Being Pro-Choice When You Think the Choice is Wrong

Charlie Quimby at Across the Great Divide has been doing yeoman’s work covering the ongoing tragedy of sextuplets born last week in Minnesota.  It’s a difficult and heart-wrenching story that, for me, pushes my ability to be pro-choice to its limits. 

To recap for those of you not following the story, Brianna Morrison gave birth last week to six children, four boys and two girls.  Brianna was 22 weeks into her pregnancy, not quite to the third trimester.  

Brianna and her husband, Ryan, had been using fertility drugs in order to conceive.  A conservative Christian couple, they rejected selective reduction as a possibility once they found out Brianna was carrying six embryos. 

Six children were born last week; three have died thus far, and the prognosis for the remaining three is not good.  Even if they survive, they are likely to face severe hurdles in life.  Cerebral palsy and developmental disabilities are strong possibilities. 

There are, of course, many questions that should be answered, including whether the fertility clinic treating the Morrisons behaved recklessly by using an aggressive treatment, knowing that the Morrisons were implacably opposed to abortion under any circumstances.

But the issue I want to touch on is how this affects choice issues.

Most of those reading this, I suspect, believe the Morrisons should have undergone selective reduction — aborting some fetuses to give the others a better chance to reach full-term, or close to it.  Indeed, I think most of you have my gut-level response that these parents were irresponsibly gambling with the health and lives of their children by not making that choice.  That they should have made that choice.

That they should have been made to make that choice.

And therein lies the problem, because if one believes in choice, one has to believe in it across the board, even in cases when the choice seems so clearly wrong. 

It is easy to stand back and hurl criticisms at the Morrisons.  And it is certainly all right to say that they made the wrong choice, especially in retrospect.  We’re all allowed our own moral views.

But it was their — and more specifically, her — choice to make.  And while we may feel that we know better than the Morrisons what decision they should have made, it’s a short hop from forcing them to undergo selective reduction to forcing others to carry their pregnancies to term, regardless of their wishes.



Filed under 10_jeff_fecke

42 responses to “Being Pro-Choice When You Think the Choice is Wrong

  1. yes, i think it was her choice. i too, think it was the wrong one ,but it is her choice.

    i’m interested in what people in the “pro life” movement think of her choice? do they think she made the right one?

    do they think she should not have had fertility treatments at all?

    i think there should be differences of opinion on their side as well. at least i hope so. i hope they are not just listening to one voice. i hope they have their own opinions.

  2. Yeah, I’m not having much of a problem with this either–freedom to choose includes freedom to make choices I think are stupid. This certainly falls into the category of stupid choices, as far as I’m concerned.

  3. Kelley

    Yep, I agree. It was entirely her choice. A stupid one, perhaps a selfish one, but hers to make nonetheles.

  4. Misty

    if one believes in choice, one has to believe in it across the board, even in cases when the choice seems so clearly wrong.

    Pretty much.

    People do a whole lot of things that I believe to be very, very clearly wrong–from the trivial to the significant. But they have a right to not be subject to me dictating what they do with their life (and vice versa).

  5. How is this even a controversy?

    Her body, her choice. Period.

    I mean, sure, I personally think she made a seriously beyond fucked-up choice. But one of the things about being pro-choice is we really don’t care about the individual reasons for making the choice*, so long as the choice is free to be made.

    If we do otherwise, then we are no better than the scum-sucking, disgusting, anti-choice, forced-pregnancy crowd.

    [*I do asterisk the above with the fact that as feminists we are of course concerned about the social factors that may coerce women into making particular choices (like, I would argue, the Morrisons have been), but even in that case, we address the social factors at the social level, not the individial women making that choice].

  6. I can’t imagine having to make choices like the ones that couple made. It’s not just “do we abort some to give the others a better chance at life?” it’s also “which ones do we abort? Why?” The choice they made isn’t necessarily the one I think I might have made, but I’m not going to say they made the wrong one. They’re the only people in their situation, and only they can make the choice for what they’re going to do. It’s had a tragic aftermath, and I wish the best for them and their surviving children.

  7. Don’t misunderstand — when I take a step back, I agree completely that it was her choice. But there’s a gut-level reaction that I think we need to acknowledge and get beyond. I’ve had staunch pro-choice friends opine that both parents in this case should be sterilized. I understand the impulse, but I think it’s something we need to guard against.

