Abortion is a very difficult and divisive issue in today’s cultural and political landscape (that might be an understatement). I am strongly in favor of abortion rights, so I do not come to this with a neutral perspective. On the other hand, I care about people, and many people I know and love are emotionally traumatized (and I do not think that is an overstatement) by abortion. In the worldview of these people, abortion is literally the voluntary, cruel, painful, disgusting murder of a child, a child unable to defend him/herself. I think all of us who support abortion rights need to remember that, and, for those of us who actually care about other people, need to imagine how it would feel if we knew that millions of children were being killed. Imagine there was a foreign country in which babies (make them two months old for the example to work) were being taken to a hospital or doctor’s office and being killed without anesthesia, for no reason other than they were too much of a burden on the parents. That is how it looks to some people who are anti-abortion. Although I do not view abortion that way, I know what it feels like to learn that children are dying, and I can imagine the outrage that I would feel if I did see abortion that way. I think that’s critically important to keep in mind. It’s that recognition that has driven me, for the past twenty years or more, to try to imagine a compromise. To be honest, I’ve put a fair amount of thought into this, but not as much as I could have for two reasons: 1) I am fairly certain there is no compromise, and 2) even if I thought of one, I have no power to implement it. That second one isn’t as meaningful as the first, because, as anybody who reads anything I post knows, it doesn’t stop me from opining on pretty much everything else that matters to me.
Let’s explore the idea that abortion is murder first. I have tried very hard over the years to find a fact-based argument for or against this position, and every attempt has failed. I’m looking for some fact, some criterion (or criteria) that we use universally to define this human life. Some have been tried, but they don’t hold up for me.
Life begins at conception. This one has the most promise, but falls short for a few reasons. I like it in principe. In one of my many FaceBook discussions on this, it was pointed out that it is the moment that a unique being, with unique DNA, begins to exist. I am moved by that argument in some ways, but I find it lacking in other ways. I think my largest sticking point is that there are many times that might happen, without any emotional attachment to it, and that we are not saddened when we learn that the spontaneous abortion rate is estimated to be as high as a third of all fertilization events. Subjective experience is certainly shaped by our surroundings, and I think we can become desensitized to death (like we are with respect to war and entertainment, etc), but I can’t pinpoint any ways that we have been desensitized to this. In that respect, I trust my subjective and non-emotional response, and the lack of any sadness that comes from learning that many (maybe even most) fertilizations do not lead to a baby being born, even without any action taken by the mother.
I am also a bit thrown by the “life begins” part. When I think about that phrase, it requires that what happened first was not alive, and that simply isn’t the case. The sperm, the egg, both alive, so how does something begin when it already began?
I also question whether or not people who say they believe this is when life begins, actually believe that this is when life begins. We sometimes aren’t aware of what we really believe until we find a way to question it, and here’s a way to challenge yourself, if you are a person who believes life begins at conception: Do you think abortion should be illegal in all cases, or should there be exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape, incest, or pregnancies that threaten the life of the mother? If you answered that it should be illegal in all cases, you may actually believe that life begins at conception. We do not allow somebody to murder an infant for any of those reasons, and we shouldn’t be allowed to murder an embryo/fetus either. If the mother had a disease that could be cured by harvesting the infant’s organs, but the infant couldn’t survive, we would never allow that infant to “donate” (in quotes because donation implies willfulness that the infant cannot express) an organ to save the life of his/her mother. When I think of it this way, I am left concluding that the people who say they feel that way might not have thought it through very well, and might not actually feel the way they think, either on the question of when life begins, or on the question of when an exception is acceptable.
Life begins at viability. This one is more satisfying to me, but is unacceptable to many. It’s more satisfying because it does have a line that can be drawn. I like that. There are some reasons that I don’t like it as the line for when we can and cannot allow abortion, but that’s not the point here. Still, my goal is to find something we all can agree on, and viability just doesn’t work for many people who are against abortion. Even before viability, it is killing a baby, and none of us like the idea of killing babies. I also recognize that there are many times when individuals cannot survive on their own, and we do not say that they are not alive, that they are not individuals with rights that should be defended, so viability (being able to live on one’s own), just doesn’t cut it for me as the defining line.
Life begins at first breath. This one doesn’t work that well for me, and certainly doesn’t work that well for those in the anti-abortion camp. I’m not one for trusting my gut, and I rely more on other things than I do on my gut, but with the exception of air entering the lungs, I just cannot come up with a difference between a 38-week fetus and a newborn baby.
How do we make policy then? That’s the big question. Given that we cannot agree on when a human life begins, and when to draw that line about when it has rights that need to be considered, how can we possibly make policy that requires that definition? It makes it very difficult, and I think this is where other factors need to be considered. So what are those things?
