexpected emergencies late in pregnancy are not the only relevant cases. Doctors may know very early in the pregnancy that the mother would risk her life by carrying the embryo to term. Last November, I cited the case of a woman who died following an ectopic pregnancy. A woman might have any number of medical conditions that make pregnancy dangerous.

Kyffin fudges his case when he forbids only “active measures to kill the baby,” adding that “if the baby is capable of living outside the womb, then she will live.” That’s a fairly big “if.” Obviously, if a doctor removes an (early-stage) embryo, it’s going to die. Kyffin’s trick is to define “active measures” so narrowly that some cases of intentionally killing the embryo are discounted.

CRTL uses the same sleight of rhetoric. Recall that the position of CRTL is that “It is… wrong… to kill the baby to save the mother.” CRTL opposes “the intentional killing of the unborn child, for the life of the mother.” CRTL states, “When the mother’s life is seriously threatened by a pregnancy, of course it is morally justified to deliver the baby but not if the intention is to kill the baby. … If the baby dies, it is a tragedy; if the baby is intentionally killed, it is murder.”

CRTL’s position doesn’t hold up for early-term pregnancies. “Delivering” an unformed embryo will kill it. Yet the only way that CRTL can preserve its stance that a fertilized egg is a person and still allow doctors to save the life of the mother is to pretend that “delivery” of an unformed embryo to death is somehow different than intentionally killing it.

In practice, though, medicine is often an art of managing risks. In many cases, a pregnancy will endanger the life of the mother somewhat. Only a certain fraction of dangerous pregnancies will result in the death of the mother. To flesh out its position, then, CRTL needs to specify when it’s acceptable to risk the life of the mother. If the mother has a 40 percent chance of dying and a 60 percent chance of carrying the embryo to term, must the government force the woman and her doctor to continue the pregnancy?

So long as CRTL clings to the faith-based fantasy that a fertilized egg is a person, the group has only two paths. Either it can openly acknowledge that it would sometimes sacrifice the lives of women, or it can allow women to get abortions whenever they see any risk to their lives. This second path, however, is inconsistent with CRTL’s position that “It is… wrong… to kill the baby to save the mother.” And the first path is horrific.

Next Kyffin addresses the issue of rape:

On the subject of rape babies, surveys show that most victims of rape or incest want to keep their babies. The ones who don’t keep their baby often regret it for the rest of their lives. An abortion simply re-victimizes the young girl.

Abortion for rape and incest also hides the crime from authorities (abortionists NEVER report underage pregnancies, even when they suspect rape — this is WELL documented). The rapist is free to rape the same girl again, and again, without his wife (the girl’s mother) or whoever else knowing about it.

The issue of documentation and protection of underage victims is distinct from the issue of abortion (though I doubt Kyffin’s claim that abortion clinics “never” report rapes to the police). Obviously the issue is wider than underage pregnancy (though I don’t know what percentage of pregnancies caused by rape involve minors).

Regardless of what the surveys say, the matter is not properly up for vote. Even if “most” women want to carry embryos resulting from rape to term, some do not, and they have the right to get an abortion. I do not doubt that many women regret getting an abortion, just as many do not, and many would have regretted not getting an abortion. But that’s beside the point. It’s the government’s job to protect people’s rights — in this case, the rights of women — not play psychoanalyst and protect people from their own choices as evaluated by the religious right. (The broader point is that the government should fight rape.) Besides, according to CRTL’s premises, even if all raped women who became pregnant wanted to get an abortion and none regretted it, CRTL would still wish to prohibit all abortions, so Kyffin’s argument seems misplaced.

Nothing Kyffin has written mitigates the fact that CRTL wants to grant a fertilized egg the full legal rights of a person, force women to bring pregnancies to term against their will, prohibit valuable medical research, force women to have the babies of rapists, and sacrifice the lives of some unwilling women in order to save embryos. Those who actually respect life must reject CRTL’s faith-based politics.

