Thursday, January 5, 2012

Inconsistency and the Pro-Life position

The state of Mississippi voted last November to defeat Poposition 26, which offered an amendment to the (state) constitution that said:
“As used in this Article III of the state constitution, the term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.”

The discussion surrounding this issue was wide and varied, and a number of arguments were offered against it. I won't go into the details of all of them (I'm not sure I could), but I will point to one interesting take by a Mississippi pastor, Stephen Wedgeworth: An Examination of Mississippi's Proposition 26.

What I do want to consider is something that arose as an interesting part of the discussion among Mississippians. It may not surprise you to hear that this referendum was contentious and divisive, but it might surprise you to learn that it was contentious and divisive even among those claiming a "Pro-Life" position. Popular (outgoing) Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, for example, spoke out against it because defining life as beginning at fertilization, rather than at conception (which I presume would be defined as the point at which a fertilized ovum implants into a woman's uterus), meant that some forms of birth control might be made legally-questionable by this definition. Others acknowledged that this represented an open challenge to the ethics of some aspects of in vitro fertilization (such as unimplanted zygotes being disposed of).

My response to these is, "exactly."

Of course, this definition would have substantially restricted (if not eliminated outright) the practice of abortion in all, or nearly all, circumstances, even raising legality concerns when the mother's life is threatened by the circumstances. Indeed, I'm fairly confident that the prospect of such was precisely the motivation behind this proposed amendment.

In reality, however, those who are consistently "pro-life" should already know that questions reaching far beyond the issue of abortion need to be raised. It shouldn't take the potential passing of a legal, constitutional definition for socially-conservative thinkers to consider the ethical implications of matters of a less cut-and-dried (at least in the eyes of the so-called pro-lifers) nature.

Consider birth control. Many who claim to be "pro-life" have probably never pondered at length the implications of many forms of birth control. However, many of the oral means of birth control ("the pill") contain an abortifacient, which is to say they contain some substance that prevents a fertilized egg (aka a zygote) from implanting into the uterus.

The thinking behind oral birth control goes like this: the primary substance in the birth control medication is meant to inhibit fertility by providing an artificial hormone which prevents ovulation. Secondarily, penetration of sperm through the cervix is inhibited by decreasing the viscosity of cervical mucus. In other words, between the two, it should be very unlikely that a viable egg would form in the first place, and if it does, that it should be fertilized.

However, in the event that these two both fail to prevent fertilization— or in some cases, as an alternative secondary measure— some oral contraceptives also contain the abortifacient mentioned above. Scientists will disclaim that the secondary measures are almost unnecessary; thus, they say, "pro-lifers" should not have a problem with it. This begs the question: why include the secondary measures in the first place, then?

Such matters are part of the reason why Mississippi Proposition 26 failed; it would make the legality of such birth control measures questionable, at least. But it seems to come as a surprise to many Pro-Life folk that this question even emerged as part of the equation. (For the record: our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have been far more consistent on this question than we protestants. In fact, it was a Roman Catholic doctor who invented the condom, believing he had found a means for birth control that was clear of these ethical puzzles— though he was castigated by the Roman Catholic church nevertheless.)

Or consider the husband and wife whose infertility prohibits them from conceiving naturally via intercourse, but whose doctors have advised them that they would be good candidates for in vitro fertilization — where the wife will receive hormone therapy to increase her production of ova, and these will be "harvested" (removed) from her, then fertilized in a petri dish with her husband's sperm. At a certain point, decisions must be made: of the 10 harvested eggs, 7 were successfully fertilized; how many should the implant into her? They recommend 4, as it is likely that 2 or 3 of them may not be able to attach properly to the uterine wall, so she would probably conceive with twins or a singleton. Even if 3 attach, though, she will then only have triplets.

But what about the ones left in the petri dish? And the one (or more) that is expected to fail to attach? Ethical puzzles abound about these. Had the Mississippi referendum passed, all of the other zygotes would be legally considered persons and would be treated accordingly, insofar as legal rights are concerned (leaving the doctors and parents legally responsible for the well-being of the rest of the zygotes).

Without the law, all we have is ethics. But a pro-life thinker should be clear about this, as well: the zygotes in the dish are still their offspring (or, at least by the most liberating definition, potential offspring), and they mustn't dismiss the implications of this. Doctors will sometimes advise that the fertilized eggs be kept and preserved, in the event that the first implantation doesn't succeed and the couple should wish to try again. But the implanting procedure is financially costly (not to mention the emotional strain that the entire process puts on them both, and the physiological challenges for the wife), and many cannot afford to ever try again. Often these zygotes are simply thrown out. (Remember, the proponents of embryonic stem-cell research advocate that these "left over" zygotes be harvested for research purposes.)

Some friends of ours actually went through this, when they faced infertility obstacles in their own family. Their solution was to go ahead and implant all of the eggs that had successfully fertilized (in their case, this was only 3) to avoid the dilemma of having to decide what to do with the rest. For our friends, only one zygote attached, and he is doing well.

As for the one or more that are implanted but do not attach: well, here the ethics is even more gray, because the same set of events occurs naturally on a regular basis. Through intercourse, a couple may actually have an egg fertilized that does NOT attach to the uterine wall, and therefore the zygote never becomes a fetus, baby, adult, and so on. We don't mourn these fertilized eggs, even though they may be people; we don't even realize that they exist. Does that mean that the artificially-fertilized, harvested-then-implanted egg is not an ethical concern? Not so fast: it's really more of a "yes" and "no" answer. Remember, that zygote wouldn't exist had the mother, father, and doctors never begun the process of in vitro. There is some responsibility for its brief life in their hands, and its brief life's end.

This is not to say that parents for whom zygotes fail to implant (whether those zygotes are naturally or artificially fertilized) are irresponsible. At the bottom line, there is the matter of God's sovereign hand upon all things, and there is a limit to the accountability that is appropriate in such circumstances. My point isn't to try to parse these ethical issues, but to point out a few things:
  • Many, if not most, Christians have never considered that their claim to being "pro-life" ever amounts to anything more than being "anti-abortion"— when, in fact, the above issues (and others) are closely related.
  • The question of life and viability is often appealed to by Christians as the irrefutable claim against pro-abortion arguments; what is clear, however, is that many of the most conservative segments of our society haven't considered this argument out to its reasonable end.
  • Christians should not wantonly or thoughtlessly embrace fertilization technology on the basis that "God loves children and families" but most be more discerning about techniques such as in vitro fertilization and the ethical implications surrounding it.
  • Likewise, Christians need to be more thoughtful about using birth control; not eliminating it altogether, necessarily, but understanding what is actually going on by its use and considering whether these things are ethically consistent with their positions.


  1. This is a blow-by-blow of a tirade of mine at BarkeyMen a few mknths back. Well-written and thought-provoking (having shiwn my hand in a agreement already).

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