I followed with some interest the abortion thread over on Whateveresque.
I didn't comment over there because I didn't feel like I had anything to add that hadn't already been said by someone else. I waited until now to post my own comments, because I wanted the conversation over there to run its course, and now it looks like it has. I find it interesting that both general positions, for and against, were represented by folks who are regular commenters here, i.e. Shawn Powers and MWT. I was impressed by the, mostly, civil conversation on both sides of the issue, and by both Shawn and MWT's own positions and their respect for each other.
But - it is exactly that civil, adult, reasonable stand by both sides that confirms, for me, something that I've suspected for a long, long time - to wit: we are never going to agree on this issue, period.
I'd like to propose a change of rudder.
But first, I suppose it is only fair to state my own position on the subject of abortion, which is this: I mostly just don't care. Really. If I'm forced to take a stand on this subject, I will come down slightly off-center on the side of choice. Safe, legal, and very, very rare, that's me.
Now people get all bent out of shape when I say I mostly don't care. Abortion is one of those subjects that you're supposed to have strong feelings about, you're supposed to take a stand solidly on one side of the line or the other. You're either Pro-Choice or Pro-Life. You're either with us or against us (us being whomever is pounding the table at the moment). Even if you're a bit ambivalent about what you believe, you're still supposed to take sides. Abortion is just one of those polarizing issues, and just like optical polarization, there are only two choices (optical polarization is either horizontal or vertical). In fact, the only thing that will unite both sides, albeit only momentarily, is somebody who isn't part of either camp (Kind've like Fundamentalist Christians and Radical Muslims agreeing to hate the Jews.)
Well, I'm not much for being stuffed into a pigeon hole, especially on this issue.
1) I don't like the names: Pro-Choice and Pro-Life. I don't want either label applied to me. Pro-Life I find insulting and arrogant. The name, pro-life, implies that anybody who isn't a pro-lifer is anti-life (the ultimate 'you're either with us, or you're against us'). Pro-choice, on the other hand, often implies that there is only one choice - have an abortion or become a parent. Wait! Don't start screaming. I realize that most pro-choice folks don't mean their position to be so binary, but that's the message I often get - they're so used to fighting (and maybe justifiably so) that they often will not consider a larger range of options, many of which are proposed by the pro-life side, maybe because that range of options is proposed by the opposition. Acceptance into the organized pro-choice camp is often contingent, at least in my experience, on making only the approved choice, i.e. you're pro-choice just as long as you don't choose pro-life. (Organized, I said, into the organized pro-choice movement. Most people who define themselves as pro-choice don't belong to an organized pro-choice group, they're more of the 'leave me the hell alone' mindset). I am always suspicious of any issue that gives people only two options - I think people are more complex than that.
2) It is nearly impossible for the Pro-life side to separate their position from their religion. Again, I realize that many religious people have no desire to separate their position from their faith. Many don't believe this is even possible, and some believe that to live their life apart from their religion is evil. I understand this, and accept it. America is about freedom of belief, however it is also about freedom from belief. I have no problem when a person limits their own options because of their religious beliefs, I have a major problem when they expect everybody else to live within those limitations. If your course of action is dictated primarily by your religion, well fine for you, but you have absolutely NO right whatsoever to inflict that position on me or mine, and if you try - well I'm liable to take serious exception to it, violent exception if you keep at it.
3) The argument 'life begins at conception' does not hold water with me. 'What's that?' I hear you say. Bear with me here for a minute. First, I do agree that life does indeed begin at conception. Prior to conception, neither the sperm nor the ovum are truly alive, not as we define life (it's life, Jim, but not as we know it! - sorry, had to be said). Neither egg or sperm are able to consume resources from the environment, excrete waste, or are able to reproduce on their own - both are nothing more than building blocks. But after conception, well, it's a different story. The embryo consumes resources, excretes wastes, grows and reproduces (not sexual reproduction but rather cellular reproduction which qualifies as a defining criteria for life). So, it can be demonstrated scientifically that life does indeed begin at conception.
Seriously, so what? Is it human life? Is that lump of cells a human being? Science would say, no, probably not. Rather it is a potential human being, and many things can go wrong on the way to the final product. Religious folks say that's bullshit, it's human. Period. Most parents at this point would agree, I know I did - when that stick test came back positive, it was a baby. Who's right here? Science or emotion (and if you don't think emotion has a role in this, well, I'd advise you not to have kids, just saying). Again, who's right? Answer, both, neither. Why? Well because at this point we are well into the questions neither science nor religion can easily answer, i.e. what is it to be human?
And that takes us to the real crux of the matter, doesn't it? The question of when does human life begin, and the argument that human life is special.
The pro-life folks say yes, human life is sacred and must be protected. Strangely, many of these people support the death penalty, many support the war. I'm generalizing of course, not all pro-lifers are Neocon Republicans, not all are Christians (a significant number are devout Jews and Muslims, hell there are a number of atheists opposed to abortion) but a large majority are staunch religious Christian conservatives, at least here in the US. For these people, it's not a matter of science, it's a matter of faith. Human life begins at conception, it is defenseless and must be protected - if that embryo makes bad choices later in life, well, then it must be held accountable. But that unborn life has a right to exist and grow up to make those bad choices. The pro-choice group sees this as the ultimate hypocrisy. It's not, ultimately faith is about choice, you chose to follow your faith, or you don't. Now I will say I think there is some hypocrisy to be had here, because if you truly believe that human life is sacred, and that it does indeed begin at the moment of conception - well what happens when that fertilized egg doesn't implant in the uterine wall because the mother is eating a lousy diet? or has a medial condition she could have gotten corrected and didn't? What happens if the mother miscarries? Not because it's 'God's Will' but because she smokes, or because she's careless and slipped on the ice and fell down the steps? How is this different than failing to put an infant in a car seat? If life is truly sacred, shouldn't these people be tried for manslaughter? Or criminal negligence? (No, I don't think this. Yes, I know there are those who do). My problem here is where do you draw the line? What criteria do you use? Who decides?
