Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Abortion Saves - Save Abortion

Unlike many in the blogosphere, I am just old enough to have arrived at a feminist consciousness just a decade after Roe v Wade. Stories of the “bad old days” of illegal back alley abortions were not so distant as they seem today. And vigilance about regression to the pre-Roe America was more present on people’s minds. Not coincidentally, I think, more people, even men, were likely to think of themselves as feminists then.

Abortion rights have been under assault by the Right since January 23rd, 1973 (the day after the Supreme Court decided that women really did own their own bodies after all) and never more so than now. Since I will never match the eloquence and clarity of the Goddess Katha Pollit, I won’t even try. Here’s a little blurb from her article in this week’s The Nation:

How long did it take Republicans to write their thank-you note to the Christian right? About five minutes. On November 21, Congress passed a $388 billion spending bill that permits any health provider--not just doctors and nurses, who can already opt out in forty-five states, but health insurers, HMOs, public or private hospitals, clinics, pharmacists--to refuse to be involved in abortion, up to and including informing a woman where to get one. Your employer can now deny you abortion coverage! Coming up soon: the Child Custody Protection Act, which would make it illegal for anyone but a parent or guardian to take an underage girl across state lines for an abortion, thus making parental notification and consent laws impossible to get around; the grotesque Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, which would require doctors to offer women aborting after twenty weeks pain medication for their fetuses; the Post-Abortion Depression Research and Care Act; and lots more. Measures like these make abortion harder to get: Arrangements take longer, travel becomes more burdensome, the clinic date gets pushed later and the cost goes up--from around $350 for a first-trimester procedure to $1,000 or more after twelve weeks.

OK, let’s start with the tough stuff. Embryos and fetuses are not people.

No they aren’t.

No they aren’t.

Okay Ms or Mr. Smart E Pants, if someone out there can provide to me a coherent definition of Human Being or Person that includes blastocysts but not adult stem cells, I’m all ears.

I’m waaaiting….

I thought not.

I do not pretend to have a clear idea when along the gestational period the fetus crosses the line to Human. But then that is the reason for the three part structure of Roe in the first place. My point here is that we cannot let drop this important question. The right’s position that the embryo is a person on day one is consequence of their religious belief that abortion is wrong and not its foundation. A coherent moral philosophy starts with an ontology and then builds an ethical system on that.

So then the next tough bit we have to look at has to do with religion. I know that there are lefties of faith out there that struggle with this issue. There are even closeted anti-choice lefties. But, here’s the thing, many of the rest of you may be surprised to find out that neither the Tanakh nor the Christian Bible prohibit abortion. (My ignorance of the Koran and other sacred texts is boundless. My apologies.) The right-wing fundamentalist Judeo-Christian position opposing abortion is based on inference. Yes, that’s right inference. Reasonable people can and do disagree about the meaning of the handful of passages the fundies quote in support of their position. But no one can dispute that it is a matter of interpretation. Yes, all of the fuss, all of the anger, all of the pain is about how some people interpret a handful of lines from two books some two millennia or so old.

And what are those lines? Well one you may have often heard, in fact the most often cited is often rendered something like: Even in the womb, I knew thee. This is actually from Jeremiah 1:15. (The same Jeremiah from which we get the term “jeremiad.”) My copy of the JPL translation of the Tanakh renders it:
Before I created you in the womb, I selected you; Before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations.

Yes. What the fundies don’t bother to mention is that this a line in which Jeremiah was quoting God as saying to him personally that he was chosen by Him as a prophet to the nations. It has nothing to do with any other person, living, dead or yet to be born. I could see an argument that if it were possible for God to know one person before conception, it would be possible to know others. But that’s kind of a stretch. And it is a matter of interpretation. That’s not what the passage actually says. And even so, you’d have a distance to go from there to demonstrating that all pregnancies are the work and act of an intentional God - even miscarriages, still births and in vitro fertilizations – and that this applies from the very moment of conception. All of these things must be inferred in order to reach the conclusions that the fundies do.

