Friday, August 11, 2006

is there such a thing as a 'just abortion'?

Because my line of work puts me into contact with a variety of points of view on abortion, I've been thinking about — and grappling with — the issue a lot in the past few years. For me, the interesting parts of this thought process have been not so much from the legal perspective but the moral one.

I get very frustrated by the rhetoric on both sides of this debate, and I find myself wishing — aching, in fact — for some intelligent discussion that does not continually revert in a kneejerk fashion to one political position or the other. So I was inspired when I saw this conversation on the Feminary blog. Basically, the Feminarian poses the question of whether, just as there are moral arguments supporting a "just war," there are also moral arguments supporting "just abortion."

It's rare that I hear such intelligent, nuanced considerations of this question from a moral standpoint. Here's what I mostly experience, at least in soundbytes, and it seems to revolve more around the legal question, which seems too black-and-white for such a complex and personal issue:

"Pro-choicers," in their zeal to keep abortion legal and easily available to all sectors of the population (via public funding, for example), refuse to sway from the point of view that it's completely a women's issue, all about the mother and her "reproductive rights," with almost no acknowledgment of another life to be considered. The mother's body is paramount, even if there happens to be another tiny body involved. It bothers me that the question of whether an unborn fetus/baby has rights (not to mention whether a woman, once pregnant, has an obligation to take responsibility for that newly created life) is automatically not up for discussion, and those who raise the questions are derided as "not on our side," as if the "humanity" of an unborn creature is already decided to be less-than, when perhaps there is a legitimate reason to consider that all human beings ought to be considered in the equation.

"Pro-lifers," in their zeal to criminalize abortion, refuse to address the fact that abortion has always existed and always will, whether legal or illegal, and making it go away goes beyond the question of law: It's going to take a commitment on the part of the whole society to better support pregnant women — and born children and mothers and families — even if this commitment requires them to consider more progressive social policies that go against their political grain. Once a baby is born, it seems, they lose interest in protecting it. ("They already have people to protect them!" one woman I talked to kept insisting by way of excusing her single-track focus on abortion.) Some, though not all, seem to lack a full sense of understanding and empathy for the incredibly complicated and personal reasons women have for choosing to terminate a pregnancy.

And on both sides, there are unresolved moral questions about when life actually does begin, when a life becomes viably human enough to have equal rights, whether it is sometimes acceptable to terminate a life. I don't take lightly the Catholic Church's position that all life is sacred, and that, biologically, life begins at conception. Yet I know the church also has rationale for just war, which also takes innocent lives. The church also makes allowances for allowing a sick person to die if the burdens of caring for that person outweigh the benefits. (This is a thorny issue, though, made clear by the Terri Schiavo case last year. Is a strictly biological definition of life worth defending, or does a life cease to become meaningful when it has no consciousness?) And let's not even get started on the division between people who will fight tooth and nail to protect the lives of unborn children yet refuse to support policies against the death penalty or innocent casualties of war. Is only "innocent" life sacred, not all life? So, even within my religious tradition, I struggle.

I find I've been thinking about this on an even more personal level as I carry our baby through this pregnancy. It has been impossible for me not to think of our baby boy as a separate little person whom I must protect as fully and responsibly as if he were living outside my womb. When friends have lost babies to miscarriages, I am excruciatingly aware of the separate life that has been extinguished. That is probably where my moral sense of an unborn child's humanity leans, but I know there are other women whose pregnancies have convinced them even more strongly that a woman should not be forced to go through such an experience unless she fully chooses. And I have to ask myself the tough question: What if we'd found out that our baby was going to have severe disabilities or birth defects that would make his life incredibly difficult for himself and everyone in it? Would I feel the same way? I think all children are precious, and I can't imagine ever terminating a pregnancy, but I've never been in the shoes of someone who has made that tough decision.

I don't have answers. Wrestling with the questions, and listening as much as I can, are the best I can do. And I appreciate the Feminarian's post for helping me think about it in new ways.


LutherLiz said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this matter. I've always struggled with my abortion stance due to the fact that I am politically pro-choice but could never think about abortion as a real option for myself and would prefer that it was not needed or supported in the world. Idealism aside, I recognize that there is a need for healthy and well thought out options rather than back alley procedures and I recognize that it is a woman's right to have that option.

I have never thought about the concept of "just abortion" and although it seems parallel in some ways to just war it is an inadequate answer to me. Partially this comes from the fact that I think "just war" is an excuse as much as a rationale. I think it is impossible for a war to be just given the very nature of war. I think that there can be good causes, persuasive arguments and peace-driven reasons for war, but ultimately I cannot ever claim that war is just, but that it is the best route to seek justice and peace.

I think of abortion in the same way. Can it ever be just? No, because the decision itself is not one with just-ness inherent to it. Choosing between a mother or a child is not a just choice, it is an uneven one. There is never a right answer because each is inadequate. Each option means that someone loses: mother or child or father or family or society or whomever.

So no, I guess I don't think there is "just abortion" but I don't think that there is "just war" either. We are merely trying to do the best we can in the world. And that is why I'm pro-choice. What would be an obvious answer for myself is not so for others. I cannot step into their shoes (or wombs) and make that choice. All in all, we "just" try to do what's best.

