Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Abortion Conundrum

The abortion issue jumped back into Iowa politics last week when the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, Kim Reynolds, tried, and failed, to articulate a consistent prolife position on the issue.

Asked by the Carroll Daily Times-Herald what penalties she, as a self-identified pro-lifer, would impose for abortionists and women who have abortions, she replied, “Well, I think it would be equivalent to murder. I would want to research that before I would lay specifically out what the penalties would be.”

Reynolds went on to say,

• Abortion (a procedure that usually involves stabbing, cutting up or burning a fetus to death) is NOT equivalent to stabbing an adult to death.

• The punishment for abortion should fit the crime.

• “I would want to take a look at that and make sure that I completely walked through that before I would say anything right now.”

Anyone else confused yet?

Don’t blame Reynolds. Neither side in the American abortion debate has been able to articulate a consistent position on the matter.

The pro-life position rests on the status of a human fetus as a person, which, by extension, does make the act of abortion equivalent to murder. If abortion is not murder, it is merely distasteful and perhaps damaging to a country’s demographics, but in a liberal* society, neither of those problems is grounds for criminalization.

But if fetuses are persons, if abortion is murder, then over one-fourth of human beings worldwide are victims of murder before they are born. Abortion would rank as the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world, abortion-on-demand would surpass slavery as America’s greatest societal crime, and stopping abortion immediately should be the highest priority of pro-life politicians. Because the practice is so widespread, we would at a minimum need a new Department of Preborn Rights to enforce an abortion ban. Huge funds should be dedicated to saving human beings from death by miscarriage. And if conception is marked as the beginning of personhood, then discarding frozen embryos should also be considered murder, and efforts should be made to rescue embryos that fail to attach to the uterine wall.

When was the last time you saw someone running on that platform?

Even if someone did run on that platform, they could never succeed in implementing it permanently. The pro-life movement, ultimately, has no political constituency, because unlike other oppressed groups, the potential victims of abortion can never be integrated into our political system. They are permanently voiceless. They can never be liberated or empowered. By the time they are old enough to speak (or even think, or be aware) for themselves, they have exited the oppressed group. If the oppression were ever ended, there would be no positive consequences for anyone else, only increased misery, as millions mothers who didn’t want to be mothers were forced to carry their babies to term. The only benefit would be the abstract sense of satisfaction that babies were no longer being killed. And society can fulfill its need for moral self-respect far more easily by convincing itself that respect for abortion rights demonstrates tolerance, rather than genocidal neglect. The utilitarian ethic provides absolutely no reason to ban abortion. The only possible rationales for protecting unconscious human beings that do not truly experience pain or happiness would have to come from a transcendent moral law that places human life above all other needs and values. Good luck getting everyone to agree on that.

The pro-choice position (and current U.S. law) on the other hand, holds that human beings assume all the rights of personhood at the moment of complete birth – a moment that, while emotionally significant for families and society, marks nothing more than the movement of a young human being from inside its mother to the outside world. Mentally and physically, nothing significant distinguishes a newborn baby from a fetus. Moreover, current U.S. law regards a human born at seven months a person, while a human still inside the womb at eight months is regarded as a part of the woman’s body. A consistent pro-choicer would regard human beings as full persons only at a later date of development (speech?) (adulthood?) and would have to argue for the right to infanticide. A few pro-choicers, such as the ethicist Peter Singer, have actually gone this far. The vast majority of pro-choicers, being properly socialized, somewhat decent human beings (like their pro-life opponents), would recoil at that proposal.

So I think it’s fairly clear that the standard parameters of American liberal* thought leave us in a quandary on this issue. There is no (tenable) way to be consistently just. To resolve this quandary, we will need to leave those parameters, and start again with the first questions: 1) what does God require of us as individuals, and 2) what does God require of the state?

The first question is easier to answer than the second. We’re supposed to love and care for all human beings, for the sake of our Lord, who loves them as well, and whose image they bear. If I believe anything about politics these days, it’s that the government should as well. But does that necessarily entail the liberal* quasi-legalism of rights, that demands that all persons be treated exactly the same, and that their deaths be avenged with equal ferocity?

That might sound like a rhetorical question, but it’s not. I have no answer right now.

Curse these ambiguities.


*Classical liberalism, not contemporary. Individualism, capitalism, and limited popular government. Think John Locke and Thomas Jefferson.

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