30 October 2000

Abortion Plank

I nominate Dragnet's philosophy for the basis of moral public policy. You remember..."Just the facts, ma'am," as Joe Friday used to say. Because manipulation of the facts, from distortion to disregard, seems to be the hallmark of the anti-abortion and the anti-anti-abortion parties to our still to be resolved national debate, beginning with the names they choose for themselves: "Pro-Life" and "Pro-Choice." To which I say bullshit. Neither side is as much pro- anything as they are anti-each other.
That was fact one. Here is fact two: It has yet to be established objectively that an early-term embryo is a person, "endowed by his Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these being the right to life" to quote the US Declaration of Independence. Rather than explore the deep philosophical issues in this short space, I simply acknowledge the widespread and bitter disagreement on this point. I pause to note, however, that except for abortion, we refrain from acting if there is some chance that a person might be harmed. Even though we don't know for sure that an embryo is not a person, we go ahead.
Fact three: It is obvious, on the other hand, that an early-term embryo is, biologically, a living human being. We know it is alive because it grows, it moves, and it responds to stimuli. We know it is a distinct being apart from its mother because, if you wait long enough, it borrows her car keys and reproduces. And we know it is human because it carries the human genome.

Fact four: The main reason anyone chooses to have an abortion is to kill a living embryonic human being before it becomes undeniably a person (which otherwise it would rapidly do) with legal claims to support, nurturance, and protection — and a moral claim to our love. In other words, getting or performing an abortion must lie on a continuum of evil with murdering a child at one end.

Now if a Pro-Choicer can't go this far with me, I maintain that he or she lacks the courage to face and name the facts squarely, regardless of what the opposition might make of them. Such Pro-Choicers preclude the development of national consensus on abortion, because their opponents know that it is foolhardy to negotiate with liars.

On the other hand, if the Pro-Life people try to base public discourse on stronger statements, they must admit that they are going beyond what can be universally agreed on as fact. Otherwise they also preclude development of a national consensus on abortion, but in a more insidious way. As the noted Christian, C. S. Lewis, said in The Problem of Pain (Collier Books, New York, 1962, p 64),
Even a good emotion, pity, if not controlled by charity and justice, leads through anger to cruelty. Most atrocities are stimulated by accounts of the enemy's atrocities; and pity for the oppressed classes, when separated from the moral law as a whole, leads by a very natural process to the unremitting brutalities of a reign of terror.
Given the violence that some Pro-Lifers encourage and others commit, it is reasonable to conclude that many Pro-Lifers don't want consensus — they want to win. They are more interested in getting their way than in examining the consequences, and their opponents know that it is foolhardy to negotiate with bullies.

But the cruelty of the Pro-Lifers is more subtle than bombing a clinic, or assassinating a doctor. They want to limit the creation of what they see as dead babies by banning abortion, a public policy that will lead to the creation of dead women, instead. Now they may argue that the dead babies were helpless and innocent, while the dead women will have been guilty of disobeying the law by having illegal abortions — i.e., that the dead women will have made a bad choice and gotten what they deserved. And that's cruel — it is substituting one class of dead body for another. True, there will be fewer dead women under an abortion ban, than there are dead babies without one, which some may claim is the greatest good for the greatest number. But they should remember Caiaphas' line, "It is expedient that one man should die, rather than the whole nation should perish," spoken as he proposed the execution of Jesus Christ.

We as a society won't win by substituting one evil (dead women) for another (legal abortion). We'll win by reducing the incidence of both. And that can't be achieved while we continue to make abortion a political power struggle — an issue over which one group tries to force its will on another by garnering a majority of votes.

We need to let abortion die as a political issue, and to resurrect it as a moral and social issue. Leave the coercion aside, brothers and sisters on the right, and I think you will find common ground with our brothers and sisters on the left. We all know that there is no sharp line dividing abortion from murder — there is a gray zone, into which any of us should shudder to step. For example, although some of us are comfortable with the idea of abortion nine days into a pregnancy, all of us would convict a woman and her doctor of murder for an abortion done at nine months. Perhaps we can reach a consensus that permits early abortions, but prohibits abortions after 20 weeks (five months) except for conditions that could permanently damage the health of the pregnant woman.

This is an issue for which we need to put aside the blunt instrument of the law. We need to have thoughtful public consideration of good and evil, rather than a political power struggle. We need publicly to consider the responsibility that comes with our freedom, and of how the failure of some to be responsible in their sexual and reproductive behavior undermines the freedom of us all. And for those who are considering having an abortion, we need more ministry and less moralizing. We need either to help them shoulder the responsibility of caring for their soon-to-be-born children, or to have the decency to do as we expect of our government — to let people make their choices, while we refrain from mandating what we are unwilling to support.

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