Angelina Rosario went into Our Lady of Mercy Hospital in Santa Cristina, California, last week for a minor procedure to help with her dysmennorhea and walked out pregnant. The hospital is still trying to figure out exactly what happened. There was also another woman, Rosaria Angelino, there that day. Ms Angelino had been undergoing fertility treatment and was scheduled to have several embryos implanted in her uterus. Somehow, their charts got mixed up as they were taken into adjoining operating rooms. (There was a small earthquake about that time, and there is some evidence that the charts were knocked off the women’s gurneys.) The error was not discovered until the two women woke up in recovery. Ms Angelino was surprised to find that she had gotten an ablasion, but not nearly as shocked as Ms Rosario was to discover that she was pregnant.
Ms Rosario immediately demanded that the hospital undo its mistake. The doctors, however, refused to do so. The only way to undo what they had done would be to perform an abortion, and Our Lady of Mercy does not perform abortions, on ethical and religious grounds. Ms Angelino and her husband, though they had some sympathy for Ms Rosario’s plight, pleaded with her not to abort the pregnancy. They had been through a very long process, they explained, and the embryos that were to have been implanted in Ms Angelino were the only viable ones that had resulted. It must, they understood, be difficult for Ms Rosario unwittingly to have become a surrogate mother, and Ms Rosario ought no doubt to be compensated by the hospital. But none of that, they said, changes the fact that Ms Rosario was now carrying their unborn children, who have as much of a right to life as any other human being.
It is clear that Ms Rosario has a legal right to abortion if she should choose one. But her personal, moral situation is quite complicated. Raised a Catholic, Ms Rosario has always believed herself that life begins at conception and so agrees with the Angelinos that she is now carrying ‘unborn children’ who have a right to life. But, in statement released by her attorney today, Ms Rosario insisted that this does not settle the question what she should do.
“It is true”, she wrote, “that the embryos I am now carrying have a right to life. But I have rights, too, and their right to life does not give them the right to use my body to sustain themselves. It does not give them the right to put my life and health at risk so that they might grow and develop. It does not give them the right to make me give birth to them so that they might live independent lives. It is tragic that, through no fault of their own, these unborn children have come to be in my uterus. But they have no right to be there, and it is not my fault that they are.”
She concluded, “I do not want these embryos to die. If they could be removed from my body and put in someone else’s, that would be fine with me. But that is not possible. I do not want the Angelinos, who seem like nice people, to lose the children for which they have struggled so long, either. I wish I could help them. Maybe that would be the most honorable thing for me to do: to carry their children for them. But I cannot do it. I have my own life to live.”
I made that story up. None of it is true. But it might have been true, and maybe one day something like it will be true. But the lesson of the story is the same, whether it is true or not. Far too often, it is assumed in our public discussions that, if only we could decide whether “the fetus is a person”, we would know what to think about abortion, so we fight and fight over that unanswerable question. But, as my philosopher friends will already know, Judith Jarvis Thomson (one of my teachers at MIT) pointed out forty-five years ago in her now classic paper, “A Defense of Abortion”, that is wrong. And not just wrong but sexist, because it completely ignores the fact that, where there is a fetus, there is also a woman, with rights of her own.
Events relevantly like the ones in my story happen with terrifying frequency, even if people like Todd "Legitimate Rape" Akin would have you believe otherwise. When a pregnancy results from rape, an embryo has, in the same way, though no fault of its own, come to be where it is not wanted and not welcome. It is, no doubt, a tragedy compounded. But such embryos, whatever right they may have to life, have no right to the use of their hosts’ bodies.