Threats to the Unborn Beyond Abortion
by Julia Smucker
The primary focus of pro-life advocacy (as conventionally understood in reference to the defense of prenatal human lives) is on opposing abortion – and rightly so, since the legalized killing of the unborn claims thousands of lives daily and is at the root of their dehumanization. Consistent life ethicists, while advocating strongly against abortion, also apply the term “pro-life” to the entire natural lifespan – again rightly so, reflecting the principle that all human life is inherently valuable and worthy of protection. Additionally, applying pro-life principles consistently means expanding our concern for the unborn to include all circumstances that endanger them, even when abortion isn’t considered, of which there are all too many.
Lack of Adequate Nutrition and Health Care
As an interpreter, I regularly encounter immigrant families starting new life chapters in the U.S., many of whom are refugees or asylum-seekers. When these families expand, so does their need for care, including essential prenatal checks and sometimes nutritional services such as WIC. Of course, immigrant families are far from the only people needing these services, but that’s the context in which I observe them. When I do, I’m often struck by the thought that, without even mentioning abortion, these service providers’ work could hardly be more pro-life. The very purpose of programs like WIC is to ensure born and unborn children get the nutrition they need at vital stages of development. Seeing these services in action brings home to me how essential they are from a pro-life perspective: when mothers are at risk of food insecurity during or after pregnancy, their developing children become even more at risk.
The negative health effects of poverty are easily passed from mother to child, not only directly by undernourishment, but also through the effects of stress on the body. Research has increasingly shown how toxic stress, which happens when stress hormones are released constantly over time, affects fetal development when those stress hormones are passed from mother to baby through the bloodstream. A 2019 documentary focused this research on poverty-related stresses to explain how they can “essentially handicap a baby for life literally before birth.” On a more hopeful note, the research also indicates “that the imprint of poverty and its toxic stressors can actually be reversed — just by making some radical shifts in prenatal care for poor moms, through programs that provide consistent, empathic one-on-one coaching with the mother while she is pregnant, and continuing through early childhood.”
Numerous studies focusing on race-related stress have come to similar conclusions, finding correlations between day-to-day experiences of racial prejudice and consistently high levels of stress hormones in the body, leading to multiple health risks that can be passed on to babies in the womb. Some studies have linked the stress caused by lifelong experiences of racial prejudice to low birth weight in babies. Others have found that, across multiple levels of education and financial status, Black women are disproportionately at risk of preterm labor and/or losing their babies within the first year after birth.
A more immediate threat to life occurs with direct incidents of racialized violence. In 2020, Sarah Terzo compiled several news reports of such violence against pregnant Black women by police – which of course also gravely endangered their unborn children. Two of the five incidents Terzo cites involve Black women giving birth prematurely after experiencing excessive force at the hands of police officers. In the other three incidents, in which pregnant Black women were beaten or kicked, their babies died. All the above incidents, as reported, easily fit the categories of police brutality and excessive force; in most of them, the women who experienced the violence weren’t charged with any crimes. Even when a crime has been committed, it would be impossible for an unborn child to bear any responsibility for it. Therefore any use of police force that knowingly endangers an unborn child is reckless at best.
The world recently watched in horror as Russia’s military bombed a maternity hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine, killing at least one pregnant mother and baby. This was an especially egregious example of the callous disregard for vulnerable human lives that occurs in war, but sadly, it’s not as anomalous as some might think. In fact, Rehumanize International author Samuel Parker noticed parallels between the Mariupol hospital bombing and a 2015 U.S. airstrike on a trauma hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, Afghanistan.
Just as it would be naïve to assume the only people harmed in war are armed combatants, it would be naïve to assume unborn children aren’t among the innocent victims of war too frequently dismissed as “collateral damage.” As the nonprofit Fields of Peace noted in a recent statement, “Today’s wars are fought in cities – the bombing of neighborhoods, apartments, schools, and hospitals. In modern war, for every one combatant killed, nine civilians are killed, the majority of them children…. War has become primarily the killing of children.”
Exposure to Toxins
Risks to babies in the womb from alcohol and other substances are well-established, and their avoidance during pregnancy is routinely advised. Developing babies may be exposed to harmful substances in additional ways, including the types of direct violence described above. Some evidence has suggested that tear gas – used in international conflict and by hypermilitarized police forces against protestors in multiple countries, including the U.S. – may be linked to miscarriages.
Another culprit: corporate carelessness with pollutants. To name one example, the 2019 film Dark Waters (summarized here) was based on the true story of a corporate lawyer who chose to represent his grandmother’s community, whose water supply was tainted by a company’s production of a chemical compound found to cause health problems in cows and humans – including birth defects. Multiple studies have also linked serious and sometimes life-threatening birth defects to air pollution.
A 2017 court battle in which an undocumented teenager sought and obtained an abortion was tragic on multiple levels. Among the several tragedies compounding the situation was the fact that the girl’s parents had previously forced her sister to miscarry – a grossly abusive act that not only killed one child but also contributed to the killing of another.
That domestic violence increases the risk of miscarriage, along with other health risks for mothers and babies who do survive to term, is well documented. This is a sadly global problem, borne out by studies in various countries including Egypt, Bangladesh, the U.S., New Zealand, Turkey, India, and Ethiopia.
When interpersonal violence involves a deadly weapon, the situation becomes even more dangerous. And in a country with more civilian-owned guns than people, reports of shootings of pregnant women are shockingly numerous, whether by current or former partners, as innocent bystanders, or in unknown circumstances. Even if a pregnant woman is fatally shot in an altercation for which she may bear some responsibility, her death is still needless and tragic, and her baby is certainly blameless.
Mistreatment of Pregnant Inmates & Detainees
Babies of incarcerated mothers have similarly committed no crime, yet it’s their lives that are most endangered when their mothers are mistreated or neglected. In the worst cases, babies have died after being born prematurely in prisons or jails where they and their mothers were denied urgent medical care.
Similarly dangerous conditions have been reported for pregnant women in immigration custody, whose babies are innocent regardless of whether their parents have broken any laws. A fact sheet by Physicians for Human Rights reported multiple cases of severe neglect of detained women with pregnancy complications, and a total of 28 miscarriages experienced in ICE custody, between 2016 and 2018. Fortunately, more recent ICE policy imposed stricter limits on detention of pregnant and postpartum women, although the same limits don’t apply to Customs and Border Protection.
To be sure, abortion is the most direct attack on the lives of prenatal humans. Still, the examples above show that even if one focuses solely on protecting unborn lives, a purely single-issue focus only on opposing abortion is inadequate to the task. If we’re truly motivated by concern for the well-being of the unborn, this should naturally lead us to oppose any threats to them – and to their mothers – wherever such threats occur.
On the other side of the same coin, there’s a revealingly uncontroversial concern that arises instinctively in response to actual or potential harm to babies in the womb when it occurs outside the abortion debate – including among those who don’t take a strong position on abortion or even some who identify as pro-choice. If unborn children are so easily recognized as vulnerable human beings worthy of protection in those contexts, why should they be considered any less human or less worthy of life when their lives are deliberately and directly taken in medical settings?
Concern for the unborn, then, cannot exclude any injustices that endanger them. And concern for those made vulnerable by injustice cannot exclude the unborn.
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