GUEST COLUMN When ignorance trumps knowledge

Tech abortion column ignores the real plight of real women

Unfortunately, Ryan Normandin’s Sept. 2 column “Why life trumps choice” only too vividly demonstrates what sheer ignorance and self-serving feelings of moral superiority can lead to when people are not informed by either science or compassion. It makes me truly sad that a person affiliated with a great science school can provide such a colorful demonstration of that.

I am not going to provide legal arguments — I will leave that to legal scholars. I can only provide the perspective of a scientist and a women’s rights activist. Let us start with the alleged “fuzziness” of when the life begins, which, according to Normandin, we “after all do not know.” Well, some of us do. Life begins at birth, period. It is at birth that a fetus becomes a separate organism from its mother.

What about the unique human genome, which is created when an ovum catches a sperm cell? Of course it is unique. As are at least dozens of genomes created the same way, which then proceed down the toilet when the ovum does not attach itself to the lining of the uterus ­— all without anyone noticing. Not to mention the millions of potential combinations which just never materialize because people don’t have sex frequently enough. If one is so sad about those poor sods whose “right to life” is so horrendously denied, I’d suggest that they try to introduce a piece of legislation requiring everybody from 14 to 45 to copulate every day until they literally cannot do it any longer. After all, if they don’t, they “prevent the child from being alive at a later time,” as Normandin puts it!

Moreover, as biologists know, a genome is not all there is to how an organism develops. There are various complex mechanisms which turn genes on and off. Some of them we already understand, some of them we don’t. I am O.K. with hearing a TV host saying things about our oh-so-unique DNA as if we were still in the 1930s, but at MIT, I tend to expect that people do their homework before touching upon complex scientific topics.

What about banning late-term abortions? What about “viable fetuses”? When a late-term fetus is born and made alive using our technology, that is a good thing. But it does not make the boundary any fuzzier. Similarly, we can sometimes treat cardiac arrest and revive a person, but that does not mean that a person is technically dead when the heart and breathing stop. In short, it is moral to try to give — or prolong — life when you can. But our ability to do so does not change when life starts or ends.

Normandin accuses abortion-rights people of “putting a higher value on [the woman’s] life than [on] that of the child.” Between many other statements in his column, this one is refreshingly true. Yes, I do put a value on a woman’s life. I also do not put any more value on somebody else’s fetus than I do on somebody else’s egg or sperm cells. There is some value, but it is very different from the value of a human life. That does not mean that I rule out the ability to care about a particular fetus — or an egg cell, for that matter. People have the right to choose what to do with their reproductive abilities as they see fit, and I am completely for protecting that right and making sure everyone in the society can exercise it freely.

I disagree with people who do not care strongly enough to even get their biological facts right, and who feel so self-righteous that they put a higher value on a part of a woman’s body than on her person and her life. There really is a choice here: the one between being a feel-good crusader for the fiction of “the lives of unborn children,” and learning a little bit more about people around you. The fantasy world of profile activists is very comforting. It just does not have anything to do with the actual protection of human life.

But let us return to facts once more. Normandin says that it is just “a claim” that banning abortion leads to back-alley abortions. Well, the last time I checked, there was plenty of evidence out there. If you are too lazy to learn the facts, it does not just make them “claims.” The parts of the world where abortion is largely illegal — such as Latin America and Africa — have higher rates of abortion than the U.S., and maternal mortality from abortion is hundreds of times higher. Other countries have experimented with banning abortion, including the USSR in the 1930s under Stalin and Romania in the 1970s under Ceausescu. Maternal mortality from illegal abortions soared, but that does not mean abortion became rarer. In fact, ex-USSR countries and Romania are among the world champions competing for the highest abortion rate. Banning abortion leads not to making abortion rarer, but to making it more frequent.

The ending of Normandin’s column counters that preemptively. He says, discussing the harm of illegal abortions, “if the mother contracts an infection because of her illegal acts, that is unfortunate, but when you do something illegal, you know the risks.” To put it more bluntly, “I don’t care if you die because I banned abortion. It is your fault, you evil murderer!” This underscores the whole set of convictions of the column’s author: the harm to women just does not enter the picture. It is simply irrelevant. Let those women die; they asked for it. Who is the bigger, more ruthless murderer here?

I’d be happy if that set of convictions was rare, but it is not. And it comes in a pretty comprehensive package of beliefs that many anti-abortion activists share. The anti-abortion movement has roots in the strands of Christianity, where women are supposed to remain domestic, weak and submissive to men, especially in public. According to their world view, women should not use contraception. Many anti-abortion activists are also anti-contraception activists, fighting for the right of pharmacists to refuse selling contraception on grounds of conscience. At times, it really makes me wonder: What will they come up with next? Maybe mandatory euthanasia for women who cannot bear children or provide sexual gratification for their husband and protectors?

