Why is Reproductive Technology a Battleground in the Abortion Debate?

Caitlin Borgmann has made the convincing argument that incrementalism in the anti-abortion movement developed from the failure of the movement’s initial post-Roe strategy to win the hearts and minds of the undecided. The strategy of equating abortion with murder and vilifying women who have abortions was far too strident to be persuasive and too off-putting to have emotional appeal. The strategy was eventually abandoned in favor of chipping away at Roe by degrees. Incrementalism takes the long view toward outlawing abortion in any form, but its progress, ironically, is asymptotic, 120px-Icsitending toward prohibition without ever achieving it. This is because incrementalism’s objective is to render access to abortion illusory. Even if Roe remains in place, rendering abortion inaccessible will mean that it is legal in theory but not in practice. Although alternatives to incrementalism have appeared in recent years as certain factions within the movement have grown restive, incrementalism remains the primary strategy of the anti-abortion movement today.

The incrementalist strategy now includes arguments for limiting assisted reproduction by raising concerns about its use at all four stages of the cycle of human reproduction: pre-conception, pre-implantation, post-implantation, and even post-birth. Although seemingly an odd direction for the anti-abortion movement to take, it should not come as a complete surprise; after all, the moral status of the embryo has played a major role in the development of the legal regimes that regulate assisted reproduction in other countries, particularly those with strong commitments to Roman Catholicism. Costa Rica, for example, banned IVF entirely for this reason in a law later struck down by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Although their connection may not be immediately obvious, then, abortion and assisted reproduction have a history of intertwinement in the policymaking arena.

An important question remains, though, about what is achievable in bringing anti-abortion sentiments to bear on issues in assisted reproduction. On the surface, there appears to be no clear connection between terminating a pregnancy and pursuing one. Of course, abortion and assisted reproduction are both techniques for managing reproductive life, and it is true that, in some applications, assisted reproduction may result in embryo loss. Hence, calls to regulate embryo disposition (called “adoption” in this context) and embryonic stem cell research make a certain amount of sense. But the claim that embryos have a moral status is not a good explanation for why other areas of assisted reproduction have become attractive battlegrounds for pursuing an anti-abortion agenda: egg donation, sex selection, and intentional parenthood.

It is obvious why the movement decries sex-selective embryo discarding or sex-selective abortion. Less clear is the reason for the movement’s opposition to pre-conception sex-selective techniques. Furthermore, anti-abortion advocates have claimed, respectively, that egg donation harms women and that intentional parenthood in the absence of a genetic connection harms children. Neither of these positions has much to do with abortion. If it is safe to assume that the stances assumed by the anti-abortion movement against assisted reproduction have more to do with banning abortion than with regulating reproduction, it is important for us to inquire into why the movement believes its resources are well spent in this area and what the implications of its activities might be for law and policy.

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9 Responses

  1. Shag from Brookline says:

    Short answer: Anti-abortionists believe the Constitution’s Commerce Clause must be read broadly [pun intended] to regulate intercourse in and among the states.

  2. Jimbino says:

    Associating abortion with “murder” is offensive. Murder requires a “mens rea” or “malice aforethought.” Better to use “homicide” for which there exists the claim of self-defense.

    Indeed, a woman afflicted with a pregnancy that threatens death or physical or mental injury (as all do) is quite right to kill the fetus, that being the only remedy.

  3. Brett Bellmore says:

    To some extent, a car driving down the road threatens the lives of everyone standing on the sidewalk. But I don’t think you’d get very far claiming self defense shooting a driver, unless the car actually intruded upon the sidewalk.

    IOW, “all” pregnancies do not threaten death or physical or mental injury, for reasonable values of “threaten”.

  4. Joe says:

    The car metaphor is a bit off.

    ALL pregnancies in various ways negatively affect the health and well being of the pregnant girl or woman. The same is not case with a car that merely “threatens” people in some fashion if some accident occurs.

