In order to explain my support for abortion rights I’ll address a couple of common statements from the anti-abortion movement. First a couple of bumper sticker statements: “It’s a Child, Not a Choice” and “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart.” These imply a number of things, but primarily that a fetus is equivalent to a living child from the point of conception. This implies that life begins at conception. I don’t know as a theological or philosophical matter when life begins, but I do know from some research into the medical literature that the vast majority of fertilized eggs do not become full term babies. According to the best statistics I can find, barely 50% of all impregnated eggs adhere to the wall of the uterus and result in a full term pregnancy. Some statistics indicate that far less than 50% of fertilized eggs eventually adhere to the uterus, and as many as 20% of “known” pregnancies spontaneously abort. The reason for this low success rate is that the process of gene splitting and differentiation that occurs in the zygote is highly complex and does not always work correctly.
For Information on Miscarriage and Spontaneous Abortions See: MedlinePlus: Miscarriage [http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001488.htm]
I have a hard time reconciling the theory that life begins at conception with the medical fact that, due to the complexities of human genetic development, less than half of all fertilized eggs become a living child. The best we can say is that a potential life begins at conception.
A related fact is that it is virtually impossible for a preterm baby to survive if born before 24 weeks of gestation. There is one recorded example of a baby being born at 22 weeks, and surviving, but only one. This means that a fetus is not viable, and is not a life independent and separate of the mother, until after 24 weeks. The Supreme Court has said that abortions should be available before fetal viability, which means that abortions must be available before the 24th week, and conversely states can begin restricting abortions after 24 weeks. It is also important to understand that a significant number of preterm or premature babies have significant health issues. So “life” is extremely tenuous in the early stages of pregnancy.
See: Healthy Children: Premature Babies at http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/preemie/pages/Health-Issues-of-Premature-Babies.aspx
Because of this, I believe that the real issue is balancing the rights and interests of the potential life of the fetus against the rights and interests of the life of the woman carrying the baby.
It is important to understand at this point that making abortion illegal will not make it go away. Abortion has existed since the beginning of humanity, and it exists in every place on earth. Abortions happen in countries where it is widely accessible, and it happens in countries where it is illegal.
Abortion exists because unplanned and unwanted pregnancies exist. Unplanned and unwanted pregnancies exist because of human nature. Unplanned and unwanted pregnancies exist because people are not always careful when they have sex. That is a fact of human life that has been with us since the dawn of humanity. So unless you change the laws of human nature, you will not make unplanned and unwanted pregnancies go away. And as long as there are unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, abortion will exist.
The reality of human nature is that some of the women who have unwanted pregnancies will seek to end them. History and human experience bear this out. If these women are forced to end these pregnancies through illegal means, they will do so. And in many cases illegal abortions are unsafe. And unsafe abortions frequently result in the death of the woman. We saw that in this nation before abortion was legalized, and we see it around the world where abortions are illegal.
Making abortion illegal will not make it go away, but it will make it unsafe, and making abortion illegal will result in the death of women. We saw that in this country before abortion was made legal, and we see that in nations around the world where it is illegal.
The other option for women seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy is that they will go to places where abortion is legal. This will mean that abortions will be yet another thing that only the well-off can afford.
So if the question is balancing the rights and interests of the potential life of the fetus against the rights and interests of a living, breathing human being, I think the scales tip towards the rights of the living human being. I believe that we need to be more concerned about the rights of the living human than the rights of the potential human. This means that, whether we like it or not, abortion needs to be safe. And the only way to make is safe is to keep it legal.
That being said, I don’t oppose common sense restrictions on abortions, like bans on late term abortions. The problem is that most of the current crop of legislation restricting abortion rights are not about making abortion safer, or stopping it in extreme cases, but are attempts to create such onerous restrictions that effectively end abortion. The best current example is the attempt to restrict abortion after 20 weeks, rather than 24 weeks. This seems reasonable, but the problem is that most women do not realize that they are pregnant until 20 weeks.
Here’s another bumper sticker: “It’s a Child, Not a Choice.” I think we need to address this idea of “choice” not only in relation to abortion but in many areas of life. In many cases in life the choices we face are not always good. The bumper sticker logic implies that the choice is between a really good thing (a bouncing baby!!!) and a really bad thing (murdering your baby.) But this is nonsense. In most cases the choice is not, metaphorically, between cake and ice cream. In many cases the choice is not even between a good option and a bad option. It is not, metaphorically, between the lady and the tiger. Some times in life the choices are bad, and the choice is between bad and worse, or even between bad and awful. Sometimes the choice is, metaphorically, between being hit head on by the truck in the wrong lane, and swerving and going into the river. Sometimes all the choices are bad and we have to cut our losses.
I do not support abortion because I think it is a good choice, but because I recognize that in some situations it is the least bad option. There are situations where a fetus is deformed and will be born only to live a short time. It seems cruel to force a parent to carry a child to term only to watch that child die. There are situations where the pregnancy would endanger the life or well-being of the mother. There are situations, like rape or incest, where it would an unspeakable cruelty to force a woman to carry the child of her abuser. And there are also many situations where a baby would cause untold problems for the mother or family. It seems cruel beyond words to me to force someone to bear and deliver a child against their will.
I also believe, as I have mentioned in a previous essay, that we strip women of part of their humanity if we pass laws that control their bodies and their lives. If we believe in freedom we have to give people freedom and trust that they won’t, in the main, misuse that freedom. And because some people misuse their freedoms doesn’t mean we should restrict freedom for everyone else.