Feminists for the Unborn: Speak Up

As Parliament has finally allowed itself to discuss who, or what, qualifies as a human being—however briefly, and to no effect—some feminists have understandably been worried that the rights of certain women—childbearing women—might be compromised.

Other feminists, such as myself, are glad that finally the rights of certain women—unborn women—might return to the public conscience and official protection of Canadians.

It has been a long, difficult, and worthy battle to emancipate women from stupid attitudes, demeaning practices, and horrible laws. It is now 2012 and Canada is not as it was. Sexism is still evident, and always will be, but it enjoys neither social acceptance nor institutional support. It is time to welcome tiny women into our circle of protection along with their mothers.

One can appreciate that for social change to take place, issues need radical simplification so that the necessary force can be concentrated on single pressure points. The bracketing-out of the rights of unborn women in favour of the rights of childbearing women was one of the understandable, if also regrettable, consequences of the Realpolitik of feminist struggle. Feminists who used to champion the rights of unborn women were silenced by the rest of the movement and told to get in line: the rights of (adult) women were the cause of the moment, and every other consideration had to be co-opted or deferred.

Now, however, we are in a different era. Now we can see that granting a woman full rights over her body, a central and valid concern recognized by all sensible people and by the institutions of the country, should never have extended to granting her full rights over another woman’s body, the female child she carried in pregnancy. In the truly holy war for women’s rights, granting the childbearing woman the authority to kill her unborn-child/woman was a bridge too far.

We feminists therefore should be grateful we now occupy a social space in which we can admit our mistakes, just as we have been hectoring sexists to admit theirs. We should be able to recognize a good argument as a good argument, whether or not it is made by a woman. Female feminists should be secure enough in their own social safety now to put aside their preoccupation with themselves and consider the needs of others, including the most vulnerable human beings there are: women in utero.

We must begin by acknowledging what every pregnant woman knows: that what is living within her is another person, another human being. One of the great themes of our feminist movement is embodiment. So we must take seriously that mother and child are joined, in physiology and in dignity. The rights of one cannot be considered to the neglect of the other any more than the body of one can be discussed in disregard of the other’s.

Unborn children are, indeed, the great “others” of Canadian society today. They are literally, because legally, completely unprotected because they are unrecognized as persons. We feminists—of all people!—should be quick to recognize that sinister language of someone being “not a person” and we ought to be leaping to the defense of those who are marginalized and victimized as such.

So let Parliament do what they should have done years and years ago. And let us feminists also remedy what we once said, and stopped saying: That we are in favour of the rights of all women, and particularly the most vulnerable.

75 Responses to “Feminists for the Unborn: Speak Up”

  1. contrararian

    No offence, but what a lot of hooey.

    Unless women have control over their reproductive process, you are putting the rights of “unborn women” *above* the rights of born, living women.

    We can agree men & women to be much mores responsible about sex & reproduction…

    But you won’t do that by trying to impose your religious beliefs on others, and you won’t do that by pretending you are a “feminist”, but turning back the clock to an age women did and were meant to fear sex for the risk of an unwanted pregnancy.

    • Charles


      I believe the discussion at hand is “what qualifies as a human being?”:
      1. Is the being inside a woman’s womb alive or dead?
      2. Is it human or non-human?
      3. Is it wholly its own being or simply a member of the mother?

      These are the questions are metaphysical in nature, not an imposition of religious beliefs. Once we answer them, we can move on to whether or not laws should be written to reflect them.

      • contrararian


        Your questions do not have easy answers.

        Either you are going to impose your answers on everyone else, or you are going to have to accept some form of compromise.

        Which will it be?

        • Charles

          I choose dialogue. They are questions which do not have easy answers only because in our modern project we have all but abandoned ontology and metaphysics. And these answers, in my opinion, can only be answered within those fields. However, the answers do not leave room for compromise as it is an 1 or 0 kind of answer…dead or alive, human or not, being or member.

          Without some sort of transcendence to object to, we are left “compromising” over everything. Modernism has left us wanting in finding reason or substance in objecting to anything. When it boils down to it, for example, a modern thinker can only stand at the gates of Auschwitz and say “TO ME, this was wrong” rather than “this is wrong, period.”

          • contrararian

            Yes. We live in a complicated world. Maybe you would rather live with biblical morality.

            I’ll stick with complexity, thanks.

            • Charles

              Not complexity, nothing. With an autonomous ontology, I would venture a guess that you might have problems even defining who you are.

            • contrararian

              We’re reached the commend depth, so I’ll reply to your comment here.

              “Not complexity, nothing. With an autonomous ontology, I would venture a guess that you might have problems even defining who you are.”

              No, it’s complexity. And yes we have all sorts of problems with definitions. And yet we exist.

          • Eamon Knight

            Whereas in the pre-modern world we quarreled — often lethally — over whose “transcendence” would take precedence.

    • Robert

      You know, the vocabularly of pro-choice is just so befuddling. “Unwanted pregnancy” is one of the terms that simply makes no sense.

      Are we really saying that our desire to maintain a lifestyle overrides the responsbility that goes with sex? Or can we just excuse the results of our actions and thus cause another life to suffer?

      Though we can, and should, make room for cases of rape, incest, and the mother’s health, I continue to absolutely mystified at the double-speak from the pro-choice movement.

