Disagreeing About Abortion Can Be Respectful, After All

Readers respond to the essay “Three Children, Two Abortions”

William Andrew / Getty

Three Children, Two Abortions

In an essay last month, Deborah Copaken put her two abortions—one as a teenager, one in her 30s—in conversation with her motherhood. What a woman “chooses to do with her body if she finds herself accidentally pregnant,” she wrote, “should not be up for debate in 2018.”

I appreciate Ms. Copaken’s courage in sharing her story. Truly, each of our unique stories defies simple classification, stereotypes, and slogans. Medical histories, sexuality, pregnancies, families are intensely personal aspects of our shared society. The debate over the legality of abortion necessarily draws these private matters into the public sphere. We should be careful to exercise compassion and respect in our discourse.

That said, I would argue with Ms. Copaken’s underlying assumption. She builds a careful, personal case for individual discretion to choose abortion. However, she fails to recognize the inconvenient truth that sex produces, without our explicit consent, a new living person.

I ask the reader to roll this clock back: At what point is a woman’s life (“her will, her health, her future, her finances, or her well-being”) more valuable than another’s? Or, when is a baby a baby? When should a developing human be a legal person protected by law?

This is the crucial issue. Pro-choice arguments tend to avoid scientific and medical facts and would rather pit a woman’s choice against a “blob of tissue” or, here, a “minuscule embryo of cells.” Pro-choice proponents avoid discussing fetal development, viability, or pain. They’d rather we not look behind the curtain.

Ms. Copaken wants it to have “always been about choice.” But we are too scientifically and medically advanced to pretend we don’t know what’s at stake. Abortion is about life and death. It is about whether and when a woman’s life can be so much more valuable than a developing baby’s that she can end that baby’s life. I challenge the reader to think that through.

So when should a developing human be a legal person?

I’m a reasonable person. Of course I don’t think an adult is the same as a fertilized egg, but when I honestly search for a reliable developmental milestone that could determine when a human passes from “potential life” to “life” or “life worth protecting,” the big moments seem to be conception, birth, and maturity (whenever that is). Obviously, we’ve already decided children are people. Birth is too arbitrary a measure, since it can be manipulated with an induction or C-section. The only other option I see is conception.

This is often portrayed as an “extreme” position, but I don’t see an honest ethical alternative. Nature has not given us an easy out, no matter how unfair that seems.

I do not want to minimize the real difficulties of unexpected pregnancies. I would simply challenge the pro-choice argument: If such hardships would not justify infanticide or homicide or eldercide, then I would argue they don’t justify causing a death in utero. Let’s focus instead—and I mean this sincerely, piggybacking on the author’s exhortation for a holistic pro-life ethic—on improving the lives of both mother and baby.

Mandi Mangler
Hamden, Conn.

Like Deborah Copaken, I am thankful for legal, safe abortion services. And, again like Deborah, I’ve had more pregnancies than live births, and I can relate to the discomfort of entering those details on medical forms. But my perspective is different. I had two miscarriages between the births of my first and second children: One minute I was pregnant, and the next, I was cramping and spotting and desperately hoping I was misreading the signs. I don’t know how these things are handled now, but 30 years ago the standard operating procedure was cruel. I was hospitalized and placed on the obstetrics ward, sharing a room with a teenager awaiting an abortion. From a medical perspective, I can see the logic in placing two I-won’t-be-pregnant-for-long women together, but given that I wanted a baby and she had one to spare, the injustice of it all compounded my grief. I was too scared to have a dilation and curettage, so I labored in that room and was given a plastic basin into which I could eventually deposit the “product of conception” (to spare the nurses from having to fish it out of the toilet). Once I was medically stable, I was discharged, and I hobbled past the newborn nursery, the celebrating families, and the sea of stuffed animals.

Losing babies runs in my family, and in my husband’s too. My mother had three miscarriages and four live births, including a baby who lived just a few hours. My mother-in-law had two miscarriages, one stillbirth, and three live births, including a baby born with spina bifida, who died as a toddler. The deaths of these babies were traumatizing, but each of us—my mother, my mother-in-law, and me—kept trying because we were desperate to be mothers. We felt extraordinarily lucky to have the surviving children we did. All of us knew women who had lost as many—or more— babies than we had, but who had no live births. Many of them spent their life savings on fertility treatments, and when they worked, it was miraculous. When they didn’t, the personal ads would be filled with heartbreaking pleas: “Let us give your baby a wonderful life! All expenses paid!” But carrying a baby to term only to surrender her to another parent is no longer common in this country. According to The Economist, “As the teenage pregnancy rate has fallen and the stigma attached to single motherhood has faded, the number of babies placed for adoption has declined. In 1971, 90,000 children were placed. By 1975 the number had fallen by half, mainly because of the legalisation of abortion in 1973. In 2014, only 18,000 infants under the age of two were placed for adoption.”

I’ve never given a child up for adoption and I’ve never had an abortion. I can’t speak to the life-changing trauma that might accompany either decision. But it saddens me to think that anticipating “a lifetime of ‘Little Green’ sorrow” tipped the scales away from adoption for Deborah, and I would imagine she’s not alone. Maybe it’s time for the rest of us to make adoption more socially acceptable—by way of a national campaign to focus on the heroism of placing a baby in a loving home—and to provide emotional and financial support for women considering this option. A crisis pregnancy is just that: a crisis. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. A pregnant woman who—for whatever reason—feels that she cannot parent a baby at this time has to make the best decision for herself. That may be abortion. But if any women consider abortion the only option because they fear being shamed, shunned, or ostracized for choosing adoption, then that is on us as a society, and we need to do better.

Name Withheld by Request
Freehold, N.J.

Deborah Copaken replies:

First, let me say that I deeply appreciate the care, thought, and vulnerability that went into these letters. With so much partisan shouting these days, it gave me hope to read rational sentences and well-considered arguments. That being said, I want to be clear on where I stand on both issues expressed in these two letters: Your opinions and feelings on when a life begins, in the former, and on destigmatizing adoption, in the latter, are your opinions and feelings, and I celebrate them for you, but I do not hold the same opinions or feelings, and they do not concern my body or my choices over what happens to that body. And that’s at the heart of this matter: bodily autonomy.

When my first son was born, my orthodox-Jewish parents-in-law forbade me from revealing his name to them until eight days after his birth. I was brought up Jewish, but this was news to me. There are many explanations for this rule, but one is that, although some Jews believe life begins only when the infant is halfway outside the vaginal canal, they do not consider that life viable until the child has lived outside the womb for, in some traditions, 30 days, but at the very least eight days—which is the day an infant boy is named at his bris. When I heard that, it made a lot of sense. In fact, baby showers, prebirth, are frowned upon as well, because what if that baby is stillborn or dies soon after birth, and then you have to come home empty-handed from the hospital to a house filled with tiny clothes and a crib? That Mandi Mangler feels otherwise about the precise moment life begins is absolutely her prerogative. I just do not share it, so again: My body, my choice. And again, that’s what this is about: bodily autonomy. I’m glad we both agree that our societal goal should be improving the lives of babies and mothers.

As for Name Withheld, I understand her distress, and the poignant and personal reasons for that distress. I agree that adoption should not be stigmatized, but my decision not to have a baby and give it up for adoption had nothing to do with societal stigma. Instead, I could not—personally, emotionally—handle the psychic pain of handing over my infant to be raised by someone else. That’s all. And it is a far leap from saying we should destigmatize adoption to believing that all women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant should feel compelled to give up their children for adoption. We are not baby factories for others, as The Handmaid’s Tale expresses far better than I can in this short response.