The Human Condition:

On Abortion – November 22, 2020

Human embryo

I try not to be too overtly political on these blogs, because I have friends and readers on both sides of the aisle. Also, I am generally in the middle on most issues, polling about three points right of center on a scale of one hundred either way. But this issue has been batting around in my head recently, and writing it down is a way to get it out.

First, let me say that I’m not generally against killing. I mean, we humans do it all the time. I eat meat and feel unashamed. I support war as the last resort of the beset and desperate. War means killing. War means horror. But war is what you do when negotiations break down and surrender is not an option.

Like most Americans, I think, I am not opposed to abortion when it’s done in the first trimester. At that time the embryo is still developing and doesn’t have much of a nervous system, so not a lot of sentience. While I believe life begins at conception, the early-stage fetus is still just the potential for human life. A lot of things can go wrong in a pregnancy and do. And a miscarriage in the first trimester is more a dashing of the parents’ hopes than the destruction of a human person. Still, I don’t like abortion as a birth-control option, because it’s invasive and it seems to teach the woman’s body how to miscarry. But if she is beyond the option of less invasive measures and still wishes not to be pregnant, that will be her choice.

The second and third trimester become, for me, more problematic. The fetus is developing a nervous system, sensation, and—if we can believe the memes that would have you play Bach to your belly, talk to it, and send happy thoughts in that direction—some self-awareness. Destroying a fetus in these circumstances becomes more like the murder of a human person than the destruction of a clump of cells. I have some feelings about that, and so do many Americans, I think.

Abortion at the moment of birth—what “partial-birth” abortion would seem to advocate—is, in my mind, really the killing of a viable human baby. I understand that the birth may be induced for this purpose, but that does not make it better. I also understand that the people who advocate for this are less concerned with the mental or physical health of the mother than they are with the legal standing of the abortion issue. They are absolutists and legal purists: if abortion in principle is not made an absolute right at all stages of a pregnancy, then it can be challenged and overturned at any stage, including the moment of conception.

I am not an absolutist or a purist about anything. So the appeal of this argument leaves me cold. I believe people should be responsible for their actions: if a woman decides she does not want a child, she should make up her mind in the first three or four months, not wait until the baby is almost born. Bending the law and common sense to accommodate her every whim is not good practice.

Also, abortion at the end of a pregnancy crosses a line that, I think, most moral people are unwilling to cross. If it’s acceptable to kill a baby at the moment of birth, then why not two weeks later? Does the child keep you up at night? Do you have regrets about becoming a parent? Smother it! Does your two-year-old daughter throw tantrums and grate on your nerves? Drown her! Did your sixteen-year-old son borrow the car and dent it? Shoot him! Did your sixty-year-old daughter tell you it’s time you were put in the old folks’ home? Stab or poison her!

Again, I’m not completely opposed to killing—at least not when it’s done with cause. But I do believe people should take responsibility for their actions. And their response to pressure, aggravation, and opposition should be proportional to the incident, where casual murder would be an extreme reaction. While I don’t have an absolute respect for life—again, not absolutist about anything—I do believe being careful and respecting the rights of other sentient beings, especially among your own species, is a moral good. It’s something to strive for, even if we cannot always attain it.

Now, many women are also saying, with reason, “My body, my choice.” This is to say that other people, men in particular, and society in general, have no right to an opinion in the matter of abortion, nor should they be allowed to make rules about it. And, in my view, this is true up to a point—that point being somewhere in the second trimester. Until then, the fetus might be considered just a “clump of cells,” not much different from a tumor, and certainly without a separate identity or viability, perhaps with the potential for humanity but not exactly a human being. But after that point—and we can debate where to draw the line—the fetus becomes a separate entity with sensation, some awareness, and more than just potential. At that point, the woman is hosting, sharing her body with, another living being. And whether you like the biological facts or not, that becomes a societal concern.

To say, “My body, my choice” about the entire process, up to and through the stage of actually giving birth, is like someone saying, “My dog, my property.” After all, they own the dog, bought it, fed it, took care of it in their fashion, and can now decide what to do with it. If a dog owner wants to beat it, starve it, leave it out in the cold chained to a tree, or even abandon it alongside the road, then society should have no say in the matter. The dog is a wholly owned possession that may be disposed of at the owner’s whim. Right?

That’s one view of the legal process about ownership and responsibility, but most of us would disagree. A world where such mind-your-own-business callousness is the societal norm would be a cold and unfeeling place, without pity or concern for the weak and defenseless.

That is not a world I want to inhabit.