      Just as a note: My personal story is that my mother was walking to a clinic to terminate me when she was approached by a friend who talked her out of it. Maybe my bias clouds my judgment on this. I just happen to think that a fetus deserves more due process than a profound moment of introspection.

      BTW, Dr Stackhouse…you’ve clearly poked the bear. Good for you.

      • contrararian

        You know, when evangelicals talk about imposing their morality on the rest of society, they sound like crazy people.

        Women want to be able to have sex without the lottery or pregnancy every single time. Men do too.

        For most of human history women were beholden to men through pregancy and childrearing. You may want to go back to the dark ages.

        Most people who aren’t religious fundamentalists don’t

        • Charles

          I find abortion to actually empower men even the more. When a woman, for example, wants to keep the baby, the man can refuse to support her (emotionally and financially) unless she aborts the baby. Sadly, I have seen more often than not. “I’m going to break up with you unless you take care of it.” Rarely do I find it the other way around.

            • Charles

              I’m saying that the sexual revolution did not necessarily empower women as it sought to do. In either case, the man has the power to either leave the woman raising the child alone or forcing her to kill it against her will else he leave her alone. In my opinion, the latter is more empowering and depraved.

          • Eamon Knight

            So: give women the power to make important choices for themselves, and others will sometimes try to coerce that choice. Therefore we should take the choice away from them — for their own good, the poor things.

  2. Eamon Knight

    We must begin by acknowledging what every pregnant woman knows: that what is living within her is another person, another human being.

    Really? Every pregnant woman “knows” that? You did an exhaustive poll? I’m sorry, but any man who claims to know the minds of women pretty seriously compromises (to put it mildly) any claim to be “feminist”. Surely one of the most important things feminism is about is letting women speak for themselves.

    • Charles

      From the conversations I’ve had with women (typically with below than average education), they actually don’t know what’s inside of them or how reproduction even works. But for someone to say it is NOT (1) alive, (2) human, and (3) it’s own being, we must ask ourselves exactly how is it then considered (1) dead, (2) other than human, or (3) the mother’s being?

        • John

          Not sufficient for what? To be allowed to keep living? Biologically, there is no division between conception and full-term baby during which the living being turns into something else–from human tissue to “person.” It’s the same thing all along, becoming more complex.

          So if it is indisputably a human being, which it is, what definition of person will be such as to justify killing that human-being-who-is-not-a-person and not justify killing other human beings whom you might not want to see killed also (mentally retarded, comatose, mentally ill, physically disabled)? That, to me, is why abortion has to be outlawed: There is no such definition, so far as I can see.

          • contrararian

            It is not “indisputably a human being”. It depends on your definition of human being. Does it have a heart? A brain? A soul? an it survive by itself?

            You want to impose your definition of human being on everyone else, for religious (“metaphysical”) reasons.

            It is perfectly possible to conclude that this is a morally complex area, and that we can draw the line legally (say, at the second trimester for under proper medical supervision) without having to throw our hands in the air and plunge into the reduction ad absurdem position that proc-choice means killing mentally retarded people.

            • John

              Hilarious. After a string of rhetorical questions–you actually have to ANSWER those in this argument; any fool can pose them, they’re so obvious–then comes the “reveal” of the paucity of your ethical theorizing: “say, at the second trimester.”

              “Say”? That’s your basis for drawing the line between life or death? Since biologically there IS no bright line between conception and full term–ask anyone who actually knows the biology, as I have asked dozens–there is no “say” here except on non-biological grounds. Those grounds might be selfish; they might be well-meant but unjustified by science; they might be political (“This is the best we can do in the current climate of opinion”)–but they aren’t biological.

              And until you have actually considered the implications of your extremely vague–if also wildly self-confident–position, don’t dismiss the linkage between being comfortable with wide-open abortion and being comfortable with terminating other not-really-human-beings-I-mean-just-look-at-their-quality-of-life.

              Sheesh. Think a bit more before you type, brother. You’re making your own position ludicrous and I don’t know how much more any of us can be bothered engaging you, although we’re trying….

            • contrararian

              I don’t hold to “wide open abortion” and I’ve said repeatedly I agree with you people should be more responsible about life and sex.

              Until you consider the implications of why claiming “life begins at conception” is terrible jurisprudence (why don’t we investigate every miscarriage?) as well as terrible theology (God is the biggest mass-murderer of all time) your position will remain ludicrous: and evangelical thought will find itself further and further from the mainstream… and closer and closer to the immigrants Sarah is so scared of – but only the Muslim fundamentalist ones.

            • Steve Wilkinson

              @ contrararian –
              But, why not ‘wide open abortion’ if the women involved are comfortable with the risks to themselves (such as 3x breast cancer, etc.)? The whole point to this discussion ultimately comes down to, “What is the unborn?” Being mushy isn’t an option, and even if we don’t know (which we do), better to err on the safe side, no? Any line drawn is going to be arbitrary, as the science is clear and the rest comes from metaphysics (or arbitrary things like the opinions of the majority of people or politicians).

              re: miscarriage – there is quite some difference between someone dying, beyond our control, and our killing someone.

    • John

      Yes, I did an exhaustive poll of every woman who has ever lived. That clearly is what my sentence meant to imply.

      OR perhaps I was writing in a different mode, and making a generalization that invites the reader to consider whether he or she thinks that is true in general.

      In fact, the latter is the case.

      As for letting women speak for themselves, I do, I’ve listened, and I’m telling you what I’ve heard. Shouldn’t I pay attention to what women say when they speak for themselves?