  8. If we do otherwise, then we are no better than the scum-sucking, disgusting, anti-choice, forced-pregnancy crowd.


  9. Troy

    I always find these types of stories interesting, especially from conservative Christians. They are against abortion, contraception, and basically any other type of choice, yet “choosing” fertility treatments is ok. I fail to see how fertility treatments goes along with the whole “natural family planning” thing that is their standard procedure.

  10. Jaclyn

    Agreed. Once there were embryos in her body, it was her choice. But I think we can also have a discussion over ethics in reproductive medicine. For example, is it ethical for insurance companies to cover fertility drugs and not IVF treatment? Granted, I’m not very informed about these procedures, but it seems to me that this implicitly encourages women to take drugs that are likely to produce multiples instead of using a route that can be more controlled.

    P.S. To Christian conservatives: once you have used fertility treatments, resulting children are not just “Gifts from God.” They are also “Gifts from science.” Thank you.

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  12. Melissa McEwan

    That they should have been made to make that choice.

    Never crossed my mind, to be honest. Yeah, I think it was a dumb choice, but it was theirs to make. Whatevs. Anyone who argues anything re: forcible termination can’t legitimately call themselves pro-choice, as far as I’m concerned. (And should be roundly spanked for breathing life into the favorite “pro-abortion” strawperson.)

    Like Sherry, I’m more interested in what people in the “pro life” movement think of her choice. Was it really better to let those babies be born only to die, presumably with some suffering and pain, rather than selectively abort?

  13. It depends on the insurance company. Some don’t cover any fertility treatments, while others cover up to a certain number of IVFs. And it’s generally an escalating treatment. Start with the low level drug like Clomid. That doesn’t work, then go for the drug + and IUI (squirting the sperm into the woman with an injection to time ovulation). That doesn’t work, then you can try stronger drugs, which may be what they used. I don’t know the background of their case, but generally the multiple births come from the stronger drugs. It soups up the ovaries to make lots of eggs pop out during ovulation.

    But even with IVF, they usually put in more than one embryo due to the chances involved. It’s common to have at least two or three used, but not all implant and go to term.

  14. Em

    Maybe I’m callous, or just well-indoctrinated with choice, but….

    It’s their own fucking stupidity. I hope they have fun explaining to any surviving kids why they’re disabled and why their brothers and sisters are dead.

    Selfish pigs.

  15. Jeff, I don’t have that gut-level reaction you describe. I suspect ideology of any sort can offer a number of reasons for and methods of suffering. One might be the idea that suffering can be entirely prevented.

  16. ’m interested in what people in the “pro life” movement think of her choice? do they think she made the right one?

    do they think she should not have had fertility treatments at all?

    Yes, they think she made the right one. No, they don’t think they should have avoided fertility treatments. In fact, if a couple is having trouble conceiving, fertility treatments are recommended. When they start on them they’re celebrated for having such a strong commitment to “life.”

    At least this couple was willing to apply their standards to themselves; most couples, even anti-choice Christians, choose selective reduction. Plus, we don’t have to worry very much about their finances, because stories like this usually bring out corporate donations and such.

    This is not very sensitive, but I don’t like fertility treatments. And if we’d had any trouble conceiving and my wife wanted them, then that’s what we would have done. But my personal opinion is that there’s plenty of kids who need families – especially families that can come up with $10,000-$30,000 out-of-pocket for selective medical treatments.

  17. Of course they shouldn’t have been made to make that choice! What a horrific scenario.

    My harsh criticism is with the fertility clinics, who are doing a lot of harm even as they do good.

  18. I’m with all the other Shakers that it’s her choice. And I agree with you, too, Jeff, that there’s this flash of “you bleeping IDIOT, how could you DO that!”

    Perhaps the less-settled ethical question is at the front end. Was the fertility clinic actually wrong to give her this treatment? Should people have the right to use the technology who don’t have the moral context to handle its consequences?

    In a very different context, that would be like giving guns to people who think shooting people is okay. (Oh, wait, here in the US we do kinda….)

    On the other hand, if I was desperate to have kids, I’d be severely annoyed to have some turkey telling me what I could and couldn’t do.

    Where do the infants’ rights enter into it? Doing what she did practically guarantees death and disability. Do the future rights of one or two of the fetuses (who do not have rights while she’s carrying them) actually require her to use the best available medical practice to improve their chances?

