Jun. 4th, 2009

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Dr. George Tiller was one of the few doctors in the country who did late-term abortions. Last Sunday, he was murdered, while at church with his family, by an anti-abortion activist.

This re-ignited strident arguments on various lists about the morality of abortion. I am struck by how often the arguments go off on tangents, and how often the stance of each side is demonized by the other. There are no easy answers.

Anti-abortionists ("pro-lifers") believe that fetuses are babies, and for many (not all) this belief justifies even murder to protect them. They equate the situation to a terrorist holding a schoolroom of children hostage. This is a compelling image: the evil doctor bent on mass murder of unborn children. Who wouldn't applaud the sharpshooter who takes out the terrorist and saves the hostages (even while regretting the need for such dire action)?

But let's try another analogy. Someone kidnaps you to take your kidney (you are the only person with the right histocompatability). A police sharpshooter can shoot the hostage-taker, but will not do so unless you ask him to. What do you do? Do you give up your kidney? Does it make a difference if you will lose your job because of this (for instance, if you are active military)? What if this person only needs some blood? Are you more likely to agree? What if they need your heart, and you will certainly die? And if you don't want to make that sacrifice, is the sharpshooter morally culpable if he shoots the hostage taker?

A fetus can be considered to be holding its mother hostage. In certain circumstances, continuing a pregnancy can damage, maim, or kill the mother. Does the fetus have the right to demand that sacrifice of the mother? Does our government have the right to demand it, in the name of the fetus?

Our government cannot demand that a person donate blood or a kidney to another person, even when the recipient will die without it. Our laws give us the choice to make such a sacrifice voluntarily, but imposes no obligation. It does not matter whether the sacrifice asked is minor (blood) or major (say a lung), the government cannot compel you to make it. 

Our law extends that choice to whether or not a woman has to endanger herself by undergoing pregnancy.

It clarifies the discussion to consider it in these terms. What does the law demand? How does the law balance conflicting rights? That is, after all, the main purpose of law.  The other arguments are moot - which doesn't mean unimportant; it means you can discuss (moot) them endlessly without changing anyone's mind - because they are based in religion or a belief system that the other party simply refuses to accept.

I personally believe it is immoral to refuse to give blood or even bone marrow, without a darn good reason. I believe donating a kidney is something everyone should be willing to do. On the other hand, I believe it is totally unreasonable to demand a heart donation, but if someone were to commit suicide to provide a heart for a loved one, I would not condemn the action. But those are simply my beliefs, and I would not (and cannot legally) impose them on anyone else, even if I think society would be a better place if I did.

The law places some limits on the choice to sacrifice yourself. Even if you are willing to make such a sacrifice, it is not legal for you to donate an organ such as a heart if it will kill you. I would not condemn it, but that is the law. It does not matter if the person demanding the organ is innocent or the next Nobel prize winner, or if the person whose organ is demanded is a criminal already sitting on death row. The law does not allow that sacrifice. And it does not compel any sort of lesser sacrifice, such as donation of a minor organ or of blood, regardless of the relative merits of donor and donee.

So the question of whether a fetus is a baby is not definitive. Saying it isn't makes it easier to refuse to make the sacrifice. But saying it is does not mean there is no sacrifice demanded. Pro-choice does not mean pro-abortion; it means having the same right of choice in this difficult decision as you would have when asked to donate an organ that could save someone's life.

That is the legal core of the abortion argument. What follows is 'relevant to the discussion', as one would say in court.

The consequences of sex are asymmetrical. Women can get pregnant, men don't. This is biological fact.  A fetus has DNA different from the mother. That too is fact. But whether a fetus is therefore the same as a baby is a matter of semantics. What is a baby? What is an individual? Before you answer separate DNA makes it an individual, consider that twins have the same DNA, but are different individuals. And certain types of tumors have modified DNA, but are not even a potential human. We have crossed from facts into opinion. Even the facts are not absolute.  With modern science, a fetus could be implanted in a male, for instance. Perhaps cloning could grow a unique human from a tumor.

The notion of when a fetus becomes a child has changed over time. The bible speaks of a fetus "quickening" - literally, becoming alive. This is a real-world event that typically happens at about 24 weeks, and signals when, in many societies, a pregnancy is legally recognized.  In about 1592, Pope Gregory XIV declared that a soul entered the fetus when it was 80 days old, and this was the date when killing a fetus became murder in church law. These two dates are arguably the origin of the trimester classification system. In the first trimester, the fetus has no soul, and aborting is no problem. After the second trimester, it is human and abortion becomes murder. In 1869, Pope Pius IX, in order to strengthen the arguments against contraception, declared that a fetus had a soul from conception. This is what many Christian fundamentalist groups believe. (If so, then the mortality rate in the first trimester is through the roof. I have heard that 60-80% of fertilized eggs never make it past 8 weeks; the pregnancy ends before the woman even knows she is pregnant). The idea that "life begins at conception" is a belief, based more in religious teachings than in science.

Certain religious groups believe that sex itself is sinful. Those same religious groups tend to put a premium on the idea of innocence, so if there is a conflict between the life of the mother (who is seen as sinful) or of the child (who is seen as innocent), the child "wins". The man involved in the engendering never faces this possibility, even though he participated in the so-called sin. This is especially repugnant to feminists. Those steeped in that belief system see no merit in the feminist objections, however, and beliefs are again unlikely to be changed.

The rhetoric itself holds pitfalls. How can you be "pro-life" if you believe in killing? Logically, you should be a pacifist, against both the military and the death penalty. But this is rarely the case, and is seen as simple hypocrisy by those in the pro-choice camp. Similarly, a "woman's right to choose" sounds like mere self-indulgence to those who believe that the "choice" involves murder. While this charge is steeped in a set of religion-based beliefs, it is nonetheless the crux of the argument, and deserves honest reflection and a reasoned rebuttal.

Belief systems certainly play a role in the arguments. But since our society is made up many religions and many belief systems, it is the law that we must ultimately go by.

The law arbitrates behavior, and for good or ill, it stands apart from both religious beliefs and from science.  A law may be based on scientific fact, or not. It may be based on moral principles that are not shared by the entire population. It may be utterly arbitrary. But the law comprises the set of rules that society has agreed upon.

Disagreeing with the law does not exempt you from following it, nor does it give you the right to be a vigilante and impose your notions of what the law should be on someone else.

At this time, in this country, abortion is legal if done following the rules set out by the government. Killing a born human is illegal unless the government sanctions the killing, and even then certain legal procedures must be followed. By legal definition, if a killing is legal, it is not murder; conversely, murder is a type of illegal killing.

What the doctor did is legal and was therefore not murder, no matter how much it violates a belief system. His killer probably committed murder. I say probably because under the law, designating it murder requires a trial and conviction.

It is perfectly appropriate for people to attempt to change the law to match their moral principles. But it is important to realize that in a country based on law, not on religion, the law will reflect an amalgamation of moral and religious beliefs. Our laws do not allow one group to impose its moral precepts on the rest, not without going through an elaborate process to change the law. The best an individual can do is constrain their own behavior, and hope to convince others to do likewise. You have the right to proselytize, but you do not have the right to threaten or intimidate.

If you don't believe in abortion, don't have one. If you don't want others to have abortions, then work to make them unnecessary. Promote birth control. Provide a support network and social acceptance for unwed mothers. Even if you feel sex is sinful, surely having sex is a lesser sin than killing a fetus! Choose your moral priorities.

Work to streamline the adoption process. Adopt a child yourself, or at least offer to be a foster parent. Put as much effort into defending life after birth as you do to life before birth.

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