Saturday, 27 November 2010

Birth or Not - sneaky, shortsighted or simply wrong?

Nearly two million votes have now been cast on, a website set up by a Minnesotan couple purportedly to let the world decide whether they should abort their foetus or not.

Debate is still raging over whether this site is 'real.' Is it a pro-life publicity stunt? A social experiment? A method of stimulating debate? Any of these would be better than it being a genuine way to let people make the couple’s decision for them, and thankfully this latter option seems unlikely once you take a good look at the website.

Firstly, while some people might be stupid enough to do something like this for real, the couple don’t appear to fit that template. They are educated, articulate, and according to their own accounts have so far led sensible, average lives. They’ve even planned to have a family and been thwarted by two miscarriages.

Add to this the unavoidably provocative set-up of the website. On one side is a box counting down to the last date on which they can legally have an abortion. They plan to let voting continue until the last possible moment, meaning that given the alleged pregnancy is so far successful, if the vote makes it so they would abort a healthy foetus at twenty weeks’ gestation.

This is a surprising approach, especially for a woman who has experienced two miscarriages. Surely this is the kind of decision one makes as quickly as possible? This opinion may just be driven by my own sense that the further into a pregnancy a mother gets, the more morally risky abortion becomes, not to mention physically dangerous. Twenty weeks is the legal cut-off point, but that in itself is a source of great controversy.

Secondly, the blogs published alongside this information include regular ultrasound images of the foetus, nicknamed ‘Wiggles’ by the parents, and developmental details such as when eyelashes first appeared. It was also revealed that Wiggles is a boy.

It is either brave or false of the mother to be engaging affectionately with these details, if she is genuinely open to having an abortion at the behest of a host of anonymous voters, especially given the self-selecting nature of the kind of people who will go and vote on a website like this.

Sure enough, birthornot has attracted attention that cannot be called well-meaning, and voting has been hijacked by a group not acting in the best interests of parents or foetus.

The whole exercise raises so many ethical questions, some of which will be resolved when we find out what the couple behind it are really up to. However, even if the truth in that regard redeems them somewhat, one potential moral objection will remain for me. This is around the use of the ultrasound images.

Where these come from I of course cannot know, but there are several possibilities. The woman may really be pregnant, and they may be actual images of her foetus. If so, there’s a nasty consequence. If her pregnancy goes to full term and a human being grows up, he will inevitably find out about birthornot. Even if his parents were not actually inviting the world to vote on his life, he will know that they used images of him for a cause he may not believe in, and far worse, that in the event millions of people did in fact vote that he should be aborted. This will not be a comfortable discovery for any of them.

If the images are not ‘real’ in this sense, the only morally acceptable source I can think of is that they were donated by their consenting owner. They’d have to be pretty old for this to be the case, and I doubt the likelihood of this possibility.

Lastly, they may be images from a pregnancy that did not result in a living human being. In this case, it’s awfully sad that they are appearing in this particular setting, and would imply a certain amount of callousness on the part of a woman who has suffered miscarriages herself.

I’ll watch with interest as voting closes and the creators of birthornot reveal their true intentions. I hope the answers do redeem them, especially in the case of the ultrasound images, but I can’t say my hopes are high.


  1. Oh that is the sickest thing. I always try and make excuses for people and explain their weird and wonderful ways but this has completely defeated me................

  2. I find it hideously disturbing too.

    When I studied ethics thirty years ago (has it really been that long?) I took the view that almost anything could be reduced to a form logic or calculation. But I have come to the view that some things are beyond reasoning (or perhaps before it); not only do they not require it, the very act of trying to reason them through is somehow nauseating.

    What is so wrong here is not what is being decided (whether or not to have an abortion) but the manner of the discussion - so intuitively at odds with human emotions and any sense of flourishing.

  3. Just seen this via Rosie. Oh my goodness... I am pro-choice but this is beyond what I can comprehend. After reading Alisha's post on 24th Nov I can't help thinking 'why is this couple together and are they capable of bringing up a child in a balance household?'. If they can't make a decision like this between them, in private, then what hope has the poor kid got (if it is born).