Part I examines the lie that abortion is murder and that a zygote is a person. It reviews statistics about how common “God-ordained” miscarriages are, how religious dogma underlies anti-abortion laws, and how girls and women with unwanted pregnancies were treated in the pre-Roe era, warning that those Bad Old Days are returning.
Part II “gets real” about the facts of pregnancy and fetal development, and explains why we need to “abort the Cult of Fetus Worship” and its campaign for fetal personhood.
Get real about pregnancy
The largely male Supreme Court, lower courts and legislatures that are ruling that pregnancy must be compulsory cavalierly ignore what nine months of pregnant servitude involve. Even the most undramatic and wanted pregnancy is uncomfortable. My mother (who endured a stillbirth, a ruptured appendix while carrying twins and four C-sections) considered pregnancy a clumsy means to a welcome end: a wanted baby. As a realist, Anne would point out that no sooner does the puking stop, then the bulging begins. The second trimester usually offers a reprieve, but by the third trimester pregnant persons lumber around with no end of minor and sometimes major indignities.
Some women never feel better than when pregnant, and that’s lovely for those who have that “glow.” A wanted pregnancy, despite any inconveniences or discomforts, is an exciting and anticipatory time, as it was for me. But even for wanted pregnancies, the realities of pregnancy must not be romanticized. It is 14 times more dangerous to carry a pregnancy to term than to have a typical abortion. One in every 50 pregnancies is ectopic. These are life-threatening, nonviable conceptions that implant outside the uterus, causing 10 percent of all pregnancy-related deaths and being the leading cause of first-trimester maternal death. Around one to three of every 100 pregnancies involve excessive nausea and vomiting known as hyperemesis gravidarum, which can lead to dehydration, electrolyte imbalance and hospitalization. Then there is gestational diabetes, affecting 2 percent to 10 percent of U.S. pregnancies, and placenta previa, affecting about 1 in 200 pregnancies — a serious risk in later pregnancy. About 6 percent to 8 percent of U.S. pregnancies are automatically high risk, such as for individuals with high blood pressure, polycystic ovary syndrome, diabetes, kidney disease, autoimmune disease, thyroid disease, obesity and HIV/AIDS. Teenagers and those having first pregnancies after 35 or carrying multiple pregnancies or who have had prior preterm births are likewise at higher risk.
Approximately 10 percent to 20 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage and one in 175 pregnancies in stillbirth. A third of U.S. pregnancies end in C-sections, which is major surgery with serious recovery complications. One in 25 pregnancies involves pre-eclampsia, a potentially life-threatening, pregnancy-induced high blood pressure whose causes are still mysterious that can end in the rare but often deadly eclampsia (seizures), whose name is derived from the Greek for lightning because it can strike suddenly. The world was shocked earlier this year to learn that elite athlete Tori Bowie, 32, an Olympic champion, died alone in her home in her eighth month of pregnancy from eclampsia. (I was especially saddened by this tragic news, having nearly died myself from eclampsia when I was 33. I was luckier than Bowie, because my husband was home and heard me fall in the early morning hours. The only “cure” for eclampsia is delivery, but even after the successful C-section birth of our daughter, I remained in danger of continuing seizures, despite expert care, for a week.) About one to five women in 100 have frightening postpartum hemorrhage, a leading cause of maternal death. Other causes of maternal death include cardiac incidents and infections. Covid-19 has created new risks for pregnancies.
