Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Gift of Life Versus the Right to Life

"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.


  1. Abortion performed for any reason other than 1) in the case of rape; 2) in a case of incest; 3) to prevent the death or (perhaps) serious disability of the mother is murder. It is the killing of a human being, even if that human being is not yet born.

    I keep hearing comments about choice. The writer here mentions Physicians for Reproductive Choice and a study they did. I have no doubt as to the accuracy of their study. However, the data tends to prove my point and not the writer's.

    If a woman did not intend to become pregnant, then several questions are to be begged: Did she take any steps to prevent a pregnancy? Did she insist that her partner did? I, like many Catholics, believe that the church’s attitude about contraception is just plain medieval. (It is much preferred to me to prevent pregnancy rather to terminate it).

    We will have to disagree on whether a woman who becomes pregnant after engaging in sex without using some form of contraception and insisting on her partner uses it also is doing so voluntarily. I believe that she is. She knows or should know that one of the possible outcomes of such behavior is becoming pregnant. Unless there is a medical necessity, or unless she can convince me that she was somehow coerced into sex (which means its rape, not consensual sex), then she is becoming pregnant by her choice. Or, would you like us to believe that women are weak and unable to say no? You can’t have women’s liberation and “empowered women” and also claim that women are incapable of resisting having sex against their will.

    We all do things which turn out to be a mistake in judgment for which the consequences last a very long time. Pregnancy lasts nine months, and parenthood lasts a lifetime, (unless the mother chooses to place the baby for adoption). I think that unless there are medical reasons, or unless there are cases of rape or incest, that a woman’s responsibility for her body goes both ways: She determines whether or not she gets pregnant, but if she does get pregnant, then she has a moral obligation to bring that pregnancy to term unless there is a medical reason not to.

    I don't think anyone here believes that woman engaging in non-consensual sex (i.e. rape) should be forced to carry that pregnancy to term. However, when engaging in recreational sex, then actions have consequences. If one is not willing to accept the possible consequences, then one must live with them. Let's take an example to which many can relate. I used to enjoy riding a bicycle. Since its not only bad manners but illegal in many places to ride on the sidewalk, I rode the bicycle on a public street. I was as careful as I could to obey the rules of the road, etc. However, if through either (1) my negligence or (2) the negligance of another driver or (3) an act of God (i.e. hitting a pothole, etc) I am thrown from the bicycle, I could be severely injured. Even if wearing a helmet, I could still suffer broken bones and internal injuries which could disable or even cost me my life. Yet, I chose to ride the bicycle anyway, because I enjoyed the simple pleasures that it provided me.

    Continued below

  2. Continued from above.

    The same analogy holds true here. Yes, there is a drive to procreate. However, that's not what we're talking about. A woman who is engaging in sex with the desire to get pregnant isn't likely to want an abortion unless something goes horribly wrong. However, a woman who engages in sex for pleasure, (and before the knives come out, I'm not condemning that), knows that there is a possibility of becoming pregnant unless she is past child bearing years. Using an abortion to terminate that pregnancy is morally and ethically wrong, and that is why I believe abortion for the purpose of birth control is murder unless one of the exceptions from above applies.

    The writer also indicates that at some time in the past she felt threatened. I'm sorry that this happened. However, I suggest that better campaigns to teach women that they can say no and mean it, and that no means no, etc. If need be, perhaps we need to revisit our definitions of rape. However, the point is, those who champion women as strong, independent and capable of making all sorts of competent, well informed decisions do no justice to themselves and in fact, engage in sophistry; They would have us believe that women are strong, capable, and can make competent decisions... except perhaps when it comes to sex? If that is the case, (which I do NOT believe), then they have fallen afoul of an argument used by other cultures and older, less enlightened ideas that include women as not capable of making those decisions, and thus, becoming the property of their husbands. (I might note that these cultures and old laws also strictly punished sex outside of marriage). I think my point is clear, however.

  3. ToE, real life is not nearly as simple or black and white as you define it. Certainly there is a huge difference between many of the instances of non-consent and the criminal prosecution definition of the crime.

    I wrote"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."

