Analysis

Op-ed writer: Since I wouldn’t know if I were killed in an abortion, abortion is fine

lawsuit, fetal pain, 18 weeks

During oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization concerning Mississippi’s 15-week abortion restriction, Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s comments in support of adoption as preferable to abortion kindled a debate on the dignity of the preborn baby and what is in the best interest of the child. In response, Kate Cohen attempted to answer the long-debated question, “How would you feel if your mother aborted you?” by arguing in an op-ed in the Washington Post, that she would feel nothing at all. Therefore, she claims, abortion is justifiable. In Cohen’s mind, abortion would not negatively affect her or any other human being killed in the womb because she believes each preborn child merely has “potential existence” and that potential would simply cease after an abortion. She uses this delusional idea of when life begins and how human life should be valued to endorse abortion. 

Cohen’s piece is rife with ableism and dehumanization, full of the misleading language and incoherent logic required to underpin such an argument. She states that “[…] people who are happily pregnant might assign complete personhood to a pea-size clump of cells from the moment the pregnancy is confirmed. But how we feel about that clump is not the same as how it feels.” 

Potential vs actual persons: A false dichotomy

But the comparison of a “potential person” and an “actual person” is meaningless. Cohen labels embryos and fetuses — preborn human beings — as merely potential persons because they have not yet developed into what she considers a person to be. But there is nothing “potential” about whether or not a human being exists in the womb once fertilization has occurred. It is indisputable that at the moment of fertilization, that new human being is human and will continue to be such for her entire life.

When speaking of human rights, we are splitting hairs if we attempt to distinguish between “personhood” and “humanity” — a dangerous slippery slope. All humans are inherently equal and deserving of the same rights, including the right to life. A newborn is not a separate being than she was moments before birth or even 40 weeks before birth. She didn’t begin her existence at birth, but merely changed her label of development from fetus to newborn. The only definitive moment in a human life when that new human begins her existence is fertilization. Birth occurs at various gestational ages — fertilization occurs once, marking the beginning of a life. As philosopher Alexander R. Pruss stated: 

… even someone who denies the fetus is a person is bound to feel the force of the claim that we are human beings and that the fetus is a human being, albeit at an earlier stage. Moreover, it is clear that if this is so, then the fetus is the same human being as I am, since it develops into me continuously and naturally.

It is the deepest form of discrimination to label any human as a “non-person” or a “potential person” should they not meet our standards.

Awareness of death 

Cohen draws a rhetorical line between “actual people” who choose abortion, and those she considers to be “potential” people — preborn humans. Cohen essentially argues that a potential person cannot “feel” anything because they “wouldn’t be anything – fine or not fine – because they wouldn’t be.” 

An Instagram post from @clumpofmemes rightly rebuts this idea“How would you feel if you were shot in the head while sleeping? Easy. I’d feel nothing,” the post states. Cohen’s disbelief in the afterlife does not justify abortion. The inability to feel something because the individual is dead does not erase the fact that a human being has been killed. A human being’s lack of awareness that they are about to die also does not justify killing him or her. 

Causing harm vs. causing death

When a human being is aborted, she is harmed — just as a human who is murdered outside the womb is harmed by that act, whether or not that human is conscious or pain-capable. It is considered unacceptable and morally wrong for a woman to take illegal drugs while pregnant because that action has the potential to cause harm to the preborn child. Yet, an abortion by pill or by surgical procedure knowingly causes harm by dismemberment or poisoning. It makes no logical or ethical sense to be against potentially causing harm while being in favor of knowingly causing harm. 

The immeasurable value of human life

Cohen seems to say that most pro-lifers adhere to a belief that souls “exist before they exist.” This is not a tenet of mainstream Christianity, and it ignores scientific evidence about the biological basis of life. A unique and individual human life is created when a new individual with a unique genetic code is generated at fertilization. This individual preborn baby, however small, fulfills the criteria for life even as she grows and develops the genetic code she is biologically engineered to eventually pass on. This individual preborn baby meets all the scientific criteria for life.  

For religious believers of almost all traditions, life is a gift from God. In Christianity as in many cultures, religions, and philosophies, life is sacred. In natural law or other systems not inherently built on Christian ideas, life is still a net good, something to be preserved rather than destroyed. In some Eastern philosophical traditions, one’s life is a gift from one’s parents and is to be respected.

What these traditions all recognize is the fundamental truth that no one can cause his own existence; life itself is a gift and as such has inherent value.

The author’s argument hinges on the notion that a preborn baby does not yet have existence, despite all signs to the contrary. Cohen also justifies abortion by the perceived “need” for women to choose it: “If I had to choose between my potential existence and my actual mother’s freedom? That’s easy. I’d choose my mother’s freedom every time.” 

The problem is that, in her example, Cohen would never have had the opportunity to choose. She would never have had the chance to control the course of her life. Under Cohen’s worldview, it is unclear whether she would ever even have existed at all if she had been aborted. Her choice for her mother’s freedom clashes with her entire argument. 

The fact remains that Cohen is here, and I’m glad she is. She has inherent dignity and worth that no one can take away. Even though it’s all the same to Cohen, pro-lifers believe that her life is valuable and deserves to be respected — both before and after birth — even if she doesn’t believe it herself.

Abortion isn’t “preventing” anyone’s existence. A unique human being already exists from fertilization and develops from then, throughout childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age until death. When an abortion happens, a preborn human is killed, and all the goodness and potentiality their existence entails is lost. It is not right, moral, or just to deprive someone of his or her life. 

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