What Pro-Choice Intellectual Honesty Looks Like

Ultrasound at 12 Weeks
Ultrasound at 12 Weeks (photo: Shutterstock image)

I hope that everyone who is pro-choice reads this article from Wednesday’s New York Times, because it highlights a seldom-discussed side of the abortion debate: When women abort some of their children after conceiving multiple babies through reproductive technology.

The article starts with the story of a woman named Jenny, who is choosing to “reduce” her twins pregnancy to one child at 14 weeks gestation. (It’s worth noting that babies at that age can clench their fists and exercise their facial muscles. Their genitals have fully formed and their livers have begun to produce bile.) After noting that Jenny did not want to watch the abortion occur on the overhead ultrasound screen, the author writes:

She was 45 and pregnant after six years of fertility bills, ovulation injections, donor eggs and disappointment—and yet here she was, 14 weeks into her pregnancy, choosing to extinguish one of two healthy fetuses, almost as if having half an abortion. As the doctor inserted the needle into Jenny’s abdomen, aiming at one of the fetuses, Jenny tried not to flinch, caught between intense relief and intense guilt.

“Things would have been different if we were 15 years younger or if we hadn’t had children already or if we were more financially secure,” she said later. “If I had conceived these twins naturally, I wouldn’t have reduced this pregnancy, because you feel like if there’s a natural order, then you don’t want to disturb it. But we created this child in such an artificial manner—in a test tube, choosing an egg donor, having the embryo placed in me—and somehow, making a decision about how many to carry seemed to be just another choice. The pregnancy was all so consumerish to begin with, and this became yet another thing we could control.”

It reminds me of a 2004 piece, also in the Times, where a women name Amy Richards talked about aborting two of her children after she’d naturally conceived triplets, mainly because she didn’t want the lifestyle changes that would come with three children:

My immediate response was, I cannot have triplets. I was not married; I lived in a five-story walk-up in the East Village; I worked freelance; and I would have to go on bed rest in March. I lecture at colleges, and my biggest months are March and April. I would have to give up my main income for the rest of the year. There was a part of me that was sure I could work around that. But it was a matter of, Do I want to?

I looked at Peter and asked the doctor: ‘‘Is it possible to get rid of one of them? Or two of them?’’ The obstetrician wasn’t an expert in selective reduction, but she knew that with a shot of potassium chloride you could eliminate one or more.

Here’s the weird part: Some pro-choice people are uncomfortable with this kind of thing.

The article from this week noted that many doctors who perform these “selective reductions” refuse to go below twins. Dr. Mark Evans, a doctor who help pioneer the procedure and still performs these kind of abortions, once spoke out against reductions to fewer than two children. However, he recently reversed his stance since many of his clients are in their 40s:

Evans understood why these women didn’t want to be in their 60s worrying about two tempestuous teenagers or two college-tuition bills. He noted that many of the women were in second marriages, and while they wanted to create a child with their new spouse, they did not want two, especially if they had children from a previous marriage.

But not everyone is able to get as comfortable with it as Evans has. When a woman posted on an internet forum that she aborted her son in a male-female twins pregnancy because she already had a son, one commenter responded, undoubtedly speaking for many:

I completely respect and support a woman’s choice. Something about that whole situation just seemed unethical to me. I just couldn’t sleep at night knowing that I terminated my daughter’s perfectly healthy twin brother.

When another selective reduction pioneering doctor asked his staff what they thought of twins-to-singleton procedures, “every one of them—the sonographer, the genetic counselors, the schedulers—supported abortion rights, but all confessed their growing unease with reductions to a singleton.”

What’s there to be uneasy about? The entire pro-choice position rests on the idea that these “fetuses” are not human beings; they’re merely clumps of tissue, with no rights of their own. To use Planned Parenthood’s words, here is how they explain to women what happens during an abortion:

A tube is inserted through the cervix into the uterus.

Either a hand-held suction device or a suction machine gently empties your uterus.

Sometimes, an instrument called a curette is used to remove any remaining tissue that lines the uterus. It may also be used to check that the uterus is empty.

An abortion is merely a process of “emptying the uterus” of “tissue”—so what’s the big deal if there are multiple pieces of tissue and the doctor only eliminates one? According to the tenets of the pro-choice position, this should be completely fine.

I am thankful that Jenny and Amy Richards shared their stories. As hard as it is to read about what they did, I don’t think they deserve special condemnation for their actions. They were merely following the pro-choice worldview to its logical conclusions. And if others who share their views are uncomfortable with it, I hope they’ll do some soul searching about why it bothers them.

I realize that almost everyone who supports abortion does so out of good intentions; all the pro-choice people I know are compassionate folks who are trying to do the right thing. But, as I’ve said before, I think that their misguided compassion leads them to overlook some critical facts, and that this is brought into relief when you really think through all the implications of saying that life in the womb is not human. I hope they read those articles linked above, and listen to the stories of women going to abortion specialists and choosing sons over daughters, letting lifestyle considerations lead them to reduce three heartbeats on a screen to one. Because that is what pro-choice intellectual honesty looks like.