But then one volunteer shrugged, saying the answer actually wasn’t that important to her. She didn’t need to know when life “began” for a fetus incubating in someone else’s body, she said. She only needed to know that there was already a living patient, one with hopes and dreams and loved ones and responsibilities, and that person did not want to be pregnant.
This view required accepting only one premise, the doula said: that women’s physical and emotional lives were important — more important, in fact, than an unborn fetus.
In a lot of circles this would be a radical notion, or at least an impolitic one. It’s one thing to beg antiabortion legislators for exceptions in rape or incest cases, or to explain how a six-week embryo is a cluster of cells the size of a lentil. It’s another thing to try to convince them that the life a pregnant woman has left to live may outweigh the life a fetus might live if carried to term.
Last week foreshadowed a continued thwacking-away at abortion rights in the United States. The Supreme Court announced it would hear arguments for Dobbs v. Jackson, a case that would prohibit abortion after 15 weeks and effectively decimate Roe v. Wade. A few days later, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed a state law banning abortions at the first sign of a heartbeat — a ludicrous bill that would require many people to obtain abortions before they even know they are pregnant. (The medical community counts pregnancy from the first day of the previous menstrual cycle; by the time someone with an average cycle realizes her period is late and buys a First Response test, she’s already considered five or six weeks along.)
The bill, Abbott said at a signing ceremony, “ensures that the life of every unborn child who has a heartbeat will be saved from the ravages of abortion.”
It does not allow for exemptions in cases of rape or incest. It does require doctors to tell patients that abortion increases their risk for breast cancer, despite the fact that the studies alluding to this risk are outdated, outnumbered, methodologically flawed and disputed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. The bill does allow a private citizen — any private citizen — to sue an abortion provider or anyone else who helps someone obtain an abortion after the detection of a heartbeat.
Here’s a thought experiment: I’m standing in front of you holding a baby in one hand and a petri dish with a blastocyst in the other. I’m going to drop them both off the side of the building and you can only catch one. Which do you catch?
This experiment, which you might have seen circulating online, is meant to test a key premise of antiabortion arguments: that life begins at conception and embryos are equivalent to babies. No matter what you think you believe, who would actually dive for the petri dish and let the baby fall?
This week I found myself mentally replacing the baby with a woman — a woman who has a heartbeat but no desire to become a parent or put her body through the ravages of childbirth — and I think I know what would happen. The petri dish would be saved. The woman would hit the pavement.
Did I mention I’m writing this while eight months pregnant? News of the Supreme Court hearing came down while I was waiting for the sonographer in an exam room. When she came in and said everything still looked okay, I melted with relief. This pregnancy was very much wanted, planned, prepared for and cared for. I could imagine no circumstances in which I would end it.
And yet each week, I was acutely aware of a ticking clock, one many of my pregnant friends have also described hearing — a countdown to the point at which an abortion was no longer a legal option. Before that point, we were people in control of our bodies. After that point, our uteruses no longer belonged to us. They belonged to the state, presumably. Or maybe a certain kind of religious person would say they had always belonged to God.
Crossing that Rubicon was jarring. Can you think of any other circumstance in which we’d require an adult to relinquish rights to their own body that way? If an ailing patient was going to die unless they were surgically attached for 10 months to a man’s abdomen, would we tell that man he was legally required to lift up his shirt?
Even the most staunchly antiabortion advocate has to acknowledge that the act of pregnancy requires two participants: the developing embryo and the person carrying it. So how has the conversation become so lopsided? How did the emotional and physical lives of women get so shut out of the narrative? The Mississippi legislation that resulted in Dobbs v. Jackson — the “Gestational Age Act” — spends several paragraphs listing when a fetus begins to form fingernails or a diaphragm. It mentions the word “mother” exactly once.
What would it look like to center pregnant people in this conversation? How would we talk about abortion if we started with the radical premise that women’s personhood is at least as important as the pregnancy she is carrying?
We might have honest conversations about statistics: While antiabortion activists say they are concerned with women’s health, the CDC’s most recent data, gathered from its Pregnancy Mortality Surveillance System, calculated the mortality of pregnancy or childbirth-related deaths at 17.3 per 100,000 in 2017. In the same year, “two women were identified to have died as a result of complications from legal induced abortion,” according to the PMSS data. Not two per 100,000. Two.
Statistically, it is more dangerous to birth a child than to end a pregnancy. And yet, while Mississippi’s act discusses in detail possible health risks of abortion — heavy bleeding, lacerations, injury to the uterus — it doesn’t mention those are also risks of childbirth, which we are told is the most natural thing in the world.
We might talk about how, despite a prevailing narrative that women regret having abortions, five years after the procedure 95 percent of them felt is was the right decision, according to a University of California at San Francisco study released last year.
We might talk about other things, too — how mothers experience a salary penalty for stepping out of the workforce, or how the cost of child care in many locales is equivalent to buying a new Hyundai every year, but how the same “pro-family” types who said you must have the baby are the people who will murmur “personal responsibility” and “socialism” if you ask for support in raising the baby.
None of these conversations would mean you had to have an abortion, or support a loved one’s abortion, or change your definition of when life begins. But they would mean you would have to look at Dobbs v. Jackson or Texas’s Senate Bill 8 and have to ask yourself: What are these bills doing to women and pregnant people?
Are they treating women like adults who are capable of assessing their own emotional state, their own risk tolerance, their own hopes and desires for their own future?
Are these bills protecting women, or are they protecting an idea of what a woman should want, feel and be?
Are they treating women like they too have fingernails, eyelashes, worth, dignity and heartbeats?
Are they the result of a real, difficult, honest discussion about the concept of life? Or are they just about fetal echocardiograms, ignoring the lives standing right in front of them?
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.