New technologies often bring with them a host of ethical and policy questions about how those technologies should be developed and made available. At the same time, new technologies often revisit age-old questions. This is true in the stem cell debate, which sometimes centers on the question, when does life begin?
This is a question long familiar to reproductive health and rights advocates and one we thought might be taking on more urgency as new technologies give us more information and more access to the fetus. We at the Reproductive Health Technologies Project have initiated a research project to understand what impact, if any, these advances are having on the attitudes of pro-choice women toward abortion and reproductive rights.
While the media often leave one with the impression that science is significantly changing the abortion debate and abortion decisions – and that this will make abortion less necessary or acceptable to the public – the women in our focus groups say technology has not influenced their decisions or viewpoints, although they worry about its effect on men and younger women.
At the same time, these pro-choice women had a range of views on the question of when life begins and what that means for the abortion debate. Some women believe a fetus is a baby; others believe it is a baby in the making. But all acknowledge that it is life, or at the very least has the potential for life, and has value. And most believe that value increases during the course of the pregnancy. While some women say they believe the fetus should have rights, most are hesitant to see those rights trump the responsibility of a woman to make decisions about pregnancy and abortion that take into account her own health and well-being, as well as those of her family.
More important, women in the focus groups underscore something I have observed in twenty years of activism in this field: Some women approach a decision about abortion with trepidation, others with certainty. Yet as they weigh their decision, the question women – as well as the loved ones often involved in their decisions – ask is not, “Is it a life?” Or, “Does it have value?” That is a given. Rather, women ask, “can I provide a future for this child?” “Am I ready to become a parent?” Or in some cases, “am I ready to parent this child?”
In other words, these women remind us that to look at the fetus in isolation is to miss the point. The more important question is how to value the fetus in light of other values and obligations.
How does one weigh the value of a life-to-be against a parent’s ability to adequately care for her existing children? Against a mother’s need for chemotherapy? Against the prospect of being a single parent? How does one value that potential life against a woman’s own life and potential? Against the pressing needs of children already under her care?
A recent survey conducted by “Dr. Phil” McGraw suggests these calculations don’t necessarily end at birth. As reported during his recent interview with President Bush, Dr. Phil’s survey of 20,000 parents found: “Forty percent said, ‘If I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn’t have started a family.'”
I don’t find this as shocking a statement as some might. I’m sure these parents aren’t saying they regret having the children they have or don’t appreciate the joy their children have brought to their lives, but they are being candid about just how all-consuming the job of parent is. And it is this awareness that is at the core of my pro-choice belief. I have never found it useful to second-guess someone else’s evaluation of whether she is ready and willing to take on that job-of-a-lifetime. Instead, I believe our society is better served by respecting the life people want to bring into the world.
As some of the women in the focus group reminded me, you can believe that life begins at conception and still believe in safe, legal access to abortion, because you are thinking about what happens to that child when it is born. And this is the more appropriate focus of policymakers.
So the next time a candidate is asked his or her position on abortion, I don’t just want to hear whether she or he will uphold the principles of Roe. Instead, I want to hear, “If they decide they’re ready for a family or for a bigger family, then I believe more can and should be done to ensure access to high quality education, prenatal health care, health care, and family leave. And if they decide they’re not ready for a family or for a bigger family, well then, I can respect that decision too. It is far too personal and complicated for me to intervene.”
Kirsten Moore is president and CEO of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, an advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that women and men have access to more and better technologies for promoting their reproductive health and wellbeing.