Sadly, what all this “pro-life case” is about is control over women. It is about making women less than full people. It is not even about fetuses — they are just an excuse. A hundred years ago it used to be about the right to vote. Today, it is about abortion rights. But one thing has not changed: the people — both men and women alike — who want to keep women oppressed do not care for a scientific investigation of the matter. They do not care about other human beings. They are selfish and ignorant.

I am sorry for using very harsh language in this reply. But I feel it is necessary in this case. When two males on the newspaper’s opinion page discuss a question that directly affects all women’s lives with almost academic detachment, what I think about is how I often cry hearing real people’s stories about illegal abortions and abortions that lead to societal and internalized stigma. What I want to ask them is how can they live with themselves? How can they be so blind and deaf? It is an offense against morality to ignore people’s suffering, to talk as if it is just not there. It is arrogance to decide for other people what is better for them. It is overwhelming pride to use self-serving fantasies to justify the harm you do.

Women have the right to be in full control of what they do with their bodies. They also have the right to be spared from being talked about in the manner Normandin did — as if they just were not there, as if their lives were not worth protecting.

Igor Yanovich is a graduate student in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.

Laura over 11 years ago

Unfortunately, if you were well versed in biology at all, you would know that the definition of life is in fact vague and fuzzy, and reasonable scientists disagree. What is truly shameful is that you would write such a self-righteous and offensive vendetta against those with a differing opinion, as if those with moral convictions different from your own are horrible people who just hate women and want to control them. Does it honestly not occur to you that people who are pro-life and honestly, sincerely fighting for something they see as a moral absolute, just in the way that you see YOUR side as a moral absolute?

Yet you feel it is perfectly appropriate to assume that they are simply "pretending" to care about the unborn fetus, just a pretense to treat women as a subhuman species. Really? If you really are harboring just fantastic conspiracy theories, then it is you who cannot understand compassion. We can disagree on the question of where compassion should best be placed (on the pregnant woman or her fetus), and we can disagree vehemently and emotionally, but that is no reason for ceasing to treat ONE ANOTHER with compassion and respect. You sir, have utterly failed to do so, making your entire article one long personal attack on your philosophic opponents.

I am struggling here to remain calm and respectful towards you, seeing as you have called me a selfish, self-serving, arrogant, ignorant murderer and suggested that I would support mass murdering women who do not sexually satisfy their male partners. Yet notice that I made the effort, unlike you.

Anonymous over 11 years ago

Igor, this is an ignominous and asinine rant. You attacked, misrepresented, offended and slandered the other side's position. Your blather about "poor sods", "let those women die" or keeping women "submissive to men" is beyond ridiculous.

The pro-life focus is on the sanctity of life for both the mother and the INNOCENT human life in their womb.

If you still want to argue about when life begins perhaps you should first have a look at a 3D ultrasound of a fetus in the womb. I think you'll find at the various stages of gestation your description of an "organism" or just "another part of a woman's body" a bit off base.

The morally right thing to do once conception has occurred is to deliver the baby thus avoiding the murder of one sacred life and avoiding the potential physical, emotional and spiritual danger to the other.

Igor over 11 years ago

Dear Laura,

The biological definition of life is of course fuzzy. Is a virus or a cell in our ear alive? In some sense yes. But the question of when _human_ life starts is not about that.

Now to the vendetta part. I know, truly respect, and have worked with quite a few strongly pro-life (_and_ religious) women rights' activists. They and I may respectfully disagree on something. But they never say things as the author of the column I responded to said. And I think I know why - because they do not close their ears when somebody tells them about their problems.

My anger is directed not towards people or philosophical views. It is directed towards dehumanizing people. And yes, this is what Mr. Normandin did in his column. If you do agree with his statements like "And if the mother contracts an infection because of her illegal acts, that is unfortunate, but when you do something illegal, you know the risks", then yes, my anger is directed towards your position. Not towards you personally - lack of compassion usually follows from lack of knowledge, and knowledge can be acquired. If you do not agree with those parts - well, then it would be perhaps more appropriate to try to argue with him for somebody on the pro-life side of the philosophical debate.

Being pro-life is not equal to being ignorant and selfish. The problem is that very many outspoken pro-life people are. This is very unfortunate, and I'd love it to be otherwise.

But please, try to understand. I do not mean to be disrespectful, but even in your reply, you talk about your own hurt feelings (which you are entitled to), but women who had an abortion still do not enter the picture at all. They are not in the room.

I do believe in a moral absolute, but it is not connected to the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate. The moral absolute is not to judge your neighbor, not to jump to conlcusions before you know all sides of the story, not the ignore the suffering in the world, not to silence other people, not to put your own convenient, feel-good moral preferences over the people near you.