Body autonomy. This is a really important one for me. The woman’s body belongs to her. Period. There is no other circumstance when we force somebody to do something with their bodies, against their will, to benefit another individual. Even if we use the earliest definition of life, conception, and consider that embryo/fetus to be a unique life, with all of the rights given to a newborn baby, I do not think we can force the mother to care for that embryo/fetus. We do, however, require parents to care for their children, and we charge them with neglect if they do not. I recognize that counter argument, but we don’t require the parents to violate their body autonomy to do so. We don’t force breast feeding, and we certainly allow mothers to bottle feed without considering them criminally negligent. If a child needs a transplant and the parent is a suitable donor, we don’t charge the parent with criminal negligence if they refuse to give up an organ, violating their body autonomy, to keep the child alive. I think most of us would give that organ to a child of ours, but failing to do so isn’t criminal. So I am left with the strong sense that the State cannot require a woman to carry a pregnancy that she does not want, just as the state cannot require a woman to donate a kidney or even give blood, if she does not want to. The State should not be in the business of forcing people to do things with their bodies.
Religious freedom. This is a bit less impactful for me here, but still worth mentioning. It’s less impactful because I do not know of a religion that mandates abortion. I’m not saying with certainty that it doesn’t exist, but I’m unaware of one. There is an argument from the Old Testament that it is the required course of action if a women becomes pregnant outside of her marriage, but that is pretty antiquated and doesn’t seem to be followed by anybody. Nevertheless, if such a religious reason for abortion exists, we could certainly outlaw abortion for all but those people, although we don’t allow human sacrifice on religious grounds, so my guess is that we would stay consistent with that here and tell those few people it affects to pound sand. Still, there are religious views that impact the fundamental question here: when does the offspring become a human life? Talmudic scholars have written much about this for centuries, and some (not all, but some) have concluded that life begins at birth. Life, in this sense, is when the soul inhabits the body, which, from a religious perspective seems to be the most meaningful point. This view comes from Genesis 2:7 “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” The implication here is that Adam was formed, before and separately from giving him life. The line of when life started was when God breathed into his nostrils. When air entered his lungs. The reference to the “breath of life” means that it is that breath that brings life to Adam, and so it is for any being. That does not in any way say that Judaism calls for abortion, but it does remove the critical line that we might respect if we are going to violate body autonomy of the pregnant woman.
Population. This is cold and callus, and I know that, but I think there are times that we need to remove emotion from the situation and, as I said from very early in my creation of this site, be like Spock. The world has a lot of people, and lacks the resources to handle all of us. The more people we have, the more earth we need, and the earth is finite. At least for now, we rely on things that have a limited supply. We are working toward things that are renewable, but even there, the more people we have, the more we need. Until we can find a way to prevent all unwanted pregnancies, allowing people to end pregnancies they do not want helps us keep our population controlled. It clearly doesn’t work completely, because we still face problems with population growth, but it helps. That is not a good enough reason on its own, but it is at least a small tick on the list of things to consider.
Those are some large considerations for me, the first of which is probably the most important. My resistance to anti-abortion laws also stems from my view that the justification behind them is purely religious. I pointed this out on a FaceBook thread recently and the response I got was fair and reasonable.
A faith component to an anthropological reality does not render the action “forcing your religion”. My religion forbids other forms of unjust killing and rape adn burgulary [sic] etc . When I lobby the government for those things I am not imposing my Faith but using my civic sense illuminated by my Faith to ask our government to stop certain events. And no one complains when I do so. Same way here. Anthropologically and biologically abortion kills a human being hence I am opposed. My Faith also tells me that this is a grave moral evil and my civic sense tells me that the government should protect innocent human life so I do work to have my government protect innocent human life. I can see how politically deeply religious people would not want the government to enforce creedal statements, but no, I cannot understand how deeply religious people don’t want the government to protect innocent human life – seems to be one of the basic functions of society.
This is a very fair and very reasonable response. I responded by pointing out that the things mentioned (unjust killing, rape, and burglary) are things that are opposed outside of religion, and by most, if not all, religions also. In other words, there are justifications for these protections outside of religion also. When the only justification for a regulation is religious, I think we’re on troubled ground. Keeping Kosher is a requirement for Jews, but even Israel, the only Jewish nation in the world (the only country with Judaism as the official religion and the only country in the world with a Jewish majority), a Kosher kitchen is not law, in public or private. The United States does not have an official religion, and is constitutionally prevented from ever having an official religion. That we would be more theocratic in our approach to policy than a country with an official religion seems problematic to me. Of course plenty will disagree with that, and have repeatedly used religion as a justification for many policies they want to pursue, but as somebody who is not a member of the majority religion in this country, I am quite happy that many, if not most, of those objections have been overruled.
So where does this leave us? Nowhere. We still have folks like me who refuse to support policy that violates body autonomy of the mother, and we still have folks who are put in the position of watching hundreds of thousands of babies die, willfully, each year. So I’m left with no answers. One approach could be to do everything we can to prevent unwanted pregnancies, but that comes up against religious objections, often from some of the same people who oppose abortion. So I’m left with few answers, but, as usual, feel a little relief getting these thoughts organized and on paper (digital “paper”).