The Weakest Reed

He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.

My humble submission to the conversation about Gosnell, abortion and hormonal contraceptives, Part 1


I very seriously considered not writing this post about abortion, birth control and the “culture of life.” This issue is not one to bring up if you want to win friends or followers. It makes people uncomfortable. It brings out the worst in people. It puts up walls between me and some of the closest of my friends. I’d also like to clarify that I am not, in these posts, suggesting any particular over-arching legal or policy solutions.  I am merely examining an ethical framework upon which I’ve built my positions. 

So why am I daring to tread here (i.e. some background and some street cred.)?

I read last week a post by Rachel Held Evans and I can’t stop thinking about it. So, I guess it’s time to sit down and start writing about it. First of all, I feel like I need to offer a little background to give you some context for why I’m entering into this conversation. I was a peace studies and political science double major in college. I have been actively involved in social justice causes and have been known even to get arrested at peaceful demonstrations against weapons like landmines that are known to inordinately affect civilian populations and against US policies and training that support human-rights abusers. My convictions run deep in the area of social justice.

 After college, I went on to pursue my MPH in maternal and child health. I did my Master’s thesis on the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of health professionals towards the human fetus as a patient. Throughout the pursuit of my MPH, I focused on reproductive health and I was often put in a position where I had to defend my pro-life stance both from a scientific and a moral framework. I lost friends, was professionally isolated and had to appeal to the department head more than once because I was unfairly docked grades due to my beliefs. So clearly, in addition to the more typical range of social justice issues for which I hold deep convictions, my convictions are also strong in this area.

Why I don’t think I’m actually all that weird or crazy

What I have a hard time understanding is why I am so often alone (and sometimes ostracized) for this combination of beliefs. To me, these are not conflicting areas of concern. They represent what I consider a value system that supports a culture of life. (I plan on addressing this in greater depth in a later post).

 So, Rachel Held Evans last week posted about some of her thoughts on the Gosnell trial. There were many things that she said that resonated with me. I identify as pro-life but like her, I have serious issues with the hypocrisy of talking about a “culture of life” but then advancing public policies that proliferate death by placing preference on profit above people, war-making to peace-making and ignoring the needs of other humans until their desperation has reached such a clamor that it finally offended someone into paying attention.

 Like her, I feel “stuck in the middle” of these debates. Can’t we care both about the woman and about the baby she carries? Aren’t there a lot of policies we can agree with the common goal of desiring to reduce abortions? Can’t we be less self-righteous and more self-sacrificial when it comes to applying solutions?

Why I think Rachel Held Evans doesn’t have it quite right

 But here’s where I respectfully part ways with the other Rachel. Held Evans touches on the issue of hormonal birth control as a potentially life-ending medication. She spends only one paragraph on it and mostly links to other stories rather than offering a direct position herself. But this one paragraph leaves us with the impression that 1) science has concluded that hormonal birth control probably doesn’t end the life of a zygote and 2) that even if it does cause a few zygotes to die, that it is a morally superior position to advocate for a population on hormonal birth control because in such a population fewer zygotes are destroyed than in one that doesn’t use birth control.

 Now please bear with me as I tread on some very difficult ground. I want to handle this issue as delicately as possible because I don’t wish to add fuel to the fire that has been responsible for scorching women who are in devastatingly difficult circumstances and burning bridges that could lead to consensus-building and finding positive solutions around this issue.

 I think that these impressions left by Ms. Held Evans misrepresent the truth. If I’m really honest, I’ll admit that I believe them to be more than misrepresentative, I consider them potentially dangerous (will discuss the strength of this word in next post). If I did not feel that way, I wouldn’t bother to weigh in on this rather painful topic. I plan to spend at least two posts on this, the first one outlining where I think Ms. Held Evans may have reached improper conclusions about the issue of hormonal birth control as an “abortifacient.” Next post, I plan to delve into the topic of why in the world I actually would dig my own blogging grave by defending the value of the life of a zygote.

What happens when bloggers play Telephone

 So here goes the first part of this discussion: In regards to her first assertion, to reach what appears to be a relatively firm conclusion that hormonal birth control does not end the life of a zygote, Ms. Held Evans refers other articles including one by Libby Anne in Patheos (who makes her argument based on other online articles, including a NY Times article and a separate piece by an amateur blogger named Sarah) and another one by Christianity today. None of these sources is scientific, but the bloggers refer in one way or another to what is characterized as “an increasing pile of evidence” that suggests that hormonal birth control may not block implantation.

Here I need to make a brief but highly relevant digression regarding a pet peeve of mine in blogging: Bloggers sometimes arrive at foregone conclusions by referring back to another well-written blogpost that is based on yet an earlier cleverly-articulated blogpost that someone wrote when they read an article in a magazine that referred in passing to an actual scientific study. At the end of the day, no one can even name the scientific study to which they are referring or speak with any true authority about whether or not it was even a good study or if there are any other studies out there that support that one single study. Each blogger is just taking the word of every blogger that went before them and relying on the blogger’s ability (and integrity) to translate scientific information. It’s like a horrible game of “Telephone” where there is the very real possibility that thousands of readers could end up with very bad, very dangerous information.

