On April 22nd, 1990, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan published an article for Parade Magazine called “The Question of Abortion: A Search for Answers.” The essay lives on today as the chapter “Abortion: Is It Possible to Be Both ‘Pro-Life’ and ‘Pro-Choice’?” from Sagan’s last book Billions and Billions. You can read the essay here or listen to it here. I have yet to read the entire book, but I was intrigued by this chance to get Sagan’s and Druyan’s take on abortion, which is a topic I’m becoming increasingly passionate about.
For the most part, the essay focuses on the argument of fetal personhood, which I read patiently even though I think it’s been overdone by both the pro- and anti-abortion sides. Speaking of naming the camps of the argument, Sagan and Druyan did employ the use of “pro-life” and “pro-choice” because that’s “what the two principal warring camps like to call themselves.”
I know that these are the names the two sides have traditionally taken, but I get more irritated each time I hear the anti-abortionists call themselves “pro-life.” They’re not pro-life about anything except getting a fetus out of a womb alive (even if the newborn only survives for mere minutes). They don’t care about its quality of life after that, about the life of the woman, or frankly about anything else. They’re typically against the parent and child receiving healthcare, childcare, or welfare. Not to mention that they’re also often anti-mask, anti-vax, anti-Black Lives Matter, pro-death penalty, and seem to have no problem with war or the killing of animals.
I’ll rant about this more later, but back to the essay.
Can we be neutral? Should we?
Sagan and Druyan’s goal in the essay is to be impartial and decide what is the best, logical, moral stance on abortion. I value their opinions here and I trust that they can form a reasonable take even about something like this.
Is it wrong to abort a pregnancy? Always? Sometimes? Never? How do we decide? We wrote this article to understand better what the contending views are and to see if we ourselves could find a position that would satisfy us both. Is there no middle ground? We had to weigh the arguments of both sides for consistency and to pose test cases, some of which are purely hypothetical. If in some of these tests we seem to go too far, we ask the reader to be patient with us—we’re trying to stress the various positions to the breaking point to see their weaknesses and where they fail.
I appreciate this concept of neutrality, although it still makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable to see people trying to take an entirely neutral stance on abortion. It might seem like the right way to do it, but abortion is not an abstract moral dilemma to contemplate philosophically. “Abortion” has never been an abstract hypothetical situation. There’s never been a time abortion was neutrally or casually considered, when there wasn’t a woman weighing her options, thinking about all the work she has done towards her life goals in her past, and how a baby would change her future. My opinion is that these neutral stances don’t consider the pregnant person as much as they should.
In the beginning of the essay, Sagan and Druyan do their best to contemplate both sides. Specifying that late-term abortions are extremely rare, they ask:
A newborn baby is surely the same being it was just before birth. . . . Why, then, should it be murder to kill an infant the day after it was born but not the day before?
But this leads to an alternative that is equally troubling for the authors. If the state can interfere at the end of a pregnancy, they ask, wouldn’t that mean it can interfere at any time?
This conjures up the specter of predominantly male, predominantly affluent legislators telling poor women they must bear and raise alone children they cannot afford to bring up; forcing teenagers to bear children they are not emotionally prepared to deal with; saying to women who wish for a career that they must give up their dreams, stay home, and bring up babies; and, worst of all, condemning victims of rape and incest to carry and nurture the offspring of their assailants. Legislative prohibitions on abortion arouse the suspicion that their real intent is to control the independence and sexuality of women. Why should legislators have any right at all to tell women what to do with their bodies?
The slippery slope of murder and personhood
Following this, Sagan and Druyan try to get to the real heart of the abortion debate: is it murder? If we allow abortion, does that mean we are essentially discriminating against the unborn and saying we can murder someone as long as that person is a fetus? Thus the authors find themselves asking if a fetus is a person.
You can tell when reading that the authors are uncomfortable answering this question because they can’t avoid that the question lands them on a slippery slope. I think they wish they could have an answer that they find perfectly moral and logical, without having to take a side that feels unfair to anyone. The entire reason we debate abortion at all is because we can’t do that. The only way to avoid it entirely is to avoid unwanted pregnancy. With birth control and sex education we could certainly decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies, but they will never disappear entirely.
The slippery slope is familiar, and it has to do with the extreme amount of development that a fetus undergoes in the womb. Somehow it seems like it is not a person at all at the beginning and it is most certainly a person by the end. The anti-abortion people think they have the answer in saying that a fetus is a person at the moment of conception, but their stances on IVF tell us they aren’t very consistent with that belief anyway. And they would probably admit that a fertilized egg looks a whole lot more like, well, a sperm and an egg than it looks like a person.
But on the other hand is the question that Sagan and Druyan asked earlier, which is why would a fetus be a person the moment after it’s born but not the moment before? The slippery slope leads us to the inevitable but very strange-feeling idea that a fetus becomes a murderable person at some point during pregnancy. The authors spend most of the essay trying to pinpoint when that happens.
