A Liberal Approach to the Abortion Debate

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January 8, 2010 by D Stack

Though I support the overall objective, I’ve often criticized the pro-life movement for its focus on overturning Roe vs. Wade. Why is that?

Mainly, I don’t believe an end to Roe vs. Wade will make a difference in terms of reducing abortions – certainly not justify the effort that accomplishing this would take vs. other things that could be achieved. Assuming this could be done, in the current political climate it would require backing the Supreme Court with very conservative judges which would be against a liberal agenda, especially one of a strong welfare state. And ever it were to be overturned, this would still just return abortion to being a state by state issue. And there is some evidence that outlawing abortion would not lower the abortion rate – there is a very high rate of illegal abortion in Latin America, where there are much stronger legal restrictions on abortion.

I honestly believe a strong welfare state is among the strongest defense against abortion. Not against legalized abortion – after all there are ways to make abortion illegal – but against abortion in general. Take for example the United States and Germany. In 2003, there were 21 abortion per 1,000 women ages 15-44 compared with 8 per 1,000 women of the same ages in Germany. (Sedgh G, Henshaw SK, Singh S, Bankole A, Drescher J. “Legal abortion worldwide: incidence and recent trends.” International Family Planning Perspectives 2007; 33: 106–16.) What are the possible differences between the United States and Germany? Consider:

  • Germany has a strong universal health care program.
  • Germany has a long, paid parental leave program (in excess of a year and usable by both parents, though not both at once). The United States offers three months of unpaid leave.
  • Germany offers childcare stipend for parents. The United States offers a modest tax deduction (but as a parent, trust me, it’s nothing to get excited about).

Are Germany’s taxes higher than the United States? Absolutely. But what are our objectives here? An abortion rate of zero would be best, but 8 per 1,000 is closer than 21 per 1,000. This is also in keeping with studies in the United States which indicate income issues (or the need to drop out of school without any income or way to continue school) as being major reasons for abortion. Being a culture of life is a good thing. But a culture is not a group of individuals all left to their own devices. We need to put our wallets in line with our words. A culture of life is not defined by a set of laws prohibiting abortion, discouraging contraception, and then leaving parents to their own devices. Show you love babies after they are born as well as before. That is a sign of a culture of life.

As far as the law is concerned, I think at this point in time it is the culture which needs to be changed. The amendments that ended slavery did not come about until after the Civil War. Hopefully our nation can avoid another one, whether metaphorically or in reality, over this issue. And it is my hope that by having a welfare state that encourages life we will be able to move to the next step. This is why I can support Democratic politicians at this point in time.

As far as political allegiance goes, the above argument explains why I’m able to reconcile being a member of the Democratic party while holding to a pro-life position. And I’m still not a big fan of the Stupek Amendment which would block federal funds from contributing to health care that allows for abortion while allowing for paid riders that would cover abortion. To me that sends the message that abortion is a privilege of the rich.

I would also like to offer a secular reason for my own opposition to abortion. Though I am a Catholic Christian, my reasons fit perfectly comfortable in the secular realm – as I believe they must in a secular nation such as the United States.The reasons come down to two. I believe it is self-evidently wrong to kill an innocent human being. And I believe it is self-evident that a human being is formed at conception.

For the first. I believe it is self-evidently wrong to kill an innocent human being. I am not appealing to any religious doctrine here. I am appealing to the concept that everyone can agree that it is wrong to take an innocent life. You certainly wouldn’t consider it justified to kill any random person you see on the street. Beyond the fact that society would punish you with its laws, we can all agree it is just plain wrong to do. Evil if you will. Innocent is an important word here. You would not find universal agreement that it is wrong to kill a murderer. Now would you find universal agreement that it is wrong to wage war – indeed, the Catholic Church has the concept of a Just War, with the knowledge that human life would be lost in such a war.

