Mockery and misrepresentation in the debate over reproductive freedom

In a new Funny or Die video that’s been making the rounds on Facebook in recent days, “Kate Beckinsale, Judy Greer and Andrea Savage spread the message that the one thing women really want in their vagina is the government.”

Republicans, Get In My Vagina!

Of course, the video is funny. However, I watched it again, imagining myself in the position of a principled opponent of contraception. It struck me how dismissive and offensive the video seemed when viewed from this perspective.

This video misrepresents the motives and glosses over the arguments of the opponents of contraception. Of course, in the debate over contraception and abortion, each side mocks the other to gain political points.

PositionHow the other side portrays it
Opponents of contraceptionContraception results in the killing of human life, and should be restricted because killing human life is murder.Women’s sexuality is scary and needs to be controlled.
Proponents of contraceptionA fertilized egg or embryo is not the same thing as a person. Contraception leads to better & happier families.Free love for everyone!

It’s unfortunate that open and honest debate about the issue is drowned out by a cacophony of hyperbole. The debate should not be about freedom or where life begins, but what makes a person a person.

Religious people often define personhood as anything with human DNA, but this is problematic for a several obvious reasons:
  1. Many things contain human DNA that cannot be called persons:
    • the millions of cells lost by a person each day
    • viruses that copy parts of a person’s genetic materal
    • any part of the body that is amputated for medical reasons
    • a brain-dead human whose body is kept alive by machines
    • human sperm and eggs that do not meet in fertilization
    • etc.
  2. Non-human creatures may exist that deserve to be considered persons:
    • higher primates, cetaceans, and perhaps other animals on Earth
    • intelligent life beyond our planet
    • artificial intelligence
Even if we side-step the question of whether a fertilized human embryo deserves special consideration, it  obviously is insufficient to claim that anything that contains human DNA is a person.

It makes more sense to consider the qualities of an entity that bestow it with personhood. These qualities might include things such as:
  • intelligence
  • self-awareness or consciousness
  • ability to sense the external world
  • ability to manipulate the external world
  • ability to feel emotion
  • ability to communicate
  • ability to reason
  • ability to feel empathy for others
Such criteria resonate with most people. We know intuitively that what makes us special among the animals is our intelligence and self-awareness. It’s important too that we be able to apply the criteria to non-human entities. Imagine how we’d feel if we met intelligent aliens on another planet only to find that they did not consider us actual persons because our DNA was different from theirs!

Many people like the false comfort provided by absolute rules. The Catholic decree that personhood begins at the moment of conception is a good example. The notion is patently false, but it conveniently eliminates the need to do the hard work of considering the many shades of gray between non-person and person. People who take this sort of absolutist view are pretending that the world is the way they would like it to be. We cannot base policy on wishful thinking. There are always shades of gray, and learning to deal with them maturely and reasonably is a part of life.

Of course, allowing women to control their reproduction has many other side-benefits, and restricting these freedoms has many unintended negative consequences; but these are largely beside the point in the underlying moral debate about personhood. Contraception (and up to a point, abortion too) is not inherently immoral because it does not destroy a human person. Supporters of contraception should not shy away from this important argument. When Democrats cast the debate in terms only of women’s freedoms, they miss the whole point of the opposition, and give the impression that they’re at worst heartless, or at best dismissive.

I’m sure the mockery of this video will score political points. However, it will also offend those who feel the message’s authors are being disingenuous. Those who support contraception should defend it because contrception is moral, not just because it’s expedient or convenient.

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