Maternal mortality has been increasing alarmingly in the United States, even before the Dobbs decision, with 1,205 maternal deaths in 2021 compared with 658 in 2018, ranking our “pro-life” nation last among industrialized countries. The overall maternal mortality rate in the United States rose from about 13 per 100,000 live births in 1999 to 32 per 100,000 in 2019 (with some of that increase due to statistics starting to include maternal death in the year after childbirth, now recognized as a high-risk period). For persons of color, the maternal complication rates more than triple. Out of 100,000 pregnancies, almost 30 whites, 33 Hispanics, more than 69 Native Americans and 69 Blacks die. Structural racism threatens the lives and health of Black and Indigenous mothers and their newborns. Wealth doesn’t mitigate the disproportionate risks to newborns and their Black mothers. The U.S. health care system is broken and the most vulnerable, especially the low-income, suffer the most from it. Forty-one percent of people giving birth in the U.S. in 2021 were sufficiently low-income to qualify for Medicaid. Yet 14 states still choose to cut-off Medicaid funding 60 days after birth, even though 53 percent of maternal deaths happen between seven days and one year postpartum. March of Dimes documents that 2.2 million women of child-bearing age live in a “maternity care desert,” with no access to birth centers or obstetric providers. These reprehensible facts reveal how little our “pro-life” nation really values pregnancy, childbirth, babies and new mothers.
With abortion banned completely or partially now in about 20 states, it is inevitable we will see mortality and morbidity rates rise. Fifteen women are suing the state of Texas over denial of their medically necessary abortions, including a woman forced to carry a nonviable pregnancy to term who gave birth to a doomed baby who died hours later. She is Samantha Casiano, who is religious, who cried and even vomited as she testified this month about being forced to give birth and watch her dying baby suffer: “There was no mercy for her.” Amanda Zurawski, who had rounds of fertility treatments and surgeries in order to get pregnant, testified about going into sepsis due to treatment denied because of the ban, after her membranes ruptured, killing the fetus. The trauma has further reduced her chances of conceiving (a doctor had to surgically reconstruct her uterus). Ashley Brandt, also part of the lawsuit, learned after her 12-week ultrasound that one of the twin fetuses had the fatal condition of acrania, in which the skull is not formed. She and her husband fled to Colorado for the necessary selective fetal reduction. She testified that had she not aborted, she would have had to “watch twin A … deteriorate more and more, [with] every ultrasound. … I would have to give birth to an identical version of my daughter without a skull, without a brain, and I would have to hold her until she died.” Brandt said, “I don’t feel safe to have children in Texas anymore. It was very clear that my health didn’t really matter, that my daughter’s health didn’t really matter.”
The abortion bans are projected to cause up to a 21 percent increase in pregnancy-related deaths. So much for being “pro-life.”
Many news sources have reported on the dilemmas faced by physicians and physician groups who fear prosecution for performing life-saving abortions even where abortion bans provide for such exceptions. What is remotely “pro-life” about endangering the life (and certainly the psychological well-being) of someone carrying a dying or dead fetus? How is it “pro-life” to turn mourning parents-to-be who have a wanted pregnancy that is going nowhere into reproductive fugitives? Yet the Cult of Fetus Worshipers have the chutzpah to call themselves “pro-life.” Maybe what we need is a personhood amendment to protect the rights and lives of pregnant individuals!
Don’t forget the more benign but significant discomforts of pregnancy, which the Supreme Court says state legislatures may now make compulsory. The justices have ruled that the government may force an individual to undergo against their will weeks or months of nausea and vomiting, marked fatigue, hemorrhoids, varicose veins, heartburn and indigestion, bleeding gums, fluid retention, stretch marks, yeast infections, constipation, backaches, dizziness and headaches, income and job consequences and all of the previously mentioned serious medical risks of pregnancy. A first childbirth typically lasts 12 to 24 hours. One in 33 pregnancies involves birth defects, which the CDC calls “common, costly and critical.” Besides the fear and pain, 9 in 10 childbirths involve perineal tears or grazes and recovery from them, sometimes requiring a painful-to-recover-from episiotomy (a surgical cut between the vagina and anus). (Worldwide, 50,000 to 100,000 women a year in nonindustrialized nations suffer the far more devastating scourge of obstetric fistula after childbirth.) One in seven U.S. women experiences postpartum depression, which is still stigmatized. Even for those who only get a brief case of the hormonal “baby blues,” there’s the fatigue, breastfeeding issues, financial stresses and 24-hour duties involved in taking care of a newborn while recovering from the discomfort and healing process of childbirth.