      So let’s knock off the spurious feminist slogan-wielding in order to close off debate and marginalize some people who actually have a stake in this question (which is everybody) and talk about what matters, okay?

  3. John

    contrarian, you’re welcome on this site, but only to converse, not to pointlessly ridicule, caricature others’ positions, and rant. So far, you have not responded to any actual argument–mine or anyone else’s–but have simply insulted other people’s views. That’s not conversation: it’s self-indulgence.

    So adduce evidence and infer a conclusion, or hush, please.

    • contrararian

      You caricature feminism. You show no interest or knowledge in the status of women through the ages.

      I presume you have both, of course, but this is your safe haven to rant, I guess.

      I made the specific point that you want to turn the click back to a time when women feared sex and pregnancy.

      I see you don’t want to address that point.

      • John

        Well, actually, I have a substantial training in history and have written a book on gender. And, once again, you’re stooping to insult: I am not ranting, I am arguing. I am offering warrants for an opinion I am commending to my audience (= argument). I am not merely recording my opinion in an extreme way (= rant).

        Of course I am not interested in turning the clock back. My express purpose is to turn the clock forward, in fact. Having made great strides in the proper treatment of women, I argue, let us keep moving forward to protect ALL women, including unborn women.

        As for fearing sex and pregnancy, we ALL should have a proper respect for, and even an element of fear about, sex, since it is a powerful psychological experience and poses a range of possible physical implications, from STDs to pregnancy. It isn’t just a form of casual recreation: It is one of the great mysterious experiences of human life.

        So since it is what it is, let’s take it seriously. And since pregnancy is obviously one of the implications of the choice to have sex, I’m calling on women to truly take charge of their bodies and behave responsibly–which includes NOT KILLING the bodies of the tiny women that end up growing inside them because of the sex they have had.

        Becoming pregnant isn’t like anything else, so arguments about a woman’s right to choose what she will do regarding her body that end with the conclusion that she can freely harm the body of another (fetal) woman seem to me just obviously shortsighted, literally failing to acknowledge that there is more than one woman’s body at stake in the unique instance of pregnancy. Feminists who fail to acknowledge this obvious fact, I am saying, simply don’t make sense, and it is high time we faced the reality that is pregnancy.

        • contrararian

          Compare & contrast: “tiny women that end up growing inside them”… “recording my opinion in an extreme way”. You are ranting, Dr John.

          Yes, pregnancy is not like anything else. So let’s stop pretending a tiny bundle of cells is a “tiny woman”.

          When does human life begin? It isn’t a single sperm or egg: billions of these are discarded every year. Is it when the sperm fertilises the egg? The miscarriage rate at this stage is up to 70%. Even when we have a recognisable medical pregnancy, around 31% won’t make it naturally to term.

          I agree with you we should take more responsibility for ourselves, in our sex lifes and otherwise.

          Adopting extreme positions based on metaphysical definitions is not a reasonable way to do that.

          One final point. Your post brought home to me that Christianity is based upon two fundamentally misogynistic myths. First, the fall: God punishes all of mankind for countless generations because of the disobedience of one woman… Second, the virgin birth: anyone who professes to believe in that, frankly has no business lecturing anyone on the risks & rewards of pregnancy. In my opinion, of course.

          • Andy

            Contrarian, you are simply ignoring Dr. Stackhouse’s argument and his advice addressed to you. “adduce evidence and infer a conclusion, or hush, please.”

            • contrararian

              What argument am I ignoring? Dr John takes the extreme position that the unborn should have equal rights with the living. I have pointed out, with evidence, that it is far from clear when an egg becomes a person. I have inferred a conclusion from this that the reality is more complicated than Dr John makes out.

              My goodness, Dr John, your minions are antsy.

            • Steve Wilkinson

              @ contrararian –

              You’re ignoring that John didn’t make the case based on religious convictions. You’re ignoring the actual biology and scientific data. You’re ignoring the inconsistency in our legal system.

              You instead, are sticking to red herrings, ad hominem, and simply asserting your beliefs.

              And, WHY would it be an extreme position that two living human beings have equal rights? (Note: your sentence didn’t make sense, as the unborn ARE living.)

              re “far from clear when an egg becomes a person”
              This is kind of our point (pro-life position). Assuming you meant fertilized-egg (human embryo, a stage of human life), he/she never BECOMES a person, they ARE a person. Google ‘SLED’ and abortion and read up a bit on the problems of arbitrary personhood. Also, then, consider this a bit in the light of history to see what has happened in the past when ‘personhood’ was assigned by those in control.

          • Charles

            “Adopting extreme positions based on metaphysical definitions is not a reasonable way to do that.”

            You actually beg the question here. “Reason” is completely metaphysical in nature. Can you prove the laws of logic via the scientific method? To say metaphysical definitions are not reasonable is absurd.

            • contrararian

              AH, the old “unless you believe in my particular God you are not allowed to have an argument” canard. Which metaphysical being is it which allows you to have reason, Charles? Jehovah? Allah? Thor? The Great Green Arkleseizure?

              Pro-tip: just because you *claim* to have simple answers, or hear the voice of God ,or to have a girlfriend in Canada, it doesn’t mean you really have any of these things.

            • Charles

              I didn’t say “not allowed”, I said it’s unreasonable, by the very definition of reason. To not allow for reason is unreasonable. Your speech is unreasonable or absurd.

