The Lies of the Righteous

Posted in: Criminal Law

Earlier this month, one or more Texas law enforcement officers arrested a woman for murder in connection with her having allegedly self-induced an abortion. The Starr County District Attorney’s office, a few days after the arrest, publicly announced that there would be no prosecution against the woman. Nonetheless, the arrest itself exposes the impact of religious fanaticism on the law. And when it comes to abortion, religious extremists in high places have long been lying about reproduction, about women, and about the sort of country that they have been building to replace the relative freedom and balance that prevailed before.

“Unborn Children”

The people who have for some time been promoting the view that the law should be able to force women to reproduce against their will are in the habit of referring to “unborn children.” Under Texas law, an “unborn child” exists from the moment that a sperm cell penetrates an egg cell. Unfortunately, few have interrogated the words “unborn children,” probably because we have all absorbed the lesson that even if a religious person’s beliefs amount to a whole lot of nonsense, we must nonetheless respect those beliefs. Perhaps out of respect, then, the movement to protect women from those who would forcibly keep them pregnant against their will has had the anemic name “pro-choice” rather than, say, “anti-theocracy” or “anti-servitude.” But what the enemies of reproductive autonomy have supported (and can soon declare victory in installing) is a whole lot worse than just not giving people choices.

If an ill-informed conspiracy theorist wants to refuse to wear a mask at the hospital when visiting his frail and immunocompromised grandmother, and the hospital insists that he either wear the mask or leave the premises, the hospital has thereby rejected the selfish and grandiose visitor’s “choice.” Not surprisingly, Justice Amy Coney Barrett—in minimizing the bodily imposition involved in forcing a woman to remain pregnant against her will (because she can just drop off the baby at a fire station)—compared the woman’s bodily integrity interest to that of an individual who refuses to get vaccinated. Only a delusional or dishonest person could regard mandatory vaccination as comparable in intrusiveness to forcible pregnancy. And that is apparently what we have now on the U.S. Supreme Court, at least five delusional and dishonest people in robes.

Let us return, however, to the lie of “unborn children,” a lie so diabolical that we who support women’s bodily integrity have misguidedly seen fit to respect it rather than condemn it for the lie that it is. Under Texas law and the standard fanatic’s definition of “unborn child,” however early or late a woman’s pregnancy might be at the time of termination, it always results in the killing of a child. Texas law (and much of the pro-forced-pregnancy community), in other words, draws no distinction between a medical abortion when some undifferentiated tissue is forming a little ball of identical cells and an abortion of a pregnancy in a woman’s third trimester. Either way, we have a murdered child.

When a person says, “unborn children,” she implies that what the woman has inside her body is pretty much a child and that the only missing step to its being “complete” is birth. Consider just how ridiculous a claim this is when we are talking about a blastula or a morula (both undifferentiated little clumps of tissue). It would be as if someone referred to a pollinated apple blossom in a tree as an “unpicked apple.” If I ran out to my tree, based on this person’s statement, ready to harvest the unpicked apple, I would be most disappointed and annoyed to find only a flower. Consider a second example. I tell one of my children (real children, not blastocysts) to take care of the undressed salad in the kitchen. She would expect to find a salad, made up of lots of different vegetables and fruits and maybe chickpeas, cut up and ready for a miso ginger dressing. If she instead found a head of lettuce, some tomatoes, and an unopened can of garbanzo beans, she would be legitimately annoyed at me for making it sound like the only missing step in preparing this salad was the introduction of the dressing. Because I cannot leave well enough alone, now imagine asking a friend of yours whether he is an attorney. He replies, “I cannot call myself an attorney under New York State law because I have not been admitted to practice by the Board of Bar Examiners.” For short, your friend calls himself an “unadmitted lawyer.” What would you think if you learned that your friend had attended the first year of law school and then dropped out to become a barista at Starbucks? You would surely regard his statement to you as dishonest, as a lie. “Unadmitted lawyer” implies a lawyer in all respects other than admission to the bar.

This last lie is in a sense the most like the lie of “unborn children” of the three examples. The friend is not a lawyer at all, but he throws in this verbiage about being “unadmitted” to distract you from the truth. You might think in your head “Well, even though New York State prohibits the use of the word “attorney” to describe someone unadmitted, I think it’s reasonable to consider a person who has finished law school and perhaps passed the bar exam an attorney. Meanwhile, your friend has not done any of these things and is not an attorney in any sense. Similarly, if you imagine a “child” who is unborn, you might think, “Well, I know that technically we may not have a baby until they emerge from the womb, but to my mind, a 9-month-old fetus really is a baby in all morally relevant senses, so I shall think of them as a child.” In reality, of course, with a freshly fertilized egg, there is no child anywhere to be found. “Unborn” is the least of the ways in which we do not have a child. A child generally has a brain and a nervous system and blood and lots of other features that the zygote and blastula and morula lack. But if the self-appointed righteous distract us with the word “unborn,” we might easily forget that there is no child, just as there is no lawyer (with one year of law school), there is no salad (with some untouched vegetables), and there is no apple (with a pollinated apple blossom).

