Deathbed conversions and ultrasounds

Ultrasound of my son.

In October, a Federal judge struck down certain provisions from a North Carolina abortion bill. These provisions would have required women to view an ultrasound of their fetus shortly before having an abortion, and also to be asked if they wanted to hear the fetus’s heartbeat.

These provisions were clearly (and openly) aimed at placing emotional pressure on women to dissuade them from going ahead with their abortions. Importantly, the judge did not strike down a provision requiring a 24 hour waiting period, during which the risks of abortion and the availability of alternatives would be discussed with women seeking an abortion.

This demonstrates a point about the different approaches that theists and secularists often take on controversial issues. Many theists regard emotional pressure as a valid way to change someone’s mind on an issue, whereas secularists see access to information, and a pressure-free environment, as the ideal conditions for decision making.

Deathbed conversions are, I believe, an example of the effect of emotional pressure. Someone who is nearing the end of her life may, as the days and hours pass, become increasingly afraid of her impending doom. Under this emotional pressure, someone might feel compelled to convert to Christianity (or some other religion) simply out of fear.

Famous writer and atheist Cristopher Hitchens, himself close to death as I write this, says “It’s considered perfectly normal in this society to approach dying people who you don’t know but who are unbelievers and say, ‘Now are you gonna change your mind?’ That is considered almost a polite question.”

Is that really how we want to make decisions? With the threat of death, or the emotional pressure of an ultrasound and a heartbeat hanging over us? Or should we make decisions in a state of relative calm, in which the relevant facts can be properly and soberly assessed without coercion?

It seems that the latter method is the only one that can really bring us to the best answers. That is why the 24 hour waiting period in the abortion bill is a good idea: it not only slows everything down a little, but it aims to equip the pregnant woman with valuable information she might not otherwise have come across.

No further information important to decision making is made available simply be getting a little closer to one’s time of death or, for that matter, by looking at an ultrasound and listening to a fetus’s heartbeat. The shape of a fetus, and the sound of its heartbeat, are both irrelevant to the moral question of abortion, which depends instead on the fetus’s degree of mental awareness and capacity for suffering, and the likely short and/or long term future of the fetus and it’s mother (see the summary page from my essay on morality for my views on how the abortion issue might be tackled).

Luckily the Federal judge in the North Carolina case who, like her fellow judges is used to making deliberate, uncoerced decisions, recognized the value of that approach.

Finally, this is a good lesson for all of us: think about the important issues now, while you’re able to think clearly and without emotional pressure, so that you have a reasonable, well thought-out position by the time you need it.


2 Responses to Deathbed conversions and ultrasounds

  1. If a woman did not feel emotional about the killing of her baby in the womb, I would be surprised. It’s an extremely emotional matter, I would think. Wanting to divorce ourselves from our emotions does not seem wise, to me anyway. I support the notion of the ultrasound and heartbeat. To my mind, that is life and it is personal. This is akin to forcing America to begin to actually watch the people that are being murdered by the death penalty, die. I think that is a good idea too.

  2. kpharri says:


    I agree that decisions regarding abortion are, like many decisions, unavoidably fraught with emotion.

    I’m advocating quite a subtle distinction here, because my view of morality certainly does involve emotions. To me, morality is about looking after the well-being of all people, and well-being includes emotions.

    The distinction is as follows: we can either make decisions based on our gut emotional response or we can made decisions based on an impartial assessment of how everyone’s well-being (including their emotional state) is going to be affected. I think the latter option is the rational one.

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