Friday, February 11, 2005

The Abortion Debate

For those who regularly visit Jake's place, you may recall I tried to brush by this issue when commenting on John Kerry's book. There were a few reasons for doing that, beyond not really wanting to invite a flame war here. Primarily I avoid it because I don't feel qualified to say much about it for a few different reasons;

  • I'm a man. There appears to be a few aspects of this issue that I'll never fully grasp. Also, when men weigh in on this issue, you can sometimes smell the residual stench of a past patriarchal culture in the air; men trying to control the women, cattle and children.

  • I lived this decision. I was twenty when my first child was born. My wife was seventeen. I also had to face it with my youngest daughter, who decided her fiance was a jerk and called off the wedding after the deed was done. We made our choices, and I have no regrets. This causes me to have a biased view on the topic. Even though I know that I would have to live the life of another to fully comprehend why they make the decisions they make, I find myself rushing to a conclusion sometimes on this issue based on my life experience without fully considering the specifics of the situation.

  • I'm a priest. The spiritual considerations carry more weight for me than anything else.

  • I've never cared much for hard science, except for enough physics to understand a jet engine and how to rebuild a motor. I dropped out of school in the 10th grade, so I never got much biology. Consequently, I often make mistakes when discussing such topics (or applying first aid, for that matter).

    With those disclaimers, I want to try and see if it is possible to discuss abortion without all the usual emotion. If I make a mistake, point it out. You can point it out with a lot of heat if you want. It's a free world. This site is not free flame zone, however. Bring heat in here twice, and I'll show you to the door. The first flame is on me.

    As I understand it, the various positions on abortion can be broken down into three positions;

    1. Unborn babies are human beings.

    2. Fertilized eggs (or one celled zygots) are not human beings.

    3. We cannot draw a line defining when the fertilized egg becomes a human being.

    Considered separately, each of these statements appeals to common sense, to some degree. But #1 cannot contain #2, and #3 is really no position at all.

    Yet it is #3 that needs to be considered at the beginning, I think. As a Christian, one of the essential issues would be ensoulment, as that would be the moment the fetus would become a person. Does ensoulment happen at conception?

    Consider the situation of a fertilized egg dividing after conception, forming twins. If ensoulment happens at conception, do they each get half a soul, or is ensoulment delayed in this case? This might seem to be an absurd example to some folks. I don't think so, as what it reveals is that we have at least one specific situation in which we have to admit we don't know when the moment of ensoulment happens, which places doubt on the assumption that it happens at the moment of conception. Drawing the line at conception is making such a judgement based on assumption.

    Drawing the line at any time is problematic, as without good data, we find ourselves arbitrarily moving that line. Let's say we agree that three months is the line; a fertilized egg is not a human until that 91st day. I'm fairly sure that it would not be too difficult to convince you, in light of special circumstances, to allow a fetus that was 90 days, 23 hours and 50 minutes old to be considered a baby. Or, in other circumstances, to consider a baby that was 91 days and 10 minutes old to be a fetus. Drawing the line quickly becomes a slippery slope, with little or no consistency.

    One consistent position seems to be to draw the line all the way back to before the sexual act. That seems a bit extreme to me, and tends to mix some issues that I would think need to be addressed separately. Yet, possible solutions, from every side of the issue, do indeed include such line drawing to some degree.

    I think the lack of a line that everyone can agree on is at the root of why this issue is so divisive. So, problematic or not, I think we have to try and find such a line.

    How do we go about doing this? I'm going to refer to the two models of ethical decision making that I've mentioned a few other times here; deontology and consequentialism (a note, in case Radfem or Ms. Baber reads this; I'm conflating consequentialism and utilitarianism a bit here for the sake of simplicity). A deontologist would assert that some things are always right, and some things are always wrong, based on a moral code, often credited with divine inspiration. A consequentialist would claim that the greatest good for the greatest number is the right thing to do.

    The classic example of this is to imagine you are the captain of a sinking ship in the North Atlantic. You are in a life boat, which is sinking because it is overloaded. As captain it is your responsibility to make a decision; do you send some people over the side to freeze to death in order to save everyone else? Or do you refuse to do that, because killing another person is always wrong?

    The realities of life are not always black and white. In order to sort through some of the difficult ethical decisions we are sometimes called to make, most of us will end up a bit of both; a deontoligical consequentialist, if you will. Some things (rape, murder) are always wrong. Others are not so clear.

