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, tending 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.