The False Dichotomy of Abortion and Miscarriage

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Last week Valerie Tarico wrote an article for Salon discussing the “abortions” of caribou, orcas, and humans. You didn’t know caribou or orcas had abortions? Yeah, neither did I.

Tarico opens the article with, “Spontaneous abortion, also known as miscarriage, is an ordinary but important part of normal reproduction – one of several ways that nature promotes healthy babies that grow up to have babies of their own.” She goes on to describe how these “abortions” are alarmingly common among caribou and orcas, citing a research project that links the infertility issues of these species to nutrient deficiencies caused by human projects impacting the environment (namely oil extraction and salmon fishing).

Tarico suggests that in the same way that certain environmental measures could be taken to reduce terminated pregnancies in caribou, certain measures could be taken to reduce terminated pregnancies in women. This would be a great point – if she were referring to human miscarriage. But she’s not. She’s referring to human abortion.

While I expect it’s true that there are steps that could be taken to decrease unwanted pregnancies (I also expect Tarico and I would wildly disagree on what those steps are) the way she draws this conclusion points to a problematic assumption – that women only choose abortion as a rational response to adverse conditions.

There are two main problems with this assumption.

1) Women often choose abortion when conditions are not adverse in a meaningful way. Perhaps pregnancy interferes with their career or with school or with their relationship – perhaps a baby will stretch their finances even. But these do not count as adverse conditions, because at the end of the day these are women who have food and shelter and the means to be healthy – and many who seek abortions are like this. Such conditions are certainly not comparable to nutrient deficiencies such as those found in caribou and orcas.

2) Even for women who are facing adverse conditions to their pregnancy, such as health complications or extreme poverty, abortion does nothing to mitigate these conditions. In fact, it makes them worse, by increasing the woman’s chances of mental illness ultimately furthering her health problems.


Tarico writes, “what most mammals accomplish through instinct or automatic biological process, we humans may accomplish via conscious decision…” Tarico’s conflation of miscarriage and abortion is insulting. She’s right to say that human’s have the capacity to make rational decisions – but she ignores the crucial question that comes along with that – is the decision good?

Our rationality comes with moral culpability. That is precisely why abortion is the hot topic that it is – why there are debates, campaigns, nonprofits, protests, fundraisers on both sides. By suggesting that abortion is the same thing as miscarriage, Tarico attempts to sidestep the moral question entirely. Such an argument is doomed to fail.

Caribou and orcas don’t have abortions, they have miscarriages, just like human miscarriages. Environmental changes that are hurting the fertility of a species are worth talking about. Sloppy arguments that try to use these observations to avoid what is essentially a moral question are not.