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Save the Zygotes?


This post was originally featured on The Soapbox on November 5, 2012.

Facebook led me to an interesting blog post by Libby Anne the other night about how she was originally pro-life and, due to disillusionment with the movement, gradually became pro-choice. The crux of her position was that pro-choicers were also in favor of contraceptive use, and one of the best ways to prevent abortion is to prevent undesired pregnancies.

If you’ve read my previous posts, then you already know that I’m strongly in favor of contraception, particularly for this very reason. But Ms. Anne’s post brings up a unique point that I haven’t previously heard as an indictment of the pro-life movement. Even in a woman who is not on birth control of any form, an estimated 50% of zygotes (fertilized eggs) will be lost before the woman’s missed menses (aka her period). If we operate under the pro-life assumption that life begins at conception, these are also lives that ought to be preserved. And yet, as Fred Clark points out in a tongue-in-cheek manner, there is “no 5k or 10k. No walkathon” to raise awareness or money to protect these lives.

This is certainly a thought-provoking point, and to those who are already pro-choice, it may be quite compelling. Still, allow me to step out of my own biases and try to play the devil’s advocate role here. I think you will find that while you may still disagree with the fundamental position, the pro-life stance here is self-consistent.

If I were to sum up the beliefs of those who are anti-abortion and anti-contraception it would be this: “we ought not to play God.” There is a natural order of things, and that is God’s will; interfering with this and substituting our own logic would be hubris. While I myself am agnostic, I can absolutely see how this world view would make sense to someone more religious than I. But even for people who aren’t religious, a similar thought process may subtly present itself in certain circumstances.

Consider a runaway train barreling down the tracks. It is headed straight toward a massive crowd of people. Upon impact, tens, maybe hundreds of people will be killed or injured. But, there is a lever that you have the option to pull. If you do so, the train will be diverted and head straight toward a sandbox where five children are playing, oblivious to the train. Would you pull the lever?

The point of this thought experiment is to ask, are you willing to inject yourself into a situation and make a change knowing that the blood of those children is on your hands? Many people would say no. (If the above scenario was too easy, feel free to add more children.) This brings to light a fundamental difference in how we see consequences that result from action vs. inaction. The people in the crowd had bad luck, but we chalk this up somehow to their fate. But the children in the sandbox did not have this fate, and so we believe that their deaths would be directly our fault.

It is for this reason that people who believe life begins at conception protest so hard against contraceptive use, but pour little or no effort into saving those zygotes that never implanted. In the former case, contraceptives are an active attempt to prevent something that would otherwise have happened. Meanwhile, we can comfortably see the failed zygote as simply something that was fated to be. It would be akin to the difference between being a murderer and being an eyewitness to the crime.

Now, many birth control options prevent conception in the first place, either by preventing ovulation or impeding the travel of sperm into the Fallopian tubes. This may put the minds of pro-choicers at ease, but unfortunately this logical position won’t hold in the pro-life world, where this is all a matter of principle. Preventing conception is still preventing the possibility of life that may have occurred otherwise. There is no two ways around it; once we try to mess with fate, we are somehow replacing God’s (or, if you prefer, Nature’s) will with our own.

I am not asking you to agree with this position (after all, I don’t myself). But if we are to make any headway in this national discussion, it is important that both sides at least be able to understand each other.

Your Turn: Where do you stand on contraception, and how would you answer the train problem?

  • Nancy Alborell

    I’d pull the lever. Strictly a numbers thing. Even up the numbers and I’ll save the kids. It would be nice to neatly compartmentalize these issues but it’s impossible. You really can’t legislate morality. It’s been tried, hasn’t worked. (See Prohibition.) People will do what they choose. I was around before Roe v Wade. I could tell you a few stories. Here’s a conundrum for you; the zygote protected by law grows up to be a nun rapist and serial killer. Now what? Anybody for capital punishment?

    • Even in the case of the nun-rapist and serial killer, to those who believe in a hands-off approach, the point would still stand. After all, we would have had no way of knowing in advance how that particular instance of fertilization would turn out, it’s just our job to stand back. Capital punishment would be consistent still because one is an “innocent” life and the other is not.

      I’m not sure if I made it clear in this post, but I’m actually in favor of legalizing abortion, I just like to think about things from a different perspective to broaden my views. I agree with you that you can’t legislate morality. In my opinion, the government’s job is to arbitrate the social contract. To make sure everyone plays fairly, or at least fairly enough to make it possible to stay together as a society.

  • Guest

    I don’t see why you think Libby Anne’s challenge isn’t fully consistent with the view that there are stronger moral reasons not to inflict harm than there are to fail to prevent harm (what philosophers call “the Doctrine of Doing and Allowing” [DDA]”). First, she asked why no one is trying to solicit voluntary donations to save the lives of zygotes, which everyone (including all pro-lifers I know) think is a good thing to do in order to save the lives of older children and adults. They can think that the reasons not to inflict harm on zygotes by killing them are stronger (e.g. that the government can permissibly prohibit this on pain of life inmprisonment even though it might not be able to permissibly force people to contribute most of their money to miscarriage-reducing research), but if they think that zygotes are really harmed by death in the same way we are they must surely think there are some reasons to prevent zygotes from being harmed by dying – strong enough to justify doing the kind of 5Ks that we all think it’s good to do in order to help prevent the deaths of older children and adults (even if we also think we shouldn’t divert the trolley because these reasons to save individuals from the harm of death are weaker than our reasons against inflicting the harm of death).

    Second, from the standpoint of a third party who is contemplating either preventing a killing or preventing a letting die, preventing either counts as preventing harm rather than inflicting harm, so the DDA doesn’t favor preventing the killing. Thus, to use an example of Warren Quinn’s, if you can prevent 1000 individuals from being killed by a serial killer or 1001 from being killed by a natural disaster, you are surely at least permitted to prevent the 1001 from being killed from the natural disaster, and the moral reasons to do this are actually stronger than the reasons to prevent the 1000 from being killed by the serial killer (assuming that the serial killer won’t kill any more in any event, that there are no deterrent effects form stopping the serial killer, etc.). Thus, pro-life activists, who are already acting in accordance with (what by their lights are) their own very strong reasons not to actively inflict harm on zygotes themselves, have equally strong reasons to prevent zygotes from being killed by OTHER agents as they do to prevent them from being killed by natural causes. So, since the natural causes kill more zygotes, it doesn’t make sense for them to focus all their attention on the killings by agents. It might make sense to focus some more attention on the agents if the calculation is that it’s relatively costless to prevent at least some of these deaths simply by persuading the agents to stop killing or banning them from killing, whereas saving zygotes by raising money for miscarriage-reducing research is more costly. But I don’t see why action on both fronts wouldn’t be optimal – indeed, raising money to help save zygotes from spontaneous miscarriage might help people take them more seriously as beings who are harmed by death like you and I.

    I think I saw an ad in a magazine by a pro-life group encouraging people to adopt spare IVF embryos so they can have a future like ours. I don’t see why pro-lifers shouldn’t expand their horizons to a 5K “save the zygotes” run to raise money for research into reducing the spontaneous abortion rate. I’d certainly respect them for doing that.

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