2 thoughts on “Reply to Kyffin on Abortion”

  1. Dr. Paul Hsieh has the following to say about emergencies in late-term pregnancies (posted with permission):

    In emergency situations, for instance when a pregnant woman is in a bad car accident, usually the mother’s interest and the fetus’ interest coincide. Hence, the best way to save the fetus is usually to save the mother.

    But in a few (fortunately rare) circumstances, it may be that measures to save the mother’s life may increase the risk of a bad outcome for the fetus. For instance, the mother may have massive pelvic bleeding from injured arteries which would require an interventional radiology procedure called pelvic embolization. But to perform that procedure would expose the fetus to high doses of x-ray radiation and/or intravenous x-ray contrast (“dye”) because it’s injected in the mother’s blood stream and will then pass through the placenta into the fetal blood stream. But the fetus might still be too early in development for a C-section, or it might be right at the borderline for a safe C-section because the baby would be extremely premature.

    In that case, doctors will do what they have to do save the mother, and deal with any bad consequences to the fetus later. The basic principle that the trauma surgeons adopt is, “Treat the mother first.” They won’t generally hold back on anything that will help the mother, even if it could cause harm to the fetus. Of course, the mother can always choose not to consent to a procedure (knowing that it might be bad for her, but might be better for the future child).

    It’s not so much that one has to kill the fetus to save the mother, but one might have to place the fetus at increased risk to save the mother (or increase her chances of survival).

    So in the rare cases where the mother’s interests and the fetus’s interest conflict, the mother’s take priority. Fortunately, this doesn’t arise very often.

  2. Ari,

    First off, let me assure you that I am intimately familiar with CRTL’s position on “never kill the baby to save the mother” and yet there is nothing at all inconsistent between CRTL’s position and Dr. Hsieh’s position, which you quoted.

    The reason is that you are wrong when you contend there is no difference between delivery of an embryo to death on the one hand, and intentionally killing her on the other hand.

    That’s why CRTL says, “if the baby dies, it is a tragedy; if the baby is intentionally killed, it is murder.” The result may be the same. The intent is clearly different. There is a distinct and critical difference between the unfortunate death of a baby whose life could not be saved, in the course of protecting the mother, and the situation where a doctor goes in and intentionally kills the baby when it is not necessary. In the case of an ectopic pregnancy, there is a (presumably) 0% chance of the baby surviving, and that is unfortunate. And yet, CRTL would support a surgery to protect the mother, so long as there is no malicious intent in the doctor’s mind to intentionally kill the baby.

    Consider the case of Siamese twins. The doctors, in every case, have the intent to save both twins, though in some cases this is impossible. In other cases, death comes to one or both despite the attempt to intervene. Nevertheless, if there is a medical necessity to intervene to prevent both twins from dying (or both mother and baby), then it is supportive of the right to life (and not in conflict with CRTL’s position) to do so. Since the baby needs the mother to survive, then of course CRTL would support taking such actions to preserve her life, even if it may mean the death of the baby, or (as Dr. Hsieh mentions) an increased risk to the baby.

    That said, did you know that a British woman (I think) actually brought an ectopic pregnancy to full term the other day? It was linked in Drudge. Also, there are other ways to “medically manage” a “dangerous” pregnancy, including toxemia. Brian Rohrbough’s wife was in that situation, and she (like any mother would have 50 years ago) chose to carry the baby to term even though it put her at increased risk of injury or death. Once upon a time, mothers were willing to die for their unborn children. That ethic has been lost in our selfish modern society. In any case, danger to the mother’s life is a very rare situation, and even when it exists it can be medically managed with B12 supplements and other means that are perfectly reasonable and available (and even cheap!).

    Now, none of this is relevant if the embryo (what you referred to as “unformed”) is not a Person. But not just God, but science too, indicates life begins at conception, and support of individual rights should indicate to good libertarians that that human life is not property, but rather a unique and distinct individual, deserving of individual rights.

