When it comes to ways to help improve people’s lives, there are controversial ones and there are non-controversial ones.
In his blog post “Beware Systemic Change” Scott Alexander delves into the distinction.
Traditional charity, like healing the sick, is almost universally viewed as good or at least neutral. Everyone agrees the sick should be healed; if there are unhealed sick people, it’s because we don’t have the resources to pursue our universally held goal. The same is true of feeding hungry children.
Some political issues are kind of like this. People from all over the political spectrum agree that corporate welfare is a bad idea; if we still have corporate welfare, it’s because there’s not enough attention and organization to force politicians to abandon it. In other cases, we all agree something is good but disagree on whether it is an optimal use of resources: for example, most people agree that aid agencies like UNICEF that help children abroad are doing good work, but not everyone agrees with funding them from the federal budget.
Other political issues are not like this. Some people believe that increasing the minimum wage is a laudable goal; other people believe it will hurt the economy or that it violates important moral rights. The reason we don’t have a higher minimum wage isn’t because passing laws costs a lot of money that no one has raised yet, or because no one is paying attention to the issue. It’s because a lot of people oppose it and so far those people are winning, or at least holding their own.
“Advocacy for the pre-born” might seem to belong squarely in Alexander’s last category. But that’s not quite right. Abortion is what belongs in that category. Sure, almost no-one thinks abortion itself is actually good, but the question of whether access to abortion is a crucial human right or a human rights violation is of course one of the most seriously contested political questions there is.
But this isn’t true about advocacy for pre-born children in general. See, for instance, this recent piece from TheJournal.ie, “Climate change’s adverse effects on health starts in the womb, studies find“. The piece is a write-up of a series of new studies published in the medical journal Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology. Two of the studies were on the effect that heatwaves have on premature births, with the authors finding a correlation between heatwaves and early deliveries. The piece makes sure to quote the study authors framing their findings in terms of ‘reproductive justice’, but most of it is just a straight report about climate change being a health risk to unborn babies.
This article – from the Guardian of all publications – is even more straightforwardly reported. “Microplastics revealed in the placentas of unborn babies”. The piece is just a completely straight health / science one, and there’s not even any veiled references to abortion. It quotes a professor of Obstetrics at King’s College London as saying that it’s “reassuring that the babies in the study had normal births but ‘it is obviously preferable not to have foreign bodies while the baby is developing’.” There’s nothing about the way the piece is framed which suggests that there’s any relevant difference between born and pre-born children.
I think these, and the countless other examples like them you can find if you Google, strongly suggest that advocating for the welfare of pre-born children is usually relatively uncontroversial, with abortion the glaring exception.
Someone might say that the examples I’ve given aren’t really about the welfare or rights of the pre-born baby as such, but of the child they will eventually become. Premature birth is associated with health complications throughout life, and if microplastics were dangerous they’d probably be dangerous in similar ways. So these are really just examples of protecting born children ‘at one remove’, with ‘real’ threats to unborn children always a matter of controversy. To this line of argument I’d say two things. The first is that one very good reason not to harm unborn children is that it will cause them problems in later life. This isn’t a belief that’s exclusively held by pro-choice people! The second is that a lot of the time threats to the life of pre-born children are seen as uncontroversially bad, and that in such cases this can’t, for obvious reasons, be a matter of worrying about the later welfare of a born child.
Take for example the tragic and horrifying case of Brooke Powell, who was stillborn after her mother Louise Powell was given woefully substandard care in a British prison. The BBC reported the story with the headline “Prisoner who had stillborn baby ‘will never forgive jail’”, and the piece was framed – as it ought to be – entirely as though Ms Powell had lost her child. The, NHS, the prison, and the UK’s Justice Ministry have all apologised for Powell’s treatment.
Or take research efforts to reduce the (huge) number of early miscarriages. A 2020 article from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists draws attention to two studies into the effects of supplemental progesterone on making miscarriages less likely before 16 weeks. Here again you have some framing which tries to make this all about the “devastating loss to women and their families.” But weird framing aside (of course it’s a devastating loss to women and their families, because it’s the death of a child), the point stands: the article treats the prospect of fewer prenatal deaths as an unqualified good.
This is the point where as a pro-lifer I’m supposed to make a point about hypocrisy and inconsistency; about the unjust, unfair way that ‘being wanted’ alchemically transforms a disposable fetus into an unborn child worthy of protection. It is unjust, and it is inconsistent. But I want to say something else here: which is that it’s worth pro-lifers turning more of our attention and giving more of our time to these uncontroversial cases where pre-born children are under threat. That’s because we care – or we ought to care – about the lives of pre-born children even when there’s not a huge political controversy over those lives, and controversy has a gravitational pull that can cause a comparative neglect of non-controversial life-saving measures. (This applies to all sorts of issues, not just those affecting the pre-born: c.f malaria).
It’s also an opportunity for fruitful co-operation with pro-choice people in a way that’s directly related to the pro-life cause. People often say that pro-lifers and pro-choicers should work more together to look after the welfare of children after they’re born, and that’s absolutely right. But what’s perhaps underappreciated is that there’s loads of room for co-operation and joint campaigning for pre-born children too. And in the course of that co-operation, there will naturally arise countless opportunities for pro-lifers to start productive conversations about those claims of the pre-born that are controversial. If we start from a shared commitment to the idea that pre-born children’s lives matter in most cases, it’s that much easier to convince people that they matter in all cases.