Ohio's Ectopic Pregnancy Bill: Let's Stop Shooting Ourselves in the Foot

Photo by Riccardo Mion on Unsplash (The gun is of course just out of frame. Finding DRM-free images can be hard sometimes).

Two quick facts:

1. Some pro-lifers sometimes do some very, very stupid things.

2. Most pro-lifers absolutely hate it when they do.

I’m thinking about these facts in the wake of the news about a recent provision of bill in the Ohio state legislature.

The bill is generally intended to restrict abortion: but the particular provision is to do with cases in which the death of a child will not result in criminal penalties for the doctor. One of those, according to the bill, is in the case of ectopic pregnancy. So far, so sensible: ectopic pregnancies are one area in which everyone agrees that sometimes it’s impossible to save the child’s life, and that everything that can be done to save the mother should be.

Here’s the problem. The bill as written only protects doctors who have taken “all possible steps” to preserve the child’s life. “Such steps include, if applicable, attempting to reimplant an ectopic pregnancy into the mother’s uterus.” (Emphasis mine).

What’s the problem with this? Well, under current medical practice, and given the technology that we currently have access to, reimplanting in the case of an ectopic pregnancy is impossible. Not difficult, not risky, completely impossible. Predictably, a provision to criminalise a failure to do the impossible has not, to put it mildly, been received well. Presumably it would never be ‘applicable’ under the law to try to reimplant, so it’s unlikely that anyone would get penalised under it, but still: this is just first-order idiocy. Why mention an impossibility as an example of a life-saving step, unless it’s to invite ridicule?

Look, the point of this post is not to spend ages self-flagellating over the actions of some extremists. It is an iron law of the universe that every cause has its crazies. Nor is it the first time that some of those crazies have got into elected office. This provision has no chance of getting passed into law, and in some ways it would be best to just let the whole sorry episode fade into obscurity. I debated writing this post at all.

The reason I thought it was worthwhile was because I think it’s worth saying two things.

The first is this. To pro-choice people who have read or heard about the Ohio measure: we (and by we I mean ‘most pro-lifers’) hate this stuff too. We physically cringe when we hear about it. We hate it because it brings a cause that we really care about into disrepute: but more importantly, we hate it because it’s the opposite of what we’re about. We don’t want a world where people are criminalised for failing to do the impossible. Of course we don’t. We want a world where everyone’s human rights are recognised and protected, so that every human being can flourish. We disagree with most of you on who counts as a human person, but we share the belief that the purpose of legislation should be to enable good and decent lives for every such person.

The second thing is to any pro-lifers who might be expressing support for something like this. Just… think twice.

Nobody sees themselves as the crazy one in the movement. Most of these utterly mad moves are made by people thinking of themselves as tough-minded, brave, doing the things that others are too cowardly to. All I can say is: please be very careful with this sort of stance. Yes, cowardice is a real danger. Yes, many people don’t approach the issue of abortion with even a fraction of the moral seriousness it deserves. But boldness is not sufficient to make a contribution worthwhile. If you end up saying or endorsing something stupid or cruel, something that confirms the worst stereotypes about the pro-life movement, you have not helped. All that you have done is given people yet another opportunity to post gleeful tweet threads about how ignorant or heartless pro-lifers are – and given other people the grinding, pointless job of having to clean up after yet another blunder.

To illustrate what I mean, think of an example of a pro-choice person doing something that would make most pro-choice people wince: something that you might be tempted to gleefully share because it made “the other side” look so bad. Think, say, of the chant of ‘hoes need abortions!’ that a speaker at the 2017 March For Choice led. Remember how horribly uncomfortable the people on stage with her looked? How many people do you think became more pro-choice as a result of that chant? How many did anything other than cringe into oblivion? We want to avoid doing exactly the same kind of thing, or worse.

The point of all this is to reach people, to change minds, and through that to save lives. If your actions aren’t serving that goal, they’re a waste of time or worse.

Universal human dignity is a good and just cause, with plenty of good and just ways to advance it. Many of those ways require great courage: courage that would be better not wasted on quixotic, counterproductive missions to nowhere. Let’s stop shooting ourselves in the foot.

Ben

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