  4. Dan H.

    Well put, Dr. Stackhouse. This is a tack that I’m surprised the pro-life movement, at least here in America, has largely avoided – perhaps they are wary of invoking feminism.

  5. Stan Fowler

    Thanks, John, for saying it so well. When people rhapsodize about “a woman’s right to choose”, one would think they were libertarians, but of course that is not true, and the phrase is meaningless apart from an object of choice. But who wants to mention that? This morning on the drive to work, as I was listening to comments on last night’s vote on my MP’s motion, I heard more than once talk about a “threat to our abortion law”. That is clearly impossible, since we have no abortion law at all. I hope that your voice will be one of many continuing the call for serious dialogue in place of slogans.

  6. Ben Vandergugten

    Thanks for speaking so cogently on this topic, John. We who are concerned for the lives of the unborn are not expressing ourselves in some attempt to control and coerce women. If men could carry a baby, or if humans were marsupials, or if we laid eggs, our central concern would be the same. We believe that an unborn human being is a human person, and this is an evidence-based belief.
    I am proud of my mother. Her profession is teaching; she also studied to receive a Masters Degree. She studied to be a teacher while raising six children. She probably couldn’t have done it without the support of my feminist father. I want all women to develop their talents and dreams, being equal members in society. I include daughters and students in this hope. And I also include all those Canadian women who have not, as yet, been born.

  7. Bret


    Theology is clear, Do not sacrafice your children, Do not harm the womb. Yet the message falls on deaf ears. Perhaps it is just me but once again as I look at the countries state I turn to eschatology. While aplauding this forum and efforts to cry out about injustice my eyes reflect on Revelation. Would you consider this escapism? On the point of eschatology I often wonder why the College Bible professors never hold forums on the 7000 year prophecy explained by the apostlic father Barnabus and many, many others. A prophecy based on the six days of creation and the seventh day a Sabbath rest? That 6000 years after Adam and Creation the Lord would return. Then another 1000 year period where Satan is bound forms a Sabbath rest for God’s people. This 1000 years spoken of in Revelation 20. Have they never read how this non-canonical prophecy may be a much older prophecy than even Barnabus? Do they not know that mathematically speaking this prophecy if it was true would be about our generation as Adam was born around 4000 B.C. Why the wall of silence that even the last few generations did not have? Isn’t this on the table as an answer to our immediate complaint of injustice in the land? Or to the fact that Israel in the UN assembly just called for a red line to be drawn on Iran’s nuclear ambition. Don’t misunderstand me I am not saying preach it as truth unless you are a prophet, but to speak of the Christian heitage and knowledge passed down at least a little. Being reserved or cautious is much differant from silence isn’t it?

    • Dan H.

      I would say that most academics these days do not hold to young earth creationism, Bret.

      • Bret

        Perhaps not but even if the date or creation or even the seven day account is taken allegorically or metaphorically the point is God’s intented meaning of future time spans not historical ones. By the way you read and answered my question faster than I typed it, but good point!

    • John

      Yes, BD, I’ve been wondering about that, too. I have a lot of women readers: Where are you, sisters?

  8. Sarah

    My apologies for this lengthy comment.

    I won’t speak for my sisters. I know better than that. Speaking for myself, I have some trepidation about weighing in on an issue that is profoundly personal because it truly is about my body, about female bodies of all sorts, and I fear the barbs of rhetoric that too firmly lodge themselves in my very real flesh.

    I agree, John, that we absolutely must protect the rights of Canadian unborn women. This is especially important given the influx of immigrants for whom the murder specifically of unborn women is culturally acceptable.

    I agree that personhood begins at conception, and that this must be carefully considered by our lawmakers.

    But…my heart also breaks for those women for whom sex and pregnancy weren’t a choice. Despite the strides feminism has made towards empowering women and demonstrating our full humanity and personhood under the law, the practice of treating women as humans is slower to take. Violence against women is still a very serious issue in our country, and, yes, genuinely unwanted pregnancies can result. No woman wants to face the question of whether she will bear the child of her rapist, but to face that question with the possibility of legally becoming a murderer as well compounds the horror.

    I suppose, in some respects, I am still a “pro-choice” feminist insofar as I wish to defend the rights of women to choose whether they will become pregnant through such things as easy access to birth control methods, the building up of their self-esteem so that they are empowered to make good choices about their bodies, and the continuing moral education of men to help protect them from violence. I feel that there needs to be legal protection of some sort for women who are victims of violence and become pregnant.

    At the same time, I feel real anger at women (and men) who use their own bodies sexually without consideration for the fact that human life arises from what they might regard as a recreational sport. Abortion should most assuredly never be used to “correct” an error in judgment about using birth control or having sex. It is also extremely frustrating that the onus continues to be placed on women to make these right decisions (“well, she should have been on the pill”) and to bear out–literally–the consequences of making bad decisions. If we make laws to protect the unborn, we also need to make laws with real teeth to protect mothers so that they are not left “holding the baby”; these should include better adoption laws so that women can give life to their child and then give a better life to their child with another family. It also means that free and easy access to prenatal care needs to be aggressively protected.

    I could go on, but I’ve already written a blog post in your comments section. Needless to say, for me this continues to be a complicated issue that I’m not prepared yet to simplify too radically.

