On Planned Parenthood and the language we use around pregnancy and abortion

This is a guest post written by Hilary Yancey.

“Here is Baby’s heartbeat… and the lungs… and the gallbladder. People are always surprised when I can point that one out.”

“Do you want to talk about terminating the pregnancy?”

The space between these statements was about 45 minutes. Enough time for the doctor to sit in the room, looking at the ultrasound footage, the 19 week old fetus, arms and legs wiggling insistently, turning one way and the other, avoiding showing everyone the reason we were there in the first place – a significant cleft, lip, palate, missing right eye, too-small chin.

I hadn’t moved at all on the ultrasound table while we were waiting. My husband sat in the same chair, his phone blinking quietly by his side. In a sentence, our baby disappeared, replaced with the safer term: “your pregnancy.” “Should we talk about terminating your pregnancy,” as the same image flickers across the large screen across the room – the same arms and legs, the same insistent wiggle. But now that flicker is an event – a pregnancy that comes with a predicted outcome, a plan, an expectation. It’s your baby, until it goes wrong, until it’s no longer expected or typical or wanted. And then we add a syllable and change the conversation.

But the “pregnancy” won’t stop kicking you the whole ride home.

When the video showing a Planned Parenthood employee discussing the extraction of a fetus, the procedure used to maximize the possibility of getting organs that are useful to research surfaced, I must confess I wasn’t surprised. That’s not to say it wasn’t highly disturbing, emotionally troubling, even outrage inducing. It is and should be those things. But it strikes me that our surprise is a consequence of the fact that we hide from ourselves the reality that pregnancy is embodied, is a work primarily about the body. Is it surprising to us that something has to be taken out of the pregnant body in order to no longer be pregnant? Is it surprising to us that, at twenty weeks or more, there are bones, muscles, brain and heart that must be stilled, in order to make the pregnancy (the thing we insist is about the woman, her body, her choice) disappear?

Should we be surprised that the employee is discussing the right way to crush bone, avoid injuring lungs or liver, since we have spent so much of our political capital disguising from ourselves the fact that the pregnancy had a liver and a pair of lungs?

And should we be surprised, when we seek an ethic of ever-narrowing progress and ultimate autonomy? A consent form is all that is needed to make the use of these organs morally viable if the only question is whether someone truly had the choice. And a hope of eventually understanding the nature of fetal development is enough to make use of these otherwise-thrown-away-anyway parts, because somewhere there might be wanted babies who, having been conferred the coveted prize of human status, need our well researched technologies.

“This is Baby’s heartbeat….”

“Should we talk about termination?”

45 minutes, and I hadn’t moved. The doctor is telling us that this baby (this pregnancy?) is different, more difficult. The geneticist we see the next day will tell us that it must be so much more difficult because he is our first. But before she can even say that, before she can sympathize, we have to say his name – we have to say the pronoun “he” and signal that we are keeping him, that he hasn’t lost his humanity as a result of the unexpected.


We have no idea what his life will be like – there are long lists of surgeries and specialists, people who do speech pathology, people who put breathing tubes in, people who do this kind of thing all the time… But we’re no more imaginative, no more prepared, than the other couples in the waiting room. How is it, then, that our words – our saying “he” and “Jackson” – make the ultimate difference? If we terminated, the language says we would have ended the event. If we keep him, the language says he is a “him” to keep in the first place.

Let me pose a question for our consideration. We talk often about the economic, emotional and social impacts of raising kids who are different, whether they are different in their physical or intellectual makeup. We assume that parents must be allowed to terminate pregnancies where there are physical or intellectual disabilities, because there are such high emotional and economic costs. We can’t force people to do something they’re not prepared for, that they don’t want to have to do, and so we conclude that it is necessary for people to have the option to abort a baby who faces such challenges.

Now let’s imagine an aging parent who is suffering from dementia. Such a parent is under the 24/7 care of doctors and nurses in a nursing home, and while the condition is irreversible and serious, is not immediately life threatening. There are substantial economic, emotional and social impacts facing the child of such a parent: medical costs, emotionally trying circumstances, the weight of seeing one’s parent slip farther out of reach, the sense that they have lost the ability for self-expression and self-communication.

I imagine most of us think it is ridiculous to even consider whether the child should have the right to terminate their parent, despite the reality that the parent is completely dependent on the child, is suffering from a condition that entails certain inabilities and a different kind of life than the one they previously enjoyed. I imagine most of us think that this cannot be considered in any way analogous to abortion.

But proving the disanalogy is more difficult than we realize. The unborn baby, to be sure, has yet-to-be-developed capacities, and in babies who face intellectual or physical challenges, some of these capacities may never develop in a statistically typical way. The unborn baby does not have a past full of achievements or accomplishments. But if we claimed that it was the parent’s past life that merited our care for the parent now, that seems a thin basis for our compassion. We are far more likely to think that the parent, being human (measured not, we should notice, by their capacities for self-expression, language, memory, etc.), being in relationship to us, is enough.

And the baby is just that. He or she is human, already in both genetic and physical relationship. Why isn’t it enough to warrant our care, then? Why are the economics, the emotions, the social worries, touted here as justification to end life, but not for other people who closely resemble these babies in terms of their capacities, abilities, and autonomy?

I think the reason we switch our language so suddenly is that to keep talking about “baby’s heartbeat” is too forceful a reminder of the other life that constitutes a pregnancy, makes too present the reality that someone is alive inside us, in relationship with us. We return to the talk about “terminating the pregnancy” to avoid remembering that pregnancy is made up of two bodies, not one, and the other body is owed our care. Not because of its abilities, future or present. Simply because of its existence, its nature and irreversible relationship to us.  

The revelation about Planned Parenthood should make us reconsider the language we choose around abortion. At the very least, it ought to force us to confront the reality that the baby is not a by-product of the condition of pregnancy, but its very essence and nature. This baby, heartbeat, gallbladder, lungs—this is a baby, fully alive—this is what we terminate.

Hilary Yancey is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Baylor University, where she studies bioethics (with a focus on disability), philosophy of religion and epistemology. You can find Hilary writing about everyday life and faith at her blog http://thewildlove.wordpress.com.

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