Why “What if I’d never been born?” doesn’t wash, and why no one will be persuaded by this argument


Over on Slate, a debate is raging about whether the “What if I’d never been born?” argument is a valid line of reasoning in the abortion debate.

I understand the argument: I value my life, and if my Mom had had an abortion back in 1967, I would never have existed. This is a bad thing, therefore abortion is bad and should be outlawed.

Here’s the problem with the argument: I could equally argue the following: “I value my life, and if my Mom had not been a Catholic, she would have had an abortion. Therefore all women should be forcibly converted to Catholicism.”

Or “I value my life, and if my Mom and Dad hadn’t started dating in 1965, I would never have been conceived, therefore all women should be forced to date my Dad.” Or something.

The case for abortion does not hinge on whether a given person, living today, should have been denied the right to be born X years ago. Indeed, it is not about whether it is ever appropriate to have laws that could lead to human deaths.

Otherwise what would the justification for war be — if all human life is sacred, then should we ever sanction something that might result in a loss of life? Shouldn’t we refuse to engage in any military conflict, regardless of its potential merits? Wouldn’t there be a moral imperative to provide free health care for all? Shouldn’t we ban motorcycles, and firearms, and any object that might become lodged in some unsuspecting toddler’s throat? Shouldn’t the universal speed limit be set at 5 miles per hour? Once we acknowledge that it is acceptable to have a policy that will result in a loss of human life, then we are living in a world of relativism, not a world of absolutes.

At this point it becomes reasonable to weigh the harm of forcing a woman to bear an unwanted pregnancy against the harm of aborting a fetus or embryo. Heart-wrenching as it may be for the woman making the choice, it’s not a difficult decision as a matter of policy. The woman is a grown person, with friends, family, loved ones, and the capacity to love and think. The fetus is not. Pregnancy and childbirth is dangerous, even sometimes life-threatening. The fetus, which might technically be termed “living” and “human,” has less cognitive capacity than a rodent, which most humans would have no qualms about killing (or perhaps hiring someone else to kill) if it was encroaching on their lives in even the most benign way. Clearly it’s acceptable to kill a being like a rodent in order to spare a woman 9 months of illness and discomfort and even distortion of her body, followed by ten to twenty-four hours or more of appalling pain that under any other circumstance would be considered gruesome torture, followed by weeks of recovery and often permanent disfigurement.

If the anti-abortion forces weren’t so dogmatic, I would even be willing to accept a compromise, setting some point in a pregnancy where abortions were illegal, perhaps after 4 months or so, in exchange for removing all restrictions on abortion prior to that point and ensuring it was available to all women.

But clearly this isn’t the sort of foe pro-choicers face. Larimore, who makes every effort to appear reasonable, clearly wouldn’t accept such a compromise. While she seems to acknowledge the point that 90 percent of abortions take place before the 12th week, when the embryo is anything but human-like, she later dismisses it, saying “it’s barbaric to kill 1 million babies a year.” Remember, we’re talking about a thumbnail-sized blob that in Larimore’s words looks more like a “space alien” than a human.

And of course Larimore completely leaves women out of her “barbarity” equation. Is it not barbaric to torture and disfigure 1 million women a year by forcing them to undergo pregnancy and childbirth?

But as I’ve said, this argument won’t convince anyone, because anti-choicers have already taken Larimore’s logical leap from embryo to fetus to baby. My comparison of an fetus to a “rodent” would strike them as offensive, because they believe a fetus, an embryo, even a zygote is a baby, and babies are wonderful!

But pro-lifers might argue “What is the difference between a baby and a fetus? Isn’t the fetus just a baby that hasn’t been born yet?” In some senses, yes, but once the baby is born, then killing it doesn’t save the mother from pregnancy and childbirth. There is no justification for killing the baby because its existence doesn’t depend on the physical pain and disfigurement of a woman.

Pro-lifers then counter with their trump card: The woman deserves to be pregnant because she chose to have sex.

To which I respond: Is that all you got? Why aren’t you banning sex, then? If sex (or sex out of wedlock, or sex without the intention of producing kids, or whatever the hell you think is “sinful”) is what really bothers you, then why not try to stop that? Good luck at it.

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2 Responses to Why “What if I’d never been born?” doesn’t wash, and why no one will be persuaded by this argument

  1. khan says:

    There is also the idiot assumption that “I” & the rest of the planet would somehow be deprived/upset/sorrowful if “I” had never been born.

  2. Jessie says:

    Love it. Now just wondering if I have the guts to attempt the rodent argument the next time the subject comes up! :)

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