    In other cases, morning sickness, restraints that seriously limits freedom of action in various respects, et. al. would lead people, including “libertarians” to think it perfectly obvious that a person should have the ability (or right) to undergo medical care to deal with the situation.

    The difference here is that some people think a fertilized egg, embryo etc. has some special status and/or the girl/woman has some special obligation to deal with such things. But, “all” pregnancies do not merely “threaten” — they all cause various types of “injuries.”

    Many wish to deal with them, like they deal with it in other cases (such as while playing sports) to gain the ultimate goal. The selective application of the principles here is common though.

  5. Joe says:

    As to the post, opposition here is comprehensive because of various things, most likely.

    For instance, many opponents have a certain view of how things should go. There is a ‘natural’ way of becoming pregnant and remaining so & it should not be interfered with. This helps explain why natural miscarriages are acceptable — they were ‘meant to be’ generally speaking. Interfering with “nature” or “God’s plan” would be overall be wrong.

    Another concern is that there is a general connection to allowing abortion and some of the other assisted reproduction techniques. If you allow some, the general sentiment will be to allow them all — it would be a matter of choice. Also, egg selection leads to #1 issues — e.g., same sex couples can have children or the “real mom” won’t be raising the child. Sex selection seems a major issue here. If that is allowed, it will be seen (such is the fear) a categorical choice. Sex specific embryo destruction etc. will clearly follow.

  6. Erik says:

    Isn’t there an issue where they deliberately fertilize more eggs than necessary for IVF. The issue is what to do with the extra frozen embryos, which I can see someone opposing abortion being opposed to their destruction.

  7. Brett Bellmore says:

    “ALL pregnancies in various ways negatively affect the health and well being of the pregnant girl or woman. The same is not case with a car that merely “threatens” people in some fashion if some accident occurs.”

    Sure it is: I go for a walk around here, the sidewalks are right up against the road. I’m buffeted by the wind each time a car goes by, once I was hit by a thrown rock. I’m scarcely uneffected, and each passing car poses a finite risk to my wellbeing, neither the steering systems nor the drivers being 100% reliable.

    But it is a small risk, and the drivers, too, have rights, so I can’t on the basis of that small risk justify engaging in lethal “self-defense” against vehicles on the road. I must wait until they pose a significantly more than normal risk.

    Lethal “self-defense” in the face of minimal risks makes sense, if no rights whatsoever are attributed to the life being terminated. But, of course, to attribute no rights whatsoever to the life being terminated is the pro-abortion position, to assume that is to default to that side of the argument winning.

    No, unless you define away the interests of the life to be terminated, the risks inherent in a normal pregnancy would not be considered sufficient to justify “self-defense”.

  8. Shag from Brookline says:

    Is there a tad of irony with pro-lifers being against assisted suicide as well as against assisted reproduction?

  9. Joe says:

    #7 is a weak response.

    Something happened “once” — every pregnancy causes some degree of harm. And, the harm is not to trivial “harms” like “wind” … which isn’t even something that actually happens each time in any noticeable way. I don’t recall being “buffeted by wind” each time a car goes by.

    The “risk” was noted. A pregnancy, however, doesn’t only have “risks.” Serious burdens actually occur. Not akin to “wind.” Even if we, for the sake of argument attribute some rights to a fertilized egg or embryo, causing nine months of serious burdens on health and well being can justify use of force to remove said threat. If an adult person refused to leave my home, I could use force to remove the person, even the person would be harmed outside.

    So, no, we need not give “no rights whatsoever” here — it is not letting even a one month embryo trump the rights of the girl or woman. If an adult attached him or herself to me, making me ill, I could forcibly remove the person. Again, unless we single out some “obligation” to act like a good Samaritan, which is not present even if a mother removes to give one pint of blood to her infant.

    This expansive analysis is not really off topic since the mentality behind comparing being hit by wind by passing cars vs. morning sickness and all the other physical and mental burdens of pregnancy helps explain how burdens on rights are aided and abetted even by self-proclaimed “libertarians.” Who repeatedly are selective ones.