“The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and
breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man
became a living being.” – Genesis 2:1
WHEN LIFE BEGINS
One of the most emotionally charged controversies of our time is that of abortion. It involves legal, religious, political, social, biological, and moral aspects, most of which center around the concept of life during the gestation period. In all the hysteria over abortion rights, it seems that among the most important issues is the definition of “life.”
Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the court’s opinion for Roe v. Wade in 1973, which was approved by a 7 to 2 majority, made this observation:
“We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate.”
Nonetheless, various states want to make their own interpretation of the beginning of life. For example, in 2012, the Oklahoma Legislature considered a bill, Senate Bill 1433, “The Personhood Act,” that said life begins at conception. Such a law would mean that anyone who performs an abortion would be committing murder, and the mother, being an accomplice, would be equally guilty. I suppose a miscarriage would be manslaughter. I haven’t read the bill so I don’t know how they planned to handle stillbirths, birth defects, ectopic pregnancies, and frozen embryos. Also, I’m not exactly sure how the Republicans rationalize such legislation with their platform of keeping government out of our lives and allowing everyone unimpeded freedom of choice.
Then, along comes State Senator Constance Johnson of Oklahoma City who offered an amendment to SB 1433, that provides,
“Any action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman’s vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child.”
Of course, among other things, Johnson’s amendment would essentially outlaw oral sex, anal sex, and masturbation. SB 1433 quickly died in a male-dominated committee.
Also, in 2012, there was another bill proposed in Virginia. Virginia’s HB1, which offers this syllogism:
The life of each human being begins at conception,” that,
Unborn children have protectable interests in life, health, and well-being,” and that,
The natural parents of unborn children have protectable interests in the life, health, and well-being of their unborn child.”
But, like Oklahoma’s bill, Virginia’s HB1 was never enacted.
Of course, Congress, especially Republicans, wanted to pipe in on this issue. On January 24, 2017, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced S.231, “Life at Conception Act of 2017.” Congress.gov gives a brief summary: “
S.231 got no further than its introduction and was never enacted. However, it reflects the feelings of many who are anti-abortion and who erroneously call themselves pro-life. (See “Enter the Pros” below.)
The anti-abortion controversy has also wound its way into the federal bureaucracy. For example, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Service, in its Strategic Plan for 2018-2022, states that,
“HHS accomplishes its mission through programs and initiatives that cover a wide spectrum of activities, serving and protecting Americans at every stage of life, beginning at conception.”
This language is a revision of the previous Plan for 2014-2018, which makes no mention of life beginning at conception. The change was made by the HHS Director Alex Azar, a Republican, at the suggestion of many anti-choice members of Congress.
As of this writing, the issue of what constitutes life in the context of abortion remains unresolved.
WHEN A HUMAN LIFE BECOMES A HUMAN PERSON
Just as important, or even more so than what constitutes life, is the definition of a person. A legal person, under federal law, is found at Title 1 USC §8
(a) … the words “person”, “human being”, “child”, and “individual”, shall include every infant member of the species homo sapiens who is born alive at any stage of development.
(b) … “born alive”, with respect to a member of the species homo sapiens, means the complete expulsion or extraction from his or her mother of that member, at any stage of development, who after such expulsion or extraction breathes or has a beating heart, pulsation of the umbilical cord, or definite movement of voluntary muscles, regardless of whether the umbilical cord has been cut, and regardless of whether the expulsion or extraction occurs as a result of natural or induced labor, cesarean section, or induced abortion.
(c) Nothing in this section shall be construed to affirm, deny, expand, or contract any legal status or legal right applicable to any member of the species homo sapiens at any point prior to being “born alive” as defined in this section.
Arguably then, a member of the species homo sapiens not “born alive” is not a person. (But, the term “person” can also be applied to professional firms, labor organizations, partnerships, associations, nonprofit and for-profit corporations, legal representatives, trustees, or receivers, or any other legally formed organization.)
Apparently, much of this anti-abortion legislation is being orchestrated by an outfit called Parenthood USA. According to one source, “Personhood USA” is a grassroots, right-wing, Christian organization founded to establish personhood efforts across America to create protection for every child by love and by law.
“Personhood USA is committed to assisting and supporting Personhood Legislation and Constitutional Amendments and building local pro-life organizations through raising awareness of the personhood of the preborn.”
