Monday, June 20, 2005

My Stance on Abortion

Abortion.

There are few topics that generate so much controversy. And for good reason. While abortion doesn’t always "stop a beating heart" as the conservative billboards in West Michigan will tell you, it certainly–uncontroversially–discontinues life: either the life of a human embryo or a fetal human being. So it must be dealt with carefully.

However, as is my nature, I begin boldly. I believe that abortion is wrong and should be prohibited with the following three exceptions: 1) when the mother is raped; 2) when the mother is the victim of incest; and 3) when the life of the mother will be lost for saving the child.

My approach is a simple one. In order to disarm those who would argue against outlawing abortion by adopting the contention that religion or faith in God as a basis for preserving human life is somehow less relevant than science or social justice of some other kind in preserving the right to have an abortion, I will argue against abortion from the perspective of an atheist. While I’m not one, I’m willing to bet this contraption will make my arguments more appealing to those who would otherwise disagree with me.

I start by defining the issue. It is whether the state should allow a doctor to enter a woman’s (or, in the saddest cases, a girl’s) uterus, and deprive a human life form of life separate from that of its mother’s. So many people fail to call a spade a spade, making abortion something else entirely. But it’s not.

(Now, if you’re one of the readers who is going to take me to task, you had probably begun formulating your argument before now. If you hadn’t yet, now you will.)

So if that’s what abortion is, what is it not?

Abortion is not about a woman’s right to choose what to do with her own body.

Why? Because anyone who has studied human embryology at an elementary level knows that the tiny mass of cells generated by fertilization is a living organism separate from its mother. While this organism is indeed dependant on its mother’s physiology, it is entirely human, and entirely not its mother.

As soon as pronuclei of a 23-chromosome sperm and 23-chromosome oocyte (egg) fuse, a zygote with 46 chromosomes exists. This organism is genetically unique from its mother and father. About 30 hours after fertilization, the zygote divides by mitosis, and each new cell (called a blastomere; first 2, then 4, then 8, etc.) also has 46 chromosomes. While dividing, this mass of cells moves down the fallopian tube towards the uterus where it will implant, having become a blastocyst. Implantation occurs approximately 5-6 days after fertilization. And so it goes.

But, you say, the woman sheltering, feeding, and otherwise maintaining the life of this mass of cells (or in later stages, a fetus with head, hands, and heart) affects and is affected by this little creature. Surely, she should have control over whether those cells exist. It should be her prerogative to either continue or terminate the pregnancy. It’s up to her, based on her comfort level.

I used to believe this. Then I realized the illogic of the argument. After 40 weeks of incubation in her mother, a baby is born. At that moment, the mother–or another adult willing to adopt or otherwise care for the child–is absolutely responsible for this child’s existence. The child is utterly unable to care for itself. The care giver–usually the mother–is no less affected by this child. She or he shelters, feeds, and maintains its life until it the child is able to care for itself.

Umbilical cord aside, the relationship remains the same. While the child is not physically connected to the mother or the care giver, she might as well be. Having watched my wife with our baby, I can attest to this beautiful encumbrance of motherhood with all its trappings, good and bad. Is it convenient? No. But many worthwhile things in life are not convenient.

As soon as baby and mom are physically disconnected no one would argue that a mother should have control over whether the child exists or not. But when the child and mother share a blood supply and a uterine lining, the mother is allowed such powers?

If it is about a woman controlling her own body, taking back her uterus, her blood, her ability to be pregnancy-free, then why shouldn’t society allow a woman to dump her newborn in a trash can? By doing so, she can control her own daily existence without the burden of a child. Take back her life at the expense of the child’s life. Take back her body, whose existence has been committed to a helpless human being for 9, 10, 11, 23, 46, 50, 100 months. I don’t see the difference.

Of course, a number of you do see the difference. No one wants to be responsible for giving birth to an unwanted child. There are so many unwanted children already. And the emotional toll this would take on the mother is potentially crushing. And the morning sickness. And, will I be a good parent?

So why not terminate the pregnancy when this . . . thing . . . is just a few cells? What are a few cells anyway? Each of us loses thousands upon thousands of skin cells per week. Cells are regularly grown in science class or in a lab and thrown out. We throw away bread with mold on it. We kill insects and vermin and beef cattle, millions upon millions of living cells laid to waste. And most of us think nothing of it.

But none of those combinations of cells–as we kill them–is in the process of becoming a human being. That’s the difference. And if we’re willing to destroy humans when they’re just a few cells, why shouldn’t we be just as willing to kill unwanted children who overcrowd orphanages, smelly, unshaven, irrational adults who inhabit mental hospitals, or our once-beloved elders who can no longer feed themselves or go to the bathroom?

The difference is that we are emotionally disconnected from the cells and emotionally committed to those humans who better resemble us. There’s a simple reason the partial-birth abortion ban passed with little outrage: a dead baby that looks like a child is harder to kill than a mass of undifferentiated cells.

