Monday, November 24, 2003
Authors Note:My purpose in writing this essay is to provide people who are leaning to the pro-life side but are relatively new to the abortion debate a general understanding of the sides and history of the debate. I also wish to expand the views of those pro-lifers that have become polarized or entrenched in their arguments so that they will also be able to come to a better understanding of where they stand and how to get to where they want to be. Therefore, my target audience is pro-lifers. This essay is not designed to prove the pro-choice side wrong, but rather to offer constructive criticism of the pro-life side from a pro-lifer. Pro-choicers are welcome to read this essay, but I ask them to keep in mind the fact that they are not the target audience.
Also, as you will soon notice, this essay relies heavily on links. Instead of clicking on each link as you come to it and thereby disrupting the flow, I would suggest reading the essay twice; the first time as you would any other essay and the second time exploring the links.
The State of the Abortion War from a Pro-life Perspective
There are some issues where people can find common ground. And then there is abortion. One of the most divisive issues in today’s society, the fight over abortion seems to have reached a stalemate, though neither side is likely to suddenly back down any time soon. Perhaps the best way to come to an agreement on this issue is to understand both sides and the intricacies of their arguments. By looking at how we got to where we are now, and investigating the subtleties of each side’s arguments, we can come to a position where productive action can be taken on this issue. Though I can not say I do not harbor any biases towards this issue, I will do my best to keep them from interfering in my assessment of the arguments of both sides, instead saving my views towards the end, where you can accept them or reject them as you see fit.
Like fire, crude stick figures, and war, abortion has been with the human race since humans separated themselves from their ape-like ancestors and began walking upright. As times and peoples changed, so did attitudes toward abortion, running the gauntlet from treating it as a viable alternative to having a child to treating it as a terrible form of murder. However, despite abortion’s complex history, it is only useful for us to consider the history of abortion in modern times, as the archaic attitudes towards abortion fit within subsets of present day views of the issue.
The United States first began regulating abortion around 1820. These laws generally made the procedure illegal after the fourth month of pregnancy. By the early 1900’s, almost all types of abortion had been outlawed due to the advocacy of groups such as the American Medical Association.
However, this trend soon began to reverse with the rise of feminism in the Western world. Despite one of feminism’s founding mothers, Susan B. Anthony, being ardently pro-life, later feminists arrived at the belief that woman’s empowerment was unachievable unless they had complete control over their reproductive systems. First opposing laws against contraception and then opposing laws restricting abortion, feminist’s reproductive liberalization efforts culminated in 1973 with Roe v. Wade. In this decision, the Supreme Court decided in effect that states can not make laws restricting abortion until after the second trimester. In Doe v. Bolton, a case that went hand in hand with Roe, the court also decided that women have a right to abortion from six months until birth if her doctor decides it is necessary for her mental or physical wellbeing. A more recent case against which state laws are judged is Planned Parenthood v. Casey. In this 1992 case, the Supreme Court did away with the trimester structure of judging laws, instead settling for ensuring that laws against abortion do not create ‘undo burden’ on the mother and that the state must have compelling interest in fetal life (widely assumed to mean viability) before enacting such laws.
The central legal aspect of abortion has changed little in the last eleven years. Women still have the right to an abortion anytime before the fetus is viable and after viability if they will be mentally or physically stressed. The states and the federal government are not allowed to make laws intruding on this right. The main battles being fought now are regulated to side issues, such as partial-birth abortion, government funding of abortions (both domestically and overseas), parental-notification laws, and laws protecting the fetus from murder when the killing is done by someone other than doctor with consent of the mother.