    • John

      Thanks very much for this, Sister Sarah. I can tell you strive, as I do, to simplify whatever we can, and should, and to avoid oversimplifying what is irreducibly complex–or ambiguous.

      It must be awful to bear the child of a rapist. Being male and also having never been raped, I admit the obvious fact that I cannot imagine what it would be like to do so. What is not clear to me is what difference that makes. I want to speak carefully and kindly here, so I hope you’ll hear me trying to do so. But the fact that I cannot imagine how it would feel does not mean I can’t form meaningful arguments about the situation–would you agree?

      If those who have never fought as an infantry grunt in a war nonetheless can think helpfully about the ethics of war–and perhaps they can do so precisely because their thinking is not done in the profoundly mind-shaping context of being in a war, which in the nature of the case would provide both epistemological advantages and disadvantages–then perhaps an unraped man has something (not everything, but something) to contribute to our joint consideration of these matters.

      And my thinking is that as horrible as it surely must be to bear the child of a rapist, the proper response to that horror is not to kill the child. Indeed, from the testimonies of women I have listened to, I’m pretty sure that to do so would be to add horror to horror, with the second horror now being of an utterly different quality as this one would be the woman’s fault.

      Instead, I agree with you that the correct response instead lies in the direction of society caring for that victimized woman and helping her all we can to do the right thing and to suffer as little as possible as she does. She should not have to suffer physically or financially or emotionally or socially any more than she absolutely has to, and we must gather around her to make this bad situation as tolerable as possible.

      May I get a little professorial here and point out, in the abstract, that the fact that a context feels terrible does not mean it is morally ambiguous. The fact that there are no good choices does not mean that the Least Bad Choice is not obvious.

      I should think that such thoughts might actually provide comfort to a victimized sister who is earnestly concerned to do what is right, having been done so much wrong. I hope, I hope, they might comfort her.

      • Sarah

        Before I begin to respond, let me say that I have read the stories of women who have not only borne a child conceived by rape to term but have raised that child and been blessed by that choice. I believe and trust in a God of redemption and healing and life. So I know that the choice to protect the lives of children who are the product of violence is a good one, is the Right one.

        I suppose my concern is that, as often happens in discussions of morality when they stray into the sometimes ugly arena of politics, this issue will be oversimplified–by both sides. “Pro-choice” advocates often stubbornly cling to the rights of the woman over “her body” but seem to fail to account for the woman’s responsibility in exercising her choice. This makes them appear heartless and blasé about the life of the child. “Pro-life” advocates sometimes appear to be without mercy for women who are faced with the ugly choice or have made a horrible mistake which they deeply regret, or the pro-lifers appear decided on the fact that the life of the child always supersedes the life of the mother (as in cases where the pregnancy might kill the mother). This makes them appear heartless about the life of the mother. (Please note, I say “they appear” not “they are.”) Laws, by their nature, are very black and white, and I fear that in a political debate, the real humanity of everyone involved (born and unborn) will be effaced as we reduce human beings to logical ciphers.

        I suppose I may be over-complicating for myself what you rightly suggest should be a simple question: if human life starts at conception (as many/most Christians have come to believe through the revelations of science), then what are we going to do about it?

        A simple question with an answer so much more complicated than simply to “ban abortion.”

        • Steve Wilkinson

          Sarah, certainly the question of how society is going to respond is complex, but I don’t think this ultimately makes the question surrounding the legality of abortion, specifically, any more complex at all.

          re: “cases where the pregnancy might kill the mother” – This is true, and I’m not sure how the laws would be written and work, but I’m not aware of many pro-life folks who wouldn’t make that exception. (It’s a situation my wife and I personally experienced.) When a great deal of certainty is involved, it becomes a triage situation. When less certain, certainly it becomes a bit more gray, but I still think we have to ethically do the best we can. In many places with pro-abortion oriented laws and limitations, the language is purposely ‘health’ of the mother rather than ‘life’ of the mother, which effectively means no limitations. IMO, that’s not doing our ethical best.

          The problem is that this abortion/pro-life argument isn’t taking place over which cases (if any) we might have to ethically consider allowing abortion, but over if there is anything to protect from aborting in the first place (especially in Canada). The current law here is so wacky it defies any kind of reason.

          First we must nail down that we’re talking about another valuable human life, then we can start to discuss what the options and limitations might be for the tough cases.

  9. asisterinChrist

    First of all, thanks John for this discussion.

    I don’t want to claim that I in any way know the horror of rape. But, to abort a child conceived in rape only adds to the violence. A fetus is a child whether it was planned or not. The issue here is not whether the woman (or man) actually wants to have a child. No, it isn’t. The issue is that what the woman is carrying is a human being.
    And to “contrararian”: Is the belief that murder is wrong a religious issue? Because this is what pro-life advocates are against. We believe that abortion is murder, and we stand against murder. Not only do I believe in women’s rights, I believe in human rights. The right to live, and the right to speak. The right to voice your opinion no matter what your religious background is.

  10. Another Sarah

    Thank you Dr. John, for daring to broach a very touchy subject. Clear thinking is difficult in such an emotionally charged atmosphere. It is true that women are the ones who often bear the consequence of a bad decision made by a man and a woman together. Adding a second bad decision to that, may seem solve the initial problem, but pragmatism cannot be the way to live a truly moral life. The answer is not to use abortion as a means of birth control, or gender selection, or even of terminating the sad consequence of a pregnancy due to rape. (I’m curious what the statistics are of pregnancy due to rape actually are.) The challenge is to find ways of helping women who find themselves pregnant and alone. I know of no easy answers, but often the right answer means that more rather than fewer people have a responsibility to do the right thing, by loving their neighbour.

