A Common-Sense Pro-Choice Manifesto
There is probably no more deeply divisive cultural/religious issue in the United States today than Abortion. Perhaps the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also produces extremists equally as convinced not only of their own rightness but also of the wrongness, moral imbecility, and outright evil of the opposing viewpoint and it's adherents. But for sheer quantity and vehemence of fanatics on both extremes I believe the Abortion debate reigns supreme.
To some, the Abortion debate centers on the issue of a Woman's right to control her own body. To others the primary focus is the protection of the most innocent and vulnerable Human Beings from murder. You can usually spot extremists of either stripe by the blank stares you will get when you try to introduce to them the opposite viewpoint's central issue. But I believe that a rational discussion of the Abortion debate must start with the recognition that it, more than any other thorny issue confounding society today, places the imperatives against murder and against slavery in conflict with each other. Can society extend it's jurisdiction into the interior of a woman's body, usurping that woman's own jurisdiction? Can a woman commit murder in the name of control over her own body? These are the central issues, and frankly I'm dismayed by the quantity of ink & electrons wasted debating Abortion while ignoring both questions.
I wont. In fact, I'm going to come right out and say that I accept as a postulate that all of our rights are tempered and limited by our responsibilities towards each other, and that a woman's right to control her own body, while great and central, does not give her the right to commit murder. The obviously-arising next question is; Does a woman commit murder by having an Abortion? The dictionary tells me that murder is “the crime of unlawfully killing a person”. (Now, at this point a pro-choice extremist might say something like: “Fine! Let's pass a law saying that Abortion is legal, so any person killed during the act would be killed lawfully.”) I'm not going to indulge in such semantic games, that is avoiding the difficult real question: Is that which is killed during the act of Abortion a Human, a Human Being? This, it seems to me, is the central issue with which any serious and honest person must wrestle.
Now, I'm an I.T. Guy. I program computers and administer computer systems for a living. I've often had to fix computer systems (software and hardware), that are in some sense not doing what the surrounding humans want them to do. And typically, at the start of such tasks, I have no clue what is going wrong. Indeed, many times the task of getting the people who use the computers to explain to me both (1) what the system is doing wrong and (2) what they would like the system to be doing instead, is itself a daunting task. And it is still the smallest of 'step ones'. Once I understand what is supposed to be happening, what instead IS happening, and what the difference is, I still have no clue about what is going wrong. How do I begin to find out? I start to try and figure out WHEN things go wrong. Information goes into one end of a computer system, it is bounced about, massaged and twiddled in long multi-step processes, and eventually the results are presented to the relevant people. If I can start at the start and see that all is well after step one, all is well after step 2,... and then go to the other end and say hmm, I see things are screwed up at this point, and I can see things were already screwed up at the previous step, and at the step before that..., at some point I will encounter a step, a fairly simple component, into which good data enters and bad results come out! And then I'm making progress....
Anyway, that's how I approach this issue. I know that eventually that which is in a woman's womb becomes a middle-aged computer-programmer typing at a keyboard, or more generally a Human Being. When does this happen? Well, forgive me for considering myself Human, but I accept as a postulate that I and the folks with whom I argue the Abortion issue are indeed Human Beings. In fact, I accept as a postulate that a New-Born baby just emerged from it's mother's womb is a Human Being just like you and me. And you know what? I further make a leap of common sense and claim that there is nothing mystically transcendent about the journey from within to without the mother's womb, so that baby was a Human Being for at least some time before it was born!
So, I believe that for at least some time before birth, that which is within a pregnant woman's womb is indeed a Human Being, and to kill it would be Murder. The obvious next question is: When did this state of affairs come about? At what instant in time did there begin to be a Human Being present in the pregnant woman's womb?
Not that I'm trying to dodge the above question, but we've been pretty fast and loose with the term “Human Being”. I never did define the term, and I guess it didn't matter much because I wasn't slapping the label “Human Being” on anything especially controversial. We're going to start examining more esoteric cases, maybe it's time to try and nail down a precise definition of the term “Human Being”.
Or maybe it's not. Plane Geometry is the study of points, lines and planes, yet those three fundamental concepts are not even defined in Plane Geometry. We Geometers are pretty explicit about it, we come right out and call them 'undefined terms' or 'primitives', and we just study their properties. See, if we try to formally define such fundamental terms we run into an 'infinite regression' issue. What are the meanings of the terms we use to define 'point', 'line', and 'plane'? What are their definitions? And oops, we're back out at sea in the same skiff we thought we'd just sailed into port. So, in Geometry we satisfy ourselves with an intuitive understanding of the fundamental concepts, and we accept certain fundamental 'postulates', statements we regard as true without proof, concerning them. And from that beginning we fill textbooks with theorems, logical consequences of the fundamental primitives and postulates.
