This is the second time this month I’ve agreed with Steven Waldman. Uncanny and unexpected.
In his piece on Beliefnet, he makes the case that our abortion policy shouldn’t focus on a distinct line between life and not-life. It’s a gradual process in which the embryo develops into a fetus and eventually into a conscious being.
[C]onsider this statistical couplet. According to a 2007 survey commissioned by a progressive think tank called Third Way, 69 percent of Americans believe abortion is the “taking of a human life,” but 72 percent believe it should be legal:
Let that soak in. Most people think abortion is taking a human life and yet favor the procedure being legal. How grotesque! Are we Americans utterly immoral?
Actually, what the data proclaim is something that politicians and activists can’t: Most Americans believe there are gradations of life. Some living things are more alive than others, and so the later in the pregnancy it gets, the more uncomfortable people become with the idea of ending it. But in reality they believe both that a life stirs very early on and that a one-week-old embryo is more “killable” than a nine-month-old fetus. For them, determining whether “life” begins at conception really doesn’t determine anything.
What we should protect is not just “human life” but consciousness and sentience. The more developed the consciousness, the more rights we should grant it. Humans deserve more respect than apes, which in turn deserve more respect than insects.
As a conscious entity, a woman should have right to control her own body — or protect her health if the pregnancy would put her in danger. But as a fetus develops consciousness, we should afford it more rights and protections as well. It becomes a balancing act with no clear-cut moral authority in the middle. But this isn’t reflected in policy discussions.
We debate whether we should have parental notification — not when we should have it. We question politicians on whether they’d provide government funding for abortion, not ever asking whether subsidies should be provided for early abortions but not late.
The debate has evolved that way in part because of the fundamentally religious nature of the pro-life activist position. The essential point about the position of pro-life activists — including the Catholic Church and conservative evangelicals — is not that they believe “life” begins at conception. It’s that they believe a life that God creates on Day One is morally equivalent to a life at month one or month nine or 18 years.
I’ve usually heard this position linked to the existence of a soul. As I’ve previously written, I find the notion of souls to be utterly absurd, but it goes beyond that. This unsubstantiated supernatural belief leads people to equate the non-sentient blastocyst with a fully-functioning adult. As a result, we were unable to pursue stem-cell research.
It’s a great improvement to look at rights along an analog scale instead of a digital one. Of course, there will still be a great deal of moral grey area. How are we to gauge the competing rights of society, the mother, and the fetus? It’s something we as a society need to discuss and figure out.