  19. Freedom of choice is not the same thing as freedom from criticism.

  20. Grue

    Personally, I don’t have a gut-reaction as you describe…as you say, “…if one believes in choice, one has to believe in it across the board, even in cases when the choice seems so clearly wrong.” I do think this couple made the wrong decision, but to condemn them for it, to condemn their personal right to make that decision is to ignore and abandon the very idea of “pro-choice”.

    It’s more important to be informed by their decision, to take these anecdotal results and add them to the body of knowledge we have of such things. Therein lies the disconnect I think we might see from the “pro-lifers”. Do they acknowledge the reality of what has happened/will happen and respond from that direction? Or will they fail to address that reality?

    I can cynically imagine common answers like “God works in mysterious ways” and so on, rationalizing the tragedy without actually recognizing the tragedy. That said, I would still be interested in seeing how “pro-lifers” respond.

  21. Pingback: More on the Minnesota sextuplets « Greg Prince’s Blog

  22. car

    Tell me if I’m wrong, but I believe that in most European countries it’s not allowed to place more than two embryos at a time because of the possible medical problems that can result from doing more.

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  24. Perhaps I’m missing something here, but how is this fertility treatment and the fundamentalists’ approval of the technique not a violation of, as they would put it, God’s will? God determined that this couple would not have children, but they defied his will and the result is this horrific mess. How is that not different than contraception — defying God’s will?

    The overall feeling I come away with this is agreement with the majority of commenters: this is still their choice to make. But I can’t escape the feeling that this was not about brining more life into the world but about the parents. The children seem like a side effect.

  25. Brian

    I think that in a case this extraordinary, we come into a problem of rankings of preference. In a single-fetus pregnancy, the health and choice of the woman is put before the fetus’. That’s simple enough. However, a multiple fetus pregnancy, in a case where the choice to *selectively* abort or not abort does not affect the health of the mother, but *does* affect the health of the other fetuses, does she still take precedence? I’m not pro-life, I’m pro-choice, I just think that this is a complex issue that we should still discuss.

  26. Freedom of choice is not the same thing as freedom from criticism.

    Werd. Telling someone “you made a stupid choice” is not the same thing as saying “you should not have been allowed to make that choice.”

  27. Brian

    And in this case I’m talking more about medical ethics, since we’ve already talked about personal choice.

  28. TinaH

    There are, of course, many questions that should be answered

    My first question was “Why is this any of my business whatsoever?”

  29. They didn’t do IVF, they chose Follistim, which produced multiple eggs (in this case, they believe there were 10 viable ones). Folistim I believe is usually used for harvesting for IVF, but in this case they appear to have not done any sort of implantation. It was reported on their website that they had tried Clomid for a year, but it didn’t work.

    And I don’t agree that choice is always choice. Doctors are now allowed to step in and treat a child if the parents refuse to on religious grounds. I stand the chance of being really unpopular, but this should be the same thing. Speaking as someone in her second trimester, as pro-choice as can be, and probably irrational as hell due to the hormones, this story upsets me beyond all belief. Reducing would have been a medical procedure. What is happening now is not – and it is definitely not pro-life.

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  31. Brian

    Thank you, Robin Marty, that’s exactly what I was talking about. In a hospital, especially in medical emergencies or potential medical emergencies, doctors work for a different set of goals than a patient might, which comes down to objectivity and subjectivity, which is why we say in cases such as those religious parents that they can be circumvented due to bad judgement.

    As I’ve always understood, doctors work firstly for preservation of life, and then quality of life. An example of this would be oncology; if the cancer can’t be cured, then palliative care is given. In this case, the prevailing ethic reverses: by trying to preserve all life, the resulting *quality* of life can be diminished. That’s why some people choose to sign DNRs. It’s why doctors eventually stop trying resuscitation techniques. It’s why people decide to end life support. In all these cases, many people consistently make choices based on quality of life; why is this situation different?

  32. Efogoto

    TinaH, well said.

  33. Azelie

    There are questions that the doctor and staff at the fertility clinic should ask before treatment. My partner and I had to tell the doctor whether we would agree to selective reduction if we wound up with triplets or more. My doctor did not want to be responsible for the kind of harm to the mother and the children produced by high-multiple pregnancies that can occur in these situations. If the fertility doctor is acting responsibly, the woman taking these medications is very closely monitored –every few days in the first week or so of the fertility injections and then every day as the follicles (eggs+surrounding material) approach the size at which ovulation is induced). The doctor can refuse to complete the treatments if it looks like the ovaries are producing so many follicles that multiple gestation is likely.