But is that the line we’re willing to draw? The humans who look and behave like we do and can take care of themselves get a chance to live, but "the others" are at the mercy of those who might or might not want to care for them? I don’t think so. If we have any respect as a culture for the innate value of human life–and I propose that we do and that it is hard-wired into us–then whether a human owns eyeballs, connective tissue, or a cerebellum, or remembers his wife or how to use a pen, or thinks the sky is purple and he is being chased by rabbits should not matter.

But these people are so inconvenient and so hard on all of us. So much burden, and pain, and suffering exist in this world. Yes. But wouldn’t you rather have been born than killed to ease someone else’s emotional suffering? I would have. (An aside: for those of you who are starting to hate me for using the word "killed" to describe eradicating a life form composed of only a few cells or hovering in amniotic fluid: look it up. I’m not a Conservative Republican, but English is English.)

This brings up a sensitive point. As I mentioned above, I support abortion in very limited circumstances. When a woman is raped, if the abortion happens soon enough, I support it. Why? Because this woman never chose to have a baby or otherwise engaged in risky behavior that she knew could lead to pregnancy. But that’s arbitrary, you say. Yes. It is.

However, as many of us–whether we know it or not–are OK with the deaths of many thousands of innocent men, women, and children in order to win a war that must be won (think of Germany 1940-1945), I am OK with the death of an innocent human composed of relatively few cells (there’s the emotionally deceptive part of it again) to save the emotional life of another innocent: the raped mother. I must say as a caveat that I would be much less supportive of abortion in this case in the second trimester, and would oppose it in the third. A rape victim has a lot of time during the first trimester to make up her mind. If I were raped (and I am not a woman, so I tread on hallowed ground here at risk of castration), I would hope to be able to carry the baby to term and deliver it. But I would never tell another woman–an innocent victim herself–to do so.

The same applies to the victim of incest. However, that is a worse case: the chances of the child being physiologically normal are close to zero. Perhaps I would tolerate abortion at a later stage. Again: innocent for innocent.

Finally, as long as I’m covering exceptions: I would choose to save my wife’s life at the expense of the baby not yet born. I hate it. I hate conceiving it, contemplating it, and keying these sentences. But it’s true. Why? Because I am emotional. My love for my wife is greater than my love for a baby who hasn’t seen the light of day. That said, once the baby’s out in the light, I’d be faced with a dreadful decision that I don’t care to contemplate. Arbitrary? Perhaps. Human? Absolutely. Innocent for innocent.

Back to what abortion is not. It is not whether the state controls a woman’s body. I believe the state has a responsibility to protect the innocent all of us, regardless of our shape, size, color, or constituency. Unless, that is, the United States Senate and the United States House of Representatives enact a law, signed by the President, that legalizes abortion in the United States.

But, you say, the United States Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. You’re right. It did. And that decision will be overturned in your lifetime. Why? Because there is nothing in the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution that supports the right to end the life of another human being, whether 4 cells or 400 pounds.

Roe v. Wade, as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, created a right to "privacy" based on first-trimester "inviability" supported by the socioeconomic notion that a working woman should not be burdened by raising an unwanted child. Read them. You’ll be amazed. Just like all of my liberal law-school friends and I were. Without judicial feat–and I’m the first to say both liberal and conservative appeals-court judges can be "activist"–there would be no right to an abortion in this country without a statute guaranteeing as much.

But many people–perhaps you–argue that whether a woman has an abortion should not be the business of the state at all. We all agree that the state should prevent a person from murdering humans outside the womb, including you, me, our families and friends. There’s no debate. But the state shouldn’t protect the life of a human inside the womb because . . . it’s inside someone else’s body? I don’t get it. That non-human-looking human is human, unique, separate, self. Not an appendage of the body in which it lives and from which it takes its oxygen and nutrients. I see nothing but an arbitrary bright line that should be erased.

While some say the abortion decision should be between a woman and her God, I say this: if there is someone out there who would attempt to kill me or my family or friends, I am more comforted by his knowing that the state would prohibit and punish his actions than by his notions of what God might want. That said–and I remain in atheist mode–I can only guess that God didn’t give us the ability to reproduce simply to destroy the thing created.

Finally, with that in mind, I say this. We have the incredible ability to reproduce. (Although one of my more cynical friends calls it the ability to make "500,000 miracles a day.") Whatever you call it, it’s at the heart of my opposition to abortion-for-convenience. We have this privilege of reproduction. With every privilege comes responsibility. With every responsibility comes hard discipline. If you freely and willingly have sexual intercourse, you take the risk that the woman involved will become pregnant. You have shouldered a responsibility. You must have the discipline, therefore, to live up to that responsibility.

That means two things.

First: if you have sex and you’re not trying to make a baby, use contraception. There’s absolutely no excuse for not using contraception. None. (Remaining in atheist mode: if you happen to be Roman Catholic and follow the Vatican’s abhorrence for contraception, you’re out of luck. Get married early to the right person and hope the husband has a well-paying job and the wife has strong arches in her feet.)

Second: if you’re the mother or father of another human being, put yourself in that person’s place, whether that person is 30 hours old and 8 cells wide or kicking you in the intestines waiting to be born. Because–even though life sucks sometimes, and sometimes sucks a whole lot–it’s great being alive.

17 Comments:

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