Cartoon: If A Fetus Could Talk

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Okay, this one is probably in bad taste. But every friend I showed this to while I was working on it laughed.

The “fetus” in this strip – who is, like the pro-life illustrations I’m lampooning, drawn unrealistically to look like a born baby – is of course speaking my views, just as the talking fetuses in pro-life cartoons speak those cartoonists’ views. Because fetuses don’t have views of their own.

I’m going to quote a blog post I wrote years ago, on this subject. Head over to that post if you’d like to read more and see some supporting links.

Here’s what “personhood” means to me: the ability to subjectively  experience consciousness; to have thoughts and feel emotions; to have a  personality. This ability, in humans, is located in the cortex of the  brain, where all our thoughts and emotions take place.

Why am I so focused on the brain as the center of what we are?  Because the brain is the only part of a person’s body that cannot be  destroyed while leaving the person still alive.

To see what I mean, imagine that you get an emergency call: Someone  close to you has been in a terrible accident. You rush to the hospital,  and are told that your friend’s heart has been destroyed. However, a  tourist from Belgium happened to die the same day, in the same hospital,  and luckily is a tissue match for your friend. (Luckily for your friend, not so luckily for the dead Belgian).

Repeat the same thought exercise, except this time imagine different  body parts being replaced with a part from the unfortunate Belgian. A  hand transplant. A kidney. Ears. Hair. Lungs. No matter which part is  replaced, it’s still your friend. You’re not mistaken to feel you have an ongoing relationship with this person, despite the new  heart/hand/kidney/ear/hair/whatever.

Now imagine that the doctors say your friend’s brain was utterly destroyed in the accident. But not to worry – they have put in  the Belgian’s brain. The doctors tell you that your friend now remembers  an entirely different life, speaks a different native language, and has  a completely new personality; but other than that, she’s still the same person you know.

Does that make any sense? Is this the same person you considered your  friend? Most people would say no. The survivor of that operation wasn’t your friend; it was the Belgian tourist.

In science fiction movies like The Man With Two Brains, some  people can be reduced to brains in jar, but they’re still themselves,  and audiences have no trouble accepting that notion. Why does that ring true with us?

Because it gets at a core truth. Our brains – and in  particular, the personality imprinted in the cortex – is the one part of  a person that cannot be destroyed and still leave the person in any  sense intact. But as long as that part is retained, we are still, in a meaningful sense, the same person.

So when does personhood begin? I don’t know. But I know that it can’t possibly happen before the fetus has a fully functioning cerebral cortex, capable of supporting thought.

In particular, it’s not possible for there to be any thought or  awareness before the emergence of pyramidal cell dendritic spines on  neurons, which happens relatively abruptly at about the 28th week. Pre-dendritic spines, the cerebral cortex might as well be a pile of gray slush, in terms of how well it can actually function.

Once the dendritic spines are in place, does the fetus become a  person that instant? I doubt it. I think a working cerebral cortex is a necessary condition of personhood (in human beings, anyhow – maybe  Vulcans are different), but I don’t think it’s sufficient. Once a fetus  has a fully working cerebral cortex, to some extent that’s like having a blank hard drive; the hardware is all in place, but the data is still to come.

Nonetheless, as far as abortion is concerned, I find the science reassuring. Personhood, as I understand it, can’t even begin to exist until at least the 28th week – and probably doesn’t exist in any  meaningful form until well after that point. But virtually all abortions  – even those abortions usually referred to as “late term” abortions –  take place long before the 28th week of pregnancy.

The first panel is true  – I really did have this conversation, with my housemate Sarah, which inspired this strip.

The art in this strip was very easy: I drew a cartoon baby with no clothes or background six times. But to do anything more, in any of those panels, would have detracted from the cartoon. To make up for it, I put a lot of work into drawing panel 1: Dumpster, litter, bricks drawn in perspective, etc.

Panel 7 – “notice who they’re leaving out?” – describes nearly all pro-life arguments.


This cartoon has eight panels.

Panel 1

A woman and a man are walking down a city sidewalk, chatting. The woman is looking a little irritated; the man is holding up a finger in a “that gives me an idea!” gesture.

WOMAN: You know the genre of political cartoon I hate? Pro-life cartoons with a fetus lecturing from inside a womb!

MAN: I should draw one of those!

Panel 2

This panel, and almost all the remaining panels, show a fetus inside a vaguely drawn womb shape, which is itself in a blank void. The fetus, who is drawn to look like a baby rather than like a fetus, is smiling and talking directly to the reader.

FETUS: Hi folks! I’m Frank the friendly fetus, talking from inside the womb!

Panel 3

A close-up  of the smiling fetus’ face. He’s pointing at his head with one finger.

FETUS: Except not really, because you know what? My cerebral cortex isn’t functioning yet!

Panel 4

FETUS: So I can’t talk! Or think! Or feel anything at all – not even pain!

Panel 5

The fetus is giving the “thumbs up” gesture with both hands.

FETUS: So if you need an abortion, go for it! It’s okay! I literally feel nothing and have no preferences!

Panel 6

For the first time, the fetus looks serious rather than smiling. It’s raising a forefinger to make a point.

FETUS: I’m not a person! But the pregnant person is! So it’s up to them to decide!

Panel 7

This panel shows a dark-haired pregnant woman, in a dress and carrying a purse, walking through what looks like a park. The word balloon leads down to her pregnant stomach.

FETUS: Speaking of which, pro-life cartoons often show wombs floating in a blank void. Notice who they’re leaving out?