So, maybe we should regard “Human Being” as an undefined term, a primitive. But, we are trying to decide exactly when a Human Being is present in a pregnant woman's womb! Surely we need to be able to know what a Human Being is. Let's at least try to get an “intuitive understanding”. Towards that end, I'd like to start out by distinguishing between the concepts of (1) life, (2) human, and (3) human being. Merely to list them like this is to begin to make clear the distinctions between them, yet these terms are treated as interchangeable in much of what is written about this issue. It's sloppy language and sloppy reasoning, and I don't think we'll get anyplace until we do better.
“Life”, is the state of being alive. It's opposite is “dead”, or “inert”. People are alive, cockroaches are alive, rocks are not alive, they are inert. Neither are computers alive (so far, anyway).
“Human” is the state of being of our species, whether alive or dead. My great-grandfather's grave has dead Human bones in it. My blood has all manner of red and white corpuscles and various other critters running around in it. Are my Human Red Blood cells each alive? Sure, why not! They're doing the same stuff as all the little protozoa we studied in High School Biology, and we said they were alive, right? We can even transplant a Human Heart out of a corpse into somebody else's body if we do it quickly enough. To my mind that heart was Human and Alive the whole time, and hopefully it and it's new surroundings will stay that way for a normal lifespan.
None of the preceding qualify to be called a “Human Being”. A Human Being is alive, it has “Life”. It is, of course, “Human”. But, as I hope I've made clear by the earlier examples, a “Human Being” is much more than that. It has consciousness, personality, a soul, it has things that we know are there but cannot touch or even define, at least I can't. In particular, to my mind, our present state of Science is not up to the task of defining the term “Human Being”.
This “Human Being” is the thing that it can be murder to kill. An act of Abortion can be an act of Murder only if it kills a “Human Being”. Maybe now we can begin to consider when it is that a “Human Being”, which I postulate is present at Birth and for at least a little while before, first shows up in it's mother's womb. Having established a stance about the state of affairs at Birth, I guess the natural thing to do is turn our attention to the other end of the pregnancy process; what have we (and have we not) at the instant of conception? Here is where we begin to encounter what William F. Buckley so elegantly characterized as a “dichotomy of opinion”!
For opponents of Abortion and advocates of the “Pro-Life” position, there is no ambiguity at all. Conception is the instant when a new Human Being, indistinguishable from you and I in any way that matters, begins to be present in the womb, and to bring about it's demise is murder. It has, after all, a complete set of DNA that is distinct from that of either of it's parents, and left to it's own devices it will naturally develop into a baby boy or girl in some nine months time. Consequently, all Abortion is Murder.
This position is a seductive one for many. It's simple, it's easy to understand. It's absolute, There is no ambiguity to it. But I cannot agree with it.
To begin with, I told a bit of a fib a couple sentences ago. As best as we can determine, in somewhat more than half of all cases this alleged uni-cellular “Human Being” will in fact not develop into a baby boy or girl. Instead it will fail to implant in it's mother's uterine wall, or will do so only fleetingly. And it is only a very small portion of all these failed pregnancies that are actually recognized as miscarriages. Most of the time this failure to implant occurs in the 1st or 2nd month of pregnancy, and it's perceived as a heavy or missed period if it's perceived at all. In 2011 there were in the rough neighborhood of four million live births in the United States. If the newly-conceived embryo is a Human Being, just like you and me, then we must face the fact that a good five million people died grisly (pre-natal?) deaths last year, and in each and every case were callously thrown in the garbage or flushed down the sewers as menstrual flow.
So, this notion of the newly-conceived embryo being a Human Being just like you and I derives in part from a mis-perception, or more accurately a lack of perception to which most all of us are prone, until we stop and think seriously about it. We think of all the newborn babies, and we imagine that we are therefore also considering all the unicellular embryos at the time of their conceptions. But the fact is we are not. This latter bunch is as least twice as numerous, but over half of them do not develop into newborn babies. Anyone who speaks with certainty of any particular newly-conceived embryo becoming a newborn baby must be using a crystal ball.