Number two on the list is from Psalms 139:13&16. Again from the JPL edition:
13. It was you who created my conscience; you fashioned me in my mother’s womb. 16. Your eyes saw my unformed limbs; they were recorded in Your book; in due time they were formed, to the very last one of them.

Now, you may believe that God is the driving force behind fetal development, just like you may believe that God is the driving force behind evolution. But that is wholly separable from the question of what defines humanity. According to this same book God is the driving force behind the creation of the heavens and the earth and every living thing upon the earth. Does that mean that the heavens and the earth and every living thing upon the earth are equally sacrosanct with humanity? And, stay with me here, it does not say that abortion is wrong. To get there, you would have to contruct an argument, it would have to be, in part, a matter of your own opinion.

A final word on this topic. This web site quotes the short list of biblical quotes supporting the anti-choice position. Click if you dare. And then ask yourself if what you find is sufficient grounds in which to base the control and regulation by the US government of the reproductive organs of every woman in America.

I understand of course that most liberals steer a Texas mile away of these topics. There is a fundamental presumption of respect on the left for other people’s religious views, even if it doesn’t generally seem like that those on the right. The liberal position is generally more along the lines of: it’s fine that you believe that, but that doesn’t mean that you can force your beliefs on me. Keep your laws off of my body. This is true and correct and I wouldn’t advocate abandoning this for a moment.

But it seems to me that the Left has too easily conceded to the Right that religion and God are on their side. In another interesting Nation article, Frances Kissling asks the question, where are all the lefties of faith? Not just on this issue, but on many others concerning justice and equality, lefties of faith have something valuable to say. The sacred texts of the Judeo-Christian faiths are scarcely silent on these matters. And yet the voices of believing Jewish and Christian Liberals are starkly missing from the national discourse. You don’t have to be a believer for this to be a sad occurance.

Now, we have come to full disclosure time. I am not, as they say, “of faith.” I do not have a uterus. And, being a gay man means never having to say “You’re pregnant?” Of course I care about these issues because I’m an all around good guy. And I live in the world too. But the question of reproductive freedom is not merely academic to me.

The crux of my argument is that, even for those on the right, the debate over abortion is about control over our reproductive organs. It is not, nor has it ever been, about the fetus.

No, it isn’t.

No, it isn’t.

To show this, let us consider just how different the behavior of the anti-choice crowd would be if they were really, as they claim, being pro-life.

An analogy – you’re a doctor and a patient presents with a disease for which there is no cure, but there are treatments. As a doctor you naturally disapprove of all disease. Do you, a) provide the best treatments available or, b) refuse to care for the patient because offering a treatment without a cure is like saying you “approve” of the disease?

If the Right really was concerned about the fetus as a mini-person they would want to both work for reduction and elimination of abortion. Instead, abortions under Bush have increased, and this is after a steady decline in abortion rates from 1973 to 2000. The reason is clear, the primary reason for obtaining an abortion is economics. Bush’s cut and spend policies have made it manifestly more difficult for people to contemplate bearing, much less raising, children.

Is it also not unimportant to note that abortion rates in liberal Western Europe, with all their sex education, are 30% lower than in the US, where we have been at best ambivalent, if not downright hostile, to sex education for minors. In the United States, the teen pregnancy rate is more than nine times higher than that in the Netherlands, nearly four times higher than the rate in France, and nearly five times higher than that in Germany. In the United States, the teen abortion rate is nearly eight times higher than the rate in Germany, nearly seven times higher than that in the Netherlands, and nearly three times higher than the rate in France. Yet the Right is not willing to set aside their sex hang-ups long enough to focus on what really works to reduce abortion and teen pregnancies – education and empowering women to make their own reproductive decisions. If it were all about the fetus, and not control and regulation of our sex bits, these results would matter to the Right.

