29 June 2011

Abortion is a complicated issue

My state is once again making headlines: yesterday the Ohio House of Representatives approved the so-called "Heartbeat Bill" (HB 125), which would ban all abortions in the state after the first detectable fetal heartbeat (normally 6-7 weeks along, often before a woman knows that she's pregnant), except in cases where the life of the pregnant woman is in danger. This naturally has provoked the "pro-choice" camp into a defensive frenzy, stepping up the campaign to defeat the bill in the Senate.

In my opinion, the debate over abortion and the restriction thereof is the most legitimate controversy we have in our society. It's an ethical dilemma at the collision point between two rights: that of human beings not to be unlawfully deprived of life, and that of human beings to retain sovereignty over their own bodies. It's an ugly debate convoluted by tough questions and mired by personal insults thrown from both sides, and it needs to be talked about in a rational manner.

Before discussing further, I want to give a curt admonition to each of the opposing factions:

Pro-lifers: Stop disingenuously talking about an embryo with a circulatory system as if it's biologically equivalent to a live toddler. It's not.

Pro-choicers: Stop disingenuously saying that this bill "threatens women's lives" when it makes a clear exception for medical necessity. That alarmist catchphrase should be saved for cases when it truly applies; the issue in contention here is women's privacy and control over their own bodies.
*** EDIT:  As Ginx correctly points out, the bill's passage could indirectly threaten Ohio women's lives by making it more likely for them to seek out potentially risky and unsanitary "back alley" abortions; if the embryo they're carrying has a pulse, then no Ohio doctor could legally perform the procedure.  What the bill directly threatens, however, is their rights regarding their bodies. ***

What constitutes a human being?

Not yet a baby, but more than a zygote.
I doubt I'm alone in thinking that (human) life begins not at birth and not at fertilization, but at some point in between. There's a point at which you're clearly just a mass of cells following scripted growth instructions, there's a point at which you're clearly a viable human child capable of reaching maturity outside of your mother's womb with medical intervention, and those two points seem to be separated not by a clear-cut line but rather a hazy, amorphous gray zone of gradual development.

I don't believe in mincing words or whitewashing the reality of what an abortion is, however, and that is the deliberate killing of the organism (person or not) growing inside a woman's uterus. It's a weighty decision that shouldn't be made lightly. That being said, the point of contention here is whether the state has any business intervening on behalf of that organism while it is inside the body of a clearly fully-formed female human being.

On the protection of "choice"

Pro-choice activists aren't fighting for the right to relentlessly slaughter unborn fetuses, or even promoting it as a form of birth control; they're fighting for the right of a woman to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term. Most of the vocal pro-choicers I've talked to about the issue have admitted that they think abortions are a disgusting act, but they believe that it's ultimately the individual woman's choice regarding what goes on in her uterus.

My assessment is also that pro-choicers generally aren't trying to create a consequence-free environment for irresponsible sexual behavior, as most of them I've talked to also advocate for safe sex, for a strict "no means no!" policy regarding consent, and for instilling the belief in young people that they should never feel obligated to have sex when someone pressures them to do so.

One particularly notable pro-choice activist, Anne Nicol Gaylor, has helped pay for tens of thousands of abortions for low-income women and girls seeking them; before writing the check, she asks them pointed questions such as "What will you do next time so this doesn't happen again?"; activists like her clearly seem to value personal responsibility.

There are, as with every rule, exceptions; I once talked to a woman who referred to her unwanted fetus as a "parasite" and talked about her planned abortion as if she were having a  wart removed. To be honest, the notion of someone like this particular individual being responsible for a child's well-being is the most horrifying idea that's crossed my mind while researching this subject.

On the protection of "life"

I would like to believe that pro-life activists aren't fighting to force women with unplanned pregnancies to endure the consequences of sexual activity, but rather to prevent the unnecessary killing of viable developing humans; wanting something to be true, however, doesn't make it so. Most of the vocal pro-lifers I've talked to about the issue are also opposed to contraception-inclusive sex education and to legitimizing homosexual relationships; many of them also express negative sentiments about women who have children out of wedlock and care nothing for helping these children after they are born (here's a chart by another blogger illustrating the hypocrisy).

To be fair, there are also a number of pro-lifers who do advocate for women with unexpected pregnancies, for helping them receive adequate care and support during pregnancy, and for assisting them with the adoption process or with parenting supplies and classes after they give birth.  My mother works for one such organization, and I respect that aspect of what they do.

What is our society's responsibility?

I personally believe that there really isn't much middle ground to tread on with this particular issue; abortion needs to either be explicitly legal or explicitly illegal. Any attempt to compromise between the two with a system of exceptions will invariably result in bureaucrats making the decisions about which fetuses live or die and which women's bodies are or are not commandeered by the state to serve as incubators.

I can't in good conscience advocate prohibiting abortion entirely, as I generally believe that the government's jurisdiction should end at the surface of one's skin. Therefore I feel I must fall in with the "safe, legal, and rare" crowd.

I personally feel that terminating a viable pregnancy for non-medical reasons is unethical, but if that's what a woman who didn't plan to get pregnant must do to in order to preserve her own well-being then so be it. There are plenty of personal ethics decisions that rightly fall on the individual's conscience rather than the rule of law.

I believe that we as a society should tackle the abortion problem not by attacking the women who have them or the doctors who perform them, but rather by improving sex education, promoting a sense of personal responsibility about sexuality, and dispelling cultural taboos about contraception.

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