Now, when confronted with this idea, a common response is to say that this roughly 50% failure rate of newly-conceived embryos to become newborn babies is a 'natural' event and the natural order of things, this is 'God's will', and we needn't concern ourselves with such things. I find this kind of hard to swallow. Cholera, Diptheria, Polio, and the Bubonic Plague are all 'natural' events, part of the natural order of things. The recent earthquake in Haiti, and the Tsunamis in Japan and the Indian Ocean, were likewise 'natural' events, a part of the natural order of things. And how do the rest of us respond to these 'natural events'? Do we say 'Well, these are natural events, and God's will, and we needn't concern ourselves with them?' and turn our attention to more pleasant things? NO! Of course not. And why not? Because our fellow Human Beings are victims of these 'natural events', vast numbers of them are suffering and at mortal risk! And so, in the case of natural disasters, we mobilize vast resources and huge sums of money and as best as we can mightily bestir ourselves on behalf of our suffering fellow Human Beings. We view disease as a Mortal Enemy and we don't care if it's part of the natural order of things, we strive to eradicate diseases from the face of the Earth! And all in the name of concern and caring for our fellow Human Beings! Indeed, we'd call anyone who'd ignore the suffering of our fellow Human Beings callous, unfeeling, monstrous even.
Yet, it does not even occur to any us, even the most vocal and fanatically fervent exponents of the anti-abortion viewpoint, to try to do our duty on behalf of our fellow 'Human Beings' of the unicellular newly-conceived variety. And why not? How hard would it be to require that all women having unprotected sex be confined to facilities where their menses could be carefully collected and parsed at the microscopic level to rescue the unimplanted? Our emerging technology has successfully nurtured single cells to live birth in vitro! Perhaps these prodigals can be artificially re-implanted! Failing that, perhaps they can be cryogenicly preserved until technology catches up with this human need. And if all else fails, well at least we can offer these Human Beings the decent, respectful final rites that all Human Beings deserve.
All in all I cannot accord much respect to this notion of the humanity, the “Human-Beingedness” of the fetus. It seems to me, on my more cynical days, that this Human-Beingedness of any particular newly-conceived embryo depends mightily upon whom is being inconvenienced by it. As long as that group is confined to the unfortunate woman wishing to abort it, and it's effects on the rest of us are limited to providing us with a convenient target on which to heap scorn and moral disapproval, then that newly-conceived embryo is a 100% bona-fide Human Being identical in every way to you and I! But, let it's Human-Beingedness become in any way an inconvenience to any of the rest of us God-Fearing Christians, then suddenly all these qualifiers and ameliorations and extenuating circumstances leap in to play, and we are allowed to discard that particular newly-conceived embryo as merely another bit of menstrual tissue.
(By the way, please accept my apologies for my continued use of that awkward construction, “Human-Beingedness”, meaning “the state of being a Human Being”. Awkward it is, definitely, but over and over again people attempt to use the terms “Human” (like my blood is Human Blood) and “Life” (like my Cats are alive) to mean “Human Being”, the ambiguities multiply, and the discussion just devolves into chaos and a waste of time. Maybe I'll switch over to saying “PersonHood” instead, though even there we allow the beginnings of confusion by by not forcing ourselves to notice the distinction between 'Human' and 'Human Being'.)
So anyway, the above is why I reject the notion that the Human-Beingedness of the fetus ensues at the instant of conception. Anyone who wishes to live one's own life according to that notion is more than welcome to do so as far as I'm concerned. By all means, do not ever have an Abortion. Let no one and none of us in America force or coerce you in any way into having an Abortion, I think that would be evil.
I also wish to acknowledge that I've proven nothing absolute regarding the Human-Beingedness of the just-fertilized human ovum. I've only tried to demonstrate that that belief is just that, a belief, and one with serious logical inconsistencies. It's a belief that all of us are free to hold, but for all the reasons I've just outlined I believe we have no business forcing upon each other. It's not a belief that I hold personally. My belief in a merciful God leads me to think that He would not make persons of us only to have over half of us quickly die, and in such a grisly fashion.
So, that leaves the vast middle of pregnancy for us to deal with. What of the Humanity, the Human-Beingedness of the fetus at one month, three months, five months, seven, eight, nine?
I'm no more able to answer any of these questions in absolute terms than I am regarding conception, but I think the same tool to which I retreated in that arena also serves well here. How do we regard the Human-Beingedness or lack thereof of the developing fetus at all those points-in-time during pregnancy when we are NOT wearing our pro-Choice or pro-Life hats and arguing about Abortion?