Secondly, I believe it is self-evident that a human being is formed at conception. Not just life. After all, a tumor is alive and no one weeps about killing them. But an actual human being. A human person. Why at conception? Why not at birth, or sometime in between? As far as I can tell, conception is the point at which something definitive can be said to have occurred. Birth, while an event, is a transformation of location and a removal of life support. Is an unborn baby a human person by virtue of passage through the birth canal? So that minutes before it is not a human person? And if birth is not the moment of becoming a human person, then what? Is there an actual point between conception and birth that can be pointed to as the ethical bestowal of personhood?

Is it possible that the unborn baby is not a human person? Could I be wrong? I fond an interesting response to this by Peter Kreet in Three Approaches to Abortion. He posits four (and only four) possibilities regarding personhood.

  1. the fetus is a human person and we know that;
  2. the fetus is a human person and we do not know that;
  3. the fetus is not a human person and we do not know that;
  4. the fetus is not a human person and we know that.

– Peter Kreet, Three Approaches to Abortion, Ignatius Press, December 2009.

He argues that abortion can only be considered ethical in the final case. I make the argument for the first case. An abortion in such a case is a deliberate taking of an innocent human person’s life. The second case posits that we are unaware for certain if the fetus is a person. The analogy he makes is seeing a human-sized overcoat on a dark road that we can avoid running over. In this case we just go ahead and run over overcoat sack and discover that we’ve just killed someone. Not deliberately, but due to negligence which could have been avoided – i.e. manslaughter. The third case would be the example of running over the overcoat and it turning out to be empty of full of feathers. He argues that such a person, while not killing anything, is nevertheless, negligence. Only the fourth case is an ethical one.

Is this imposing personal values? I don’t think so – it is the reason I made the first point – that we would agree that taking of innocent life is wrong. I would be surprised to get much argument on that point.

What about women’s rights? This is an important issue and I do believe that many people in the pro-life movement also have strong feelings against women’s rights. I’m a man so I cannot conceive of what it is like to be pregnant. Having been with my wife through two pregnancies I am well aware of the fact that going through nine months carrying a child to term is no small feat. A bladder the size of a pea, morning sickness (or in my wife’s case, all-day sickness), comparing yourself to a waddling duck, being tired all the time, aches, hormones going crazy, feeling like everyone is looking at you, loss of mobility, complications, and quite possibly an annoying father. (Though I’m certain I wasn’t annoying…) Postpartum depression after the first baby and an even worse case after the second.

All I can say is that it comes down to the taking of an innocent life in the balance. Based on the arguments I’ve enunciated above I can’t take another position. Depending on individual ethics, I can conceive of a few cases where there is room for debate – different people would come up with different conclusions. The most obvious is when dealing with the pregnancy posing a major risk to the mother. It is a heartbreaking decision, but one that I image people could come to honestly different conclusions. Also I can understand the debate with a “doomed pregnancy”. If you support physician-assisted suicide then this would be a reasonable position to take that in your objective is to end suffering. I’m not giving my own position here, but more considering a case where there isn’t as clear a universal morality. It’s something I discussed earlier in a posting about late-term abortions. Re-reading it I sounded more supportive of abortions in general than I intended to, but I do believe in my essential point was valid — these were women facing an absolutely horrific scenario who were well aware of what it was they were doing.

This has been a difficult posting to write. I have many friends who take the pro-choice perspective and I don’t think them bad people though I certainly disagree with their position which I supports an evil action. And I would not be surprised if one or more have had an abortion or will do so in the future. But me shouting at them at the top of my lungs (whether vocally or via a blog) isn’t going to change their perspectives. Nor is me holding out a Bible and demanding repentance. I’m hoping to give something of a dialogue with my views and how I come by them. Maybe I can be convinced my views are somehow flawed. My politics today aren’t what they were five years ago.

And I’m certainly not a person without sin. I’m human like everyone else. I do things that I know are wrong, just like everyone else. Too often in the debate over abortion I find such bile from both sides. While the passions are understandable given the issues involved, bile has never persuaded anyone.

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