Abortion Involves Killing–and That’s OK!

Abortion Involves Killing–and That’s OK!

Abortion Involves Killing–and That’s OK!

To be pro-choice is to be against forced life.


In 2019, I published a kind of manifesto—Full Surrogacy Now—whose opening line is “It is a wonder we let fetuses inside us.” The opening pages are entirely given over to my extended paean to the process of gestating in all its shockingly grisly biology, its everyday sublimity. Whereas, in other species, a female can often discard or expel a pregnancy at will, in our species, a hyper-invasive placenta puts the gestator at risk of lethal hemorrhage. Locked down, our body becomes a daredevil participant in a wrestling match (or similar extreme sport) we cannot easily quit. From this starting point, I make a case for rethinking human gestation as real and, currently, often deadly dangerous labor, deserving of maximal support. The controversial part is that a key correlate of viewing gestating as labor is that forcing someone to gestate against their will is forced labor.

Furthermore, if the labor of pregnancy is productive of life, then interrupting that labor is—logically speaking—productive of death. Rather than shy away from this, I believe we should embrace it as part of an effort to give gestating the respect it deserves. In the intervening years since publishing my book, I have received dozens of reports of women who experienced the ideas in it as deeply salutary during pregnancy. Strangers have sent me photos of Full Surrogacy Now lying face-down in maternity wards. By the same token, I had drawn on heterodox pregnancy memoirs to bolster my claims.

“Never in my life have I felt more prochoice than when I was pregnant,” Maggie Nelson had written in The Argonauts in 2015,

And never in my life have I understood more thoroughly, and been more excited about, a life that began at conception. Feminists may never make a bumper sticker that says IT’S A CHOICE AND A CHILD, but of course that’s what it is, and we know it. We’re not idiots; we understand the stakes. Sometimes we choose death.… Harry and I sometimes joke that women should get way beyond twenty weeks—maybe even up to two days after birth—to decide if they want to keep the baby. (Joke, OK?)

I agree with Nelson. There is something infantilizing about denying the fact that embryos die when we scrape them out of the bodies of which they are a part. It sentimentalizes pregnant or potentially pregnant humans as fundamentally nonviolent creatures to imply that we can’t handle the truth about what we are up to when we opt out. And it patronizes abortion-getters to insist that we are only making a health care choice, rather than (also) extinguishing a future child. In my view, recognizing that gestating manufactures a proto-person requires acknowledging that abortion kills a proto-person. A baby is completely dependent on human care in order to stay alive, but its needs could be filled by any person—whereas a fetus, a proto-person, is ineluctably dependent on specific person.

We humans do kill, when necessary: Victims of assault sometimes kill in self-defense, targets of persecution sometimes kill for justice—or just to reduce the number of their persecutors—and the colonized sometimes kill for liberation. Mothers living in unspeakable conditions (including chattel slavery) have been documented to kill their children as an act of mercy. Of course, these examples are instances of necessary violence, generated by the conditions for which we struggle to render extinct. When it comes to abortions, it seems possible that the conditions that necessitate them may never be wholly eliminated, even if vasectomies become generalized, and perfected ectogenetic technologies become universally accessible. As long as people are performing pregnancy on this earth, they must be free to change their minds about seeing it through. The adoption industry could be revolutionized and child welfare lavishly subsidized; regardless of the available supports, no one should be pregnant involuntarily. The science of medicine dictates that when foreign organisms inhabit the human body unwelcomely, we tend to eject them.

When a beloved nonhuman member of the family is sick and elderly, many pet owners decide not to pay for medical care, and opt for euthanasia instead. It is a mark of moral seriousness to acknowledge what it is that we’re doing when we butcher a cow, put a pet “to sleep” or, for that matter, euthanize a human relative. According to the philosopher of science Donna Haraway, we must “stay with the trouble” of the violence we inevitably mete out in our everyday traffic with forms of life, be it at the dinner table, the battlefield, or in the scientific laboratory. Rather than squaring our acts of killing away according to a moral calculus, or pretending that we aren’t really killing, multispecies feminists should subscribe, suggests Haraway, to the ethical imperative, “Thou shalt not make killable.”

This might seem counterintuitive in the context of an argument in favor of abortion-as-killing, but the distinction between making fetuses killable, and making it easy and stigma-free for people to take the decision to kill a fetus, is significant. The former refers to casting something (a lab rat, for example) out of the sphere the grievable, thanks to a tidy and final verdict on the permissibility of systematically sacrificing its life to a greater cause. The latter, while expanding access to the means of feticide, does not necessarily require any such sanitization of violence.

For millennia, those of us who have helped a friend terminate a pregnancy—be it with herbal abortifacients, progesterone blockers and ulcer tablets, or vacuum extraction devices—are well situated to understand that something is killed during a uterine evacuation, much as a flower dies when it is plucked.

But what’s the point of acknowledging this now, at a time when abortion rights are so imperiled? For one thing, it would seem hard to deny that the euphemistic, apologetic, placatory “pro-choice” strategy hasn’t worked out thus far. So, why not risk coming out for what we actually want, namely, abortion—a clearly documented public good? The pending Supreme Court leak thrusts us into a situation in which we have little left to lose. Rather than cleave in desperation to the rearguard missions of defending the rights (to privacy, rather than abortion) enshrined in Roe v. Wade, we could consider this moment a chance to reset the terms on which abortion is fought.

What would it mean to acknowledge that a death is involved in an abortion? Above all, it would allow for a fairer fight against the proponents of forced gestating. When “pro-life” forces agitate against feticide on the basis that it is killing, pro-abortion feminists should be able to acknowledge, without shame, that yes, of course it is. When we withdraw from gestating, we stop the life of the product of our gestational labor. And it’s a good thing we do, too, for otherwise the world would sag under the weight of forced life. It is a hard pill to swallow for a misogynist society, sentimentally attached to its ideology of patriarchal motherhood, but the truth is that gestators should get to decide which bodies to give form to. This choosing is our prerogative. A desire not to be pregnant is sufficient reason in and of itself to terminate a gestatee.

When we force anti-abortionists to disagree explicitly with this, we bring their logic of female subordination into the open: Those with uteruses must serve patiently as the vessels through which life passes. We lay bare the calculus at the heart of their worldview, which they only sometimes spell out in so many words, as does the Mississippi pro-life leader Barbara Beaver: “Mothers should die for their babies, not the other way around.”

Women are human, and as such can never be as innocent as the unborn. But innocence (as we see every time a police victim is described as “no angel” by the press) is a fundamentally inhumane category in politics, deriving from the most punitive interpretations of Christianity. According to this imaginary, non-innocence is the core characteristic of everything “fallen,” which is to say, everything that has ever lived.

That’s why the ghoulish natalism of those lobbying to give embryos the rights of patients and persons in law is, in the end, an anti-life position. It cares solely for the quantitative rather than qualitative dimensions of life, chasing life in the abstract and missing everything that matters about life as it is actually lived: life in particular.

Fetishizing newness and sentimentalizing helplessness, pro-lifers pit themselves ruthlessly against the overwhelming majority of human life-in-particular. In their minds, fetuses deserve every protection, while we actually existing human beings belong to a completely different species. We are on our own, self-responsible; fatally compromised, because enfleshed.

Anti-abortionists routinely sacrifice the health and happiness of actual persons in defense of the forced survival of potential ones. It is high time we went on the offensive against their sickening, sacrificial version of vitalism. Ours is the mature pro-life politics. I don’t want to live in a world that valorizes life for its own sake. I want to live in a world that prioritizes the life chosen and wanted. Peoples’ lives are worth more than fetuses’ lives.

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