Well, the most explicit example I can think of is when a pregnant woman (well, let's be just a little bit inclusive here and say 'a pregnant couple') experiences the misfortune of miscarriage. It seems to me that in those cases we are more-or-less sad according to our individual inclinations, but in general we do not behave in the same way that we do when a small child dies in some tragic accident or disease. We find very, very few headstones in the cemetery with ages like “negative three months” and such carved on them. And I must say that on the whole the rest of us behave much more honorably towards the woman or couple in these sad circumstances than we do towards the woman having an Abortion. Nobody chases them down the street waving signs proclaiming how they ought to behave. Further, it seems to me that, all other things being equal, the farther along the pregnancy was before the miscarriage, the more upset we are about it.
I think that, absent discussions of Abortion, we * all * view the Personhood of the growing fetus as a gradually waxing and developing thing. And when is it complete? Well, all I can say is sometime before birth. I don't know about you, but I'm still finding out just how much people have wrestled with this issue through the ages. I'm told that the ancient Hebrews believed that the life of the child was of equal importance as that of the mother when it's head and shoulders emerged from the womb. Thomas Aquinas spoke of the 'ensoulment' of the Fetus occurring during the 2nd trimester, and I believe one of the Pope's had actually proclaimed a fixed number of days of pregnancy at which Personhood ensued. And the numbers were different for Boys and Girls!
At this point in the discussion many who are of the Pro-Life persuasion say something along the lines of "When?!?!? When?!?!? Exactly when does the fetus become a person?" And when I say, as a very Wise Statesman once said, "The answer to that question is above my paygrade." they say "Well, I insist it happens at conception." The sad truth of the matter is that for much of Humanity, the thought of having to live with uncertainty is SO terrifying that they are happy to accept a profoundly stupid answer just for the sake of having an answer that saves them from the horror of having no answer. It's even dumber when you think alittle bit about precisely what it is that they are asking for: A uniform instant, like "Conception (itself a process over time) + X microseconds, uniform across every Human pregnancy that ever was, is in progress, or will be forevermore! When I was an adolescent I was very concerned with when I'd start growing a beard. I just *hated it* when my parents told me everybody develops at their own pace. But that is tne truth, and I suspect so too for fetal development, however desperately some folks think they need a set-in-stone answer. Hey, you swallowed it when you lost your defined-benefit pension and got a 401K, right?
It seems to me that, within these general parameters, the longer we put off terminating a pregnancy the more concerned we have to be that we are committing an act of murder. It is a good thing, then, that some 90% of Abortions performed in the USA are performed during the First Trimester. Personally, I'm pretty comfortable that no Murder is done there. When we get into the later 2nd trimester and the start of the 3rd, I personally feel more uneasy about what may or may not be going on. My understanding is that the majority of that 10% or so of Abortions are driven by medical issues of the Mother, I suppose I'm more comfortable with that motivation than a late-blooming case of cold feet. Ultimately, no one thinks of asking for an Abortion while they are in labor.
Perhaps not unsurprisingly, all the above discussion leads of to pretty much the same place we are at today under the Roe vs. Wade decision, The individual states can impose greater regulation on Abortion in the later stages of pregnancy. Wouldn't it be great if we could just leave it at that, and move on to other issues?
When people feel strongly about some issue, there is a great, great tendency to avoid even the smallest and most reasonable compromises because demonization of the other side and it's motives is such a strong reflex. “Give 'em an inch, and they'll take a mile!” and so forth. Just take a look at the Gun Control debate...
I'm pro-Choice, but I also believe that Parents should be the ones raising their children, so I general am in favor of parental notification requirements for a minor to have an Abortion. I guess there needs to be some kind of Judicial procedure as a fallback in the case of abusive parents, but that should be the rare exception rather than the norm.
I have no respect for and no patience with those whose opposition to Abortion boils down to the opinion that women seeking Abortions are sluts and should learn to keep their legs closed. At the start of this essay I complained about the amount of hot air & electrons generated over Abortion while failing to even consider the central issue, the Human-Beingedness or Personhood of what we kill via Abortion. The most popular by far of all the other piles of Crap that people run their mouths about when they debate this issue is the Moral Character of the woman seeking an Abortion. Do I even have to write down how stupid it is to imagine that the Personhood or non-Personhood of the developing fetus has anything to do with the moral character of the woman wrapped around it, or that of the Man who impregnated her?