Through an unusual series of circumstances, I have become a friend of Rob Schenck, about whom you can learn more in the op-ed from the New York Times linked here. Unbeknownst to each other, we worked on these two brief essays simultaneously. His is better, but mine is mine. I include the link for the sake of hope; two people beginning from widely divergent points can find common ground on one of the more intractable issues of our time.
In the difficult discussions surrounding women’s reproductive health, many of the factions are talking past each other because of their adherents understand the essential word in the debate differently. That word is “life.”
It is fair to say that when the Declaration of Independence noted life as an inalienable right, the authors and endorsers were speaking in general terms, not considering the way the term would have been applied in these debates. The same is almost certainly true of terms like “men,” and in the Constitution, “militia,” “arms,” “cruel and unusual,” and the presumed worth of “twenty dollars.” It has been the function of legislatures and courts to address the evolution of these terms as well as their applications in law and society.
The word “life” is so general that it requires nuance and modifiers. At the very least, it must be modified by the word “human.” Our debates about the sanctity or quality of life in gestation do not revolve around the pervasive presence of living things in our world, nor did the founders consider life inalienable to any but “men” (that is, human beings in our now-authoritative understanding). Some people insist that human life be considered only in a scientific sense, others in a religious sense, and still others in some hybrid of the two.
Religiously, human life is defined by inherited or interpreted faith traditions. Some of them identify a moment in development – as early as coitus and as late as labor – as the marker of human life. For some faith traditions, ensoulment (the presumed moment that a soul enters a living entity) marks that moment. If the presence of a soul creates a religious obligation, then the physical development of the life is superseded by that requirement. Of course, there is already an established and ensouled human life in any pregnancy: the mother. Different faith traditions prioritize the obligations to each of these human lives in distinct ways.
Scientifically, gestational life may be said to fit into three different categories, not easily delineated. The first, associated with the earliest period after fertilization, is called embryogenesis. Technically, it is life; the rapid division, replication and differentiation of cells in this stage unquestionably meets the definition of life that could be applied in human or non-human circumstances. The second category, when embryo becomes fetus, involves sentience, and it becomes more definitive as the life becomes more able to respond to sense impressions. It is important to note that “thinking” is not a part of this sentience, and likely not consciousness either. Rather, stimuli of various kinds are able to provoke a discernible reaction as the brain and nervous system develop. Lastly, there is the category of viability. At this point, life that has been entirely dependent on the mother has developed a capacity to sustain itself out of the womb. Here, too, viability does not guarantee consciousness, that is, awareness of self that is distinct from the surrounding world.
I note two important truths at this point. First, medical science has blurred the distinctions among these categories even as it has defined them, including extending backward into gestation the viability of life. The second truth, which must not be overlooked, is that the mother is herself a viable human life.
If you have read this far, you have chosen your set of definitions. But I suspect that choice was made before you began to read. The purpose of my hubris is to urge upon those who have entered into these debates an effort to understand the various terms of engagement as held by those in disagreement.
Those who insist on prohibiting or severely limiting abortion have, at best, a superficial understanding of the scientific arguments and values regarding agency held by others who want to protect access to abortion services. By starting with the presumption of God’s will expressed through fertilization, they retrofit certain scientific truths (e.g., the DNA in the zygote contains all of the information necessary for the fully-formed human being) and insist that, therefore, there is no difference between abortion and murder. They also conflate the human potential for agency and consciousness that is far from realized until well after birth to speak “on behalf” of the unborn – as if a microphone or sensor that could record inside the womb would enable us to hear a plaintive plea for life.
Those who insist that the decision to abort is as it ought to be, that is, entirely in the realm of the mother, informed by the best medical (and perhaps spiritual) advice she can find have a similarly superficial understanding of the faith values that inform their opponents. Extending the rhetoric of those who oppose abortion on the grounds of sanctity of life, they create straw men about social dilemmas that also demand such a philosophy of life: alleviation of poverty, warfare, gun violence, domestic abuse, sexual assault, affordable health care and capital punishment, among others. Ignoring the truth that one person’s hypocrisy is another’s paradox, they demand a consistency from their opponents that, even if it were attainable, would not persuade those who support legal and available abortion to change their position.
And, of course, both sides are persuaded of the power of anecdote. The stories fall into two categories: “My mother was going to abort me and deprive my loved ones and me” and “My life would have been compromised by an unwanted birth.” For the record, both stories ought to provoke sympathy and support for the tellers. Neither story is proof of a position on the value of life.
So long as the two sides of this debate insist on defining the conversation in their own terms, it will be perpetual and unresolved. And so long as each side defines for the other what its understanding is, the clear lack of respect will frustrate any real conversation and drive the debate about necessary legislation – whatever that may be – into ever more distant and irreconcilable positions.
So here is the truth: abortions will continue to occur, whether they are legal and safe or not. People inalterably opposed to abortion will find their absolutism challenged when faced with an unwanted or dangerous pregnancy themselves or in someone they love, and people who insist on accessible abortion on demand will find themselves facing unanticipated questions of the heart when they face an unwanted pregnancy themselves or in someone they love.
Therefore, I urge everyone to take some time to listen to an opponent on this subject and engage in serious and respectful discussion to understand motivations and consequences. Please do so without appointing yourself the defender of the pregnant mother or of the life within her. The result will not be a self-evident conclusion, but it will inspire compassion and understanding as we navigate this painful topic.