 Back to the point, the way that I understand this issue of whether a zygote is potentially destroyed when using hormonal birth control is that there has not yet been a definitive scientific conclusion reached. As far as I can discern from the actual body of research, it is possible that hormonal birth control could lead to the destruction of a zygote. And if you read back through the trackbacks from one blog to another, you will actually find that this is, in fact, what was said by the studies referred to by the bloggers. The studies didn’t say that zygotes were not destroyed, they said that they may not be destroyed by use of hormonal birth control, but that the science is not yet conclusive. For any of us who believe that life starts at fertilization, this is a critical distinction. (When and if science is able to conclude that hormonal birth control does not lead to the destruction of zygotes, I would be more than happy to use it. I do not otherwise have moral objections to hormonal contraceptives.) 

So here’s where it starts to get pretty messy….

 I believe Rachel Held Evans missteps a second time in the process of putting forward her case. She asserts that “the pill actually reduces the number of zygotes naturally rejected by a woman’s body.” She makes this statement based on a calculation made by another blogger who reminds her readers that under natural circumstances, without the aid of any pill or outside influence, almost 20% of all zygotes are miscarried. When a woman is on the pill, fewer zygotes are created so ultimately fewer zygotes are miscarried. Her conclusion seems to be that we should encourage women to be on the pill so that fewer zygotes will be destroyed overall.

There are one or two pretty important weaknesses in an argument built around this particular ethical framework. The blogger is trying to make the argument that birth control decreases the number of zygote deaths.  However, the actual mortality rate in the population of zygotes increases by using hormonal birth control. In rough terms, a mortality rate is calculated by dividing the number of individuals that die in a population by the overall number of individuals in a population. Without any particular intervention in the course of normal human reproduction, zygotes are created and then approximately 18% of them are naturally rejected by the uterus. With hormonal birth control, fewer zygotes are created but 100% of zygotes are rejected by the uterus. And notice one other important factor: In the first circumstance, zygotes have experienced a death by natural causes.  In the second case, the zygotes experienced a death that is completely attributable to the pill. I do not believe it is an ethical solution to introduce certain death by chemical causes into a population in order to prevent potential death from natural causes. The end does not always justify the means.  

Now if we concede that a zygote is not human life, we can more easily dispense with the moral issues I’ve just discussed. But for me personally, this is difficult to do. And after reading Rachel Held Evans’ piece, I do not get the impression that she has definitively reached the conclusion that a zygote is not a human either. I believe the argument Ms. Held Evans is articulating is that a zygote does not have equal moral standing with a human being that is already born. These are the issues I would like to engage in my next post…..


13 thoughts on “My humble submission to the conversation about Gosnell, abortion and hormonal contraceptives, Part 1

  1. i’m proud of you for being brave, and sharing something so near and dear to your heart (and something you have researched A LOT). the more i think of it, just in my heart as i’m not so great at research… 🙂 , i’m struggling with the idea of hormonal birth control. looking forward to the next installment.

    • Thank you, dear friend! You know how hard it was for me to put this one out there. Yikes! This is one of those issues that really divides people and I was hoping to do exactly the opposite with writing– more connecting. But I’m so grateful for people like you who love me just for who I am, controversial positions and all!

  2. Love the post, Rachel. I think that you are uniquely suited to post on this topic. My husband has (half-jokingly) proposed a humanitarian party as an alternative to the current two party system, one that would care about people from conception to grave. Peacemaking and care in/throughout life and death.

    I don’t do a lot of public posting about political topics but I’ve decided recently to try to push the conversation envelope a bit. I think you did this in a graceful way.

  3. More-than-half-seriously, I’d totally support that party. Can’t believe there’s not already something like that out there! Thanks for reading and for the encouragement. I’m glad you experienced it as graceful. I hope others do as well.

    I am so glad that you posted about this today. I think it’s am important conversation, even if it can be uncomfortable and tricky to wade through it. Plus it gave us a chance to connect about it!

    • Rachel, every election as I’m researching who I want to vote for, I wish the Humanitarian Party existed. 🙂 It was fun to connect with you, too.

      • I remembered in the middle of the night your place in the world of ethics and I was glad I hadn’t remembered before I suggested you read the post. I might have been more nervous! Glad blogs exist so I can follow this new adventure in your life.

  4. You kept me captivated the entire time (as usual). Though this isn’t a topic I’m all that passionate about, I wanted to keep reading to find out what you would say next. Way to tackle a tough one. Again – you have such courage.

  5. looking forward to the next installment!

  6. I am vocally pro-life… Very… Actively. I’ve done much research… Like you, going to sources. It is true that even the manufacturer of the Morning After Pill (plan B) lists on the container documents that it MAY. May kill is enough for me to reject it. We have no right to take innocent lives. Ever. Now our govt has made this pill legally obtainable by children as young as 15 without parental knowledge or consent. That’s promotion of kids killing kids. Makes me shudder to think of it.

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