    I would think that most folks can agree on a few things being always wrong regarding this issue. I've yet to see a convincing argument that will sway me from believing that partial birth abortions are anything less than murder. If you disagree, I have to wonder if you are familiar with the details of the procedure.

    I've never met anyone who described themselves as "pro-abortion." I think we can agree that abortion is always a tragic event. Could we then say that using abortion as a form of birth control is wrong? There are better ways; such as improved health education, including teaching both contraception and abstinence, and better access to health services. A focus on preventing unwanted pregnancies would seem to be the way to eliminate abortions.

    But things happen. Let's consider some exceptions. What about rape victims? I'm not sure I can really talk about this, as I can't imagine living with that kind of trauma. The closest thing to it would be an attempted rape when I was in jail, which was not successful only because I resorted to physical violence. I was in the bull pen (all the prisoners sharing one common bunk area), which made the next few days after that attempt quite memorable; I moved my bunk to a safer area,and learned to sleep on my back, but the feeling of being hunted prey didn't leave me for a long time.

    But I digress...I've heard insisting that a rape victim give birth is "punishing" the woman for the rest of her life. I find that logic troubling. The potential child is innocent. Do we decide to terminate that life because of the possible trauma it may cause to the woman? Is that the greater good? I realize I'm going out on a limb here. The rape victims that I have known are sometimes quite traumatized for the rest of their lives. This may be one of those areas where I'm wrong, due to my lack of understanding of the specifics of the situation.

    Incest is another exception often noted. Once again, I don't know enough biology, or have much experience with this situation, and so probably should not even venture an opinion.

    Danger to the woman's health is another exceptional situation. I think this one calls for careful consideration. Ethically, one could make a case for self defense. The situation is not that clear, of course, as the infant/fertilized egg is innocent. Yet the woman's body is being threatened by another. The reality is, even if you're convinced that all abortions are acts of murder, in this case doing nothing could be considered intentionally harming the mother.

    I'm not going to go into some of the more extreme arguments, such as population control or eugenics, as I don't think they are worthy of consideration, and I haven't heard anyone advocating for either one for a long time. Those who still claim that pro-choice folks have such an agenda are stretching the truth a bit, it seems to me.

    Lots of words, that leads to what conclusion? Most likely a rather unsatisfactory one for some folks. Abortion is always tragic. As a form of birth control, it is abhorrent. At the same time, life experiences do not always fall into clean little categories. Any restrictions need to allow for consideration of the specifics of each situation. Blanket outlawing would be a step backwards, and would deny women the right to safe health care that met the needs of their particular situation.

    One last disclaimer. I don't agree with the right or the left on this issue, and am personally rather frustated by their inconsistencies regarding sanctity of life issues. The right wants to outlaw abortion to protect the unborn, while they cheer on those who murder innocent Iraqis and support a leader who as governor cracked jokes about the number of people he had put to death. The left protests the war and capital punishment yet gets in a lather if anyone suggests taking the life of an infant is an act of murder. We live in strange times.

    Life is a precious gift. I'm troubled by the Dr. Kervorkians, the Donald Rumsfelds, as well as some of the rhetoric I hear from the pro-choice folks. History shows that human beings can kill one another, and that over time we can become rather callous about it. It looks to me like we're rapidly growing some new callouses, in a number of different places.

    Personally, I think this inclination to be more accepting of taking life is wrapped up in our previous discussions about the individual. To a Western mind, the realization that God dwells in each of us often goes no further than an awareness that divinity dwells in the individual. The result is many little gods, who, unable to master the ultimate act of God, the act of creation, resort to a secondary power attributed to the divine by mythology; the power to destroy.

    To end on a more positive note, have you seen Senator Clinton's recent comments on this issue? It's worth a read. Here's an excerpt;

    ...There is no reason why government cannot do more to educate and inform and provide assistance so that the choice guaranteed under our constitution either does not ever have to be exercised or only in very rare circumstances. But we cannot expect to have the kind of positive results that all of us are hoping for to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions if our government refuses to assist girls and women with their health care needs, a comprehensive education and accurate information.

    So my hope now, today, is that whatever our disagreements with those in this debate, that we join together to take real action to improve the quality of health care for women and families, to reduce the number of abortions and to build a healthier, brighter more hopeful future for women and girls in our country and around the world...
    Even though it's obvious that Hilary is positioning herself to run in 2008, and even though she made me shudder by using the "I" word (individual), she'll always get my vote. The Senator had me years ago, as soon as she went to work on a national health plan.

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