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Abortion: Finding Common Ground
Thoughts of a Unitarian, pro-life, (sort of) Democrat
A few months ago, I wrote a post in support of gay marriage. Given the fact that I am a Unitarian college professor, my position was not very surprising. I do, after all, fit the stereotype of the liberal, hippy college teacher (just without much hair). Now, with some trepidation, I am going to take on another hot button social issue: abortion. Only this time, my position goes somewhat against the stereotype, and it is not a popular view in my religious denomination. But pro-choice people should bear with me. As with most issues, I think that there may be some room for common ground between the competing factions. Abortion, of course, is a complex and difficult issue. In some ways, however, it is very simple. It deals with very basic - even primal - issues: the definition of human life, the joys and consequences of sex, and the biology of childbearing. My basic thesis is also pretty simple: nobody really wants abortions to occur. The question is how to make them as rare as possible.
Defining Human Life
At what point in the process from the production and union of sperm and egg to the actual birth of a child does this evolving life form become a human? This is the crux of the abortion issue. I did a little research for this post by talking to one of my best friends, who is also a doctor, about this simple question. It was essentially a quick refresher course on the biology of childbirth, including an attempt by me to gain a better understanding of various forms of artificial insemination. Our conclusions? It is very difficult to pinpoint the exact moment where a fetus goes from being a collection of a few cells to a creature resembling a human being.
Some would argue that life begins at conception. Certain pro-lifers would even argue that any action that can lead to the damage or destruction of human tissue – namely eggs and embryos – should be forbidden. This is why some object to birth control pills, “morning after” pills, and embryonic stem cell research. Personally, I do not take my pro-life position that far. First, it is difficult to argue that an egg or embryo that is either stored or temporarily extracted from a mother’s womb in a lab is a conscious being. When a pill prevents ovulation or interrupts fertilization, I don’t see this as the destruction of a potential new life. Those who take this “radical” pro-life stance need to recognize the full implications of what they are saying. When they complain about embryonic stem cell research, they are focusing on too narrow of a subject. What they should object to is artificial insemination itself, which inevitably results in the discarding of eggs and the failure of embryos to successfully develop into children. Does this constitute the destruction of life? If you argue that it does, and that this practice should be forbidden, then a significant part of our population will be disqualified from reproduction. Also, by banning embryonic stem cell research, it might prevent future cures and scientific breakthroughs. And if you want to ban morning after pills, the number of unwanted pregnancies will rise. The social costs of the “radical” pro-life position outweigh the benefits of such a strict adherence to a debatable principle.
So when does life begin? Opinions on this question are all over the map, and any attempt to pinpoint the moment that a “fetus” transitions into a human is arbitrary. Is an unborn child more of a human on the 92nd day of a pregnancy than on the 91st? At what specific point does the unborn child develop some degree of consciousness? It is very difficult to say. In most cases, however, I would argue that pinpointing the moment at which a human life exists is a moot point. By the time a woman realizes that she is pregnant, the process of development has begun, and I would personally give the unborn child the benefit of the doubt. I have two daughters. I remember the magical moments when I would feel a little body moving inside of my wife’s womb. I used to read and talk to them before they were born, and when I spoke to my first daughter immediately after she was born, she turned her head and looked right at me. Was this instinct? Maybe. But until the day I die, I will be convinced that she knew my voice. So please don’t tell me that a “fetus” is not a person.
Sex and Reproduction
There are two simple facts related to abortion, however, that no one can deny. First, reproduction, except with certain types of artificial insemination, results from sex. Second, sex is awesome. (Anyone who denies this is not doing it right.) Sex is one the few experiences in life that can cause us to block out everything else in our minds. As the momentum gradually builds before, during, and just after climax, the body just takes over, and all of our attention and pleasure sensors are focused on one specific area. (I would point out where, but this is a “G” rated article.) Damn, I think that I just lost my train of thought. Anyway, my point is that we are programmed to want and need sex. Unfortunately, the desire for sex does not coincide with our desire and ability to parent.