So, if only a person can be murdered, when does the fetus attain personhood? When its face becomes distinctly human, near the end of the first trimester? When the fetus becomes responsive to stimuli—again, at the end of the first trimester? When it becomes active enough to be felt as quickening, typically in the middle of the second trimester? When the lungs have reached a stage of development sufficient that the fetus might, just conceivably, be able to breathe on its own in the outside air?
Relying on the idea that we slaughter animals who also breathe, have faces, and move on their own, the authors decide that whatever distinguishes humans from other animals ought to be what determines whether a fetus is a person. Their logic is that killing is only murder if you are killing a human person and not a non-human animal. They decide that the line is drawn, then, not at a heartbeat or brain activity but at the ability for “characteristically human thought.” They say that this begins at about the 30th week of pregnancy, or around the beginning of the third trimester.
Sagan and Druyan also speak about the history of whether or not abortion was seen as acceptable, how it led to Roe v. Wade, and the criterion behind the decision. They note, though, that the cutoff being fetal viability outside the womb is silly. Incubators had only been around for a few decades, so before they were available, would abortion be murder at a later time in pregnancy? And in the future if we develop something akin to an artificial womb, would this moment become even earlier in gestation? It’s all so arbitrary it hurts.
Are children viable?
Not to mention that a fetus staying alive through the use of technology isn’t really viable to live on its own. The anti-abortionists seem so focused on getting these fetuses born that they don’t think about what happens after. Babies don’t continue to stay alive by sheer willpower. Parents need resources. Many middle- and upper-class parents are fine with their own incomes and have support from family and friends, but so many of the people who consider abortion, even if they choose to have the child, are not well-off. They decide to keep it, and the anti-abortionists congratulate them while patting themselves on the back but are suddenly deaf to the new parents who are now asking to have their needs and the needs of their child met.
In the end, Sagan and Druyan agree with the Roe decision even though their reasoning was based on the fetus’s ability to think rather than on its viability.
I’m glad that they ended up coming to this conclusion, but I definitely wouldn’t have gotten there taking the same route that they did. Like I said, I wish they had focused on the practical consequences of these questions rather than the abstract freedom-vs-life dichotomy. Even with the caveat, I’m still somewhat troubled that they included the question of whether it’s wrong to abort a fetus the day before it’s born. Not because it’s an anti-abortion gotcha point, but because it almost never happens.
We are never going to all agree on which point during pregnancy the fetus becomes a person. Even now, as adults, we are all still cells. Some of us aren’t fully mobile, or can’t live without a respirator, or can’t feel pain or form thoughts like everyone else, and we’re all still human people. The attempts to determine the beginning of personhood are attempts to find a satisfying answer to a question that will never have a satisfying answer. So I think we’re asking the wrong question.
Asking the right question
Do we just want children to be born, or do we want them to be wanted? Loved? Provided for? Why do people put so much energy into being “pro-life” and not caring when those children are thrown around abusive foster homes, or live in poverty, or are raised by parents, who—to put it bluntly—never wanted them? There’s your slippery slope: parents who resent their children for being the reason they couldn’t live the life they’ve always dreamed of.
I think that the situations I’m describing are worse than someone electing to have an abortion or a morning-after pill. (And of course, many of them can be avoided if we actually worked to fix our broken foster system or fight racism and poverty.) But people don’t have abortions for fun anyways. Even though studies show that most women do not regret their abortions, it can still be an excruciating decision to make, and people aren’t happy to find themselves unwillingly pregnant.
The privilege of pondering personhood
If you find out that you are pregnant and you don’t want to be, you typically want to end the pregnancy as early as possible. I imagine that, especially when your circumstances are more dire, you are not sitting around pondering the philosophical argument of whether your blastocyst, zygote, or fetus is a person. You’re worrying about a million different things, the most urgent of those being where and how you can access an abortion care provider and whether you can afford it.
When there isn’t a provider near you, then in order to get an abortion you need to take time off work, pay for childcare, pay for travel, pay for a hotel, and of course pay for the procedure. Each day that you have to spend saving for this trip is a day that people say your fetus is coming closer to becoming a person. It’s pretty horrible that we decide these arbitrary markers of when a fetus is a person—leading to atrocious injustices like heartbeat bans—and then make abortion so inaccessible that by the time a person can afford one, that fetus just so happens to be a person now, and getting the abortion that you knew you needed months ago is now considered murder. I can’t imagine how this system could be more built against women if we tried.
I appreciate Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan using their famed logic skills to end up, if just barely, on the pro-choice side, but thirty years later we cannot afford to still address abortion as a fetus-centered philosophical hypothetical personhood argument. While abortions will always be a part of life and we will never be able to eliminate them (because abortion is healthcare), we can reduce them. I think we can all agree that it would be great if we could, and we can. By giving parents the resources to both prevent unwanted pregnancies and raise healthy, happy families, we can know that children are wanted, loved, and nourished and women can take control of their lives and dreams once again.