Another danger in pregnancy comes from increased risk of domestic abuse, which may escalate when unplanned pregnancy creates stress. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reports that more than 320,000 women are abused by their partners during pregnancy each year, and one in six abused women is first abused during pregnancy. Since Roe was overturned. the National Domestic Violence Hotline has seen a 100 percent increase in calls about reproductive coercion, in which an abuser seeks to control the partner’s body and reproductive agency.
No, “pregnancy is almost certainly not an illness,” as federal appeals court Judge James Ho recently cavalierly opined. But then he and other anti-abortion male judges or legislators will never experience any of these risks or complications. In an illuminating hypothetical, back in 1971 (before Roe), Professor Judith Jarvins Thomson proposed her famous scenario comparing an individual forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy with kidnapping and holding someone hostage so their circulatory system could be plugged into someone else who can’t live without that blood type. Thomson imagined the captured person being told: “Never mind, it’s only for nine months.” Her argument is still compelling today: How can the state force a citizen to be or stay pregnant? How can a government compel childbirth? It should concern the Fetus Cult that any government that can dictate compulsory pregnancy and childbirth could do the opposite. Recent history shows us examples of both.
Of course, the compelled pregnancy is only the beginning: Then comes the near-lifelong responsibility of caring for the child. The longitudinal Turnaway study has documented the deleterious effects unwanted pregnancies have on mental and physical health as well as the socioeconomic consequences, even when a parent who would have preferred to end a pregnancy tries to make the best of circumstances. In Texas alone, there was a shocking 10,000 more births than normal following the 2021 abortion ban.
In short, it is simply untenable for male-dominated courts and male-dominated legislatures to dismiss pregnancy and childbirth as a minor inconvenience. Nor can our government justify downplaying the moral, physical, psychological and financial responsibilities of taking care of the product of that pregnancy, wanted or not, for at least 18 years. (The average cost of raising a child to age 17 is currently $310,605, by the way, which doesn’t include time and labor.) As state after state adopts bans on abortion, there has been no concurrent adoption of social welfare policies to help pay for and provide for the increase in babies born in less than optimal circumstances (not that such programs would justify curtailment of reproductive liberty). The United States is one of only a handful of countries to offer no paid maternity leave requirements. And it ranks 39th when it comes to children’s well-being. NPR reports: “Mothers and children in states with the toughest abortion restrictions tend to have less access to health care and financial assistance, as well as worse health outcomes.” As has long been pointed out, most anti-abortionists care ardently about human life all the way from conception . . . to birth.
It should be the “sacred” duty of anyone bringing a child into the world to love and provide the best future for that child. By forcing mandatory motherhood, which ensures unwanted children and tremendous personal and societal strain, anti-abortion courts and legislators are degrading, not elevating human life.
Get real about embryos and fetuses
Did you know that at four weeks of gestation the blastocyst is about the size of a poppy seed? At six weeks, when an electrical pulse begins, it is the size of a pea and is 0.2 inches in length. This electrical pulse is misleadingly referred to as “a heartbeat” in Fetus-Fetishist literature and legislation, misleading because there isn’t even a heart yet! (Some sources for fetal development use inaccurate terminology, e.g., referring to “the heart” pumping blood at 5 weeks. Explains Dr. Jennifer Kerns, an OB-GYN, an associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco: “The flickering that we’re seeing on the ultrasound that early in the development of the pregnancy is actually electrical activity, and the sound that you ‘hear’ is actually manufactured by the ultrasound machine.” A critical time for heart development is between the 16- and 17-week point.)
The 10-year-old rape victim from Ohio, who had to flee for abortion care to Indiana last summer (before Indiana, too, cruelly banned abortion care), was six weeks pregnant. Her state valued the pea-sized product of rape more than the life and future of a breathing, hurting child.