In vitro fertilization (IVF) is not always successful. In the US the live birth rate for women under 35 for each IVF cycle is 30-35%. And it goes down as the women’s age goes up. An untold, and uncounted, number of “extra” embryos are created and many are ultimately destroyed in these procedures. Truth be told, a small minority of “pro-lifers” are concerned about this also. But there has been no significant move to ban IVF procedures, even proportionate to their ratio to abortions. The reason, I contend, is clear. IVF means babies but no sex. Abortion involves sex but no babies. (So too, not coincidentally, does number two on the religious right’s hit list, gay sex.)

And that’s what it comes down to. There is a fundamental discomfiture on the right with sex, sex just for fun, sex for pleasure. To the religious right, no baby should mean no sex. Yes, there are a lot of wholes in that. For one, they don’t seem to be too worried about infertile different-sex married couples having sex. And, despite nominal protestations, the amount of energy they expend on railing against pre-marital sex or birth control is dwarfed by the red-faced rage that abortion and gay people illicit.

It is not for nothing that the Right sees this a Culture War. They’ve lost ground on pre-marital sex, where the vast majority of popular opinion is against them, and so they intend to draw the line on abortion and gays, where they hope that can stand on firmer ground, and return to these other issues at a later time. Majorities of Americans support abortion rights and civil unions for gays. But the vast majority of people have had non-marital sex. The Right is on the losing side, now, on the abortion and gay rights issues, but that is why they see this a war.

It is also why they resort to deception based campaigns. The majority of the people polled in Ohio say they support civil unions for same sex couples, yet they also passed an amendment banning not just same-sex marriage but also civil unions. This because the right framed this as an issue about protecting churches from being forced into performing ceremonies. There is no such thing as “partial birth abortion.” This is not a medical procedure. The Right invented this term whole cloth as a means to banning abortion under a different name.

Safe and legal abortion has been associated with a reduction in crime rates. But most important, keeping abortion a legally available and practically viable option for women greatly improves the lives of women, and men.

Today, abortion is 11 times safer than childbirth, says Planned Parenthood. Legal abortion has been associated with decreases in both maternal and infant mortality. According to one estimate, 1,500 pregnancy-related deaths were prevented in 1985 .The right to make childbearing decisions has also enabled women to pursue educational and employment opportunities that were often unthinkable a generation ago. The Supreme Court noted in 1992 that "the ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.

Justice Harry Blackmun, the author of Roe, called the decision "a step that had to be taken as we go down the road toward the full emancipation of women".

And that is why we must also see this as a culture war.

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At 5:14 PM, Blogger Ryan Thibodaux said...

Love it! Great Blog. Adding you to my roll.

At 7:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you.

At 3:38 PM, Blogger God of Biscuits said...

From moments after a sperm cell successfully penetrates an ovum, when sperm DNA mingles and then pairs with ovum DNA, there exists a genetically unique individual organism replete with a full set of human DNA.

This is the point that the anti-abortion folks will make, and you know what? they're technically correct and we should all own up to the biological fact of it.

Your points about Roe v Wade not being about the embryo/zygote/fetus are well-taken.

As for adult human stem cells, well, stem cells taken from you contain full copies of YOUR DNA, residing in the nucleus of a cell completely incapable of developing into anything other than more copies of itself. It's a fine point, and yet not so fine a point, as you can see.

At 11:57 PM, Blogger JimG said...

God of Biscuits posts:
From moments after a sperm cell successfully penetrates an ovum, when sperm DNA mingles and then pairs with ovum DNA, there exists a genetically unique individual organism replete with a full set of human DNA.

Yes, this is a biological fact, but why that makes the new embryo a person is not established by this. What is it about this embryo that gives it specific rights to make demands on a the use of the body of a person? How do you distinguish morally between the embryo and the adult stem cell?

At 6:41 PM, Blogger Annie said...