    • Sarah

      Amen, sister. Thank you for sharing so succinctly what I was only able to share so verbosely (and therefore murkily).

      Regarding the statistics you seek, quick Canadian numbers were not available, but according to a medical article from the US in 1996: “among adult women an estimated 32,101 pregnancies result from rape each year.” (I don’t know if links are allowed here, but Duck-Duck-Go returned that page at the top of the results of a search of “rape-related pregnancy.”)

  11. John

    Contrarian writes above: “Until you consider the implications of why claiming ‘life begins at conception’ is terrible jurisprudence (why don’t we investigate every miscarriage?) as well as terrible theology (God is the biggest mass-murderer of all time) your position will remain ludicrous.”

    There is no doubt that “life begins at conception.” Indeed, life precedes conception: both sperm and egg are, after all, alive. The point instead is that, biologically speaking, a human being is conceived at conception.

    But contrarian raises an important point here: What about the fact that many fertilized eggs don’t implant on a uterine wall and many miscarriages occur (whether women notice them or not)? How do those facts affect the abortion debate?

    Well, not at all, I’d say. George Bernard Shaw once remarked that the statistics on death were quite remarkable: one out of every one people dies. Death eventually claims us all. So the fact that a lot of people die–indeed, that all people die–is not an argument against laws forbidding the illegitimate taking of lives.

    I’d sincerely like someone who really knows the biology here to help us. Are there good reasons why many fertilized eggs don’t implant and many babies are miscarried? I have understood to this point that these deaths happen to foetuses that are in some way badly malformed or otherwise not viable, but is that so? If so, that helps a lot to explain why God allows them to die. If not, then we have a version of the problem of evil: Why God continues to allow people to suffer and die.

    The fact, however, that God allows people to suffer and die (a “fact” from a theistic point of view, to be sure) does not, I reiterate, justify just any taking of human life by another human. God presumably has prerogatives we do not have, and especially in this sphere.

    I conclude then that the fact that we cannot draw a bright line anywhere after conception and say “before this line we can abort without qualm” means that we should err on the side of life, not of death. And the fact that God does not allow many fertilized eggs to come to term–many tiny humans to mature, in the language I am using–is his business, of a piece with his mysterious and often frightening willingness to let people of all ages die in various circumstances. But then we don’t have an “abortion” issue per se, but, to repeat, the problem of evil. And I deal with THAT great big problem in my book, “Can God Be Trusted?”

    I appreciate, contrarian, that you are raising an important question here, and I hope my response indicates respect for your valid concern.

  12. dan

    I think that this debate will never be resolved because both sides are relying on a faulty premise. Namely: that “human beings” or “human persons” are real things that actually exist. That there actually are no such thing as a “human being” or “human person” is demonstrated by the observation that neither party can, or ever will be, able to conclusively demonstrate to all parties involved that their definition or understanding of the matter is, in fact, the correct definition or understanding.

    Therefore, what we need to recognize is that whenever mention is made of “human beings” or “human persons” we are elbows-deep within the domain of ideology. Of course, ideology is not without a material embodiment (as Althusser, Zizek and others have reminded us repeatedly). Ideology, quite literally, names, structures, and creates the world in which we live.

    Consequently, I can only conclude that, within one particular ideologically constructed world a zygote/fetus/unborn baby/whatever IS a “human being” or “human person” — and in another ideologically constructed world a zygote/fetus/unborn baby/whatever IS NOT a “human being” or “human person.”

    In this debate two worlds are colliding. I have no idea what it would look like to try and resolve that clash.

  13. dan

    Also I would like to hear an answer to this thought experiment devised by Andrew Sullivan:

    You are in a fertility clinic and there is a fire. You have a choice between saving 100 fertilized embryos or a six year old child who happens to be there with you. What choice do you make?

    • Mark

      The six-year-old because she can have a subjective experience of pain.

      • dan

        Really? So if you had to choose between saving one person from dying painfully and 100 people from dying painlessly, you would choose to save the one person? Really??? (Wait… I already said that… just a bit incredulous, so I’m repeating myself and adding question marks.)

        If we were talking about anything but embryos here that would strike pretty much anybody as totally insane… which suggests to me that the issue really isn’t the “subjective experience of pain” but the status of embryos vs. the status of a six year old that is controlling the decision being made (even if the person making the decision does not want to admit that…).

        • Mark

          Nah, I’m just saying that when push comes to shove, pretty much everyone in their right mind would save the screaming six-year-old rather than the perfectly sober and unaffected embryos. Only in the ivory tower can the alternative be considered the more morally upright course of action.

          • dan

            Precisely. So what does this imply about what people actually believe about the status of embryos?

            • Mark

              I forgot the basic rule that one should never try to answer a paradox.

              One would be psychologically compelled to save the screaming child over a room full of people on life support as well. I don’t think that proves anything about one’s “actual beliefs” about the value of the others.

        • John

          This, Brother Dan, is a fruitless thought experiment in terms of my original post. These aren’t our real-world choices, the ones I’m discussing. The thought experiment only brings to the surface what people believe about embryos, and I’m pretty sure we’re clear about that so far already. It might expose a particular person’s confusion–“Aha! You say you value embryos as human beings, but in fact you don’t”–but it doesn’t advance the logic of the actual arguments.

