"Stupidity is also a gift of God, but one mustn't misuse it."
Pope John Paul II
1920 - 2005
"Tomorrow is no man's gift."
Sir Gilbert Parker, baronet, Canadian novelist, British politician
1862 - 1932
"Reason is God's crowning gift to man."
Sophocles, classical Greek playwright
496 BC - 406 BC
"The states are not free, under the guise of protecting maternal health or potential life, to intimidate women into continuing pregnancies."
Justice Harry A. Blackmun,
Roe v. Wade, 22 January 1973
My recent post, Soul Searching, was about the concept and definition of our souls, and how souls relate to our bodies. It addressed the differences between knowledge and belief. And from that premise it addressed abortion. If you have not read Soul Searching, reading it first is helpful in understanding what follows.
My friend Mitch Berg wrote a post, Half A Pound of Soul, on his blog Shot in the Dark in response. In that post, and the comments it elicited, some courteous, some hostile, were references to the right to life of the unborn. I respect the sincere conviction and the commitment to the life of the unborn, and the nurturing and protective aspects of character from which it originates expressed in those comments. Unfortunately not all aspects of the argument for the unborn are as noble.
The anti-abortion argument is that the unborn, not yet developed zygote is a potential human being endowed with a right to life. This "right to life" anti-abortion rights advocates insist supersedes the right of a woman to control her body; they assert a woman who becomes pregnant loses her rights to her own body and the right to her own self-determination.
The problem with their argument is - there is no such right, not legally, not ethically, not morally. Life is a gift, and as such it must be voluntarily given, not coerced by the force of law.
There is no "right to life" that requires one person to give their body or any part of their body to another to allow that other person to live. If a person needs a blood transfusion, or bone marrow, a kidney, or skin graft, and another person could provide it, if that other person declines, that is their right. No court will force them to provide the help of their blood, bone, skin or organs, even if their refusal means the person in need dies. No one would reasonably call it murder, manslaughter or homicide, however much they might deplore the death of the person in need.
Ironically, most of those who are most vocal in asserting a right to life insist that there is no right to the most basic medical care essential to survival; the right to life claims are a bit inconsistent in how that life is maintained and sustained. Women may be coerced, but never medical providers and insurers at the risk of diminished profits. Profits are de facto more important than any claim by the living to essentials that continue and extend life.
While pregnancy does not (usually) require a surgical procedure, like a blood transfusion, skin graft, or transplant, it does require the use of the mother's body through the placental connection to provide the nurture and support of the mother's organs in order to survive and grow during the nine months of gestation. For those nine months of pregnancy, a woman's body is no longer her own, and she is subject to the demands resulting from the developing fetus culminating in childbirth.
Anti-abortionists blithely deny the rights to women over their own bodies that are otherwise accorded every existing person by law, in favor of what they believe might be another person, a status for which there is NO consensus or compelling proof. These same people hypocritically in the same breath claim passionately that they support freedom, smaller less intrusive government, the right of people to make their own choices free of "nanny" laws for their own safety and health. They blindly refuse to see their own inconsistencies.
This irrational and unwarranted assertion of rights led me to re-examine how we define rights. The first phrase which came to mind was in the Declaration of Independence, specifically the United States' Declaration of Independence -- many other countries have their own, which along with the international Declarations make for interesting reading.
The wording that pertains here is the famous second sentence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness." To revisit school days Civics classes, what are 'inalienable rights'? Unalienable, also called inalienable rights, natural rights, or moral rights are considered universal as distinct from civil rights, statutory rights conveyed by positive law defined by government.
Except that nowhere is there anything like agreement acknowledging such a right to life in either so-called natural law OR positive law that gives one being the right, in order to live, over the organs or internal function, or nine months out of the life of another human being. The right to life as they espouse it does not exist; it is not a 'real' right. The right of women to their bodies, their months of living their lives, that IS a legitimate, recognized, established right.