    Toe that is not "indicates that at some time in the past she felt threatened." Not 'felt threatened' Toe. Experienced 'no' being ignored. Experienced coercion. Physical coercion.

    ToE, when you write "Or, would you like us to believe that women are weak and unable to say no? You can’t have women’s liberation and “empowered women” and also claim that women are incapable of resisting having sex against their will."

    I am an empowered, liberated woman, and I was unsuccessful in resisting 'having sex against my will.' I said 'no'. Is that clearer?

    Pregnancy can be used, is sometimes used to 'keep women in line', to enforce submission, while falling short or skirting the legal definition. You employ a very inclusive moral definition. Unfortunately that is not the definition for purposes of access to abortion that pertains.

    I would argue that it is not your right to determine what happens to or inside of a woman's body, that your moral judgement does not preclude another's judgement, particularly about their own bodies and their own circumstances.

    And clearly given the ambiguity of the status and rights of embryos to rights which supercede those of a woman, abortion should not be criminalized. Regulated, yes. Discouraged, yes. Excessively restricted -NO.

  4. ToE, abortion is considered murder by some due to their religious beliefs. I am not Catholic, and I do not believe it is murder. Personally I don't see how a fetus within the first few months can be considered a human being (yes I know the whole argument about it being an inevitable human life, but according to that argument we are already dead anyway).

    I could take the Catholic standpoint more seriously if they were not adamantly opposed to contraception as well but their uncompromising reluctance to eschew preformationism displays a disregard for logic that I cannot abide.

    If the same theological precepts used to invoke bans on first term abortions were used as legislation, masturbation and vasectomies would be illegal. The complete disregard to compromise and healthy discourse demonstrated by the Christian community is what brings this issue to halt.

    I agree with you that a woman who engages in sex needs to know the consequences and to live by them. However I believe that abortion is a legitimate option were she to become pregnant.

    I understand that you live your life by the rules that you choose, but pushing your rules on other people just isn't American.

  5. I completely understand that there are moral and theological differences of opinion over abortion however, pushing your rules on people is very American. You could probably count on one hand the number of laws passed in the last 10 yrs that more than 60%of the country agreed with. If someone truly believes that abortion is murder then aren't they morally obligated to try and get laws passed to outlaw it? I mean if I steal your car I doubt any judge will let me go because I say I don't believe stealing cars is wrong. The abortion debate is not about one side forcing their opinion on the other, it is a debate over where abortion is on our scale of right and wrong. There are some things (murder, rape, theft) that everyone (even most criminals) agree are wrong and some everyone agrees are right. Abortion is one where the right/wrong split is closer to 50/50 than to 95/5 like murder and stuff.

  6. "The abortion debate is not about one side forcing their opinion on the other,"

    I agree with this completely. Abortion is not about forcing your opinion on anyone else. It's about forcing your religion on everyone else.

    Murder and stealing are wrong because they are deemed wrong based on secular arguments. If you remove religious beliefs from the abortion debate, pro-life arguments don't hold water.

    The ironic thing is that there are valid secular arguments for further restricting later term abortions. But because the pro-life camp refuses to compromise (because of their religious beliefs that every sperm is sacred) progress on this issue is impossible.

    In my opinion, their stubbornness is causing an increased number of what they believe to be lost innocent lives.

  7. AB wrote"I agree with this completely. Abortion is not about forcing your opinion on anyone else. It's about forcing your religion on everyone else."

    I'm currently reading several books at one time, including Jeff Sharlet's book 'The Family' about the political and religious views of a group which includes a number of conservative elected political figures. One of the definitions which I found compelling was the definition of the goal of a subset of evangelicals, whose stated intent was effectively to extend their control over the decisions and choices of others as separate and distinct from practicing their own faith themselves.

    Before anyone too quickly jumps on this statement, consider as context that in the religions of the world, the requirement or call / command to proselytize, to convert others, on an aggressive scale, is unique to two religions - Islam and Christianity.

    I do not see those who practice Judaism or Budhism or Hinduism even remotely as eager to convert others who either practice no religion or another, different religion.

    (AB, if you are getting automatic email updates on comments posted on this topic - could you check your email for something I sent you earlier today, and get back to me please! thanks)