Friday, July 29, 2016

on abortion

Well, that didn't take long.

Hillary Clinton hadn't even finished accepting the Democratic nomination for the presidency when I started seeing comments like "Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party kill babies." It put me in mind of a time a few years ago when conservative blogger Matt Walsh wrote a post that began, "Killing babies is wrong. If we can't agree on that, there's no way we'll ever agree on anything." At the time, I had started to write a response, "Women are more than just vehicles for giving birth," or something similar; but I gave up.

For one thing, Walsh's contempt for liberalism and vewpoints other than his own is palpable, and his disregard for women whose situations he will never experience were just too much to deal with. I had other things to worry about. And for another thing, I realized Walsh would never listen to anything I had to say, let alone think about it. His absolute certainty of his own convictions is his greatest strength and his greatest tragedy as a human.

I'll never get through to the Matt Walshes of the blogosphere, but most people I know are at least willing to consider another viewpoint, even if they know going in that they'll disagree at the end. If you're one of those people, and you're inclined to think of abortion as either murder or as killing babies, this post is for you. Please keep in mind that it's coming from someone who considered himself to be pro-life for years.

Yes, I changed my position on abortion, for reasons that I will express here and in later posts.

I'll start by saying that the rather hardline position I've encountered from many people opposd to abortion rights is actually a relatively new and unconservative thing. It was only in the 19th century that Karl Ernst von Baer first observed an ovum through a microscope, and not until 1876 that Oscar Hertwig observed fertilizaton occuring in sea urchins.

Until that point, the notion that life began at conception was an alien concept to human morality. No one knew a woman was pregnant until she had announced it to the community, and she didn't know it herself until had felt the quickening of the fetus in her belly. Women could miss periods for any number of reasons: poor nutrition and health among them.

As a result, for thousands of years in nearly every culture, it was completely acceptable for women to induce miscarriages. The song "Scarborough Fair" existed in part to tell jilted young women how to prepare a douche that would induce one. (You didn't think it was a love song, did you?)

Still, we live in the 21st century, and our knowledge can't help but shape our morality. We know now that biological life begins around the time of conception. Within a few hours of fertilization, the initial zygote begins to divide, it begins to consume and to expend energy, and it begins to grow. There's no denying that the blastula, as it is now known, is biologically alive; but counting this as the start of a person's life is still driven more by convenience than by medical science.

I'm not trying to have it both ways here; let me illustrate.

Let's imagine that a woman -- we'll call her Christie -- is ovulating, and she has sex with her boyfriend or her husband. (We'll assume it's her husband.) Sometime after they have sex, his sperm reach her ovum, and succesfully fertilize it. It's a biological miracle. Christie is pregnant and going to have a baby!

Well, no. Probably not. Of every 100 ova that are successfully fertilized, only about 68 actually implant in the uterus. That means for every 100 women in Christie's situation, 32 of those supposed children don't make it. Some of them disintegrate in their mother's fallopian tubes on their way to the uterus; and others just fail to implant, and are never heard from again. This is a completely natural part of the process.

Four weeks later, only 42 percent of those 100 fertilized ova are still alive, at the stage they are considered embryos. In another four weeks, only 35 have reached the point that they are considered fetuses. The other seven all spontaeously miscarried, and it's entirely possible the woman didn't even notice. By the time all is said and done, only three in 10 actually make it through the entire course of pregnancy and are born. The odds are thoroughly stacked against Christie having that baby we thought we saw.

If we truly believe that life begins at conception, and human life is sacrosanct, then we should be expending a lot more effort trying to save the seven in 10 that don't make it that far. But we don't. Why not? Is it that we don't believe that life is sacrosanct, or that we're indifferent to the deaths of 70 percent of embryos? Or maybe the start of life is just as hard to pinpoint as definitively as the end of it is.

Death, like life, seems like it should be easy to point to and define as well. One minute you're alive, then you're not. You're living, or you're dead. Cut and dry.

Unfortunately, the point of death is something else that people have argued about for thousands of years. In many premodern societies, people would delay burying a body because they believed the soul could return within a window of a few days and the presumed deceased would be revealed only to have swooned. In 19th-century England, there were enough alarming stories of people who had been buried alive while presumed dead, that the graves of the wealthy often were equipped with apparatus so that the wrongly interred could alert gravetenders to their plight and be rescued.

For centuries, someone who had drowned was considered dead, full stop. That changed with the discovery of artificial respiration. Now swimmers caught in the undertow can be rescued and brought back in a dramatic moment where once they would have been written off. Cardiac arrest is another ending once considered definitive, but thanks to CPR, people have been brought back from the point of death in those situations as well. Modern medicine even has removed and replaced people's hearts.

Nowadays, we consider death to be final once a person's higher brain waves cease. Now if that's the point at which we consider life to end, it makes sense that it's also the point at which we consider life to begin. Those higher brain functions and the connections that make them possible occur after the sixth month of pregnany, or around the start of the third trimester.

So let's suppose we have a mutual friend who is clinically brain dead. Doctors can keep him alive indefinitely. His heart will continue to beat. His lungs will continue to breathe. There may even be involuntary muscle movements on his face that we will interpret as signs of consciousness. But the EEG tells a painful truth: There is no one there. He will never wake up, he will never recover. Ethicistis agree, it is time to remove him from life support and let his body expire so that his family and friends can move on with their lives.

Now on the flip side of that we have a fetus three months into pregnancy. This fetus has no higher brain functions yet, and while it may have a stimulus-response reaction to an abortion, science has shown repeatedly that the fetus is incapable of experiencing pain until around the start of the third trimester.

So how would abortion be a moral evil at this point? The fetus is alive in the same strict biological sense that our hypothetical friend is, but the fetus can feel pain no more than he could, can process what is happening no more than he could, and is just as incapable of surviving independently as he would be.

Now you may argue that the fetus has human potential, and I would agree with you. That's why I'd say abortion is not a Good Thing, and why I think that most who favor abortion rights would agree.

But there can be compelling reasons for women to have an abortion, something the Supreme Court recognized in its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, and I will not sit on the seat of judgment and presume to know their situation better than they; nor will I sit and compel desparate women to risk their lives to have an unsafe and illegal abortion when a safe and legal one could be available.

No one wants to see abortions administered. It's more a matter of "Should a woman have the right to make that decision if she wants to?" and "At what point does that right lapse?"

No comments: