The Abortion Debate
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.