If we could just separate sex and reproduction, it would basically solve the abortion problem. Birth control measures, I guess, are the best that we can do on that front. They are not 100% foolproof, however. Abstinence, therefore, is the only guaranteed method of birth control. Now, I am the father of two daughters who will be teenagers in the not-so-distant future, so anyone who has ever been a father knows that I am a big fan of abstinence. However, I also recognize that we humans are programmed for sex. So if my daughters make the choice, which I hope they do not, to have sex before they are ready to raise children, the use of effective birth control methods is much better than the alternative. Some people, however, believe that talking about birth control methods with young people will encourage them to have sex. (It would be interesting to see if there is any research to back this up.) When I was in college, there was some controversy when condom machines started being placed in school restrooms. Those who complained apparently believed that men would see the machines while washing their hands and think, “Hey, maybe I should have sex tonight.” Of course, any male who was ever been nineteen knows that the thought did not need to be planted into his head.
The Feminist Angle
Another simple but important biological fact is that women give birth. It is impossible, therefore, for a woman who did not want to get pregnant to run away from her responsibility. It has always been easier for men to simply disappear, although DNA testing makes that more difficult today. Still, even in modern times, women bear the brunt of the responsibility and also, possibly, the shame. They also have to go through the body altering and potentially painful processes of pregnancy and childbirth. It is understandable why many people view abortion as a feminist issue. Since women bear the responsibility, they should seemingly be the ones making the choices. This philosophy ignores the little fact, however, that a life form is inside of them. Like it or not, a pregnant woman’s body is temporarily being inhabited by someone else, and I find it hard to believe that a "fetus" is the same thing as an organ or other body part. By choosing to have sex, she opened herself up to this responsibility. The man did as well, and the full force of the law should be implemented to force him to bear the burden as equally as possible. Of course, in some cases, sex for women is not consensual, so how do you deal with circumstances like rape or incest? A part of me feels that a child is a child regardless of the circumstances of conception. On the other hand, I would not want to be the person who tells a woman that she is obligated to give birth to the child of her attacker. As President Obama often says, this question is “above my pay grade.”
Practical Ways to Reduce Abortions
So where does this male, Unitarian, supposed liberal, (sort of) Democrat stand on abortion? My simple answer was stated earlier: I would prefer that abortions never happen. But if we ban abortion and do nothing else, I am not sure if my hope will be realized. With issues like drugs and prostitution, we all know that criminalizing these activities does not wipe them out. Some would argue that the negative byproducts of enforcement and the organized crime surrounding these practices are worse than the consequences of legalizing them. Do we want to see a wave of dangerous, underground abortions and a new source of inmates to reinforce our prison populations? Abortion, like drugs and prostitution, is largely a demand problem.
If we can have fewer unwanted pregnancies, and if women (and couples) are provided with resources that will make them more likely to carry out the birth of their children, then the number of abortions can be reduced. Sex education should be mandatory before any child reaches puberty. If people want to handle this on their own with their children, that’s fine, but their kids must take the same mandatory sexual literacy test as every other child. And this sex education must be carried out in a scientific - not a moralistic - manner Telling kids that it is bad to do things often encourages the behavior. Just give them the facts, and help them understand the potential consequences of their actions. For me, this is a public security issue on all sorts of levels. Fewer unwanted children (and aborted babies) are good for everyone. Efforts to streamline and improve adoption procedures must also be looked at to assure women that someone else will have the opportunity to care for their child. More resources should be poured into providing day care facilities for young mothers and couples so that they can continue their education and/or work. And as I mentioned earlier, strong measures must be taken to round up possible “deadbeat dads” to get them to do their share. Whether abortion is banned or not – Roe vs. Wade, after all, is pretty firmly entrenched – the measures listed in this paragraph can reduce abortions. In itself, a ban may not be enough anyway.
Pro-lifers need to recognize that being pro-life involves more than merely helping and protecting children before they are born. Pro-choice people need to recognize that abortion is not simply a choice that can be made out of apparent necessity or convenience. After all, there is another life involved that both parents were responsible for creating. Abortion is too important of an issue to be just another political tool used to drive wedges between voters. It’s time for both factions to step up, take some responsibility, and reduce the frequency of something that no one likes.