    Of course, once the couple buys the drugs, they have them and could take the shot that induces ovulation even if the doctor refuses to do the insemination, and can then just inseminate the old fashioned way. I’m sure there are also fertility doctors out there who are less careful than ours was, or who even cater to anti-choice natalists and refuse to do selective reduction even if there are 3 or more embryos that implant.

  34. Edo


    Where do the infants’ rights enter into it? Doing what she did practically guarantees death and disability. Do the future rights of one or two of the fetuses (who do not have rights while she’s carrying them) actually require her to use the best available medical practice to improve their chances?

    Firstly, what infants? Do you mean fetuses? or do you mean the potential infants?

    Secondly, the last question in that sentence is right out of the “pro-life” playbook. It implies that an entity other than the pregnant woman force her to make certain choices. Coerced behavior, when it comes to control over one’s body, is immoral.

  35. Molly, NYC

    Although I certainly concur that it was Mrs. Morrison’s call, I would love to hear her explanation of why selective reduction is less moral than consigning your own children to lives of retardation and disability, or alternatively, watching them die after just a few weeks.

    . . . we knew right away that [selective reduction] is not an option for us. We understand that the risk is high, but we also understand that these little ones are much more than six fetuses. Each one of them is a miracle given to us by God. He knows each one of them by name and we will trust Him absolutely for their lives and health.

    * * *
    How you know these people are Republicans: It’s not just the “life starts at conception” beliefs. It’s also the belief that they aren’t responsible for their babies’ health, and the refusal to deal as adults with a messy but clear decision.

  36. “That they should have been made to make that choice.

    And therein lies the problem, because if one believes in choice, one has to believe in it across the board, even in cases when the choice seems so clearly wrong.”

    And here we reach reason #1,076 why Orsen Scott Card is an idiot.

    One of the things I found interesting about “Ender’s Game” was how it was pro-choice in the sense that the distopia as presented was an argument for not letting the government unduly pressure people to have fewer children than they thought best.

    And then he turned it around and rewrote the same story as “Ender’s Shadow” – which was a four novel long screed against abortion.


    I’d also like to add my voice to the people saying “I never thought that”…unless you count my pondering “what would be the ethical problems in letting/requiring that doctors only implant two fetus (zygotes?) at a time?”

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  38. Molly, NYC

    It occurs to me that if the Morrisons had stated, upon beginning fertility treatments, that the reason they wanted children was because you could get six figures for one on the black market, or because they wanted to make kiddie porn, or because they’d heard that cooked right, roast babies were very tasty, the fertility clinic would have probably declined their custom.

    In fact, if they’d had more conventional plans for the kids, but Mrs. Morrison refused to give up heroin (or cigarettes even, or binge drinking) for the duration of her pregnancy, they’d probably also have shown her the door.

    So why was the particular manner in which the Morrisons chose to endanger their babies okay with their fertility specialists?

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  40. I am pro-choice, and to me this means that I support their choice.

    I don’t miss the irony, however, that this couple would probably not hesitate to legislate that gays could not be parents, using the defense that it was “bad for the kids”, or that they would probably be all in favor of citing a parent for neglect if their kid’s weight exceeded the recommended BMI.

    However, another person’s hypocrisy does not justify my departure from my own ethics.

  41. What strikes me every time I hear one of these stories is, “Why not adopt?” Perhaps it is because I grew up with an adopted sibling, but I just don’t get the need for a biological connection with every member of your family. I am pro-choice, but I would love to see more women choose adoption over abortion. I would also love to see more couples choose adoption over fertility treatments. Honestly, if a couple is opposed to abortion and is having trouble conceiving, why don’t they get in touch with a mother who is considering abortion and offer to raise that child? We say it all the time: “If pro-lifers are so concerned for these fetuses, why don’t they pay for their care once they’re born?” It seems to me that this couple, along with so many others, could have taken that road instead. Rather than bringing 6 dying or disabled children into the world, they could have loved and brought up one or more children who already existed. As was stated above, this was never about the children. It was always about the parents. Adoption rules!

  42. I have Cerebral Palsy and I viewed my parents as stronger people for accepting the responsibility of raising a child with a disability. Having an abortion would’ve been the easy way out.

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