At seven weeks, an embryo is about 0.37 inches long. It looks like a miniscule shrimp or tadpole. By the end of 8 weeks, it’s about the size of a black bean. At 9 weeks, it is about 0.9 inches. It has unformed hands on tiny stumps. Take a look at these photographs of a pregnancy through nine weeks for an eye-opening reality check: It looks like tiny wisps of egg white.
By 10 weeks, the tail disappears (shall I repeat that: the tail disappears) — and it is now an official fetus, measuring about 1.2 inches and weighing 0.14 ounces. At 12 weeks, by the point when 93 percent of abortions have taken place, it weighs about half an ounce and may be 2 to 2 ¼ inches. The fetus at this stage is not a baby. It’s a potential baby. It’s a human life form, a human fetus, but it’s not a human person yet. It is still undeveloped, it cannot live without its host.
Abortion by definition means “failure of completion.” (Think of all those movie scenes where the captain shouts, “Abort mission.”) If the pregnancy continues successfully, and that’s a big “if,” it could end in a baby. Those who participate in the Cult of Fetus Worship will tolerate no other conclusion, of course. Whether it involves a preteen, a 19-year-old college student on the cusp of her adult life, or a pregnant person who is chronically ill, has cancer, is high risk, or just plain doesn’t want to have a baby, it does not matter to them. For the six out of 10 individuals having abortions who already have children (a third have two or more) the decision to end an unwanted pregnancy may be a way to ensure they can provide for their existing families. To the Fetus Worshiper, this potential human person, a half-ounce fetus, takes precedence, relegating the unwilling pregnant person to incubator status. This person’s life, health, desires, wishes, plans, education, finances and future are to be put on hold, endangered, permanently altered — or even sacrificed.
There is a biological reason why human pregnancies continue for nine (long) months. By typical quickening, at 15 weeks, the average fetus weighs 2.47 ounces. It cannot survive outside the uterus. Even at 16 or 17 weeks — past the arbitrary date of 15 weeks that the state of Mississippi originally had chosen for its ban in the Dobbs challenge — the fetus has no alveoli, so it cannot breathe, its development is incomplete, it cannot be autonomous. “So you’re saying you can kill a small or underweight baby?” taunts the anti-abortionist. No, of course not. Our medical community fights hard to save preemies. And so do their loving parents (which I know personally, as mother to a preemie born six and a half weeks early). The game-changer is viability.
Ninety-three percent of abortions in the United States occur at under 13 weeks, 5.8 percent at 14–20 weeks’ gestation and fewer than .9 percent at 21 weeks or later. Second trimester abortions may occur due to screening that can only take place later in pregnancy, due to complications that develop or are only detected then, or often because of lack of support and access to abortion care, delaying the termination. The abortion bans ironically will ensure more such delays, thus later abortions. Abortion clinics neighboring ban states have been inundated with out-of-state patients, thus delaying abortion appointments for all patients. The barriers of raising even more funding, procuring transportation, childcare and leave from work will likewise delay the ability to schedule abortion care in a timely fashion. The Sword of Damocles hanging over access to medication abortion — which accounts for more than half of first-trimester abortions — by the Christian nationalist federal judge seeking to ban mifepristone nationwide, would likewise significantly cause chaotic delays in seeking abortion care.
Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the majority opinion in Roe, defined viability as when a fetus “has the capability of meaningful life” outside the uterus. Roe v. Wade rationally ruled that if the fetus was viable, the state could regulate or outlaw abortion in the interest of the potential life — except when necessary to preserve the life or health of the pregnant woman. The Burger Court of 1973 was wise indeed when it decided by a margin of 7–2: “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”
Abort the Cult of Fetus Worship
Even after taking over the Republican Party and facilitating the takeover of the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the cultish anti-abortion movement is by no means satisfied, deluging states with hundreds of anti-abortion bills. The fetus-worship cult grows ever more draconian, feeding on its successes. Banning abortion and punishing providers is the current focus, but it will soon turn to prosecuting transgressive women.