Do I argue that a woman should be able to have an abortion at any stage of her pregnancy? No. At some point which we need to define by consensus, it should be presumed that by accepting the early stages of pregnancy there is de facto consent to it. After a reasonable stage of development - and I think the Roe v. Wade mark so far of the first two trimesters is reasonable, although it could fairly be made a shorter interval - abortion should not be permitted except for therapeutic reasons. At that point we do need to balance against a woman's right to her body the possible right of the more developed individual to continue that development to birth.
Not only do the anti-abortionists deny women the right to make decisions about their own bodies, they justify their attitude by claiming choice is for convenience, that it is the result of careless "partying" sex. They refuse to acknowledge those facts that are inconvenient to their position, such as the data provided by Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health which asserts that two thirds of the women seeking abortions are married and already have at least one child. An example provided in their December 2009 newsletter of a real case with the name altered for reasons of privacy was that of a 24 year old married woman who had a 7 month old son. When she became pregnant, although unplanned, she and her husband were enthusiastic about adding to their family. When it became evident that she was pregnant with twins, she and her husband were still enthusiastic. Further along in the pregnancy it became evident that both of the twins had a severe health problem, one that was likely to lead to either a miscarriage or still birth, and that if the twins did survive birth, they would suffer and could not possibly survive for more than a very short time - a matter of minutes.
When the couple sought an abortion rather than continue the pregnancy, it was denied under insurance coverage which classifies this procedure not as a therapeutic abortion, but an 'elective contraceptive procedure' which is not covered (and would not be covered under the proposed health care reform in Congress). Because of the anticipated complications, the procedure needed to be performed in a hospital, not in a clinic, which would ordinarily be adequate and less expensive. Uninsured, the abortion cost was prohibitive out of pocket; it would bankrupt the family. While continuing the pregnancy to term, with the resultant hospitalization for the complications of the health problem of the twin fetuses would be more than ten times the cost of the abortion procedure, but a greater part would be covered by insurance, leaving the family in less severe financial condition, but arguably more physically and emotionally distressed and with greater risk to the health of the mother - but not a life threatening risk.
The far less clear examples of real-life women seeking abortion, where women do take into consideration moral and ethical as well as practical and necessary reasons are in sharp contrast with those who anti-abortionists broadly characterize as women who simply are careless, even recklessly getting pregnant as a result of - as one commenter on SitD put it - "partying".
I don't think we can fairly characterize 2/3 of women who are married as having party sex. Nor do I have any reason to believe that the members of PRCH are practicing their profession in which they treat and advise women dealing in real life situations without ethical or moral consideration, whether the women are married or not. To dismiss women contemplating abortion, as a group, as lacking morals and ethics is effectively to advance an argument by unreasonably and unfairly demonizing the opposition to justify the opposing side.
I do not presume to assert that no woman anywhere has ever made a selfish, shallow decision regarding an abortion. Women are as capable of bad decisions as men are. I cannot claim that any more fairly than the anti-abortion faction can claim 'partying'. But in the face of support of physicians such as PRCH who deal with the problems of real, flesh-and-blood women daily, in the face of the real life women I have known who had or considered abortion, I adamantly cannot write them off as individuals who are without moral or ethical values, or as women who acted out of shallow convenience without regard for any life other than their own, as posited by some - many - anti-abortion rights advocates.
It is only if you can convince yourself that women cannot be trusted with the decisions about their own bodies, if you posit that women are inherently and significantly less moral and less ethical than anti-abortion supporters, that you can justify taking away the rights of women to control their reproductive choices. I do not believe that a compelling argument for that can be made.
I also reject the defining of human sexuality as solely for reproduction. I adamantly reject the definition of sex as something evil for which pregnancy is the punishment. And I reject the narrow definition that sex is only permissible in the context of marriage, and that anything relationship outside of marriage should be penalized. We live in an age where contraception makes possible a greater range of safe, sane choices. This is not at all the same thing as approving casual promiscuity. I cannot imagine sexual gratification without deep emotional commitment and trust, an act of intimacy where it is part of expressing a profound connection to another person whom you love. Obviously there are others who either find that gratification in one-night 'hook ups', individuals who are less averse to promiscuity.But that does not justify the conclusion that anyone who has sex outside of marriage (the remaining 1/3 of the women who seek abortion indicated by the statistics of PRCH) did so without attempting to practice safe sex.
