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The Abortion Debate

February 24th, 2006

I could have sworn that I’d blogged on this before, but a search does not reveal it. So here goes.

I am pro-choice. Like almost every other person who is pro-choice, I do not favor abortion. As Bill Clinton put it so well, abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. There is a mischaracterization, usually intentional, by the pro-life side that people who are pro-choice are “pro-abortion,” hence the epithet. But this is just as if not even more inaccurate than calling a pro-life advocate “anti-choice.” Pro-lifers like to characterize pro-choice advocates as people who love to see abortions carried out, and unhappy when a woman chooses to carry her pregnancy to term.

Well beyond these base political smears lies the truth. Being pro-choice has nothing to do with how one feels about abortion. That’s the center for the pro-life argument, but not for the pro-choice argument. The two are based upon entirely different foci: the pro-life paradigm centers on whether or not abortion is moral; the pro-choice paradigm pivots on who should make the choice about that morality.

I’ve always been dissatisfied with Roe v. Wade, not with its effect, but rather with its rationale. The rationale is based upon privacy, with foundations in Griswold v. Connecticut. The idea is that a person has the right to privacy in their medical decisions. Griswold was about whether the state could prohibit contraceptive medicine. The argument against was made claiming that an invasion of a patient’s privacy could endanger their health. The Supreme Court agreed, citing “penumbras” implying privacy rights in the Bill of Rights, as well as the 9th Amendment which guarantees rights not enumerated specifically in the Constitution.

Naturally I agree with the principle wholeheartedly–we should have privacy, and in my mind, we do have the right of privacy, especially in our health care choices. The problem that I have lies in the court using privacy as the central principle of the ruling, when in my opinion the real issue underlies that.

The Roe decision enumerated the stages of pregnancy and the restrictions involved in each trimester. In the first trimester, abortions are allowed generally without restriction; in the second, restrictions may be applied but may not transgress upon the health of the mother; and in the third trimester (or viable stage), the health or life of the mother is the only allowable excuse for an abortion to be carried out.

The question is, how does privacy dictate these three levels of restriction?

It seems to me instead that the divisions in Roe reflected the increasing likelihood of a fetus being a full-fledged human, capable of being ‘murdered,’ as the pregnancy progresses. It begins with a single fertilized cell which most people would have trouble acknowledging as a murder victim, to a fully-developed fetus at 9 months, ready to be born, which few would say is not a human being. So, for most people, there is a line between those two points at which the fetus crosses that vital threshold–but also for most people, it is questionable exactly where that line exists.

Ergo the divisions in Roe: abortions fully legal in the first trimester, somewhat restricted in the second, and heavily restricted in the third. But, at least to me, this does not reflect a rationale of privacy, but rather a recognition of the decision of where to draw the line of life increasing in difficulty as the fetus develops.

And that, ultimately, comes down to a question of personal beliefs. There is no definite scientific test to demarcate when a person becomes a person. Should it be defined by the heart beginning to beat? If so, why? Does blood flow determine humanity in some way? Should it be defined by viability, the ability of the fetus to survive outside the womb? Not logically–viability is fluid, it changes with medical technology, whereas the establishment of humanity would be an absolute. It’s not as if fetuses became human at eight months of development a hundred years ago, but then started developing humanity at six months only recently.

For me, the most plausible line that could be established would be related to higher brain function, the same test we apply to the end of life. That, however, is similarly vague, as such development happens over a long stretch of time. Self-awareness? How could that be tested? In the end, there is no clear scientific test, and even if there is, it is still a matter of personal opinion as to whether that determination truly matters.

This is ultimately a matter of belief. And that belief is rooted in one’s views of life, the universe, and everything, to steal a phrase. In other words, it is a spiritual or religious decision. And that clarifies the entire matter for me considerably: the state cannot force a certain religious or spiritual viewpoint on its constituents by statute. You can’t make a law that tells people what religious opinion must be followed upon pain of imprisonment. Each person has the right to determine their own stand on the matter. You cannot make a law forcing one to observe the religious determination of when life begins any more than you can make a law forcing people to observe religious doctrines concerning diet, dress, behavior, or worship.

