Tuesday, November 9

The Fight for the Unfetus

Anti-abortion rights activists have developed some flattering expressions to describe themselves and their cause. We are to think of the activists as "pro-lifers" who fight for the "unborn." I would like to reflect on certain implications of these terms, take account of their shortcomings, and offer a neologism to the anti-abortion rights activists that both respects the well-intended nature of their fight and offers them the possibility of overcoming what I think is debilitating shortsightedness on their part.
Whereas the first term, "pro-life," seems to have a truly expansive sense — who would ever proclaim themselves "anti-life"? — the term "unborn" refers only to the fetus, that is, to a state of pre-natal development. One might therefore conclude that by "pro-life" the activists actually mean "pro-fetus." This is in fact easy to confirm by noting that the activists generally take little if any interest in a host of other pressing life-and-death issues affecting children or humanity in general. "Pro-lifers" seem, on the whole, indifferent to the fact that 10.5 million children under the age of five die annually from easily preventable diseases such as malaria, or that approximately 24,000 people die of starvation every day.

However, something new is problematic about these activists' self-gloss. Two life-and-death issues merit increasing attention from both "pro-lifers" and anyone interested in the survival of humankind. These issues emerged in the last century and both represent real threats to the survival not only of the unborn understood as developing fetuses, but of all the unborn; that is, of all those who are either currently in a woman's uterus or destined to a fetal beginning in a generation to come. The issues, of course, are nuclear proliferation and global warming. Their arrival on the global geopolitical scene has increased the threat not only to the unborn in a narrow, biological sense, but to what I propose to call "the unfetus" — all the unborn who are not yet fetuses. The unfetus is a notion that would allow those who fight for the sacredness of human life — the "pro-lifers" — to bring into view the generations of humanity to come. This is important, I think, because it would preserve them from appearing hypocritical in adopting the mantra of "pro-life" and keep them from having to justify an irrational fixation on either one stage of life's vast cycle or only the most emergent generation.

The importance of this widening of perspectives comes, first, from the empirical evidence that threats to human life on Earth are increasing rapidly and thus forcing "pro-lifers" to take account of them in their fight to preserve life (which they conceive, in accordance with religious principles, as a miraculous gift from God). Even more important than these disturbing developments, which are steadily increasing the contingency of human life, is the conclusion that there is no ethics or morality — nor even any religious perspective — that would allow one to prefer the unborn who are currently fetuses to the unborn who are not yet fetuses — the unfetuses. Christianity, in particular, offers nothing even close to a reason for privileging a fetus over other developed forms of life (and, in fact, the contrary is true, as I demonstrate in my post "Is Christianity Anti-Abortion?"). Nor does Christianity or any ethical system worthy of the name provide convincing reasons for assuming that only "present" or imminent forms of life deserve respect or should be deemed "sacred."

The continuum of fetuses and unfetuses is particularly relevant in the United States, where a large religious constituency rallies around so-called conservatives because of their anti-abortion rights rhetoric. Curiously, although its members speak of the importance of cultivating a "culture of life" — which is transparent code for anti-abortion legislation — the Bush Administration, for one, did more than any previous administration to harm the natural environment on which all unfetuses naturally depend for their survival. Moreover, it has broken nuclear weapons treaties and embraced nuclear proliferation as a solution to "national security" problems; and these measures, too, have dramatically heightened the threat posed to innumerable unfetuses.

Even if "pro-lifers" cling to the claim (which is certainly not found in Holy Scripture) that the fetus is the "origin of life," this claim neglects the fact that, without a stable, nurturing, natural and human environment, no fetus would ever be created. Granting the developing fetus the status of "absolute origin" or "divine origin" thus serves to dismiss a whole range of increasingly menacing challenges to human life and to diminish cruelly the importance of the unborn who are not yet fetuses.

The assumption of the fetal-restricted definition of the "unborn" is that life deserves respect only at the moment that a fetus is created, and no sooner, and not from a more general perspective. What creator of life would ever embrace such a presumption as that? What creator of human generations would ever feel honored or comforted by one generation's asserting that it, and its impending offspring alone, are sacred in their creator's eyes?