Questions about Both Sides of the Abortion Debate
Many states, including Texas, are in the throes of debates over access to abortions. Many fear or hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will one day overturn Row vs. Wade and decide that all or most abortions are illegal. If that day comes, many people will say it iswas much the fault of the “pro-choice” movement as of anyone.
Why? Because both sides in the debates over abortion have been too absolutistic, too totalizing—either shouting that all abortions amount to murder or that women should have absolute freedom of control over their own bodies including having virtually free access to abortions at any time during pregnancy for any reason.
The vast majority of Americans hold opinions about abortion somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, but the loudest voices are found at the extreme ends of the spectrum of opinions. One rarely reads or hears a “pro-life” activists qualifying his or her stance to accommodate pregnant women in distress; they tend to treat all abortions as only for convenience—a means of birth control after the fact. One rarely reads or hears a “pro-choice” activist qualifying his or her stance to take into account the fact that what’s inside the pregnant woman is a human life with worth and value, not just a piece of tissue like a mole on skin.
Most legislators and judges have recognized the complicated nature of the abortion issue and have attempted, however unsuccessfully, to forge laws that take something of both sides into account. Most states allow non-therapeutic abortions only up to the point of “viability,” where the fetus is capable of living outside the womb. Some, however, including the District of Columbia, allow a pregnant woman to have an abortion at any time during the pregnancy including minutes before delivery.
Anyone who dares to wade into this controversy with any nuances knows what awaits him or her—vitriolic condemnations from extremists. A person who seeks any sort of middle ground between the extremes is bound to be attacked by one side as a collaborator with murder and by the other side as anti-freedom and anti-women. The loudest and most persistent voices in the debate resist any hint of compromise and will only be satisfied if their extreme positions are codified into law.
I’ll lay some of my cards on the table here and now. I consider myself “consistently pro-life,” but I recognize tragic exceptions. I’m against war but I’m not a pacifist. Some wars are tragically necessary. I supported the U.N.’s and United States’ invasion of parts of the Balkans to stop the genocide happening there. I did not support the United States’ invasion of Panama, for example, as I judged it completely unnecessary and an example of American imperialism (ruling an empire without clear borders).
Many years ago I participated in and helped lead one of the first pro-life rallies/demonstrations after Roe vs. Wade. I was in seminary and on the pastoral staff of a church. A large group of ministers from the region marched through downtown and ended at the Catholic cathedral where we held an ecumenical prayer service to end abortion-on-demand. Even then, however, I felt some qualms about some of the chants and signs of some of the demonstrators and about some of the prayers and speeches in the cathedral. They were too absolutistic—equating all abortions with murder without exception.
Over the years I’ve had many conversations with “pro-life” activists. When they equate all abortions with murder and advocate banning all abortions I routinely ask them “What about an ectopic pregnancy?” I have never encountered a “pro-life” activist who even knew what I was talking about or acknowledged it as a legitimate question.
Over the years I’ve had many conversations with “pro-choice” activists. When I ask them if they consider the fetus a human life and believe it is of greater value and worth than a skin mole, for example, I just get hostile stares and possibly lectures about “reproductive freedom” and a women’s right to control her own body.
So here are some questions I would like to pose to what I consider extremists on both sides of the abortion debate:
1) If you believe a person has absolute right to control his or her own body, do you believe a person, a woman, for example, has a right to sell a vital organ such as a kidney or ingest a drug such as cocaine?
Only a few radical libertarians believe a person has absolute right to do whatever he or she wants with his or her body—without qualifications such as those. But what principle gives a woman the right to abort a viable fetus for convenience’s sake (for example) but not the right to sell her kidney or ingest cocaine, say, during pregnancy?
2) If you believe a fetus is a human person with the “right to life” in the sense you mean it, why don’t you hold a funeral after a miscarriage?Sure, some do, but that’s a recent response to this question on the part of some “pro-life” activists. But I have never heard of anyone holding a funeral for a miscarried embryo.
3) If you believe that all abortions are murders, what do you say to a woman with an ectopic pregnancy that is absolutely not viable under any circumstances and that, if attempted to be carried on without intervention, will end the mother’s life (and the fetus’s) in unimaginable agony? And what do you say to a thirteen year old girl who has been raped and become pregnant as a result?
4) If you believe absolutely in “reproductive rights,” do you believe a person should be allowed by law to clone himself? If not, why not? If so, have you taken into account the fact that the clone will be the same cellular age as the man immediately upon being created?
5) If you believe that a human embryo/fetus is a full human life for religious reasons (which most “pro-life” activists do), worthy of the full protection of law from conception on (which most “pro-life” activists do), how do you deal with the fact that the Bible says little to nothing about abortion?
Under Hebrew law as revealed in the Pentateuch, for example, a man who attacks a pregnant woman and causes her to abort is not guilty of murder. There were methods of abortion in “biblical times,” so how do you deal with the fact that nowhere in the Bible is abortion specifically condemned as murder?
6) If you believe that a human infant, newly born, is worthy of the full protection of law against murder and abuse but that a full term fetus is not, how exactly do you draw the line at which that right to protection begins? What exactly is the difference between a fully developed and ready-to-be-born fetus and a just-born infant—in terms of ontology (being) and ethics (rights)?
7) If you believe, as many “pro-choice” activists do, that a viable human fetus does not deserve legal protection from being killed by its mother, what do you think should be done to a person who causes a woman to have an abortion against her will? What crime was committed? What ought the penalty to be? Should it be harsher than if the perpetrator cut off her hair against her will? Why?
It seems to me that many, perhaps most, of the most vocal “pro-choice” activists fail to realize, fail to take into account, that their counterparts in the debate, “pro-life” activists, really believe that fetuses are human lives worthy of protection against especially unnecessary killing. Their absolutist “pro-choice” position has forced them into a form of denial which is that nobody in their right mind could think that. Of course they cannot allow themselves to consider the possibility that a fetus is a human life with rights. And yet most would condemn a pregnant woman who drinks to excess or smokes!
It seems to me that many, perhaps most, of the most vocal “pro-life” activists fail to realize, fail to take into account, that many pregnant women seek abortions to save their own lives or health. (I have known women who underwent abortions extremely reluctantly only when advised by a doctor that if they attempted to carry the pregnancy to full term their health could forever be destroyed. There are some complications of pregnancy that make the woman so ill that getting through the nine months would very possibly be so deleterious to her physical well being as to shorten her own life or cause her to be disabled in some way.)
It seems to me that this debate is fraught with inconsistencies on the extremes of both sides.
Everyone wants especially a Christian ethicist to have an absolute answer to the complex issue of abortion—to be either absolutely “pro-life” (anti-all-abortions) or absolutely “pro-choice” (for every woman’s right always and under any circumstances to obtain an abortion for any reason). In my opinion, good ethicists, including Christian ethicists, are loath to offer simplistic solutions to complex issues. There is no simplistic solution to this complex issue. There is, however, room for compromise between the sides; that middle ground is, unfortunately, too little explored and discussed. What I think that middle ground might include is for another post—when I’ve worked it out in my own mind more consistently and thoroughly.