In my mind, this is not nearly as much a matter of privacy as it is a matter of freedom of belief. And that most definitely is guaranteed, specifically, in the Bill of Rights. For me, privacy will act as a surrogate at best; I’ll accept it as doing the right thing if not for the most germane reason.

Of course, for people who are pro-life, this is not an issue. They have made the decision that abortion is an absolute wrong; there is no question in their minds, and they generally have no problem with forcing this view on others using statute, or in some cases, any other means to accomplish that goal.

There are those who claim that their objections to choice are completely secular, and have no relation to their religious beliefs. Quite frankly, I don’t believe them. It just happens that most of the people making this claim are, by chance, also religious, and also believe that abortion is a wrong by those standards. Like a smoker addicted to nicotine defending the idea that smoking does not cause cancer and using studies funded by tobacco companies as evidence, there is clearly too much bias involved to accept the claim that their religious belief is not at all influencing their “objective” conclusions. With those who are agnostic or atheistic and make the same claim, when pressed, the argument always comes down to the same line-of-life dictated by personal beliefs. There is no proof, and so by definition this is always a demarcation of belief. When it comes to medical matters, could there be any more pertinent issue involving personal religious beliefs than when life begins?

It is up to the individual to make this decision. That, to me, is the definition of choice in reproductive health decisions. And I do not have to favor or even remotely approve of abortion itself to approve wholeheartedly of the principle that each person deserves the right to make that decision free from interference by the state.

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  1. Luis
    February 24th, 2006 at 15:04 | #1

    Bill: your comments do nothing but prove my point that pro-lifers, as I said, “have made the decision that abortion is an absolute wrong; there is no question in their minds, and they generally have no problem with forcing this view on others using statute, or in some cases, any other means to accomplish that goal.”

    You simply accept as fact something which cannot be proven: when does a human being become a human being? We could argue points all day, but in the end, it comes down to the fact that we each make our own decisions on the matter.

    Edit: Plus, “Abortion was almost nill before it became legal”? My my, we do put blinders on ourselves, don’t we?

  2. February 24th, 2006 at 06:29 | #2

    Well put. These are the same arguments that led me to align with the pro-choice side. I kind of feel like the terms “Pro-Life” and “Pro-Choice” are crappy…

    Because being Pro-Life is about making a decision that about when life begins (directly after conception) and feeling that everyone else should behave based upon that belief, and Pro Choice is more about allowing people to make that decision for themselves. But both sides value life…

  3. Bill Thomas
    February 24th, 2006 at 14:43 | #3

    If you are Pro Choice than you support abortion and are for abortion. Don’t feed into that safe legal crap. Abortion was almost nill before it became legal.

    But back to my original point. If you are pro choice you are for abortion. Abortion is by definition the murder, of an unborn child. You can not justify such and act beacause of the inlikely possibillty that a women will try some dagerouse means on her own or with someone else to rid herself of her child. She should not be trying to kill her child in the first place. Remember there is no logic or excuse that justifies abortion.

  4. Bill Thomas
    February 24th, 2006 at 14:59 | #4

    The point Misa made is wrong. The Pro-choice view puts little to absolutely no value on life for the fact that they say it is someones choice to destroy it. While Pro-Life puts the highest value on Life beacause they hold that nobody has the right or choice to destroy a human life. They defend all forms of life. While Pro-choice allows and encourages the destruction of life. The positions have nothing in common.

  5. Cody
    February 24th, 2006 at 15:56 | #5

    Secondly, Bill, I have two points:

    1) if the pro-life movement values life above all else, why do they stop at birth? Shouldn’t their platforms include discussions about imrpoving the living conditions of those born?

    2) Although I haven’t reviewed this in awhile, I was unaware that abortion has always been legal. In fact, Hamilton argued (successfully) against anti-abortion laws that were being considered in New York. Similar to evolution and alcohol, there needed to be a movement to make it illegal.

  6. February 24th, 2006 at 16:46 | #6

    I found your post extremely eloquent and thoughtful. You bring up the most important point which is the debate over when life begins. Having given birth to two children and therefore realizing the truly unique and precious of every person I find the debate difficult. By no means do I think abortion should be illegal, or we will find ourselves back in a society of coathangers and back alleys.
    I do however disagree with abortion being used as a form of birth control. As I disagree with the selfishness that contaminates a pregnant woman to say that she would rather “lose” the child than give it up for adoption. (I am also an adoptee born to a 22 year old woman…at the time obviously.)

