On Having a Baby

By Merrill Ring

The anti-abortionist thinks that talk of having a baby is loaded with theoretical commitments to the status of the fetus.  Well, to say ‘The sun rose’ should then commit us to a mistaken astronomical theory.

Some segments of the right-wing flipped out over Chelsea Clinton and husband’s announcement that they are expecting a baby this autumn.  Most of the news about the wing-nut reaction is a derisive push-back against the idea that the pregnancy is planned to assist Hillary Clinton in her presumed campaign for the Presidency, an attempt to win the grand-mother vote.

But there is another theme in some of the right’s reaction:  that by announcing that they were having a baby, the Clinton’s and like-minded liberals are contradicting themselves on the question of abortion.  For the anti-abortion folk declare that the human fetus is person and that achieving that it becomes a person at conception. They then hold that to talk of having a baby is to commit the speaker to their theory about the status of a fetus.  Consequently, they hold that Chelsea Clinton and her husband who, it is presumed, hold that abortion is acceptable must in their talk of having a baby contradict their view about abortion.  Only if they had said ‘fetus’ would they be home free and clear from the charge of contradiction.

I have no idea what words Chelsea and husband used in making the announcement (or elsewhere) except that it is extraordinarily unlikely that they used the word ‘fetus’.   They may have said ‘We are having a baby this fall’ and  ‘The baby is due in (say) October.’  If so, there is not even the appearance of a contradiction:  those words are prospective and say nothing about the current state of affairs.

However, if what was said is ‘The doctor says the baby is doing just fine’, then one is talking about a baby in the here and now.   And so about that one can see the anti-abortion conservative taking flight.

That language has absolutely no theoretical commitment at all.  To think that it does would be like holding that anyone who says ‘The sun rose at 6 am’  or ‘ The sun swiftly sank below the horizon’ is committed to the astronomical theory that the sun goes around the earth.  It simply cannot be inferred from the use of those words what views about the relation of the sun and the earth a person holds.

Of course our talk about the sun rising and setting developed when people did believe that the sun moves and the earth is stationary.  But we continue to talk in the old way even when we know that it is the earth’s motion not the sun’s that produces the appearance and thus the talk of the sun moving across the sky.  The words presently used simply carry no theoretical commitment.

So too, talking of how the baby is doing during pregnancy no doubt developed when there was a different reigning theory of the status of the fetus.  But the language of babyhood to talk of the state of a fetus does not today commit a person to that religious theory about the commencement of personhood.  It is a remnant of an older view but, just as in the case of the sun, we have divorced the words from a commitment to theories.

(Note:  Does saying ‘We are going to have a baby’ commit the speaker to some wild biological views about simultaneous male and female pregnancy?  Of course not.)