          Furthermore, you (and Zizek and company) are mistaken at the meta-level as well, I suggest.

          First, the fact that people disagree about something does not mean that they are both equally correct nor that there is no way to arbitrate between their views. Once refined, Copernicus’s view of the solar system was, in fact, better than Ptolemy’s: it described (and predicted) reality better. I think the amount of common ground here is easily sufficient to conduct a meaningful argument, and you would have to show that that is not the case, rather than merely pronounce it isn’t, as I think is all you’ve done so far.

          Second, to say that there is no such thing as a human being to me is just nonsense. We all know there are such beings and we easily identify most instances of such beings. What we are arguing about is cases that are not so obvious, at least not to everyone. The fact that people disagree about cases of inclusion in a set does not mean that the definition of the set is not shared by everyone in the argument or that it could never be.

          Third, I am not at all convinced that prochoice argumentation is coherent and I think I am showing that it isn’t–partly with the help of interlocutors–here on this blog. So to pronounce this discussion necessarily and forever doomed I suggest is theoretically incorrect and certainly premature.

          Still, you (and Zizek et al.) have been right before (!)–so by all means come back to me on any of these points. I hope, however, you’ll also feel welcome to say (as you jolly well should say in this case), “You know, you’re right after all. I wrote before I had had my breakfast, and now I see the luminescent truth in what you say.”


          • dan

            You know, you’re right after all. I wrote before I had had my breakfast, and now I see the luminescent truth in what you say.

            • John

              Ah, so very gratifying. I sure hope you don’t spoil this special moment by taking back what you have so graciously offered…

          • dan

            Just joking. You’re totally wrong.

            Wait… that’s a joke, too.

            I’m willing to drop the thought experiment as it describes a situation that people will probably not encounter… although the “confusion” that it brings to the fore is worth considering, even if for the value it brings in modifying the ways in which people speak with one another about this topic (I don’t mean on this blog, I mean in general). And, besides, actions are always more important than beliefs (but hypothetical actions might be less important than both).

            I didn’t mean to suggest the topic is not worth discussing… I was just confessing that I don’t know how to advance it (a point you would seem to agree with!).

            Also, I don’t mean to say that I am in the prochoice camp. I don’t really identify with either the prochoice or the prolife camp in the ways in which they are commonly identified.

            That said, I disagree with some of your remarks about the meta- level. In particular, I would push back and say that “human beings” are the creation of ideologies and are rooted there and not in “reality” (whatever that is). That people can create sets and agree upon characteristics within sets does not mean these sets and characteristics are rooted in anything but, well, ideology.

            So what exists? Well… something/that/this/X/whatever. However, as soon as we name something/that/this/X/whatever we are adding a layer to something/that/this/X/whatever. Language itself is inescapably ideological, even if it is creative and constitutive of the world as we know it.

            For example, “that” is a “tree” because we all agree to call it a “tree”. “This” is a “human being” because we all agree to call it such. If we called these things different names they would be different things (for example, studies of language have shown how people who speak different languages have entirely different experiences and understandings of such basic things as time or colour). If we didn’t call them anything they would be nothing (that we could talk about).

            Hence, with language and naming we arrive at ideologically constituted worlds. What that has to do with “reality” (whatever that is) is beyond me. We’re so mired in ideology that I’m at a loss as to how we even think we could speak of “reality” or “truth”. Really, then, I shouldn’t even use the term something/that/this/X/whatever at all. Instead, when asked what exists I should simply say

            • John

              Wow. You need a better epistemology. When someone as smart, serious, and engaged positively in real life as you are is reduced by his theory to silence, something is wrong. Hold on for another 18 months or so and then all will be well. 😉

              In the meanwhile, God bless you as I know your actions are as concrete and helpful as your musings are abstract and, apparently, paralyzing!

            • Bret

              I wonder how anyone can object to the reality that they are in it and at the same time embrace it by eating, sleeping and writing philosophy, to me this functionally demonstrates that they do not really believe their own theory. It is only from a pretend state apart from their core beliefs that this would be possible which we can identify as imagination. But when embraced fully it sways are argument for the existence of God which has been one historical point of this epistomological framework.

            • dan

              Hi Bret,

              The point is not to deny that there are “things” that “are.” I am not denying that there is some sort of “reality” out there.

              What I am suggesting is that we can never be sure that we are talking about that “reality” (which is why I think it is best represented without representation… hence the conclusion of my last comment). Something may be “real” but we will never be able, with any certainty to know it as such, because our knowing is caught up in the realm of language, semiotics, and signification.

              Words make worlds. But, at the same time, we cannot know how “real” those worlds are because we are trapped within the domain of the Word. Why is that? Because any time we try to describe the world we are deploying symbols or sounds that we have created — i.e. that we have made-up. When that’s the case, we seem to be operating not in the category of “objective description” but of “fiction.” All language is fiction (just as all statements are also tautologies — thinking of Wittgenstein here who is important for this trajectory of thought). Consequently, when trapped within the domain of fiction, how can we speak of what is “real”?

              Furthermore, as soon as we call something “real” we are not pointing to some “thing” that “is”. The “real” is beyond representation. Hence, to deploy the language of “reality” is to engage in an ideological power struggle.

