Is Continuing a Pregnancy Like Becoming an Organ Donor?

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A relative of my husband recently shared the following Facebook post. It argues that, since we allow an organ donor total autonomy when determining whether or not to donate, we should allow just as much autonomy to a pregnant woman considering whether to continue the pregnancy:

“When my ex husband was tested to see if he would be able to donate a piece of his liver to our six month old son who was rapidly declining, a large part of the process was psychological. Because if they felt that he was, in any way, reluctant to go through with the medical procedure that would save our son’s life, he would be denied. He was given several opportunities to bow out of the process gracefully. If he had, they would have told me that he was not a viable match and would never have revealed that he simply didn’t want to do it. Without his liver, my son would have died. He didn’t have time to wait for a cadaveric donor. But, in this country, we don’t force people to sacrifice their physical and mental well-being in order to save someone else’s life. If no one was willing to donate, he would have passed away.
If a good Samaritan wants to donate a kidney or a piece of liver to someone, the process takes well over a month and includes a 30 day “cooling off” period in case they filled out the paperwork in a fit of passion and then had second thoughts later on. Even if the intended recipient only has two weeks to live – they will simply not take the graft. They are beyond careful about even the slightest possibility that you may not be 100 percent on board with the sacrifice you are in the position to make. 
To the best of my knowledge, the only residual effects my ex husband has from having donated a fifth of his liver is a 6 inch scar. The residual effects of my having had two babies is considerably more substantial. My body never completely recovered.
I don’t care when life begins in your opinion. We don’t force people to sacrifice their mental and/or physical well-being in order to save someone else.”

I see this as a truly fruitful way of talking about the issue. It’s one of the more nuanced approaches I’ve run into, really. In fact I heard a good paper pursuing this very line of reasoning at the last American Academy of Religion conference. Great. So now we can evaluate how far the analogy of organ donation helps us think clearly about abortion.

Something I see that complicates the analogy is that it’s hard to imagine a situation in which the potential donor put the recipient in the position of being dependent on someone else for his/her life. The parents of a pre-born human, by contrast (and usually both of them), took action that put the “recipient” in his/her vulnerable position. Does your obligation to a vulnerable person change when they are vulnerable because of your actions? I think we can assume it does.

What about when the consequences are unintended? Well, consider the liability of someone who has accidentally injured or killed someone while driving under the influence. The damage may not have been intentional, but the mishap is not a shock in light of the actions that were taken. Pregnancy after sex is similar: pregnancy may not have been intended, but no one should be terribly surprised when it has occurred. If sex puts someone (namely, the one who has been conceived) in a vulnerable position, those whose action led to the pregnancy simply can’t claim to be hapless bystanders.

Now, there are certainly situations in which the mother can’t be called responsible for the situation. Maybe there was rape, abuse, a serious imbalance of power, etc. So in this situation, is the analogy of an innocent “recipient” and an innocent Good Samaritan “donor” more successful?

I think there’s another important difference between pregnancy and organ donation: namely, whether there’s already a direct relationship of dependency in place. In the case of an organ donor, there is not. With pregnancy, there is. Maybe a more useful analogy to consider is that of conjoined twins, who began life connected. Neither party need be “at fault,” but when the relationship of dependency is in place by default, it does change the tenor of the conversation and the level of sacrifice/risk someone should be justly expected to undergo for another person.

Let’s pursue this point a bit further. Have you seen the movie Up? Remember how, through no fault of his own, an old guy ends up with a kid in his house (he had been trespassing) while the house is flying through the air. In circumstances in which the kid’s life was not in danger, it would be completely appropriate for the guy to kick the kid out of his house. But…if the kid is going to go hurdling to his death if he gets kicked out, the balance of responsibility changes. This is true even though the homeowner did nothing to bring about the situation. He might actually be obligated to put up with a considerable burden in order to protect the life of a vulnerable person who happens to depend on him for a time. (I owe the example from Up to Steve Wagner from Justice For All.)

Now, I haven’t missed the fact that all this does naturally affect women more than men, and could easily be unjust. It makes sense, actually, that a lot of women would resent the way their bodies function. But I think that’s sad and, in its own way, anti-woman. I mean, if you think God doesn’t exist or that God/nature is flat-out misogynistic, then ok. It makes sense that you would hate the way things are and try to change them through hormones, surgery, abortion, whatever. But if you think woman are okay the way they are, and that it’s worth seeing the good in what God/nature has done, then I don’t think the solution can be to say justice requires us to resist the natural relationship between sex, women’s bodies, and children.

So if (it’s a big “if”) we decide that we’re okay with the biological processes that link sex to children, intimately involving women’s bodies, then what social systems should be set in place that would prevent women from bearing the burden alone?

For one thing, rape needs to be punished extremely harshly— it should be considered a horrific human rights violation against potentially *more* than one person. The results are life-changing: physically, psychologically, emotionally, financially, and they could involve a woman in a child’s life forever. These drastic effects of a pregnancy from rape are not lawmakers’ invention, and they should not be painted as the option of a saintly woman; they are the natural result of a heinous act. Pretending the pregnancy is the fault of lawmakers or the option of the woman who has been raped removes responsibility from the rapist and makes the crime appear less devastating than it is. That is not the effect we want here. If the death of a child is deemed a better outcome than to expect the rape victim to carry out a pregnancy (which is debatable; both are horribly wrong), then the rapist at least needs to be liable for both rape and manslaughter.

Also, even men who became fathers through consensual sex should be legally required to be much more seriously on the line for any child they produce than they often are—a mother pours her entire life into the child; a check (which doesn’t curb a guy’s freedom or opportunity for advancement in life) shouldn’t cut it for a dad. Really, because of the fact that both a child’s life and a woman’s life (or at the very least, her way of life) could be on the line, no instance of intercourse with a woman can afford to be taken lightly.

And because sex naturally makes a woman more vulnerable than it does a man, I would go so far as to say that a guy should have to stand up in public and legally promise to make serious sacrifices forever, for her and any children they conceive, before he gets to have sex with her! That’s how seriously I think women should be protected.

Heck, now that Alabama has got us all talking about who should be punished for abortions if they are illegal, we should at least consider this: should a guy who produces a child, whom a woman is unsupported to raise and therefore aborts, be liable for involuntary manslaughter? That sounds pretty consistent to me.

So you see, when it comes down to it, sex is a matter of life and death.

Which is precisely why marriage is, too.

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One thought on “Is Continuing a Pregnancy Like Becoming an Organ Donor?

  1. This reasoning is, in my view, exactly right. It is also courageous. It is also what a woman who is well-trained in ethics needs to say to help the rest of us think through these awful issues. Thanks, Abigail.

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