Pro-choice folks on the other hand, often resort to science at this point in the argument. The most common pro-choice argument is, 'it may be life, but it just isn't viable outside of the womb,' therefor it's not human. Hmmm, I suppose there is some logic to this, but I have to argue that there are many creatures, creatures that we all can agree are life, that can exist only in specialized environments. Extremophiles, for example, that exist only in boiling black-smoker vents beneath the sea. Or parasites that are specific to only one species of plant or animal. Because these creatures can only exist in one very limited environment should we say that they really aren't alive? But those creatures aren't human, Jim, I hear some of you say, non-extra-uterine-viable embryos are different. OK, what if that human embryo has an immune system deficiency? And following it's birth must live forever within a sterile environment? Does this mean that it's not human? Of course not. All creatures exist within a specific environmental range, which may change over the course of the creature's life. In order for the question of embryonic viability to be a valid argument, we would have to define exactly what environmental parameters define a human being at each stage of development - and if you allow for technological modification of those parameters, well, all I can say is, "good luck with that." And I think the same logic applies to the question of embryonic viability. Again, where do you draw the line? What criteria do you use? Who decides?
Me? I tend more towards what I can see, touch, and test. And frankly I've got to say about the religious viewpoint that life is sacred: On the face of things, if there is a God (of whatever faith), he/she doesn't seem to regard human life as all that sacred - especially children. Without human intervention, hundreds of thousands of children (including unborn children) die every year in horrible ways. And frankly, for a bunch of people who say that human life is a gift from God, well, history shows repeatedly that most religions have no problem putting a bullet through the forehead of their fellow gifts from God. Actions speak louder than words, sorry but there it is.
From the scientific view point, again, I just don't see human life as all that special (don't get me wrong here, I see my life as plenty special, and same with those I love and know, but the rest? Well...), truthfully, the human race is hardly endangered. In fact, from a scientific viewpoint, the biggest threat to humans is, uh well, more humans. Most wars are ultimately fought over resources. Less births are better.
And so, however you get to this point, my answer to the whole 'when does human life begin' question is always going to be, 'I don't care.' I. Don't. Care. I don't know when it begins. I damned sure know when it ends though. I've seen plenty of dead people, people who have died in horrible ways. People who ended their lives as soggy corpses, bloating in the broiling sun - is life sacred? On the face of things, I've got to say I don't think the Universe gives a shit. I'm marginally more pro-choice than pro-life because I think that what a woman does with her uterus is her business (unless she decides to run a meth lab in there, or harbor terrorists - then I think we've got the right to poke around, in the interest of National Security, of course).
I would say to you, all of you no matter if you're pro-choice or pro-life, we just aren't going to agree on these questions. Hell, even folks within the same movement, within the same church, within the same woman's health clinic, within the same family, can't agree on these questions: What is it to be human? When does human life begin? Is it sacred? Is it special? Which is more important, the mother or the embryo? Does the lump of cells in a woman's uterus have rights independent from the mother?
And this is why I rarely get involved with the abortion issue, because, frankly I think the entire argument is off-track. While many of the question above are vitally important to many people, not one of them can be answered to the satisfaction of all. Not one. And that means there is no way in hell, that we are ever going to come to an agreement that everybody can live with. And because the two sides are both powerful, and nearly evenly matched, and because nearly everybody in the country feels strongly about it, we will always be divided on this. If abortion is legal - half the country will fight to have it made illegal. If it's made illegal, the other half of the country will fight to make it legal. The country will continue to pour vast amounts of energy and assets and passion and hatred into this bottomless hole. And it will never end.
So what do we do about it?
Well, there's an old Indian (India, not Native American) proverb. It doesn't translate well, but it goes something like this:
Question: How do you climb down off of an elephant? Answer: you don't, you climb down off of a duck.
Yeah I know, I told you it didn't translate well. What it means is this: Sometimes you need to look at the question from a different angle.
And that takes me here, to something that should be obvious, but I never see mentioned in the argument by either side, to wit: Abortion is a symptom, not the disease.
That's right, we're expending all this energy on the wrong question!
Abortion is a symptom, not the disease - in other words: No woman has ever gotten an abortion who wasn't - stick with me here - pregnant. No shit, uh?
And that is, of course, the real question - the question that, unlike abortion, has many solutions, solutions that we can all live with and allow others to live with different answers - How do we prevent unwanted pregnancy?
And the answer is not just birth control, though that is a big part of it. The best thing about birth control is that one size doesn't fit all (heh). The options range from abstinence to various forms of technology. Some solutions are right for certain people, and some different solutions are right for others. One of the things I'd like to see is a concerted effort, supported by the pro-life and pro-choice camps, to develop a safe and effective and cheap male oral contraceptive. If both sides put half as much effort into supporting the development of such a drug as they do into screaming at each other, we'd have it done already.
Yes, I understand that some religions don't allow their members (heh) to use birth control. And some folks just don't want to, religion aside. Fine, you've got two choices here, abstinence or eventual pregnancy. And for some people these are acceptable choices.
The key term is unwanted pregnancy. And the solution is to either prevent it, or make it wanted. And this is something both sides of the abortion issue can agree on, and find their own answers for - without having to impose those answers on the other side. If everybody in this country got together and pushed to end unwanted pregnancy - by whatever means - then we'd make the issues of abortion moot. Abortion would become rare. Which is what it should be.