Abortion: Analysis and a "Technological-Fix" Thought Experiment
(From 14 February 2009)
The medical problems of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg remind us that the lull we're experiencing in the culture wars will soon be over. Before the figurative wars, and very literal tempers, flare up again, I'd like to discuss (calmly) the two most-opposed positions.
My over-riding points are the unoriginal ones that both sides have their logic and morality, that because of these different "logics" and moralities the most-opposed positions are irreconcilable — but that the majority of Americans can, very messily, compromise.
For a "Pro-Choice" position in one pure form, note that whatever human beings are includes our bodies, and that control of one's body is central to freedom.
"Your soul belongs to Jesus," the movie drill instructor yells, "but your ass belongs to me!" So military draftees know a thing or two about bodily freedom and the lack thereof, as do prisoners, slaves, gays, and other oppressed guys. Women know more: control of women by men has rested on control of women's bodies, primarily control of sex and reproduction. Therefore women's liberation requires that women assert control over their bodies, most especially over sex and reproduction.
If women are to be free, they must be able to avoid pregnancy through contraception and free to terminate unwanted pregnancies, especially those caused by rape or by being denied contraception.
For one coherent "Pro-Life" position, human beings are essentially souls, in traditional Christianity souls to be saved or damned. In Catholic teaching, such humanity begins at conception: when sperm and egg combine to form a unique human zygote, a new human individual, with a soul.
As a fact, not a position, "There's always a death in an abortion"; the serious question is "What dies?" In the theory of souls, a human being dies, an unborn human baby, and, for many, an unbaptized human being, releasing a soul laden with Original Sin.
With both of these clear and coherent positions, abortion is not open to compromise.
Continued subordination of women will not be allowed by those who want women free of male domination.
The damnation of a single soul is an infinite loss, and even lowering the stakes to bodily life and death, it is immoral to bargain with the lives of babies.
So most people who are logically consistent and rigorous on abortion have trouble accepting the trimester compromise of Roe versus Wade: "The Court ruled that the state cannot restrict a woman's right to an abortion during the first trimester, the state can regulate the abortion procedure during the second trimester 'in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health', and the state can choose to restrict or proscribe abortion as it sees fit during the third trimester when the fetus is viable ('except where it is necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother')" <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roe_v._Wade>.
Most of us, though, are fuzzy in our logic, unphilosophical, and conflicted on abortion. And that is where there is hope for a political resolution.
For most of us, a human being is, among other things, a complex animal with a backbone and brain. And one translation of Ecclesiastes 11.5 in the Bible suggests that how a soul gets into the growing "limbs within the womb of the pregnant woman" — and I assume when — is a formula for something people cannot know. For most Americans, a single-celled zygote with human genetics, or a sphere of human cells (a "blastula") isn't a human being with human rights.
And so for most Americans, even those who believe in souls, the deaths of zygotes and very early embryos are not a major problem. We can accept stem cell research and contraception that involves the death of very early embryos.
But also, for most of us, abortion becomes increasingly a problem as embryos become fetuses and develop toward viable and visible humanity.
The logically consistent will be left out of the compromise, but most of us can live with something like Roe v. Wade along with the long-standing goal of abortion as legal, safe, available, and rare.
With luck and vigorous programs encouraging contraception, unwanted pregnancies can become so rare that the issue can be resolved, logically messily and only eventually, with a technological fix that allows terminating pregnancies without killing embryos or fetuses: removing and preserving embryos and fetuses for implantation into the wombs of women who want them.
To spell that out: I'm suggesting a still science-fictional quick fix since, if nothing else, as a thought-experiment it helps clarify the issues.
When seriously unwanted pregnancies occur only with a failure in robust contraception and are very rare and soon discovered, then they can be terminated by removing the embryo or fetus from the mother and preserving it alive until it can be transplanted into the womb of a willing mother or allowed to gestate in an artificial womb and "decanted" Brave New World fashion and adopted. As the allusion to Aldous Huxley's anti-utopia suggests, this idea raises serious ethical questions but none as severe as those raised by abortion; such a quick fix would reduce the problem to the technical and, very much, the political, including the politics of contraception.
Where the couple — and I definitely include the male here — has failed to use robust contraception, perhaps they should pay back the State (partially at least) for removing, preserving, and potentially implanting the embryo or fetus. Not with money, which would privilege the rich, but by public-service labor such as assigned for misdemeanors
Meanwhile, for the foreseeable future, we need vigorous programs encouraging contraception, prenatal health, and adoption are important public health and population policies, and having abortion legal, safe, available, and rare is a worthy goal most Americans can support.