I have argued before that one of the main impediments that abortion activists face is science itself: the obvious scientific conclusion, I mean, that human beings are human beings from the moment of conception onward. To get around the rather thorny moral implications of this fact—i.e., that abortion deliberately kills living human beings—activists have crafted a clever argument that turns on the question of “personhood,” namely that unborn humans are not “persons” and it is thus okay to kill them. “Personhood,” in this case, is usually defined as a status one obtains after having met certain criterial benchmarks: consciousness, conscience, motor function, speech, ability to love, ability to think abstractly, ability to live outside of a uterus, etc. Many pro-abortionists believe that once you achieve some or all of these abilities then it’s wrong to kill you, and if you haven’t then it’s not. The people who advance the personhood argument generally look upon human beings in the same way an automobile factory line foreman might look at a robot that assembles Mazda widgets: if you can’t satisfy certain behavioral standards, then you are worthless and it’s okay to toss you into a garbage can.
At Slate, Chavi Eve Karkowsky writes about counseling a young woman over a potential abortion. The woman (who “already had several kids”), was using a LARC, a Long-Acting Reversible Contraception, which Dr. Karkowsky calls “one of the newest and best forms of contraception” (except in this case, I guess). Dr. Karkowsky wants to advise this young woman on her options regarding her pregnancy, and she finds a “revelation” in the rhetoric of Dr. Willie Parker, a “believing and active Christian” who kills humans for a living. Dr. Karkowsky is prepared, you see. This young woman with the bogus LARC, nineteen weeks pregnant, has already felt her unborn child kick inside of her, and as a result she doesn’t want to “terminate.” How will Dr. Karkowsky address this thorny problem? Well, she “[thinks] back to Dr. Parker’s work,” and then she says to this expectant mother:
Here’s what I really think. I see a woman in front of me, and she is suffering. She has a pregnancy in her uterus, and that pregnancy is alive, but so were the sperm and eggs that made it. So life is not the real question. For right now, that pregnancy is, for most of us, and most of science, and for the current law, alive but not a person. You—YOU—are a person, and you are suffering. And if this procedure, a termination, would reduce your suffering, then I think you need to know it’s available. And if you want to continue this pregnancy, I will offer you the best prenatal care in the world, and we will help you have the healthiest pregnancy and baby you can have. What do I think? That this is your choice. No more, no less. No judgement, no shame.
“She has a pregnancy in her uterus, and that pregnancy is alive, but so were the sperm and eggs that made it.” Whether or not you are pro-life, pro-choice, or just pro-ambivalence, I want you to consider the hollow ideological absurdity of such a soliloquy. It is grammatical and scientific nonsense to refer to “a pregnancy in [the] uterus;” though we do often speak idiomatically of pregnancy in the nounal sense (“a healthy pregnancy,” for instance) the word itself denotes a state, not an entity: you would never, after all, say something like, “She gave birth to a pregnancy.” And it beggars belief that a doctor—a person with actual medical responsibilities and access to actual patients who depend upon her for actual medical treatment—cannot tell the difference between (a) the gametes that fuse together to create a distinct human organism and (b) the distinct human organism that arises from the fusion of those two gametes. A medical professional who is unable to differentiate between these two radically qualitatively different phenomenon is unfit to hold a medical license or even so much as a tongue depressor.
I am not sure what compels people to frame this rather simple and uncomplicated issue in such a way. It might be tactical dishonesty: perhaps Dr. Karkowsky honestly believed it was better for the woman to “terminate” her “pregnancy,” and thus framed the issue in the most medically illiterate and irresponsible way she could. Or maybe abortion doctors recognize the deeply horrifying moral implications of abortion and have simply doublethinked themselves into believing what they tell their scared and desperate patients. I do not know
But there is one more lie that Dr. Karkowsky told her patient, and maybe you didn’t spot it because it’s subtle enough to just barely ping the subconscious: “For right now,” she says, “that pregnancy is, [for] most of science…alive but not a person.”
This is false. “Science,” properly understood, does not, and can never, quantify what it means to be a “person.” Personhood is strictly a philosophical question, not a scientific one: science can tell you a lot about human biology and human development, but will never be able to tell you when it is acceptable to kill a human being and when it’s not. That is a question we reserve to the moral sphere of inquiry.
Dr. Karkowsky, of course, has already answered that question for herself: she considers it acceptable to kill a human being even as it moves and squirms inside of the mother who carries it. Thankfully, the patient in this case decided not to abort her child. But don’t worry: Dr. Karkowsky is still gainfully employed. So maybe next time.