Even before Roe was overturned, the National Advocates for Pregnant Women documented more than 400 cases between 1973 through 2004 where pregnancy, including pregnancy loss, was used in a criminal investigation or prosecution. NPR reports this number nearly quadrupled from 2006–2020. “Fetal harm” laws passed in some 38 states supposedly intended to protect pregnant persons from criminal violence are being turned against women. This July, a teenager was sentenced to 90 days in prison after taking abortion pills to end her pregnancy and disposing of the fetus with her mother’s help. She was only 17 when, in June 2022, she took medication abortion pills beyond the 20-week limit then in place in Nebraska. Her mother faces up to five years in prison for helping her. Now that at least 20 states criminalize abortion entirely or at some stage, not just those inducing abortions but those losing pregnancies may be treated with suspicion and are in real danger of prosecutions, especially if drug use is suspected, or individuals are young, indigent, People of Color or live in rural areas. Imagine the pain of losing a wanted pregnancy, then being treated like a criminal. The kind of horror story we’ve read about in Catholic El Salvador, which is notorious for trying and imprisoning miscarrying women for aggravated homicide, could happen here. Given how common miscarriage and stillbirth are, this is a frightening prospect.
We are already seeing proposals that treat pregnant individuals like literal prisoners. The Catholic Thomas More Society has drafted model legislation allowing private citizens to sue anyone who aids someone in an anti-abortion state in terminating a pregnancy outside of that state. The National Association of Christian Lawmakers is drafting model legislation chillingly reminiscent of the infamous Fugitive Slave Act, to actually bar persons from crossing state lines for abortion care. Reproductive servitude indeed. Nineteen state attorneys general mean business and have signed a joint letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services urging access to out-of-state medical records for abortion and gender-affirming care. In May, Idaho became the first state to ban interstate travel for abortion care, creating the crime of “abortion trafficking” if someone helps a person under age 18 obtain abortion pills or leave the state without parental permission for an abortion. The law was challenged in court just this month. (To protect citizens in their own states, or those coming to them for abortion care, some pro-choice states are taking preemptive action, such as Oregon, which passed the Reproductive Health Equity Act, and New York, where Gov. Kathy Hochul has signed into law a series of protections.) A human right must not depend on one’s ZIP code.
Then there are the “abolitionists” gleeful at the prospect not only of abolishing abortion nationwide but executing women who have abortions. In the logic of the Cult of Fetus Worship, such punishment makes perfect sense. If abortion is truly “murder,” women who have abortions should be prosecuted and punished as murderers, which in more than half of these barbaric United States and federally means the possibility of incurring the death penalty. Last weekend the notorious Wisconsin-based Operation Save America convened an all-male meeting of anti-abortion religious leaders at Pray’s Mill Baptist Church in Georgia, where they discussed how to ban abortion in every state at every stage of pregnancy, as well as criminal penalties for murder, including the death penalty. The group contends that all Americans must follow “God’s law and their interpretation of the Christian gospel” and says, “We unashamedly take up the cause of preborn children in the name of Jesus Christ; and we employ only biblical principles.”
A deluge of post-Dobbs anti-abortion legislation includes many bills that confer personhood from fertilization, including Arkansas House Bill 1174, an abortion ban that, in declaring abortion to be a “homicide,” not only confers personhood but citizenship to “Innocent human life, created in the image of God, [which] should be equally protected under the laws from the time of fertilization to natural death.”
The threat to enact fetal personhood laws is real. “Personhood has always been the ultimate ambition of the anti-abortion movement,” says law Professor Mary Ziegler, a historian of abortion at the University of California, Davis. “The movement very much wants a declaration that abortion is a human rights and constitutional rights violation.” The goal of the anti-abortion cultists is to enact either a personhood amendment to the Constitution or in Congress, as well as at the state levels. The Human Life Amendment to establish fetal personhood has been continually introduced in Congress since Roe v. Wade was enacted in 1973. Other congressional bills include the “Sanctity of Human Life Act,” “To provide that human life shall be deemed to begin with fertilization” and the “Life at Conception Act,” which defines a human person or being as “including the moment of fertilization, cloning or other moment at which an individual member of the human species comes into being.” Voters fortunately have rejected personhood amendments to state constitutions so far.
