Sticky Wickets: Abortion

(This post was inspired by a Facebook conversation with my friend, the Rev. Ryan Dowell Baum, about this article.)

There are some issues in our society that just won’t go away. Abortion is one of those issues. I was only 13 when Roe v. Wade was decided, and I didn’t really understand its implications until I was in my 20s, and a budding feminist.

First, I need to locate my personal stake in this debate. I am a lesbian, and have been since the early 80s. Thus, getting pregnant accidentally was not something that I was especially at high risk for. In addition, I’ve known since I was a teenager that it was a medical reality that I would not be able to have children without extraordinary measures (even though I never wanted to have children anyway.) This means that basically, for all of my “reproductive” years, there has been basically zero risk of me having to need an abortion.

Also, I am a biologist by training, even though I am not presently doing biological research. One of the things I studied was developmental neuroscience. So I have a lot to say about what might be going on during embryonic and fetal development. That said, I am not a materialist (that is, I don’t believe that we can explain everything with science, and know everything about what’s happening during gestation just by understanding the science of it.)

My position on this issue hasn’t changed much, really, although I have a more nuanced approach to the issue than I have had in the past. I have good friends at both ends of the debate. (Well, not quite. I don’t think that my pro-life leaning friends think we should necessarily overturn Roe, even though they wish there were no abortions. But I’ll let them weigh in in the comments section, if they wish.)

There are three ways to look at this issue that I want to talk about in this post: the sociopolitical, the scientific, and the spiritual. I’m gonna go pretty much in that order, with a bit of weaving in and out. This is going to be long. Bear with me.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: women have been controlling their own fertility, including terminating their own pregnancies, for a very long time. The oldest recorded laws, the Code of Hammurabi, from the 2nd millenium BCE, mentions deliberate miscarriage (and had unequal penalties, depending on social status.) Women have been using herbs, poisons, physical manipulation and sharp objects to terminate pregnancies probably for thousands of years or more. Laws and edicts limiting or forbidding abortion have never succeeded in eliminating them, and, because of the uneven way those sorts of laws tend to be enforced, they will always have a more deleterious effect on some women rather than others. For instance, the newest regulations in some states regarding abortion, which have had the effect of closing clinics, have disproportionate effect on poor women who can’t travel to other states.

And this brings me to another topic, then I’ll veer back to the question of law. Some people in our society are treated differently than others. Women are treated differently than men. For some people, that is as it’s supposed to be. But I’m not one of those people. There are two factors that impinge on the question of abortion: first, the coercive nature of sex, and second, the long-term economic effect of having children is disproportionately borne by women.

Sex, whether it be straight or not, cannot be taken out of societal context. But heterosexual sex in particular is deeply affected by our society’s patriarchal nature. Women can, and do quite often, get pregnant by coercion, whether it be overt (rape by stranger, acquaintance, or partner) or covert (subtle physical intimidation as well as economic dependence.) And protecting oneself from accidental pregnancy under those circumstances is difficult or even impossible. In addition, having children, whether intended or not, has a life-long impact on the earning capacity of women. That is the way our male-dominated system is currently structured.

These two factors mean that laws greatly limiting or forbidding women from having abortion increases the likelihood of three outcomes: unwanted children growing up unwanted and unloved, children born and living in poverty, and women dying from illegal abortions. None of these outcomes are positive. These laws have never been shown to increase the likelihood of happy families.

The question is, of course, why have laws limiting or forbidding abortion? You might say, it’s like any law – some behaviors are not in the best interest of society. It’s a good thing if you have a law, and concrete punishment, if someone burns down your house, or robs a store at gunpoint. And the rationale of outlawing abortion is that abortion is murder.

But is it? To my mind, that has to be a scientific question. To say that abortion, at any stage, is murder, suggests that a developing fetus is a human being that deserves the same rights as one that has been born. When human life begins is not such a tough scientific question, really. When a fetus can live outside of a mother, it is no longer part of the mother, and is its own person. Therefore, before viability outside of the uterus, a fetus is not a person. On the other hand, it is true that before viability, there are all sorts of interesting things going on. But there isn’t a scientific moment before viability when one can say: “yes, now that developing bundle of cells is a human being.” I agree that abortion, after viability (legally, 28 weeks,) shouldn’t be legal, except in the case of saving the life of the mother.

You might say, “well, I believe it is a human being, and worthy of the rights of any human being.” You could say that, but that would not have any scientific backing behind it. I’ve often heard, in pro-life circles, that thing about a fetus has a beating heart, and that should mean something. Well, mosquitoes have beating hearts, but we would hardly call killing a mosquito murder. If you know anything about “ontology recapitulating phylogeny“, there is a stage when the human embryo rather resembles an invertebrate. Things are much more complicated than people thought at the origin of that theory, but all the same, early stages of embryonic development things are quite primitive, as primitive as creatures we kill without even thinking about it.

The problem with using a belief as a basis for law is that it’s just that – a belief, and not necessarily shared by others in our secular society. We have to have some kind of foundational process for determining policy, and science, and the use of evidence, is the best we have, or else we’ll be doomed to policy by dueling belief systems.

So in rounding out these two sets of issues – the sociopolitical, and the scientific, the right for a woman to choose to terminate a pregnancy before fetal viability seems pretty clear to me. And it is. But that doesn’t end the issue for me, by a long shot.

As I said above, I am not a materialist. Just because a fetus isn’t viable outside of its mothers uterus doesn’t mean that it isn’t necessarily a person. I happen to be someone who believes that we have a soul. I’d say it’s way more complicated that we think it is, and I’m pretty sure it’s not our personality, so to speak, but something much more ineffable, impossible, probably, for our limited brains to grasp. But I do believe there is something besides this body that makes me, me. I can’t tell you when this body got it, and I don’t exactly know where it goes when this body dies (I have my theories. Maybe another blog post,) but I believe in it just the same.

There is a psalm that is often quoted by pro-life folks: Psalm 139:13 “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” It’s very poetic, and it has deep significance for people, a significance I understand, because truly, I believe that all life is sacred, and if there is one thing we’ve gotten very wrong in this society is undervaluing life – all life.

That’s the rub. How to hold both of these things together – how to fully appreciate the sacredness of life, and, frankly, the tragedy of abortion, with the need for women to be able to determine their own lives and destinies. It is further complicated by the fact that most pro-life advocates also support patriarchy, the system which, in my opinion, makes abortion more likely, not less likely, for the reasons I stated above.

I actually think I know how we can make a difference. This is how it goes: First, young boys are sent letters like this from their moms, so they don’t rape or coerce women. Second, as much research money as goes into women’s contraception starts going to men’s contraception. I figure if they spent 1/2 as much money researching male contraception as they did erectile dysfunction, a non-invasive contraceptive for men would be on the market in the course of a few years. And, of course, young boys would have to be taught that it’s as important that they prevent pregnancy as it is their female sexual partners. Third, eliminate the economic penalty to women for having children. Heck, I’d even go for paternity tests to force the male partners to contribute equally economically. And if they don’t, yank it out of their paychecks. Also, provide paid maternity leave, and free child care. 

I’d bet those things would go amazingly far in greatly reducing the numbers of abortions in this country. But they aren’t going to happen, are they? We are going to keep having this tired discussion about when life begins, when that’s really not the point, anyway, because we can’t ever really know when human life begins. Only God knows.