I got pregnant with Plan B -- now I need a Plan C!

We want kids but we're not sure we're ready yet -- should we go for it, or abort?

Published March 14, 2007 11:10AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I understand that you can answer only a fraction of the letters you receive and don't expect you to answer this letter. I hope that writing to someone I don't know, but someone I feel is benevolent, that the act of doing this might be helpful in itself.

I find myself pregnant. I've been married for two years, happily. My 30th birthday is next week. My husband and I, since we met, have been excited to be parents together. That was how I knew that he was the one -- I had a kind of overwhelming feeling that I wanted to have babies with this man, a feeling I'd never had before.

The thing about being married that surprised both of us I think was how romantic it is -- the early phase of marriage. We were planning to wait another year before trying to have children. We both are creative types and we wanted to be able to pursue our interests without the pressure of a family yet. We also have been trying to save money. My husband is a teacher and I'm a secretary, and we know we'll be broke when we have kids, but we're trying to save so that it isn't impossibly stressful.

So this pregnancy is unplanned. I took Plan B, or the morning-after pill; I wasn't worried at all because it has a 90 percent success rate and I took it correctly. So I was very surprised to find myself in the other 10 percent. This is also difficult because for a while I've felt something strange -- that my body really longed to be pregnant even though mentally, emotionally, financially I knew that I wanted more time.

I know people always say, Oh you always find a way to make it work. And I believe you said one time, and I really liked this, that life is a force that wants to perpetuate itself. But we don't feel ready. We do want more time. Aborting seems difficult and sad, but also right on one level. This feels like the biggest decision of our life together and we both feel strongly pulled in both directions.

Any decisive karma you could direct toward us would be appreciated.


Dear Unplanned,

The philosophical problem you pose is complex. So before attempting even a small summation, I'll just tell you what I'd do:

I'd go for it.

But that's just me. It's a gut-level response. The analysis is much more difficult. And, of course, it goes without saying, you are free to do exactly as you choose. No analogy I can think of is completely apt. Nor should any analogy, even if it were apt, necessarily guide your decision. But consider this.

Say you are playing the lottery. You want to win, but aren't really prepared to win yet -- winning would disrupt your life in many ways and you like your life the way it is. But say you win anyway. Does it make sense to refuse the winnings and say, I'll play the lottery again in a couple of years when I'm ready to win? Or does it make sense to accept the winnings and adjust accordingly?

Or say you want to run for Congress but not yet. A seat opens up and some backers urge you to run -- now. Do you wait until you yourself are completely ready? Or do you take the opportunity that has been handed to you and make the best of it?

These analogies are not completely apt, of course. Having a child is not like winning the lottery. But it is something you wish for -- you just don't want it yet. But, as in the cases above, you are not really choosing between two identical things. Instead, you are choosing between a relatively certain option now and an uncertain option in the future. You have a bird in the hand, so to speak, and one in the bush. Unlike the above cases, there are certain costs to incur in the postponement; in the cases above, you could simply choose to do nothing and the possible future you are faced with would not materialize. In your case, however, if you do nothing, you will soon be giving birth to a child. So in deciding to take actions to avert that future, you must consider the effect that reversing the pregnancy will have on you and your husband.

Also consider this question posed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on philosopher Derek Parfit's "Repugnant Conclusion."

"1. A pregnant mother suffers from an illness which, unless she undergoes a simple treatment, will cause her child to suffer a permanent handicap. If she receives the treatment and is cured her child will be perfectly normal.
2. A woman suffers from an illness which means that, if she gets pregnant now, her child will suffer from a permanent handicap. If she postpones her pregnancy a few months until she has recovered, the child she will have will be perfectly normal.

"What ought the women to do in the two cases?" the authors -- Jesper Ryberg, Torbjön Tännsjö and Gustaf Arrhenius -- ask. "In case (1) the obvious answer is that the mother ought to undergo the treatment. The reason is simple: the child will thereby get a better life. However, this reason cannot be given if we turn to case (2). If the woman postpones her pregnancy the child that is brought into existence will not be identical to the child she would have had had she decided to become pregnant while she was ill (it will not be the same ovum and sperm that meet). Thus, apparently one cannot hold that it is better for the child that she postpones the pregnancy: the alternative for the child brought into existence would have been non-existence. However, if there is a change in identity of the involved parties between two possible outcomes, how should this affect the moral evaluation? Parfit refers to this as 'the Non-identity Problem.' Following what would probably strike most people as the most plausible answer Parfit favors what he calls the 'No-Difference View' (1984 p. 367), which implies that the change in identity should not change the answer: the woman in case 2) ought to postpone her pregnancy, just as the woman in case 1) ought to undergo the treatment. A straightforward way of capturing the No-Difference View is the Impersonal Total Principle: If other things are equal, the best outcome is the one in which there would be the greatest quantity of whatever makes life worth living (Parfit 1984 p. 387)."

So this example would seem to give force to the idea of postponing your pregnancy, i.e. terminating it via abortion. But the cases are very different. I will leave it to you to sort out all the relevant differences, but basically, you do not have a disease that will harm the child; you have some personal concerns about the timing of the pregnancy. We do not know what effect your current uneasiness will have on the child, if any. So it seems to be a matter of degree: your concerns weighed against the gravity of the procedure and your chances of conceiving again at the time you wish to conceive.

In considering the matter of degree of severity, let us ask why this option of abortion even exists. Does it exist mainly for the purpose you are considering -- to time the pregnancy?

And if that were its main purpose, would it even be legal? Is it not legal because it provides much more fundamental freedoms? That is not to say that it would not be philosophically correct that it be legal under any circumstances -- as has been argued, a woman ought to control her own body. But would the arguments that women have made to gain abortion rights have sufficient moral and emotional power if abortion's only value were that it cured the inconvenient timing of certain pregnancies? I do not think so. I think the reason it is legal is that it provides women with a fundamental right that arises out of the grave inequities of gender roles and the profoundly troubling effects of being forced to bear an unwanted child. So as you weigh these things, you may come to feel that the most appropriate use of abortion is the one whose gravity and urgency match the conditions under which the right is seen as most just. Or you may consider this use of abortion akin to the off-label use of a drug -- not the one for which it is generally prescribed, but one for which it will be effective and for which, in your case, its use is just.

Consider this also: How would you feel if abortion were not an option at all? Would you still feel great distress at this news?

The bottom line, of course, is that you have the freedom to decide. Again quoting the invaluable Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, this time from the section on abortion in "Feminist Perspectives on Reproduction and the Family": "Judith Jarvis Thomson (1971) argued that even if the fetus is a person with a right to life, there are limits on what the state can compel women who carry fetuses in their bodies to do. If women have rights over their own bodies, then they have rights not to have their bodies used by others against their will. The state has no right to force someone to donate use of her body to another person, even if that person is in extreme need. (In Thomson's famous example, a person is hooked up to a famous violinist, who will die if she withdraws her body's support.)"

So do you choose to succor this mythical violinist who has made an untimely visit?

It is your decision. I don't envy you the choice.

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