Pro-lifers assert that human life deserves protection before the fetus has come to term. As a whole, they see no difference between a newborn baby and a fetus that is eight or nine months old. Yet one has the right to live while the other is subject to the willingness of the mother to take care of it. The majority of pro-lifers believe human life begins at conception and deserves protection from that point onward. They believe this for a variety of reasons. Those that are religious base their arguments mainly on Bible passages that assert God knows people before they are born. Others rest their belief on medical science, seeing that when a sperm and an egg meet, a new cell is formed with a genetic code unique from that of the mother. In half these instances, the new cell is of an opposite sex than the mother, providing proof that the new cells are not just a piece of the mother’s bodily tissue, but rather, a unique life. Pro-lifers believe that a fetus’s human right to live overrides the mother’s right to privately engage in medical decisions without government interference. They see the fetus as an equal to the mother in terms of rights, with the right to life taking precedence over the right to health or privacy. They also view the government as the answer to the problem of abortion because they see the government as a defender of human rights, which the fetus is entitled to, thereby justifying the invasion of privacy represented by abortion laws.
Pro-lifers’ main goal is to see abortion eliminated. Some pro-life groups advocate adoption as part of the solution to unwanted children being aborted. Almost all pro-life groups advocate the overturning of Roe v. Wade so that states can once again make laws making abortion a crime. However, since they have not been making headway with the Supreme Court, pro-life groups have settled towards chipping away at abortion rights under the premise that less fetuses will be killed if it is that much harder to obtain an abortion.
Pro-choicers, on the other hand, see the issue from an entirely different perspective. Instead of it being a matter of the fetus’s right to live, abortion is an issue of the mother’s right to control what happens to her body. If abortion is eliminated, pro-choicers argue, women would be forced to carry unwanted babies for nine long months, suffering from all the conditions brought on by pregnancy during that period. This would interfere with their lives and essentially turn women into incubators, people whose sole purpose in life is to produce babies. In addition to this, many women who conceive outside of marriage would be stigmatized by the rest of society and outcast. This would be especially noticeable in high school, where teenage girls would be facing their peers every time they walk down the hall. In addition, many of the reasons given for having an abortion revolve around lack of support for the mother. Some pro-choicers justify abortion by saying the fetus (at least in the first and second trimester) is just a ball of cells with no consciousness. They assert that it is not fully human and equal of protection on par with the mother. Others say that although the fetus may be human and has a right to live, it has no right to impose its presence where it is not wanted and since it is in the mother’s body, she can do with it what she sees fit. Still other pro-choicers set the limit for legal abortions at different stages of the pregnancy corresponding to where they see the fetus as human enough to deserve rights. Some pick the beginning of brain waves or a heartbeat. Others like the point when the fetus gains conscious thought more. Many pro-choicers think viability should be the cutoff point for abortions, using the reasoning that if the fetus can survive outside the womb, the mother does not need to kill it. However, this can create problems since medical technology is continuously improving and viability is not a set definition.
When it comes to pro-choice activism, levels vary from acceptance of certain restrictions (such as those on partial-birth abortion or parental-notification laws) to the extreme rejection of any law that remotely effects abortion in any way. By and large, the conventional wisdom on the pro-choice side is to deny the pro-life forces a foothold in order to keep them from endangering the right to abortion as a whole.
Now that we have seen both sides of the debate, I want to talk about how the pro-life side needs a fundamental change in its attitude if it wants to win the debate. Yes, this issue is polarizing; if you believe fetuses are human from the moment of conception, you won’t see much difference between the scourge of abortion and the Holocaust. However, telling the other side that they are participating in a holocaust is not going to make you any friends or save any babies.
So, what needs to be done is take what we have learned about both sides and have an actual dialogue on the issue. Perhaps the hardest thing to do when you are faced with a polarizing issue such as this one is to acknowledge the other side’s arguments and the reasons why it holds them. We as pro-lifers need to realize that we are viewed as overly idealistic, and that pro-choicers view themselves as realistic. Even if abortion is a bad thing, a fact many pro-choicers will acknowledge, it does not solve the problem of what to do with unwanted babies. This is a valid concern, and one that needs to be addressed. As pro-lifers, along with fighting against abortion, we need to look out for our unintended consequences. One of these consequences would indeed be an increase in babies that are either unwanted or can not be taken care of properly. Therefore, pro-lifers also need to stress adoption, both at a personal level and at a societal level. Pro-lifers should live their beliefs, and this should include adopting babies that would otherwise have been aborted due to lack of resources. They also need to push adoption campaigns through at the different levels of government, much like anti-drug groups got the government to sponsor commercials warning of the effects of drug use. Another area that needs to be addressed is the stigma of that comes with pregnancy to girls who are not yet married. Pro-lifers need to do all they can to help them instead of condemning them for fooling around. Maybe they shouldn’t have fooled around, but addressing that when they are already pregnant does not help matters at all. In fact, it does just the opposite: it makes the girl wish she was not pregnant, a wish abortion clinics can fulfill.
