IV. The Real Boy

In this my last entry in a series of commentary on abortion, I want to keep things somewhat more open-ended. I have spent time thus far in sub-issues within the debate which, while important, are mostly peripheral: the selection of terms, the coherence of compromise, and our approach to interlocutors. I have also suggested the utter necessity, for any traction, that the debate return to its center: the ontological fact of what the unborn being truly is. If I have lingered long at the outskirts while entreating a journey inward, it was with the aim of first clearing what pernicious overgrowth has too often obscured our path. Working through these concerns, I hope to have shown, does not require any profound agreement on the ultimate question: it takes merely a reflective pause, a critical eye to the mechanisms of another’s belief and one’s own, to sweep off the mounting detritus that tends to clog our gears and, for it, our vision.

The primacy of that final question, however, cannot be ignored. But while a shift (or perhaps simply a refinement) of concentration is crucial for the debate at large, I have come near the end of what I little I hoped to accomplish in these writings. To advance a positive argument from the roots up with anywhere near the appropriate rigor would be a task much desired, but fit for a space different from this. So instead I will offer one last thought experiment for parting consideration:

There is a humble old woodcarver whose friend generously gifts her a small supply of timber for Easter. In gracious spirits, she uses the material to craft two wooden dolls. One day not long after, a man comes by his shop claiming to be a magician. He notices the dolls and tells the carver that he will return at the end of the year, and if the carver has decided to keep them until then, they will be turned into real boys. Lest the poor shopkeeper have any doubts, the magician speaks a soft word to a wooden dove perched on the workbench nearby; the bird twitches its rigid wings, morphs and softens into feathery white, and flies out the window. “Year’s end,” says the magician, and he leaves.

The carver is stunned. She had always wanted a child of his own, as it turns out. Though bewildered, she has been shown reason enough to believe that this magic is real, the magician’s word firm and certain. After the shock subsides she regathers her senses, however, and falls deep into thought. Blessing and wish-come-true though a child would be, having two would be a true challenge for a woman of her age and means. After many days of deliberation she decides that she will keep one doll. Having no preference, and wishing to effect none unwittingly, she chooses one at random and has the other destroyed. On Christmas Day the magician returns, casts a silent nod to the carver, and the doll comes to life. The old woman has a son, and the stranger departs.

Has the carver done something blameworthy? Immoral? Some days watching her son play she may wonder whether she should have given him the chance of a sibling. But surely she knew best the nature of her circumstances, and though by her decision another boy undoubtedly would have been, what was lost was, in effect, merely a dream; in substance, a block of wood.

I offer this story as a way to frame another, this one true to life. In August of last year a piece appeared in the New York Times called “The Two-Minus-One Pregnancy.” I encourage any who has not read it to do so here because it is a jolting read and I will not be able to recap it sufficiently. It follows the growing phenomenon of a practice self-described as “pregnancy reduction.” Women undergo this procedure to reduce their twin pregnancy to a “singleton.” In plain terms, a woman bearing twins decides to abort one and keep the other. Again, I recommend the full read because it has several details worth absorbing: the condition of anonymity on which these women give their testimonials (for fear of the “stigma”), in vitro mothers getting more than they bargained for, and decisions to reduce on the basis of sex.*

There are many things I could say about this story but of all those that struck me I would like to draw particular attention to one. As I read reactions to this piece (in the site comments and elsewhere) I began to notice a common preface: many commenters (though by no means all) would begin their remarks will something to the effect of “I am pro-choice, but . . . ” and proceeded to register their unease or repulsion toward what they had read.

This response reminded me of another. In 2008 at my alma mater, a story broke that a student had been artificially inseminating herself, inducing abortions, and collecting the resultant blood to put on display for her senior art project. You can read more about it here. The news ignited the campus with a firestorm of several weeks, and though the student was not without her defenders her project drew harsh criticism from both sides of the aisle. In the aftermath as conflicting reports arose it became increasingly less clear whether her claims were fact or performance-art fiction (she maintained their truth to the end). But whatever the case it matters not for my point, which is that many pro-choice people found her acts, or at least the idea of them, disturbing.

There are enough differences between these two stories that I do not mean to compare them beyond this shared moral instinct, which exists not only in an intended public spectacle like the abortion art project (which might be objected to merely for its inflammatory provocation of those who do believe lives are at stake), but even in response to a guarded private choice like pregnancy reduction. What accounts for this instinctive discomfort, or in some, even disgust?

With this I turn back to the tale of the carver. How you do feel about her decision? To those who find something deeply unsettling in the recounted stories of “pregnancy reduction”: Whether right or wrong, does the carver’s choice elicit the same response? If wrong, is it wrong in the same way?

Though I don’t want to presume, my expectation is that few who identify as pro-choice will find serious moral qualm in the carver’s decision, though a greater number will take issue with some form of pregnancy reduction. My question is why this should be the case. I imagine it might be objected that in attempting to set up this analogy I have hardly brought into equivalence many striking factors and have constructed a poor analogy for the experience of pregnancy. The old carver never carries her child, after all; the physical, mental, and emotional labors of pregnancy are never felt. Neither is there any period of natural gestation in which the dolls develop—the one she chooses to keep passes from wood to human child, fully formed, by instantaneous dint of magic. And the old carver had no ownership in establishing the initial potentiality of the children: though she was fully entitled to an out clause (so to speak), the conditions of the magician—in which mere inaction would result in two children—were put in place by no act of her will.