Of course, legislation to stop or interfere with abortions has been and continues to be challenged in court. In a March 29, 2019, article by ABC, “State abortion bans in 2019: Many signed, none in effect,” the authors report on a number of states that have tightened up laws to make it more difficult for women to get an abortion. They report shows that various states:
- Set a time limit after which abortions are prohibited. Some say six weeks, others say eight weeks
- Adopted the ‘heartbeat” rule, once there’s a heartbeat, abortion is off-limits.
- Grant exceptions for cases where the mother’s health is at risk, but no exceptions for cases of rape or incest.
- Made access to abortion clinics more difficult.
- Require minors to get the approval of parents/guardians before an abortion
- Require counseling and/or show photos of aborted fetuses.
- Require permission from the sperm donor.
And on it goes. None of these proposed laws have passed legal muster. In any case, the Supreme Court will likely be asked to make the Solomon-esk rulings on which of these laws, if any, are consistent with the Constitution, or not. In fact, several are moving glacially through the court system.
ENTER THE PROS
Those who disagreed with the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v Wade came to be known as “pro-life,” while those who agreed with it became “pro-choice.” With few exceptions, polls over the past 20 years or so show that these groups have been almost evenly divided. Results from the most recent Gallop poll showed that 49% of respondents were pro-choice and 46% were pro-life on the question of abortion.
In that same poll, 53% of respondents indicated that abortion should be legal only in certain circumstances, while 25% of all U.S. adults said that abortion should be permitted in all circumstances and 21% who said abortion should be illegal in all cases.
Notwithstanding the polling results, most observers believe Republicans are overwhelmingly pro-life and that liberals are pro-choice. But the term “pro-life” may be a misnomer in the context of abortion. Consider this from Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B., a prolific author and outspoken critic of Catholic doctrine addressing Republican lawmakers:
To qualify as a pro-lifer, or at least be consistent, it seems to me such a person should also be anti-capital punishment, anti-armed conflict, and anti-women’s privacy rights. Likewise, a pro-lifer should be for stringent gun control, universal health care, and expanded family welfare programs.
At the Iowa State Fair in 2012, CNN reporter Dana Bash asked former Arkansas Governor and Republican presidential nominee Mike Huckabee, about his position on abortion. Not surprisingly, it was unequivocal. Huckabee opposes abortion even in cases of rape because “we can’t discount a human life.” When asked about the 10-year old girl in Paraguay who was raped by her stepfather and denied an abortion by the state, Huckabee said that case is “horrible,” but it doesn’t justify taking the life of an innocent child. “I just come down on the side that life is precious, every life has worth and value,” he said.
Well, not “every life.” Huckabee also says that capital punishment is “a necessary part of our criminal justice system.” As Governor, he oversaw 16 executions in his state, the most of any governor before him. So, Huckabee and his ilk have a problem. They are paradoxically both pro-life and pro-death at the same time.
But, as Sister Chittister suggests, pro-lifers are not so much pro-life as they are pro-birth. Their interest in the welfare of the child stops when it draws its first breath. If the argument that life begins at conception is true, then it follows that life does not end at birth. Pro-life implies a humanitarian concern from cradle to grave.
To qualify as a pro-lifer, or at least be consistent, it seems to me such a person should also be anti-capital punishment, anti-armed conflict, and anti-women’s privacy rights. Likewise, a pro-lifer should be pro-stringent gun control, pro-universal health care, and pro-family welfare programs.
To that point, Christopher Hale, executive director for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, wrote in the January 22, 2015, article in “Time Magazine,” called “Pro-Life Is More Than Being Pro-Birth,”
Mr. Hale has it right as does Sister Joan Chittister. The Pro-Life crowd needs to step up and truly care about life and not just birth.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF LEGAL ABORTION
A recent report by the Guttmacher Institute provides these statistics:
- The number of abortions fell by 196,000 — a 19% decline from 1,058,000 abortions in 2011 to 862,000 in 2017.
- The abortion rate (the number of abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–44) fell by 20%, from 16.9 in 2011 to 13.5 in 2017.
- The abortion ratio (the number of abortions per 100 pregnancies ending in either abortion or live birth) fell 13%, from 21.2 in 2011 to 18.4 in 2017.
