What is a fetus worth?

Alas, A Blog cites an article that suggests that pro-choicers are neglecting the value of the fetus in their discussions of abortion rights. From the article:

Imagine a world in which it was possible to remove fetuses prior to viability from women’s bodies and allow them to develop in a nonuterine environment. Perhaps they could be implanted in men or other women who want them; perhaps they could develop in a specially equipped nursery? In this world, medicine is so far advanced that this could be accomplished painlessly and without risking the health of either the woman or the fetus. Of course, this is at present largely a fantasy and by that time we would have found the ideal, risk-free, failure-free contraceptive; but let’s pretend.

What are the first five concerns and reactions that come to your mind? Is one of them the fact that this would mean fetuses need not die? My own experience in presenting this option to both advocates and opponents of abortion is that the fetus’s life is rarely a consideration. Among the most interesting reactions of those who are prochoice is a concern that some women might find the continued existence of the fetus painful for them or that women have a right to ensure that their genetic material does not enter the world. Abortion in this sense becomes the guarantee of a dead fetus, if desired, rather than the removal of the fetus from an unwilling host, the woman.

So women are supposed to imagine that the fetus could be removed from the body and then raised in another context. Would they be in support of abortion then: when the only difference between abortion and these other options is “killing” the fetus? Continuing my tradition of appalling metaphors for discussing abortion, let’s consider another one: suppose your house is infested with rats. Would you prefer to have the rats killed or simply removed to another location, if you could be assured that the de-ratification would be just as effective in either case? What about a bunny rabbit infestation? Who in their right mind would slaughter bunnies when bunny removal could be accomplished without any senseless killings?

The point is, when the discussion is reduced to those terms, to “killing” or “not killing,” the reader is presented with a logical trap. Someone’s going to have to deal with those rats (or bunnies). If the mother doesn’t raise the child, someone will have to do it. Do we really want to enlist the kindhearted souls of the world to take in every rat that someone else wanted cleanly removed from her life?

Some may consider it appalling that I compare fetuses to rats, but there are certainly points in a fetus’s development when it is less “conscious,” less “alive” than a rat. Heck, a newborn human baby is less trainable, and certainly less physically adept than an adult rat. I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to babies, but not to fetuses that can’t even survive outside the womb except in a fantasy world. A rat’s life is much more significant than a fetus’s “life,” but no one gives a second thought to killing rats.

But ah, the fetus has potential to be so much more! It could be a scientist, or an architect, or a world ping-pong champion! No rat has ever been taught to play ping-pong! Surely the fetus is worth saving!

Since we’re already engaged in a ridiculous metaphor, allow me to extend it. What if rats could be taught to play ping pong? Would we spare the rats infesting our houses then? Of course not, because if we transferred them to another home, the new host would not, in any likelihood, train them. The rats would be doomed to a life of dull drudgery in dark passages and cold attics. One might believe they would be better off dead.

But what if there was a ready supply of faithful trainers, ready to take in any and all rats and prepare them for ping-pong greatness? My response would be the same: it’s just a rat. If you want one so badly, they’re easily breedable, or you could go to Africa or some other place with a significant rat problem and find all that you need. Why do you want my rat? If it’s remotely cheaper and more convenient for me to just kill it, that’s what I’m going to do. Some people might decide they’d rather “save” the rats in their homes, but you couldn’t convince me that a law banning the killing of rats was justified, even if rat-transfer and training was just as effective. The only way I’d even consider the transfer and training option would be if it was less expensive — a notion so ridiculous, whether we’re talking about rats or fetuses, that even I am not willing to take this metaphor that far.

That’s the problem with metaphors. They don’t represent the real world. In the real world, we don’t have rat trainers, and we don’t have people to take in even the deserving and needy real children, let alone fetuses. When every AIDS orphan in Africa has a real future, then talk to me about the future of a blastocyst.

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2 Responses to What is a fetus worth?

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