This past weekend, I read a post by John Cole on Balloon Juice where he asked a rhetorical question regarding the prohibition on spending federal money for abortions. There were well over a hundred comments, many of which made bold assertions and/or posed interesting questions. One assertion was that the issue of abortion was unique amongst all others debated in American society — that the topic was more volatile and the arguments more heated than any other. The claim seemed to have a ring of truth to it, but as I read the many responses that offered sound counterpoints, I began to doubt my original reaction. Who was right?
I found that I couldn’t answer the question with total conviction, so I decided to sort the issue out for myself.
My first inclination was that the caldron boiled up out of differences in perception of when life begins. This was suggested in another blog comment, and appeared to make sense. I mean, no reasonable person would condone killing an innocent child, right?. So, if this assumption is correct, then it follows that if you are “pro-life” (a loaded half-truth term if I ever heard one), you believe that life begins at conception. In contrast then, the “pro-choice” (a euphemism of the other extreme) position must conclude that life begins at some other point . . . but when?
Is there another point in time that can mark when the embryo becomes a person? It certainly cannot be birth, as again I’ll make a “reasonable person” assumption and conclude it insane to argue that a fully gestated fetus who happens to still “live” within the womb is not a person. Should the line be drawn at the first heartbeat? That would seem to indicate another distinct being — but at less than a month into pregnancy and only one-quarter of an inch long . . . it certainly doesn’t seem very human. So, maybe the formation of something resembling human appearance would make sense; this occurs at around 8 weeks into pregnancy, when the embryo becomes a fetus and the skeleton and all major organs are formed. But can an organism that’s only an inch and half long really be considered a person?
What constitutes a person, I thought? What makes us human?
It’s our brains — that’s it! The human brain is what sets us apart. Perhaps personhood occurs when the developing brain is capable of conscious thought. After all, could an unthinking fetus really be considered a person? This would mean that the fetus becomes a person at around 23 weeks, right about the time when it’s capable of surviving outside the womb. Yes, this is starting to feel like I’m getting somewhere — I mean, if the organism has the appearance and physiology of a human and is also capable of survival separate from the mother, then it must be a person.
So, is that it? Can the demark be set at the development of conscious thought? This conclusion is not without rational support. If this is the case, then abortion prior to week 23 would have to be considered the termination of a non-person. And since, as a society, Americans assign no immorality to the termination of non-human life-forms for the benefit of our species, then such an action would have to be considered within the bounds of morality.
But wait a minute — “non-human?” If the fetus is not human, then what is it? Maybe it is human but still not a person . . . okay, again: what makes us human? What really makes us human?
Oh damn, it’s our freaking DNA — yikes! And what is a “person?” I feel that slope starting to slip away . . . a person is an individual human. And what makes us individuals?
Okay, I’m in free fall now, slipping down that slope at breakneck speed. It all leads back to the DNA. Once conception occurs, a separate human being is created. The blueprint is complete, and it’s already been decided whether this new life will have green eyes or brown, whether it’s a girl or boy. Setting aside any complications that may occur from environmental causes, the die has been cast. A new life exists, and that life is the very specific child who will emerge from the womb and enter this world gasping for air, the child who will later have a name and a personality all their own.
So, if “life” does begin at conception, but a “life-form” doesn’t actually exist until much later, could it be that the issue really concerns degrees of personhood? The embryo then isn’t as much of a person as the third-trimester fetus? As harsh as it sounds, there seems to be some validity to this conclusion, but at the same time it appears to teeter on the precipice of another very slippery slope. I mean, if there are degrees of being a person, and they’re based on physiological criteria, then does that mean that certain people with disabilities are lesser persons? How about those with disorders affecting their cognitive functioning? What would this say about people with Down syndrome or Alzheimer’s?
I find that I can’t fully accept the notion of a “lesser person,” but neither can I completely dismiss it. The concept has some substance but quickly becomes riddled with its own issues if pushed to extremes. I’m compelled to accept that some weight must be given the idea, but that neither the uniqueness of the abortion issue nor the substance of the moral dilemma can be settled on this point alone.
What is at the crux of the matter then? Certainly religious beliefs have their affect, their part to play. But set strictly on the stage of religious debate, does abortion stand alone as an issue of some unique status? At first blush, it certainly seems of the same general category as capital punishment, or perhaps even war — at least inasmuch as the valuation of human life is concerned.
Looking at Christianity, the death penalty does have some limited justification (I believe debatable), and war, under the right circumstance, is even sanctioned. Abortion, while not specifically mentioned, would not find any such leeway. The only Biblical topics from which to gain guidance would be the treatment of children or more generally of any innocents. The scripture is very clear about the nature of inflicting harm on an innocent person, be it a child or any other. But this ethic cannot be applied strictly to abortion. It would have to apply to innocent victims of war or capital punishment as well. So, I’m forced to conclude that if abortion is somehow unique, it’s not because of religion — at least not directly from doctrine or scripture.