              Now, I’m afraid that we’ve gone far too far off topic when it comes to Dr. Stackhouse’s original post. If you want to discuss this point further, you’re welcome to do so at my blog. I’ve got a lecture posted there on this topic (a lecture I delivered for a course at a school called “Regent College” in Vancouver), so feel free to continue the conversation there. Here’s the link: https://poserorprophet.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/ideology-lecture/

            • Steve Wilkinson

              re: “‘This’ is a ‘human being’ because we all agree to call it such.”

              I agree that throughout history, this has often been the case… out of which all sorts of pain and suffering have emerged. But, *SHOULD* we simply be allowing what society labels something, to create to reality? I’d say no. Reality is to be discovered, not defined.

              re: “What I am suggesting is that we can never be sure that we are talking about that ‘reality'”

              To some extent, sure. However, that is different than ‘reality is what we define it to be’ (or those in power have defined it to be, etc.). If the postmodern epistemology is true, why post on forums, write books, etc.? This seems similar to the naturalistic materialist writing books, posting on forums, etc. There is a low-level contradiction these world-views seem to be missing which ultimately undermines them.

    • Steve Wilkinson

      If I ran into a burning building and my son was screaming in one corner, and 10 people in the other, I’d grab my son. This doesn’t indicated I think the other 10 aren’t valuable humans. This is essentially a triage situation, where we make all sorts of snap judgements (which may not even actually be the best ones) due to the limitations imposed.

      We also often place functional value on people who are otherwise equal in value. For example, if I’m in a burning building, a six-foot, 200 lb burly fireman is more valuable to me (in that situation) than a 3-year-old. Similarly, a woman’s functional value to her family might outweigh a human fetus there is a situation where the continued growth of the child will kill the mother. While this would be a horrible decision to make, it doesn’t mean that one is a human with value and the other isn’t.

    • John

      As Dan knows (he’s one of my thesis students), I have a contract with Oxford UP to write an epistemology. The “skinny” version is done and I’m beefing it up over this academic year–so I’m expecting it to be published in about…18 months.

  14. Bret

    Does your work take on Immanuel Kant’s the Critique of Pure Reason? He is the Prince of Epistomology, at least in many academics eyes, or does your work take another route? Feel free to ignore my answer if you are more inclined to create suspense.

    By the way I made a comment earlier to a ‘Dan’ and when I read it again I realized it came off in a little curt (if he is still around), my apologies to him, I now realize the dangers of Blogging! Think twice then press send.

  15. Bret


    Okay, I agree to drop the subject, but I will give a last couple thoughts if I may. I think John was right about your strenghts and that your big strength is that you have an extreme ability to think oustide of the box (perhaps broder line Genius). So what are you now doing with this ability? Is it used to deny our reality or God or is your end game a revolution/an ideological power struggle? Whatever it is, your blog uses a Kantian type Philosophy but attacks laguage instead of neurology. Words or language do not create ‘reality’ as you infer but there is a self evident inteplay between words and the stuff you have detached yourself from, I call reality. Yes, changing words, like from ‘used car’ to ‘preowned car’ changes perceptions and a differant langauge can entail a slightly diffferant meaning but it does not change the reality that it is an old car. Good luck proving all language does not have this interplay with reality and if you do, what then? Good luck erasing your blog if someone turns your theory into practice or revolution (possibly lawlessness) breaks out or worse people dettach themselves from the ‘stuff’ I call reality denying the interplay. As the qoute goes all it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing. Here is to hoping you know the destination the road you are traveling on will take you. As I promised, I will let this be my last word and will read your final comment if you have one.

  16. Stephanie

    As a woman, and mother to eight children, i understand how uniquely vulnerable pregnancy leaves a woman. I understand how scary it can be to have a difficult pregnancy, and feel that the babe within you is a ticking time bomb sure to erupt only with yet more pain. And yet, i don’t think abortion is ever justified. Babies don’t choose to be conceived, just to be mean to women. Women and men, in the act of intimacy, say to the universe that they are ready and willing to create life. None of my children started out as lesser beings – even in the first weeks, we called the baby “rice man” – a man, but tiny. Complete in all their parts, so early, and yet so fragile, heartbreakingly delicate. Having lost one child to miscarriage, i know how fleeting life can be. I just had my eighth living child four months ago, and i am savouring her so much! Here in Canada, the issues are different to the ones faced in the US – not only do i wish abortion to be illegal, as other forms of murder are, but i also deeply wish the government would stop stealing money from my family to fund the violence that we find completely abhorrent. We are forced by our government to be complicit in what i know history will someday judge to be a second, larger, holocaust.

  17. Heather

    I am a woman. I am a feminist. I would love to see this debate go forward – for different reasons. I think gender selection is a real threat to women. As our world becomes more global, the non-feminist perspectives and feminist perspectives become more global. In Canada, we need to stand up and say that gender selection is wrong. Why? Because killing your unborn baby girl just because she is a girl is wrong. I think the unborn baby girl has as much right to live as the unborn baby boy. At some point I think each unborn child has rights. I don’t know when they should start or what they are but I would welcome a parliamentary dialogue that would create a situation where gender selection is not legal or acceptable in Canada in both public circles and in the bedrooms of our nation. If this means that the unborn child is given limited rights and that the pregnant mother’s rights are limited a little as compared to what they are now – I think that the overall status of women will be strengthened.


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