Emilie said...

I really appreciate your thoughts on this, Liz, both on the perspective of war and abortion. I resonate with where you say, "Choosing between a mother or a child is not a just choice, it is an uneven one." This gives me even more to think about! (And you should go post this over on the Feminarian's blog, too!)

Emilie said...

By the way, my assessments of "pro-choicers" and "pro-lifers" were based mostly on what I read and hear in the general media and from some of the more strident camps on each side. I hope I wasn't being unfair to the many people whose positions fall into the grey area of complexity - like you. I didn't mean to be ... I was kind of venting there. :)

LutherLiz said...

Oh, I'm in no way insulted. I recognize that I am in the grey area of the abortion debate. I would vote pro choice and prefer to support pro choice candidates over pro life ones, though I really avoid being a one topic voter. I thought that your observations where pretty accurate.

One of the limitations of the abortion debate is that the extremes are so well represented that the middle gets no voice. That's what makes these discussions so valuable.

barbara said...

It's pretty rare that I completely agree with what someone says about aboirtion, but I think you're right on target. Having worked for several Democratic candidates, I have to admit that I got pretty tired of people constantly putting the issue in such black-and-white terms.

And, as an adopted child who could easily be lumped in with all of the "unwanted children" many "pro-choicers" constantly talk about (my mom was nineteen, unmarried, and refused to marry my father because she thought he was immature and unreliable) I really cringe every time I hear that phrase used as justification for abortion. If you just look at all of the couples who are desperate to have a baby, but can't, how can anyone possibly say there is such a thing as an unwanted child?

But my mom remembers friends who had back-alley abortions when she was young (in the 1950's) and the physical and emotional trauma they incurred. And the women I know who have had abortions did so not for the sake of convenience, but because they were young, alone, and very, very scared. (It also bugs me that people always blame the woman for an abortion, but what about the men who wouldn't stick around? It takes two to conceive a baby, after all!!) Not to mention that after I was raped, and missed my period, I was TERRIFIED; I don't think I could have handled the emotional trauma of carrying a pregnancy resulting from rape to term, especially given my struggles with depression and ptsd from having been molested as a child.

But then, it drives me nuts when I hear "pro-lifers" ranting about taking a life but refusing to endorse things that might reduce the number of abortions, like good sex ed in the public schools (and Catholic, for that matter), ready access to reliable birth control for all women, and policy measures that can help women who have to raise a child alone. (At the seminary, I ran into a lot of people like that. So, like you I've heard a lot of rhetoric from both sides.)

Part of the problem, I think, is that the whole discussion has been co-opted by the hard-liners on both sides, because they yell the loudest, and tend to be single-issue voters (and of course, they contribute a lot of money to their respective causes, and to politicians who support their positions.) I wonder how many people, both men and women, struggle with the same feelings we've talked about?

barbara said...

I put the phrases "pro-life" and "pro-choice" in quotes because I don't think that either label is entirely accurate. And I'm referring to the noisy extremists you mention, Liz, not to people like you!

There is a maxim in politics that a vocal mainority with always defeat an apathetic majority. Many times, it's a matter of single-issue voters vs. the rest of us who prefer a more nuanced approach. And, unfortunately, often the single-issue voters win. (Another example of this is the great success of the National Rifle Association in matters such as ending the assualt-weapons ban.)

Ellen said...

Based on personal experience, I too cringe when I hear the "unwanted children" argument. Emilie and I both come from parents who gave birth to two boys with severe Down's Syndrome. They both lost their sight during childhood and while they're physically healthy, our parents have balanced the duties of bathing, feeding, changing and guiding them when they go out in public. Growing up, the stares from peers in church and the mall and pretty much anywhere else where "normal" families congregated were like knives and made me so angry. I wished for normal brothers to play with, as I was a total tomboy anyway. When people jokingly call others a "retard," or describe their actions as "retarded," it strikes a deep nerve because of their ignorance. Our parents cannot take vacations, eat out, host parties, visit happy hour and socialize with peers like other couples because someone always needs to watch Joseph and Stephen, and most of the time, they need each other.
So it pains me to hear a justification for abortion when it comes to physical disabilities. I empathize, because having a child myself with disabilitise is the last thing I would want, because of what I had to grow up with. It's not easy. But then again, if it's not a disability at birth, it could be anything. Would we abort if we knew our fetus would develop MS or Schizophrenia later in life, and require constant care and a change in lifestyle? On the flipside, an "unwanted" child born to a single, financially destitute mother could make significant changes in the world as an adult. They can do this even if they do have physical disabilties. It just comes down to the fact that when a new life comes into the picture, whenever it starts, it's no longer "all about me." The reason why my views on abortion are politically "pro-life" (as a Catholic, I support life as a gift in all "politcal" aspects, thus I oppose war and the death penalty). I also side with arguments from the "pro-choice" movement in that we need education and social support in order to provide alternatives to abortion, and we are not to judge anyone for why they would choose an abortion.
This is all because the lesson from my parents: Take the hand that's dealt to you. We are not in control.