One of the wisest men I have ever known - and a former lover of mine - who is now a professor of psychology in North Carolina at a Christian university made a very insightful point during our relationship that sex is almost never 'just' sex, that it parallels and mirrors the dynamics of the larger relationship between people, especially the relative inequalities in power. He pointed out that satisfaction and dissatisfaction, the degree to which partners achieve the sexual gratification of orgasm for example, and issues like the freedom to initiate sexual closeness and intercourse, are closely linked to issues of money, control, and a range of other domestic and relationship issues and conflicts. I would argue that women are sometimes NOT equal to their partners in saying no, in having 'no' respected.
I have been very privileged in my life to have men and women who influenced me in order to empower me, especially my mentors - most of whom have been men; probably more so than many women. I think most of the people in my life who have known me well would consider me a fairly feisty individual, a woman who is not shy about speaking up for herself or asserting herself. I can say no, and I take responsibility for my own reproductive choices. But that has not prevented me from having an experience where a man did not accept no, although it did not meet the standards for a prosecutable rape. Fortunately I did not get pregnant as a result, but it left me with a greater insight and compassion for the range of choices that women deal with in real life compared to abstract black-and-white notions about women and choice. My own experience especially taught me an appreciation that as a woman who came from comparative security and privilege, I have had greater empowerment than women who have not had those same advantages.
Every woman I know who is not still a virgin has had some variation of that experience; some more drastic than others. Every woman I know has admitted, among other women, to faking orgasm to please or placate a partner, and to having been pressured - even seriously coerced - into having unprotected sex at least once despite arguing with their partner about it. Every woman with whom I spoke prior to writing this piece had an example of sex that was nominally consensual within the legal definition but where women really had less than full choice.
I would argue to readers of Penigma that the better way to address the issue of abortion is not to take away choice, but to improve and expand it. Consistently where women have greater control of their reproductive choices and improve their social standing and participation, societies advance and improve. Where women receive education, societies advance and improve, in standard of living; in health for men, women, and children, including longevity; and economically. The solution to many problems, including abortion, is to empower women, not to dis-empower them. Not the least of the ways to empower women is to provide honest and factual health care information and availability, including contraception and comprehensive sex education. But without an overall improvement in empowerment, we can only have partial success with any specific improvement. That would include not demonizing women who have unwanted pregnancies as shallow, irresponsible, or immoral, without better justification. While on the face of it, this may appear counter-intuitive, consider that the countries which have traditionally had the greatest number of abortions performed are usually not those with the greatest freedom; they are typically the countries that have been the most repressive.
Addendum: for thoughts prompted by Pen in an off-blog conversation, thank you. A word I have heard thrown around the subject of abortion is 'convenience'. The allegation that abortion is 'convenient', when another life is 'inconvenient'. The premise of Sex-as-partying seems key to the presumption that someone who is pro-choice is shallow, selfish, and lacks reverence for life, and is therefore logically a person who would make a choice based on convenience rather than more ethical considerations. Convenience is sliced bread, indoor plumbing, an automatic transmission. Convenience is not a painful and invasive procedure that gouges out a woman's insides, at the risk of scarring or infection that could affect, even end, her chance to ever have children. Frederica Mathewes-Green said it best, when she wrote "No woman wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal caught in a trap wants to gnaw off its own leg." That is somewhat different than convenience. As to disregard for life, of the women I know who are comfortable discussing their experiences - and not all are - I don't know of any of my own acquaintance who do not think about it from time to time. I am aware that there are women who have regretted their choice. But of the women that I know, there has been a very broad consensus that they made the right decision, affirming their decision with the benefit of hindsight. This is not to say they do not think from time to time, that if they had not ended that pregnancy, they would have a child that would now be 'x' years of age. They do. That does not suggest someone has acted without thought.
I do not expect to change the mind of anyone who is on one side of the controversy or the other. What I hope to do is to encourage greater respect for the decision making process, as a condition of ever hoping for consensus.