If you do not like what you feel after reading my column, can you imagine how it feels for many other women who had to had an abortion, or whose mother, sister, friend, daughter had it, when they read the other piece?

Igor over 11 years ago

Dear Anonymous,

As a matter of fact, I do know how a 3d ultrasound, and different gestation stages look like. (BTW, the gills and the tail are really cute!) I also know how aborted fetuses look like.

However, I do not see an equal knowledge of what is happening to women who have an abortion from the most people who like to claim they are for sanctity of all human life. Somehow some life ends up being less sacred than other.

My representation of pro-life views is not meant to be a representation of ALL kinds of pro-life thoughts. But, alas, it is quite a common package. If you disagree with the positions I mention - why not argue with them yourself, and fight for a more compassionate pro-life movement? Though this is harder than protecting "innocent lives", which does not require actually talking to people and accepting and loving people as they are, despite all their shortcomings.

avoiding the potential physical, emotional and spiritual danger to the other.

Ahem. The physical harm from abortion is less than the physical harm from bearing the pregnancy to term and giving birth. Period. That does not mean everybody should have abortions rather than give birth, but if you'd like to argue solely from the physical harm argument - well, that's what you are suggesting, not having any births at all.

As for emotional harm, guess what, studies show that when it is there, it is created by the social stigma, the need to be conceal you had an abortion in order not to be shunned. If you don't like the emotional harm - the best way to lessen its amount is to stop talking of abortion as murder. Wait a minute.

For the spiritual danger, let everyone's spiritual views take care of that. It is indeed tough for those whose religion tells them abortion is a sin. Let them deal with that themselves or with the help of the spiritual advisers of their choice. Let's all of us care about our own sins, not about our neghbor's.

Anonymous over 11 years ago


If you truly have seen a 3D ultrasound, you no doubt have noticed what perinatologists document as a heartbeat at the eighteenth day after conception; major organ systems formed at six weeks and after only twelve weeks, no new anatomical developments occur. The unborn child senses, feels and responds while simply growing larger and more capable of sustaining life outside the womb.

Yet after seeing it with your owe eyes, you still dogmatically state "Life begins at birth. Period.". Well, perhaps you should defer to someone much more knowledgeable and less cocksure. Dr. Bernard Nathansan reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that he presided over "60,000 deaths" and states in abortion "we are taking life and the deliberate taking of life, even of a special order and under special circumstances, is an inexpressibly serious matter". Yes, it is a serious matter and an egregious social issue of our time. A society's morality is judged by its treatment of the weak and defenseless.

I find your ad hominem attacks and inane jokes about "gills and fins" an attempt to dehumanize human life and skirt the issue. We are talking about innocent babies and the sanctity of life.

And regarding physical harm to women who've had abortions much has been written and debated. Regarding spiritual harm, every civilized culture and every major world religion views the killing of innocent human life to be an heinous act and/or sin. Regarding emotional harm, I've actually had front line experience with those in crisis pregnancies or had abortions, and the dirty little secret the pro-choice proponents do not want to get out is: although abortion (in most cases) is used to solve a temporary problem, it also causes another permanent one accompanied with regret, guilt and remorse.

I hope you will reconsider some of your positions on this topic.

c over 11 years ago


Thank you for this reply. Please know that I appreciated your perspective very much. Like you, I was also very disturbed that the other columnists seemed to ignore the real human (non-fetus) suffering involved in this issue. It seemed to me like they just treated the issue as an academic exercise and little more, which feels rather insulting to me.

Concerned over 11 years ago

The Supreme Court wrongly defined who can be considered "human" in the Dredge Scott decision (1857) and was equally wrong in Roe v. Wade (1973) decision. Both decisions have led to unilateral bloodshed and heartache in this country.

Kate over 11 years ago


Maybe it is you who has shown your ignorance on this topic.

A new study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry by leading American researcher Dr. Priscilla Coleman of Bowling Green State University. Her finding are women who have an abortion face almost double the risk of mental health problems as women who have their baby. Colemans study is based on an analysis of 22 separate studies which, in total, examine the pregnancy experiences of 877,000 women, with 163,831 women having an abortion. The study also indicated abortion accounts for one in ten of every adverse mental health issue women face as a whole.

Abortion is a "lose-lose" proposition as it ends one life while harming another.

Michael Veldman over 11 years ago

I am curious as to how you can declare by fiat that: "Life begins at birth, period."

You give the reason that the baby becomes separate from the parent at birth, but there are plenty of instances where organisms are conjoined and yet both alive. Many parasites in nature attach themselves to their hosts and children are sometimes conjoined with their siblings. Are these beings not alive?