Following the Dobbs decision, Georgia took preemptive action, passing a law to allow pregnant people to count the fetus as a dependent on tax returns and file for child support. Similarly, some conservative U.S. senators, who had never shown much interest in the economic plight of solo or indigent mothers, introduced a bill to amend the Social Security Act to enact child support for “unborn children.”
Anti-abortion cults endorsing personhood laws besides Operation Save America and End Abortion Now include National Personhood Alliance, self-described as “Christ-centered” and “biblically informed.” A so-called “abolitionist” group called “Free the States” seeks to ban all abortions nationwide without exception, based on the premise of prenatal personhood. Americans United for Life is promoting the “Lincoln Proposal,” an executive order that the 14th Amendment applies to “all human beings, born and not yet born.” Operation Save America is pushing the Georgia Prenatal Equal Protection Act, adding criminal penalties for intentional termination of a pregnancy at any stage, with no exceptions for rape or incest. Too many religion-based groups are working to eradicate abortion to be named, but they are not resting on their laurels since the Dobbs decision, and are organizing for the abolition of all legal abortion care.
And it is a religiously motivated ban. I’ve half-seriously dubbed it the “Cult of Fetus Worship,” but if you’ve ever monitored anti-abortion pickets at an abortion clinic — who appear brainwashed, praying aloud, weeping, fingering rosary beads, hoisting crucifixes with a fetus where a figure of Jesus usually is — you may disagree that the term is only half-serious. Cult or not, the anti-abortion movement is indubitably a religious crusade by individuals and groups who zealously believe this should be a Christian nation whose god demands that the fertilized egg is a person and the United States must ban all abortions. They are so dead set on banning all abortions that they’re willing to overthrow our democracy, if they have to, in order to accomplish this. Witness drives to suppress votes and raise the threshold to adopt ballot initiatives in order to thwart the will of the pro-choice majority. More ominous are threats of escalated violence to abortion clinics and even civil war.
Personhood bills and amendments are based on inflammatory rhetoric personifying a fertilized egg or fetus, while dehumanizing the woman or pregnant individual. That’s why it’s imperative to always correct the cult terminology: The anti-abortion movement is not “pro-life,” it is pro-compulsory pregnancy. An abortion patient is not a “mother” yet, and shouldn’t be referred to as one — unless she already has children. Abortion is not “murder”; it is the arrest of development and it is health care. Personhood amendments are impositions of beliefs based on faith, not facts, and are profoundly anti-science.
Just as those “antis” who’ve swallowed the Cult of Fetus Worship Kool-Aid have never given up, so too must we who believe in reproductive liberty organize, march, speak out, vote and pass legislation to protect abortion and endangered contraceptive rights. We’re the moral majority, no less, with between two-thirds and nearly three-quarters of Americans supporting Roe v. Wade. Fortunately, the right to abortion is increasingly a motivating issue for voters, and atheist voters are leading the way in support. Without the ability to control when and whether to become a parent, most other personal life decisions are jeopardized. That’s why we must also work harder to preserve and honor the separation between religion and government that protects such intimate, basic liberties.
My mother Anne, as have so many feminists, worked to create a world that not only respected women’s rights and bodily autonomy, but where all babies would be born wanted. Anne knew that letting individuals control their own fertility and life choices is the only way to produce such a paradisiacal world.
As Anne wrote in all-capitals in her book Abortion Is a Blessing (and it deserves all caps): “NO WOMAN SHOULD BE DENIED AN ABORTION BECAUSE OF THE RELIGIOUS BELIEFS OF OTHER PEOPLE.”