    Nothing is ever a potential human being. Eggs and sperm are clearly not human beings. They’re not potential, because they could never turn into a human being by themselves.

    However, a “fertilized egg” (what science refers to as a zygote or an embryo – only politicians refer to them as “fertilized eggs”) is actually a developing human being. When 23 chromosomes from the mother and 23 chromosomes from the father join in the zygote they instantly constitute a unique human being, with its own DNA that is not even 50% of either parent – it is a unique mixture of the parents’ combined genomes which can include traits neither of their parents even had. Once the instant of conception (fertilization) occurs, if you could map that child’s DNA, you could predict exactly what hair color, eye color, exact appearance, genetic aptitudes, and probably even personality influences, all from the information you’ve gathered from a 1-second-old baby.

    This is the refutation of your comparison between the “fertilized egg” and every other cell in your body – the difference is that this one cell (and, after a matter of hours, several cells) has its own, distinct and unique DNA sequence that is completely different from the mother. It even communicates with its mother at the instant of birth using pheramones – a human chemical only used to communicate between individuals.

    Ari, you also betray an internal conflict in saying that, “As a matter of ethics, women who get abortions should do so in the early stages whenever feasible.” You go on to say, “As a matter of ethics, people should have sex responsibly and take reasonable steps to avoid unwanted pregnancy.” Your adherence to these ethics demonstrates that you acknowledge a moral component to pregnancy, and I appreciate that. However, by advising in favor of the baby’s Right to Life (not a right, really – what you describe is more like a government-regulated or personally-regulated privilege) later in the term, you are admitting there is a moral component here. It’s not just about the mother. It’s about the baby too. Otherwise, there should be nothing wrong with abortion up to the 9th month. Your heart compels you to know there is a moral imperative here. You’re right!

    But the Right to Life IS a right – not a privilege, to be determined by the government, as freedom once was.

    The leaders of the “right to death” movement are those who support abortion at any stage of life, from RU-486 to euthanasia. Ari, from what you’ve said, I know that you’re not one of those people. But Ari, I’m sorry to say, you are taking the same side as those liberals who oppose other individual rights at any stage of our lives – gun rights, freedom from search & seizure, limits on religious freedom, and freedom of speech, etc. Look at anyone who support those anti-libertarian positions, and you can be all but guaranteed they’re also in favor of “the right for a woman to choose what to do with her own body.” Why? Because it’s an imagined right – a “right” designed to mask the violation of the rights of the individual.

    When it comes down to it, the defenses of abortion are never “choices” – “this woman has to have an abortion because she’s poor,” or “this woman has to have an abortion because she’s been raped,” or “this woman has to have an abortion because she’s not ready to be a mom.”

    Do you know how many women – even how many kids – are not ready to be a mom? And yet, they take on the responsibility once they’re put in the situation. Anyone who becomes pregnant is already a mom. It’s a matter of whether she then chooses to keep the baby, or throw her in a dumpster. Legalized abortion “absolves” them of the responsibility, but is that really a proper libertarian position – the “right” to irresponsibility? I think not!

    So, the question is, when does an individual Person acquire the Right to Life if not at fertilization, when that unique Person becomes who he or she is? When must the individual right of the mother have to give way to the individual right of the baby? And if they are equal, at any time, then what gives the mother the right to determine rights of life and freedom for the baby whose life she has power over? Is that not perverse – like the rights of a slaveowner over his slave? Does the baby seriously have no rights, whatsoever, until birth? How is that not like slavery?

    Did you know that abortionists are shunned in medical practice by their supposed “peers?” That’s because most doctors take the Hippocratic Oath relatively seriously, and they recognize that abortionists do not. Did you know that the original Hippocratic Oath actually included a vow not to “give an abortive remedy?” And that was in a pagan Greek culture! Even then, they realized a conflict between “do no harm” and killing an unborn baby.

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