Over the years since Roe v. Wade, as the debate over abortion has waxed and waned, the number of abortions has steadily declined as this graphic shows. But the opposition has also declined over the past 27 years.
So, the debate has been going in favor of keeping Roe v. Wade. But that doesn’t mean the pro-birth organizations and state legislators will stop their effort to tweak this guarantee of a woman’s right to choose. Sadly, this debate will likely continue for some time to come.
THE MORALITY OF ABORTION
Obviously, abortions were going on long before Roe v. Wade, that is to say prior to 1973. Such procedures were mostly illegal and often unsanitary. They were often performed by persons who were not health professionals. And they often left the woman infertile and even dead, not to mention suffering mental anguish for years afterword. These are called “back-alley” abortions,” where coat-hangers were the surgical tool of choice. To the extent that overturning Roe v. Wade means a return to the back alley abortions and all of their attendant consequences, such an event would clearly be an immoral act.
It’s not surprising then that the International Women’s Health Coalition that access to safe abortion is a fundamental human right. They have stated that:
• Abortion services should be part of a comprehensive sexual health programme,
• Lack of funding and illegality do not reduce the number of abortions, they only serve to put the woman’s health in danger.
But, as noted above, elected officials are wont to deny women this fundamental human right, or at least make it more difficult to get one. An example of the morality of this fundamental human right can be found in Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “A Defence of Abortion.” She provides thought experiments, the most discussed being that of “The Violinist.”
The world’s top violinist falls ill and the Society of Music Lovers kidnaps you and hooks him up to you to make use of your kidneys for the next 9 months until he recovers. If you are parted any sooner, he will die. What should be the moral choice here?
The pro-lifers would say you are responsible for the violinist”s life. The pro-choice folks would say that the violinist’s right to life is no more important than your right to be free of an obligation you didn’t agree to. All other things being equal, the pro-choosers have the moral high ground here. The pro-life people will have, in effect, committed you to enslavement for nine months.
Another aspect here is the oppressive influence of patriarchy. Back at the dawn of civilization, the concept of property ownership was born. For too many reasons to discuss here, women became property and, thereby, subordinate to men. When a female is born, she takes her father’s surname. Essentially, she belongs to her father. That being the case, paternity became a big deal. A woman’s virginity was to be protected until marriage, thereby confirming who the father is while ensuring that no bastards were produced.
This ownership concept is even found in the Tenth Commandment. In most translations, the tenth commandment of the Decalogue reads,
“10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his donkey, or anything that is thy neighbor’s [property].”
(It should be pointed out that this and all the other commandments at the time they were written applied only to Jews, as the Canaanites, Philistines, Babylonians, and Assyrians could testify — if they were still alive.)
Another example of women as property of men is the marriage ceremony. The bride’s father is asked to “give his daughter away,” which just affirms the fact that he has transferred his property, the wife-to-be, to her husband so that she then becomes his property and takes on his surname. It used to be that the wedding vows required the bride’s promise to “obey” her husband. The most commonly cited reason for including the word “obey” comes from the bible:
Ephesians 5:21-24: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” (See “About Marriage: Gay and Straight” in The Absurdity Index.)
In the case of patriarchy, over time the meme has become a gene. Men exercise their superiority over women across the world, in both Eastern and Western societies, but most don’t realize it. Here in the U.S., it was only in the 20th century that women could buy, sell and own property, enter contracts, and vote.
But, women have developed their own memes too. They have been relegated to the role of housekeeper, as it were, with all the attendant chores. Some women are OK with that status, others not so much. The man/woman relationship is still evolving and is in different stages in different parts of the world.
They said, when it comes down to abortion and laws pertaining thereto, men still want their dominance over women. Subconsciously or not, they still regard women as property and therefore think it is appropriate to control women’s bodies. And pregnancies are a prime target.
This is not to say that men are misogynists. And those that are are probably not even aware of it. It’s just that men are incapable of knowing, feeling, or appreciating what goes on in a woman’s body. With that in mind, men shouldn’t make laws regarding the health of women. Doing so merely underscores the inequities and reduces women to the status of slaves. And slavery is both illegal and immoral, at least in this country.
And finally, for those Christians out there who want to impose their opinion of abortion on someone else, keep in mind what it says in Matthew 7:1-5.