    I believe that if there was much more informative and cooperative sex-education being taught to our children, and much more openness on the part of parents; teachers and role-models, then perhaps…just perhaps…many future abortions could be prevented through the resulting diminishment of unwanted pregnancies.

    It is interesting how many advocates of Pro-Life, (that I have encountered anyways) also believe that condoms should not be in highschool washrooms, and promote abstinence as the best if not only solution. It is unrealistic to think that teenagers will not experiment with sex, and perhaps if we educate them early enough, and provide them with the right “tools”, then maybe we can help to make the act of abortion less common.

    One issue to look further at here may be the rights of the “father” and how that is put into the “privacy” and “when does life begin” debate.

    I tried to stay on topic. Thanks for your thoughts and analysis.

  7. misa
    February 25th, 2006 at 12:20 | #7

    Wow, Bill Thomas didn’t really read anything we said at all.

    I value life, no question. And I go to lengths to not get pregnant so I won’t have to personally decide when I think life begins, and I always have. And I think everyone should be educated to do the same, with birth control as easily available as possible…

    I just think it’s not clear that a 3 day old fetus is life… Also, a little off topic… but people think nothing of killing animals in the most brutal ways, and that’s life too… Certainly many animals that are legally killed in the most painful ways have more thoughts/feelings than a 3 day old fetus, but the people that go nuts about being Pro-Life don’t particularly go nuts about that. :(

  8. Luis
    February 25th, 2006 at 12:36 | #8

    Misa: I think you’ve touched on the problem in communicating with the pro-life side. They are so blinded by their certainty of moral righteousness that anything but agreement becomes white noise which, to them, represents a total lack of morality or possibility of value.

    As for their respect for life, I think it’s fair to say that they mean (with perhaps a few exceptions) human life. Some of them are consistent and value all human life and oppose the death penalty and unnecessary war, but many and perhaps most don’t. That is again due to their absolute belief in their moral high ground; they pick and choose who is worthy of life, they choose the innocent and the guilty, then they fight to protect those who they feel are innocent and fight just as hard to kill those they feel are guilty.

    It is ironic that in the end, they wind up protecting those who may not even be alive (Terri Schiavo) and killing the living ones (Iraqi citizens, women, children, and the elderly) who are innocent and deserving of life.

  9. Matt
    March 5th, 2006 at 14:56 | #9

    It is unfortunate that the fringe elements of this issue control the debate. I don’t have a problem with the morning after pill and a 3 day old fetus, but I do have a problem with a fetus so far developed a partial birth abortion must be performed. Explain to me how that procedure would not induce pain in a fetus with a fully functioning neurological system. At the stage of development near the end of the second trimester the fetus has just that. You can’t say the pain is only momentary. A gun shot to the your head would be instantaneous, but certainly not justifiable.

    We simply don’t know about their level of awareness. Look at studies of the responses of newborns to sights and sounds. They are aware at that point, so Luis is right in that we can’t determine where it begins.

    Pro-lifers may hinge their arguement on the absolute morality of it, and pro-choicers on who determines that morality. But we don’t allow people to decide for themselves what is and is not morally acceptable behavior for all kinds of crimes. Why is this different?

    Statistically the vast majority of the public does not support partial birth abortion. And most do support the morning after pill, etc. So how about a little compromise to satisfy the majority of the country and the women, by keeping access available for most procedures, but not partial birth abortion unless the health of the woman is in danger, incest, rape, etc. People want freedom to control their bodies, so require the responsibility of acting in a timely fashion so the child doesn’t suffer what is certainly potentially excruciating pain with a partial birth abortion.

    We maintain access to choice, give people several months to make a decision, limit partial birth abortion on fetuses that left alone for the duration of the average vacation would be viable, make some effort at minimizing harm to a child unecessarily, and give the majority of the country what they say they want when polled.

    Unfortunately, you won’t see that happen because the fringe elements won’t allow it.

  10. John Weimer
    November 24th, 2006 at 10:06 | #10

    At first glance you may think what I have written has nothing to do with abortion; but with some reflection and acceptance, eyes are open to the truth on all issues.