So, what is it that makes abortion such a heated and contentious issue? Is there another aspect that renders the abortion debate truly unique?
Of course there is: approaching the issue from the “where does life begin” perspective, one is invariably led down the “pro-life” path. But the instant the issue is addressed from the opposing viewpoint, another major issue becomes immediately evident: there’s more than one life involved, and not merely “involved” but committed. What about the mother? Is there another issue where the subjects hold such a unique relationship? I think not. So, this then is an aspect of the abortion issue that sets it apart from all others.
When the “pro-life” side asserts that abortion should be illegal, from their perspective, they are focused on “saving an innocent.” But well intentioned or not, this act is an attempt to enforce their moral position on another person, and to do so without personal obligation or accountability. The “pro-choice” person, upon whom they would force their ethic, perceives their assertion as third-party interference in the very personal matter of their own body. The assertion is therefore seen as aggression and is summarily rejected.
The abortion debate is presently so heated and contentious because the two sides are so emotionally attached to their separate yet interconnected priorities. “Pro-lifers insist that the priority is the “sanctity of life” and ascribe said sanctity to only the life of the unborn. “Pro-choicers” respond that there are two lives involved and that nobody has the authority to dictate what they do with their own body. In this manner, each side asserts their own point without adequate consideration for the opposing view. In practice, the argument becomes something like, “It’s about the unborn life, so the hell with your rights regarding your body” versus “There may be a new life, but it’s in my body, and you’re not going to tell me what to do about it.”
Is somebody right and somebody wrong here?
No, I’m afraid in the end, the abortion debate is just another case of the extremes defining the issue, and this is the true source of the heat. I personally believe that life does begin at conception, but I also believe in a woman’s right to choose. So, does this make me some sort of idiot, or even worse a conscienceless villain? Of course I don’t think so.
I believe this makes me a thinking person. The abortion debate does demand that I make a moral decision, but the decision does not rest solely on the “right to life” of the unborn fetus. This would be an extreme oversimplification. A responsible decision can only be made with full consideration for the wellbeing of both the mother and child. Concern for the unborn is without doubt a respectable position, but to ignore the realities of life beyond birth is not only irresponsible but completely immoral.
The reality is that abortion cannot be properly addressed without knowledge of the specifics of each case. Consideration for extenuating circumstance pertaining to conception (rape and incest) and pregnancy (medical health of mother and fetus) are of primary importance, and are often allowed some latitude even amongst “pro-life” forces. But the facts of the situation don’t end there. If the wellbeing of the unborn is the primary concern, then evaluation of the life that child will be born into must also be taken into account. To do otherwise would be purely hypocritical.
The real issue that fuels the abortion debate is our American proclivity to seek black and white answers for a very gray world. In this sense, abortion is just another issue where the sides refuse to admit that there are trade-offs, that the only viable solution lies somewhere in the middle. You cannot advocate for a woman’s right to choose without appreciation for the rights of the unborn, and you most definitely cannot raise concern for an unborn fetus without consideration for the life of the child. Either extreme represents engagement in a zero-sum game and neither will yield acceptable results.
The current “win/lose” mentality of the debate divides our country into a “we/they” conflict where the objective is to force the ethics and priorities of one side upon the other. It doesn’t have to be this way. Resolution can be found on the path of unity, but we must first acknowledge that We the People are in this together. If abortion is given its proper place as a symptom of other social problems, then we can begin to work together toward resolution.
If “pro-life” forces are truly concerned about the child, then rather than continuing their fight to force unsupported births, they could focus their efforts on preventing unwanted pregnancies and addressing the reasons women seek abortions. Fortunately, I believe that the vast majority of women are absolutely incapable of making the abortion decision lightly. If you accept this premise, then you must agree that the direct path to minimizing abortion rates is through education and the provision of viable alternatives.
At the end of the day, the incendiary debate regarding abortion in America isn’t so unique after all. There are specific aspects not found elsewhere, and religious fervor certainly fans the flames, but in the final analysis, it’s just another sore on the soft underbelly of American culture. It has become the American way to frame any significant national issue as a debate, and in so doing, to fuel the fire. Debates by definition are win/lose propositions, and so long as our major social issues are held as such, they will continue to produce the heat.
The truth is that, regardless of which debate, everybody believes they have a valid position, and nobody wants to lose. Sides are taken and the only people really served are those who benefit from the issue not being resolved. Whether the issue is abortion or health care or war, it doesn’t matter. Progress always requires change, and change always impacts individuals. If we want resolution, then the “conversation” must turn from debate to discussion to real dialog. When that happens, we’ll be on our way to a better America. If it doesn’t, we all better learn to speak Chinese.