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“The” Ethics of Abortion: Why This Debate Will Never End

As I admitted in my last post, I haven’t given abortion much thought because I lack a uterus. The sting video on Planned Parenthood gave me pause. What do I think about abortion? Was this video damning or not? Why?

 

My friend Samantha posted what I think is a good post from a pro-choice stance, defending Planned Parenthood from a legal perspective. Ostensibly, they were being paid for the transfer costs of aborted fetal tissue, which is legal. Samantha summed up that pro-life and pro-choice advocates are both trying to save lives, but are focusing on different means. They are “ships passing in the night.”

I’ll plainly state that I have been pro-life my entire adult life, though I have more questions now than before such as:

  • what is the fate of the child and mother if the mother is an addict?
  • what if the child is headed for a life of poverty and all that poverty entails?
  • if a mother wants to put her child up for adoption, what is the ratio of babies born to parents wanting to adopt? is the cost of adoption prohibitive?
  • what are the supports for mothers once their children are born? If she was already poor, will communities and welfare be available to her?

Regardless of how nuanced I get, I am still uncomfortable with abortion. That discomfort proceeds from an affirmation of life. I don’t know where life begins, but I don’t see enough difference between a fetus and a newborn to say, “Yes, it’s ok to terminate the life on this side of the line, but not on that side.”

When’s a Fetus no Longer a Fetus?

What’s the difference between a fetus from a newborn? A minute? less? I’m not talking about labor; I’m talking about those last few moments of pregnancy where one moment object A is inside the uterus (fetus) and the next moment it isn’t (newborn). It is a very quick transition from being something we can legally terminate to being someone we can’t legally terminate. Why do we define that change of state so absolutely? In other words, why is life defined in very specific chunks rather than along a continuum?

Concerning that transition, consider sexual intercourse: I wonder if the beginning of life and the beginnings of one’s sexual life are similar.

What is the moment that a virgin is no longer a virgin? Think of two virgins about to cease being virgins. Do they cross that threshold at the first sexually charged look? The first caress? The first disrobing? The first fondling? The first suckle? The first genital stimulation? The first penetration? The first orgasm? Is sex one discrete thing or a continuum of behavior?

If penetration is the key definer of sex, and the key that evaporates virginity, does that include penetration of things besides a vagina? If a homosexual man only has sex with men his entire life and then dies, has he died a virgin according to that definition? Or did he cross that threshold the first time he had sex with a man?

I ask again, how different is a fetus from a newborn?

The Social Freight (Politics) of Binaries

What am I saying in these comparisons? I’m saying that we as a society take a slight difference between two things and then treat the distinguished things in radically different ways. I am wondering if this makes sense. The binary in this case is “not life/life.” Inside a uterus, a child is legally not life since it can be terminated without repercussion.

American society has deemed abortion legal institutionally by defining a clean break between those two states. The only reason a fetus isn’t just called a baby is because the distinction has to make sense for the law to make sense. The difference in state of the baby is purely by fiat.

Granted, I have not waded into this very complex issue. When I started researching for this post I googled “abortion debate” and came to a debate site. It listed roughly thirty facets to the issue. I come at it from one angle and realize it is an angle, not “the” ethic for this debate. Were there something we could all appeal to in equal measure, there wouldn’t be a debate.

The debate will never end because people ally themselves with the continuum model or the discrete model. Someone could highlight a grey area for me, and I would concede if convinced, but I see little space for calling something both a continuum (pro-life) and a discrete shift in essence (pro-choice). As Roger Olson highlighted, nuance is drowned out by the seemingly unavoidable extremes in this debate.

I also think the debate will never end, because it is now entrenched as an identity marker. I don’t know how many pro-life or pro-choice advocates sit down and say, “Wow, the other side makes some great points. I should really reconsider my position in light of what they have just said.” Instead, people usually hear a label, assume the worst of their adversary, have their checklists of orthodoxy and heresy, hurl talking points at their adversaries, utterly ignore the talking points of their adversaries, and go their separate ways thoroughly entrenched.

I wish this were a happier post or one more provocative for discussion, but I’m under no illusions that this will be a popular post. Abortion isn’t exactly a boring topic or one for polite company. It isn’t an issue that calls tolerance forth from its interlocutors. However, I will admit I am weird: I invite feedback positive and negative. If I have left anything out, maligned someone, misrepresented people—whatever your opinion—comment, or, if you don’t feel like having a comment war but only a discussion, my email is ilostmyprayerhanky At gmail dot com. As my friend Samantha got at in her post, I want discussion to occur that treats conversation partners as people, not battlefields to lob bombs at.

One thought on ““The” Ethics of Abortion: Why This Debate Will Never End

  1. i think you have a good start on the key issues. I also identify as prolife. I prefer to consider abortion in the context of all life. Any ethical principles based on the sanctity of life ought to consider the life go the pregnant mother and other life issues like capital punishment and war.
    I think we must recognize the emotional factors. One aspect of the Planned Parenthood video is the description of body parts. As you point out, at some point the fetus looks like a baby. Dismembered babies evoke disgust and thoughts of monsters. I don’t think we can make public policy based in disgust alone but I think disgust, when widely felt helps us think ethically.

    I wonder if any cultures treat a fetus as a person with rights. I’ve talked about this with a friend and think it’s time to decide if we are going to protect a baby then the unborn child ought to have a legal status.

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