Panel 8

A shot of the smiling fetus, who is holding up a medical instrument in one hand.

FETUS: In summary: Abort me! Or don’t! It’s your choice!

FETUS: Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

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16 Responses to Cartoon: If A Fetus Could Talk

  1. 1
    dreadfullyawry says:

    The last panel is going to upset a lot of pro-lifers.

    This is not a criticism!

  2. 2
    Ampersand says:

    I know, pro-lifers hate TED Talks! :-p

  3. 3
    Sebastian H says:

    On the spectrum of commenters here I’m relatively pro life (support 1st trimester abortions, generally don’t support non medical abortions around month 5 so I’m rabidly pro choice from the point of view of the church I was raised in) and it didn’t seem in poor taste till the last frame.

  4. 4
    Eytan Zweig says:

    I am strictly pro-choice, and I didn’t find the last frame offensive, because I understood it as a reference to the political cartoons that are being parodied. But taken out of context, it is self-defeating, because it’s still an image of a fetus telling its mother-to-be what to do. I’d much rather it say “In summary, abort me if you want to“.

  5. 5
    Mandolin says:

    Agreed with Eytan.

  6. 6
    Ampersand says:

    Eytan and Mandolin – would you recommend me editing that panel?

  7. 7
    Mandolin says:


  8. 8
    Ben Lehman says:

    Yeah, I think that having the fetus express a preference in the last panel undermines the point of the comic — that fetuses don’t have preferences.

  9. 9
    Ampersand says:

    Cartoon has been edited! Thanks, folks.

  10. 10
    Eytan Zweig says:

    Thanks for the edit – I think it makes the point of the cartoon a lot more effectively.

  11. 11
    Joe in Australia says:

    I wasn’t prepared to like it but the last sentence really made it for me, I don’t know why.

    Edit: for the avoidance of doubt, when I read the last panel it said:
    “FETUS: In summary: Abort me! Or don’t! It’s your choice!
    “FETUS: Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.”

  12. 12
    Ben David says:

    But we know with certainty that at some point fetuses do feel/express/seek to avoid pain (with the same certainty we know that animals do) and that they do respond to music and human voices.

    So what you’re saying is you’re opposed to abortion from that point on in the pregnancy?

    Didn’t expect that kind of nuance on this blog…

  13. 13
    Eytan Zweig says:

    Well, from what I know (and a quick google doesn’t contradict it), you’re talking about things that happen about 29-30 weeks into a pregnancy. I think many pro-choice people think that abortions at that stage should at least be subject to more constraints.

    I am categorically opposed to abortion at the point where the fetus could be delivered -Alice instead. I do not think this is an unusual position among pro-choice people or.

  14. 14
    Saurs says:

    Eytan, I would disagree that informed pro-choice people would always draw a line there, given what we know about those very rare pregnancies and their fate without intervention by abortion. “Delivery,” presumably meaning a live* birth, doesn’t indicate survival post-birth. Of course, where the pregnant person is healthy enough themselves to continue, you can expedite “delivery” of fetuses with serious birth defects incompatible with life by inducing labor at the 38+ week mark, far past the typical and arbitrary second-trimester demarcation. But, again, doing so may not be a safe option for all pregnant people, hence the necessity of full and universal access to earlier pre- and post-viability termination options without waiting periods, all manner of screening (beginning with pregnancy testing), and pre-natal care. If we’re going to take pregnancy and child-birth seriously, maybe we should take it seriously.

    Where brief post-partum palliative care is the best that can be offered to an abnormal fetus, I personally don’t support limiting any pregnant person’s access to safe termination methods at the time of their choosing. But I also think that access should not be limited based only on medical considerations, so that would make me an extremist based on the norms of this country.

    *are nominally pro-choice (always with lots of interesting, internally contradictory restrictions) people aware of how doctors in the US performing a first-trimester abortion have to comply with relevant laws, which defines a live birth in deliberately squishy ways, governing surgery and assisted fetal death?

  15. 15
    Eytan Zweig says:

    Just to clarify:

    I specifically said “more restriction”, not “banned”, for late-term abortions. I think there are many situations in which they should be allowed, including all the ones you discussed, as well as others concerning the welfare of the mother for non-medical related reasons (for example, if the woman in question was illegally prevented from seeking an abortion earlier even though she wanted one).

    As for what I said I am opposed to, when I said “could be delivered alive” (well, or Alice as my phone decided) I didn’t mean alive at the second of delivery, but with a reasonable prospect to stay alive through infancy. So I don’t actually think we are in disagreement here. Also, in my mind, and perhaps mistakenly, allowing a fetus to die by omitting to induce the mother if that is unsafe for her is not abortion and therefore I wasn’t addressing that case. But generally, if the mother is capable of informed consent, the choice of whether to induce or not should be hers.

    (I’m not very informed on how laws in the US define live birth, but I was assuming a common sense definition made in good faith, which is clearly not the case in many of them)

  16. 16
    Ampersand says:

    I’m worried about if a law banning some late-term abortions might do more harm than help.

    Abortion bans overreach; the practical effect of any abortion ban will be, not just to make the type of abortion banned less available, but to make adjacent types of abortion less available.

    And I suspect the primary problem as described to me by pro-life rhetoric – which is, medically unwarranted abortions performed the day before a natural birth would have taken place – almost never happens.

    So the question for me isn’t “is unneeded day-before-birth-would-have-happened-anyway abortion bad?,” but “would outlawing it cause more harm than help due to pregnant people with legitimate needs having those needs denied due to the law’s overreach?”