Sunday, September 5, 2021

 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')" <>.

     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.


Abortion and Such Yet Again 

 (January 2016, re-posted 5 September 2021)


Once or twice a year I write on the abortion controversy, usually in a small-city newspaper or a blog post. Sometimes, I'm just pedantically correcting the question, "When does life begin?" That formulation is forgivable since common, but pretty useless: one thing the Bible and biology since the late 19th century agree on is that life doesn't begin, but began and has been transmitted ever since. So eggs and sperm are alive, as are zygotes, embryos, and fetuses. "There is always a death in an abortion" — and death with each menstruation and miscarriage and millions of deaths (over 100 million in humans) with each ejaculation. The relevant and crucial question is "What dies?" and following from that, "Is that what to be a human person under the law?" 

My most serious agenda (which I'll follow here in a short form) is to demonstrate that the set of issues surrounding abortion is unresolvable in any philosophically respectable way and recommend a messy, intellectually incoherent, vulgarly pragmatic political compromise. E.g., we may be able to get what looked like might follow from Roe v. Wade. Building upon the feeling of many ordinary Americans that early abortions are okay while late ones are not, and that contraception is a good idea, what we could get are strict restrictions on late-term abortions while contraceptive use by women — and fertile girls and men and boys — is encouraged, along with "Plan B's" of various sorts, plus readily available, safe and legal early abortion as needed, with the goal of making the need for any abortions increasingly rare. 

Meanwhile we'll engage in cycles of unresolvable arguments stemming from radically different premises and competing but complexly-related histories. On the one side, are the history of patriarchal oppression and the control of women's bodies, and the resistance to patriarchy and control. On the other side, this:


If "People are the riches of a nation" and a large and growing population the source of a nation's strength and prosperity, then policies of "pronatalism" (also just called "natalism") are essential,and society and State must act aggressively to encourage live births, with the kids raised to where they can be militarily and economically useful, and ready to produce another generation. One obvious wayto this goal: harness sex to reproduction by striving to prevent all sex outside of the reproductive and reproductive in a stable social unit (long-term families) in which the kids can get raised. Under this approach, the sexual "abominations in Leviticus" etc. make sense as do secular-based prohibitions on contraception.

(Whether pronatalism is a good idea in a world of over 7 billion people facing another and particularly serious period of climate change and resource depletion — that's something we need to discuss.) 


If the goal (finis, telos) of sex is reproduction, it is unnatural to engage in sex that is nonreproductive. If Nature is part of God's plan, such unnaturalness is sinful. If the State should get involved in prohibiting unnatural acts and/or various kinds of sin, then laws against contraception make sense (and condoms when and where I was a kid were quite properly legally "SOLD FOR THE PREVENTION OF DISEASE ONLY").


If a human being is essentially a soul, and if that soul is of infinite value; if that soul enters a zygote at the moment of conception, then anything that destroys a zygote or embryo or fetus is a variety of murder. Worse — maybe infinitely worse — if/since the victims are unbaptized they will join the other unbaptized infants and miscarriages in damnation: perhaps in a Limbo, if that theology comes back into fashion, or in "the easiest room in hell," as in Michael Wigglesworth's teaching-poem, "The Day of Doom" (the Year of the Lord 1662 [the date for the poem, not the Apocalypse]).


Given the US First Amendment and at least a fair amount of de facto separation of Church and State, we're not going to have much honest debate on the theology of contraception and abortion and the politics that debate implies. Nor are we going to have an open and vigorous debate on population policy and its implications for and involvement in climate change, resource allocation, immigration, who pays for old people, and tax breaks for families. (Some Americans who are all for population control in theory still want tax deductions for their children, even third and fourth and fifth kids.)


There has been some social progress on these issues, certainly with gay rights and, maybe more relevantly here, condoms: which are now advertised, required in LA-produced up-scale professional pornography, and apparently encouraged in some areas of amateur porn upload sites — uh, or so I have heard. On the other hand, there is the logic of abortion = murder, hence large-scale abortion = mass murder, hence … well, hence bombing an abortion clinic or shooting abortion providers can be admitted as an act of terrorism but then defended as a "lesser evil." On the other side, if one just rejects the whole idea of souls and ensoulment and follows a rigorous materialism, then it becomes fairly easy to justify even a late-term abortion but more difficult to condemn killing older human organisms, especially before or after they can talk rationally or after you've been forced to admit that there may be little justification in nature to put so much value on speech or reason or consciousness that "mind" become a kind of stand-in for "soul."


I hope Americans will say on the abortion debate and other sex issues, "Screw ideology and intellectual rigor folks! Let's cut a political deal on abortion and sex stuff and move on." As much as Americans are generally anti-intellectual, though, I expect the opposing logics of the abortion debate to continue robust and dangerous — and we'll be cycling back to the topic for the rest of my life.