What Pregnancy Involves

The lie about the “unborn child” is not innocuous. It very consciously treats a woman’s unique contribution to reproduction as an afterthought. Think about it. Imagine that instead of a cell or a clump of undifferentiated tissue, a tiny little baby came into being the moment that a sperm cell penetrated an egg cell. Imagine that the baby had eyes, nose, mouth, a digestive system, a brain, a heart, lungs, the ability to feel pain and pleasure, and a range of preferences. If that were the reality of reproduction (spoiler alert: it isn’t), then the woman’s role as the one who carries the pregnancy to term would just be that of a passive vessel. In that case, two things would follow. First, it would seem a lot more like murder to kill the little homunculus because the only difference between it and a baby at term would be size. To quote Dr. Seuss in Horton Hears a Who!, “[a] person’s a person, no matter how small!” Second, requiring the woman to nurture the little homunculus inside her body would seem like a relatively minor imposition. After all, reproduction has already happened. The baby is complete, and all the woman must do is leave it alone so it can get big enough to live in the world.

The above is, of course, a big crock of nonsense. No rational person would refer to a cell or to a clump of undifferentiated tissue as a “baby” or a “child.” Religion does sometimes make irrational claims, but when those claims clash with reality, we really should not allow the claims to shape the law. Otherwise, someone could claim that a blowup doll is a baby and prosecute the person who throws it away as a murderer. Our definitions of “child” should bear some resemblance to the reality of how normal people use the word. And normal people use the word “child” only when describing an organism with a functioning brain and other body parts. If a brain-dead individual cannot be a living child, then a literally brainless clump of cells surely cannot either.

Pregnancy is in fact an essential part of reproduction, not an incubation period for the perfectly formed homunculus to grow. Historically, men who enjoyed thinking of themselves as the primary engines of reproduction (and everything else) believed in the homunculus and imagined that women served simply as the soil in which the homunculus could grow. But that way of thinking is what psychiatrists call a grandiose delusion. Sperm enters an egg and thus provides a recipe, not even the raw materials, for a child. The woman then uses the recipe and the nutrients and cells in her own body to create a child where there was none before. To suggest that a zygote or a blastula or a morula is a “child” is to erase the fact that women are creators. They take raw materials and a recipe and, with hard and risky work, create a child out of DNA-laced goo. They also create a whole separate organ, the placenta, which comes from the same fertilized egg as the future child, and that organ funnels what the not-yet-a-child needs from the woman’s body to the developing raw materials. The term “unborn child” thus lies both about what a child really is and about the necessary steps to creating one.


Calling an abortion a “murder” when the speaker refers to “conception” as the moment of childhood is a lie that rational people must call out at every opportunity. A murder, as a morally coherent concept, involves taking the life of someone who wanted to live and who was entitled to live because they were doing nothing threatening to the one who took their life. If you walked down the street and saw a man wearing a T-shirt you did not like, and you shot the man to death, you would (absent mitigating facts) have committed a murder. The moral concept of murder need not correspond to the law, of course. If the law identified an ethnic group and said that killing a member of that group is not murder, decent folk could rightly continue to say that such an act would in fact be murder. And my view is that an act can be murder, as a moral matter, if committed against a member of another species, someone who has feelings and thoughts and preferences and wants to live, including turkeys, chickens, fishes, cows, pigs, and lambs. But a cell—whether a human cell, a turkey cell, or a fish cell—is not a living being with feelings, and no one should be forced to turn it into one inside her body against her will.

I cannot discuss all of the lies that religious extremists have told and are now on the cusp of making the law of the land. But I do want to focus on one more here. In the United States, the pro-forced-pregnancy-and-birth movement has long maintained that abortion has two victims: the “child” and the woman. In keeping with this foundationless position, the usual approach to abortion is to target the provider (whom pro-forced-pregnancy-and-birth people sometimes call the “abortionist”) rather than the woman. In fact, the Texas SB8 law that allows any Tom, Dick, or Harry to bring a lawsuit to collect $10,000 or more from anyone who “aids and abets” an abortion specifically forbids a lawsuit against the woman who has the abortion. It is perhaps no accident, then, that the woman arrested for murder tried to terminate her pregnancy by herself—everyone else was probably too scared of being sued by some litigious and perhaps religious plaintiff to help her. So the woman had to abort her own pregnancy. And when she did, Texas officials decided to arrest her for murder.

Aside from the absurdity of Texas’s definition of “child,” one that the entire Republican party appears to have embraced, and its incorrect understanding of when reproduction has begun and ended, Texas law enforcement showed no compassion for the woman who was the “victim” of abortion. In truth, she was the victim of Texas legislators and prosecutors and of the ideology that drives people to want to treat a single cell as a child. Though the Starr County District Attorney’s Office decided not to prosecute the woman for murder, we can expect many more victims of religious fanaticism once the Supreme Court affirms the Texas view of the world.

Just because there is no such thing as a witch does not mean that religious fanatics didn’t hang witches in Salem. And the fact that a cell is not a child will not stop the law from prosecuting and persecuting women who refuse to use their miraculous ability to take DNA and goo and turn those barely-raw-materials into a real child. By forcing them to do so against their will, the fanatics will turn a special ability that women have into a liability. And that is precisely what a religious misogynist would do.

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