"Today, abortion is 11 times safer than childbirth, says Planned Parenthood."Jim, there's so much that you don't know or refuse to acknowledge. Yet you take Planned Parenthood as among your venerable sources of "truth," they of the ~ $300 million profit over the past 5 or 6 years, 93.5% of that from doing abortions. How objective they are. (that's all in their own annual reports, we don't have to put forth fiction).

All this while you label the right as coming only from a religion POV, when I believe we've just shown you the fallacy of believing that myth too, over at our blog.If you really want to learn, you'd honestly look at both sides of the stories. I've done that. I suggest you read up on that little canard above, here. More depth on the Aug. 2002 Southern Medical Journal story contained in that post is in this second link (the pdf file of the actual study).

At 7:03 PM, Blogger Annie said...

"if someone out there can provide to me a coherent definition of Human Being or Person that includes blastocysts but not adult stem cells, I’m all ears."I've quoted the numerous scientists who gave just such a definition in sworn testimony in front of the U.S. Senate no less, here, here and here.

BTW, adult stem cells and cordblood stem cells don't kill embryos. You get ASC or CBSC out of your nose, your blood, muscle or newborn's umbilical cord. No human life is ended to get them, unlike ESC. No one is even at risk for pain or injury to get them.

Why is this so impossible to grasp, when 6 huge, world-renowned scientists say that a human being begins at conception, under oath in 1981 in front of the Senate committees on this. very. question?But you and your readers probably won't buy any of it since it doesn't come from Planned Parenthood and their ilk. You repeat back (unwittingly? perhaps) exactly what those who subscribe to the Peter Singer School of Thought say: that infanticide is ok and sometimes monkeys are more of "human persons" than young children are. Don't take my word for it. He said it, not me.

Quotes and paraphrases from the article by Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D., Professor of Philosophy, for the American Bioethics Advisory Commission:

Imposing philosophical terms such as sentience or personhood on scientific data is illegitimate. The brain--supposed by your theories to be the physiological support for both "rational attributes" and "sentience," isn't completely formed until young adulthood. Quoting [noted embryologist Keith L.] Moore: 'Although it is customary to divide human development into prenatal (before birth) and postnatal (after birth) periods, birth is merely a dramatic event during development resulting in a change in environment. Development does not stop at birth. The brain triples in weight between birth and 16 years; most developmental changes are completed by the age of 25. [medical textbook _The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology_, Keith L. Moore, 2nd Ed., Philadelphia W.B. Sanders, 1977; ]

"... if a 'person' is defined only in terms of the actual exercising of 'rational attributes' or of 'sentience,' what would this mean for human beings with diminished 'rational attributes:' the mentally ill, the mentally retarded, the depressed elderly, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's patients, drug addicts, alcoholics - and for those with diminished 'sentience,' the comatose, patients in a 'vegetative state,' paraplegics and other paralyzed and disabled patients, diabetics or other patients with nerve or brain damage, etc.? Would that mean that they would not have the same ethical rights and protections as those adult human beings who are considered as persons?

"This is the position of bioethics writers such as the Australian animal rights philosopher Peter Singer, the recently appointed Director of the Center for Human Values at Princeton University. Singer argues that the higher primates (dogs, pigs, apes, monkeys) are persons - but that some human beings, e.g., even normal human infants, and disabled human adults, are not persons. Fellow bioethicist Norman Fost actually considers 'cognitively impaired' adult human beings as 'brain dead.' Philosopher/bioethicist R.G. Frey has also published that many of the adult human beings on the above list are not 'persons,' and suggests that they be substituted for the higher primates who are 'persons' in purely destructive experimental research. The list goes on."

The above quotes are from the article, "Abortion and Rights," in a special edition of the International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, edited by Doris Gordon and John Walker of Libertarians for Life (Vol. 19, No. 3/4, 1999).

You can try to turn the world on its ear with convoluted "personhood logic"--which is all just mental masturbation--but it still doesn't make the truth go away.

Poor Peter Singer. He must really hate his mother for letting him live.

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