But imagine if her experience were (in some rough way) more like real pregnancy. The magician tells the carver if she wants the dolls to become children, she not only has to keep them for the next nine months, but keep them well polished. This begins with light touch-ups here and there, but the carver soon notices that the polish has begun to wear off more and more quickly. As time passes this rate of dissolution increases at a surprising rate until she can no longer afford to leave the dolls at the shop for any extended period of time and is forced to carry them wherever she goes. A few times in her care the dolls have even, strangely, burned her hand to the touch. In short, the process is more demanding, restricting, and time-consuming—occasionally painful. After some time under these conditions, or even presented upfront with the knowledge of what would be, would it be anything but more understandable if she should choose to keep only one, for all the same reasons she decided before, but here with the added hope of alleviating her current experience in whatever small way?

What is curious is that it is not the carver’s choice (in the tale’s original formation) that draws our discomfort—she who faces the easier path to her end and nevertheless “reduces” the potential outcome—but precisely the woman who does go through the pains of pregnancy, who has, in the I.V.F. cases especially, authored the situation in which she finds herself (even if she is surprised by the news of twins). Why then should any pro-choice advocate feel anything but utter sympathy with the woman’s decision to alleviate her pains and align her condition to her wishes? Why be opposed, when there is no moral content to the choice—when the unborn thing is no more a person than a block of wood? Less, even, for at least the carver’s doll was wanted property, a work of her hands and an object of care; Fetus No. 2 is an unwanted intrusion, a tumor in the strictest sense.

So whence comes this rejecting instinct? Does it balk at removing the potentiality of a sibling for the lasting child? Then our two responses should be the same. Is it because reducing the biological twin pregnancy is especially “unnatural” (more so than an ordinary abortion, at least) when all nature has to do is take it’s course—and the mother clearly wants children to some degree—while the carver’s whole operation rests on some mysterious magic? But what is the standard pro-choice account of respected human life but precisely some inscrutable magic—the passing at some mysterious stage from fetus to person, from termination being a thorough non-issue to suddenly and unquestionably a moral wrong the moment after? The “magic” of the magician is, in my invention, no less certain its potency, reliability, or finality; it is merely an alternative mechanism for the same outcome.

Does the mother bear some obligation to both potential children since her choices are responsible for their being in the first place (surprise though the number be)? Is it an insult to mothers who desperately wish for children to be blessed with the potential for two and to throw one away? Is it abusing a right whose victory was so hard-fought? Is it senseless when the woman will still be going through pregnancy anyway, and whatever physical alleviation the reduction might provide could only be a matter of degree and not of kind?

A perfect distillation of the operating principle appears in a telling quotation from the article itself (emphasis mine):

“Other doctors refuse to reduce below twins unless the pregnancy presents unusual medical concerns. Among them is Dr. Ronald Wapner, director of reproductive genetics at Columbia and another reduction pioneer. Sometime in the late 1990s, when Wapner practiced in Philadelphia, he received his first two-to-one request. “She said, ‘Either reduce me to a singleton, or I’ll end the pregnancy.’ ” He consulted his staff, all women, and they concluded that if a woman can choose to end a pregnancy, she can reduce from two to one. Besides, in this case, the team would be saving a fetus that would otherwise be aborted.”

You could hardly put it more succinctly. So in response to the above questions: Why? Is not that the very beauty of the freedom of choice? Why should there be any obligation, or even suggestion of an obligation, when it is a protected private choice, respected by its mere status as choice, regardless of what one chooses—because there are no victims at stake, and the outcome simply does not matter?

If you happen to find nothing objectionable in “The Two-Minus-One Pregnancy” I have not been speaking to you, and there is more we disagree with than I can account for in this course of this blog. If you feel something wrong about it, I ask why that might be. To be fair, it might be that case that one really does attach him- or herself to any of the speculative reasons stated above. I simply wonder whether those reasons can be defended in the full pro-choice context as anything more than mere sentimentality, resting as they do upon prejudices either irrational or extrinsic to the logic of autonomous choice. And I wonder also whether, in those who do experience that strong and immediate sense of retraction, the strength and immediacy of that sense is likely to be the product of some reasoned-out respect for a sympathetic party like the barren mother, or whether it is strong and immediate, and indeed a prejudice, precisely because it strikes a chord at the very heart of the issue.

I can not identify with the experience of holding in combination these two perspectives—a thoroughly pro-choice outlook on the one hand and a repulsion to the abortion of one of two twins on the other—because that is not me. As should be evident from this series I am pro-life, though I hope my meditations have been fair in their treatment of all and have offered as much for the consideration of pro-choicers as they have for those who share my beliefs.

Yet observing this phenomenon from the outside as I do, I cannot say I am surprised that this immediate instinct persists, for it sounds something to me like the sharp but quiet notes of conscience. Perhaps we feel it because it refers to something real. Perhaps it strikes us before we can explain it away because beneath whatever artifices we have put up there lies dormant but present a whisper of the moral truth. Perhaps we have become so numb to it through years of normalized abortion and hallowed choice that it takes drastic stories like the two-minus-one or the senior art project to stir us momentarily out of our slumber. Perhaps we feel differently about the reducer and the carver because one had a baby and the other did not.

I cannot say. This curious sensation is not mine to feel, as I know how I stand. But it would not surprise me. And with that I’ll close. Thanks for reading if you did.

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*Not to mention this astonishing line:

“Ethics,” [the doctor] said, “evolve with technology.”