But compromise is not the be all and end all solution. We also need to insure we stand up for our core beliefs and make clear exactly what we believe and why. The pro-life movement’s current public stance fails to live up to that ideal. Instead, it allows itself to be defined by the pro-choice side as a group of fundamentalists trying to turn back the clock and take away women’s rights. We need to counter this argument not with words, but with actions. We need demonstrations. We need songs. We need marches. In other words, we need to have a second Civil Rights movement in this country. We can’t just stand on the side walk once or twice a year and expect to be taken seriously. No, we need to show we truly believe what is happening is wrong, and that we are willing to sacrifice for it. We need to put ourselves out in the public, bringing the issue to the people, instead of waiting for people to stumble upon the issue and letting ourselves be defined by the other side.
At the same time, we need to reevaluate our current strategy of changing abortion laws in this country. The first thing we need to do is take the focus off of overturning Roe V. Wade by bypassing it completely. The Supreme Court based its decision favoring abortion on the fact that it could not tell when if a fetus was fully human and had rights under the law. Instead of waiting for the court to overturn itself, we need to concentrate on legislation that would recognize the rights of fetuses. We may need to do this in stages, such as starting off with laws that acknowledge fetuses as human and worthy of protection under the Constitution at the third trimester. We can work our way towards conception from there. Overturning Roe v. Wade is a misguided objective. Not only is it not worth the effort to get judges on the Supreme Court willing to go against precedent that won’t be automatically rejected by the pro-choice crowd, but even if Roe v. Wade was overturned, the states could make their own laws on the issue. We would then have a hodgepodge of laws across the country, with some states allowing no abortion whatsoever and others with no restrictions at all. By bypassing Roe, we knock down these two problems with one stone.
A third thing we need to do is make sure our argument makes sense for everyone. Throughout the anti-abortion movement, Christian groups have been leading the way, because, by and large, they believe abortion is goes against God’s wishes as outlined in the Bible. This is a good thing, insofar as we do not use religious arguments to try to change a secular government. Yet, when religion is infused into this debate, it becomes a turnoff for people who do not believe exactly as Christians do. It serves to fragment the pro-life community, which is also composed of non-Christians (I, for example do not believe in any religion) who believe abortion is wrong just as sincerely as Christians do, as well as give the pro-choice movement more ammunition to defame the pro-life cause. They are able to say it is composed of religious people trying to inject religious law into the government. We need to change this state of affairs. Yes, Christians should still be welcomed into the pro-life movement, but they should reprioritize their arguments. Religious arguments do not apply to a secular debate. Our main focus should be on the humanity of the fetus, not on the morality of abortion. Everyone knows killing other humans is wrong, so convincing the majority of people in the U.S. that fetuses are human will suffice; there is no need to bring the Bible or other articles whose truth is based on faith into this. Religion is secondary to the primary argument of pro-lifers, and we should review our public stance to ensure compliance with that fact. Religion should be relegated to side arguments, such as discussions between pro-lifers and pro-choicers who both consider themselves Christians.
Both sides of the abortion argument are complex and worthy of acknowledgement from the other side. Pro-lifers need to be aware of the consequences of the changes they are advocating and pro-choicers need to recognize that pro-lifers truly believe that fetuses are human and are not using abortion as a cloak issue for taking away women’s rights. As for what the pro-life side can do to improve its advocacy; we need to be more understanding, but more energetic about our message at the same time. We need to stop being defined as people who condemn and look down upon women and instead adopt the message that “a person is a person no matter how small.”