    All people have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Bible-Rom3:23

    The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Bible-Rom6:23

    There is no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. Bible-Rom 8:1

    If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and beleive in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. Bible-Rom10:9

    For by grace are you saved through faith; not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works lest anyone should boast. Bible-Eph2:8,9

    For God so loved the world that He gave His Only Begotten Son; that whosoever beleives in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. Bible-John3:16

    We may plant the seed and give it water, but it is God that gives it life and makes it to grow.

  11. Luis
    November 24th, 2006 at 13:04 | #11

    John:

    Happy shall they be who take your little ones
    And dash them against the rock! –Psalms 137:8-9

    Their infants also will be dashed in pieces before their eyes.
    Their houses will be ransacked, and their wives raped. …
    Their bows will dash the young men in pieces;
    and they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb.
    Their eyes will not spare children. –Isaiah 13:15-18

    Ephraim is smitten, their root is dried up, they shall bear no fruit:
    yea, though they bring forth,
    yet will I slay even the beloved fruit of their womb. –Hosea 9:14-17

    Samaria shall become desolate;
    for she hath rebelled against her God:
    they shall fall by the sword:
    their infants shall be dashed in pieces,
    and their women with child shall be ripped up. –Hosea 13:16

    Thus saith the LORD of hosts,
    I remember that which Amalek did to Israel,
    how he laid wait for him in the way,
    when he came up from Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek,
    and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not;
    but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling,
    ox and sheep, camel and ass. –1 Samuel, 15:2-3

    And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? [...]
    Now therefore kill every male among the little ones,
    and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
    But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him,
    keep alive for yourselves. –Numbers 31:7-18

    That’s just a sampling, there is much, much more.

    If I am to interpret the bible as freely as so many of the pious and righteous do, I see plenty of precedent to show that it’s OK to kill not just adults, but children, infants, babies in the womb, and their mothers as well. And to rape women as well–and let’s not forget the story of Lot, and how he offered his two virgin daughters to a mob and said they could gang rape and do whatever else they pleased to them so long as the mob stopped threatening his house guests.

    Sorry, but the bible has far too much God-approved vileness in it for me to accept someone coming in throwing verses around to convince me that anything at all is right or wrong. For this debate, you’ll need more than just some bible-thumping to make a point.

  12. Troy
  13. Mark
    May 21st, 2010 at 13:13 | #13

    Mostly good, insightful commentary. I guess the fundamental issue is: when does the government have a right to get into your business and affect what you do? As we all see environmental controls, increasing numbers of speed and red light cameras, a nanny state protecting us from ourselves (don’t place this plastic bag over your head-the State of California has determined that drinking all the ink from this pen could be hazardous warning labels), we see the state protecting the stupid (don’t put your foot into the lawnmower blade), the inept, and the weak. So, after waffling some on the abortion issue, I finally realized, if the “State” is so interested in protecting the small and weak from the large and powerful, other than stopping all abortions, how can the “State” accomplish a greater good than protecting a group of weak, undocumented, cells, who happened to be growing in the wrong uterus, whose demise, if born and allowed to die, would result in criminal sanctions, yet, under current law, can be extracted from their vessel, and tossed out like spoiled liver. Treating all conceived life as precious and unique, and as worthy of preservation as the snail darter or white rhino, would first, simplify decision making (we don’t decide which species to preserve…we try to preserve them all, why choose which lives to preserve), and more importantly, help restore a respect for life…all life, human, animal, and plant.

  14. Luis
    May 21st, 2010 at 23:32 | #14

    Mark:

    So, we should immediately close and ban fertility clinics?

  15. Troy
    September 3rd, 2010 at 16:29 | #15

    Treating all conceived life as precious and unique, and as worthy of preservation as the snail darter or white rhino, would first, simplify decision making

    Merely “simplifying” things is not a moral imperative, nice try tho.

    help restore a respect for life…all life, human, animal, and plant

    Assertion not in evidence. [This is polite way of saying that's bullshit]

    Your same moral logic leads to the Catholic position of banning all contraception, which indicates is flaws in respecting the absolute rights of the mother to determine the fate of her life and the health of her body.

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