The Morality of Abortion Rights
Why I Am Pro-Choice
Many people on the anti-abortion side clearly have deep convictions. It may not be as clear to some that the convictions of pro-choice people are just as strong and as deeply rooted in moral principles. We, too, are motivated by anguish. A basic difference lies in where we find the anguish.
Anti-abortion people generally start with the belief that inviolable human life begins at conception. They are anguished when other people do not abide by this principle.
Pro-choice people acknowledge that beliefs about the question of life's beginning come from spiritual beliefs, and different spiritual beliefs lead to different conclusions about this question.
We are anguished when women die and children suffer.
We see unassailable evidence that making abortion illegal or unavailable results in women dying -- by the thousands. And when women do not have control over their own reproduction, their children are less likely to survive and less likely to be healthy.
My purpose here is not to try to change your feelings about abortion but to help you to understand what I and many other pro-choice people think and feel.
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One side has claimed for itself the label "pro-life." Do you think the other side is anti-life?
Do you understand why pro-choice people can rightly say that they are not "pro-abortion"? Actually, many people point out that reducing the need for abortion is a common ground where the two sides can agree.
The pro-choice position is deeply pro-life in a broader sense that values the lives and respects the integrity of women and their families. It is pro-life in at least two important respects: it is pro-woman's life and it is pro-child's life. (More on this later.)
In contrast, the so-called "pro-life" position on abortion is narrowly fixated on the embryo and the fetus and characteristically ignores the lives of women and existing children. It is better described as "pro-embryo" or "pro-fetus."
"Pro-choice" means pro-choice. And "anti-choice" or "no-choice" is an appropriate term for those who attempt to outlaw abortion, block patients' access to clinics, subpoena private medical records, intimidate doctors and nurses, and generally coerce women to carry every pregnancy to term.
For those few who murder doctors, bomb clinics, and post websites celebrating lists of targeted doctors who have been slain, "pro-life" is as inappropriate a label as it would be for any murderers and their accomplices. The larger numbers who condone -- or decline to condemn -- such violence undermine their own standing.
Emotions run high on both sides, but good public policy is based on rational deliberation, not emotionalism.
Some call the embryo a "child." Beware the misuse of language to distort reality and inflame emotions.
It may be tempting for anti-choicers to exaggerate the development of an embryo or fetus. Portraying an embryo or fetus as a child wraps it in the emotional significance of a child.
Abortion stops a beating heart, anti-choicers say. True, the embryo develops a heartbeat at one month. At one month, it is about 3/16 of an inch long, smaller than an aspirin tablet.
Enormous changes in development occur in the nine months of pregnancy. By comparison, the developmental changes from birth to old age are slight. It may go against intuition that development over decades of life are slight compared to the nine months of pregnancy.
Developmentally, a newborn baby is much closer to an octogenarian than it is to an embryo. So, calling an embryo a "child" makes practically the same sense as calling an embryo a "teenager."
Why not call an embryo an embryo and a fetus a fetus? Maybe because "It's a fetus, not a choice" doesn't have the same punch on a bumper sticker. Or because "embryo killers" doesn't have the same shock value.
2. When does personhood begin?
Believing that personhood begins at conception has simplicity. And simplicity appeals to many people, as do concrete, black-and-white distinctions. Saying that abortion is always wrong in all cases instantly dispels all of the difficult questions that arise in considering each case -- no need to agonize over this rape, that fetal malady, this pregnant 13-year-old with the abusive father, that impoverished, third-world woman with 14 previous births whose birth control failed. Unfortunately, a simple take on the world doesn't make the world simple.
The claim made by some that "science has proven that human life begins at conception" amounts to nothing more than saying that (1) a human embryo is human and not, for example, rabbit, (2) when fertilization occurs, the sperm transfers its share of DNA to the ovum, and (3) a viable embryo consists of living cells rather than dead cells. No Nobel Prize winner there, just a poker bluff to make you think you missed some front-page news. It's like saying "science has proven" that I (a grown adult) was not stillborn. And that I am not a rabbit.
The real question is when does a human embryo or fetus or child become a person, a complete human being, a being with moral status equal to that of any person, or, in religious terms, a being with a soul. (These are not all one and the same question, because people don't even agree on how to frame the question. But I won't get into that.)
Science has nothing to say about when personhood begins.
And then some people claim that the embryo is a complete person -- it is merely in an early stage of development. To make you or me, they claim, nothing has been added to the single-celled zygote except nutrition and oxygen.
Really? I think that, compared to a single-celled zygote, a newborn baby has a whole lot more than just additional "nutrition and oxygen."
First, the newborn has been delivered into the weave of a social fabric; it is part of a community; it can interact socially with its family; and, historically, it becomes a recognized member of a society.
Second, the newborn has something enormously important that the zygote lacks: a specific biological organization. It is not merely a much bigger bag of "nutrients and oxygen." It has lost its embryonic tail and amphibian gill arches. It has the biological organization sufficient for beginning life in the world. It has lungs that can breathe air. But in particular, it has a brain that is sufficiently developing in complexity around the time of birth to enable it to begin learning rapidly about its physical and social environment.
Saying that the embryo is a person is not really an argument; it is simply a statement of belief. But, just as an acorn is not an oak tree, a human embryo is clearly not the same as a newborn baby.
An early embryo is capable of merging with another separate embryo and developing into one normal individual. So, how could each of the original embryos have been a person?
Is that a "divine mystery"? How can we be expected to accept at face value the notion that the embryo is a person, while any contradictory evidence, like two embryos merging into one, is conveniently dismissed as "divine mystery"?
Is the fetus that has not yet developed the brain structure necessary for thought, emotion, or consciousness a person? Is the embryo that has not yet developed any brain structure morally equal to a born person?
When does personhood begin? The answer to that question will always remain a matter of conjecture, an article of faith. People can reasonably disagree on it (and philosophical arguments, with widely varying conclusions, abound).
Obviously, there are different beliefs about when life begins, based on different faiths and doctrines. The Bible defines life as beginning at "breath." (Strangely, Christian fundamentalists who want to outlaw abortion are ignoring the Bible on this point.) The Roman Catholic Church officially says it is at conception. Some Protestants believe it is at viability. Judaic teachings place it at birth.
But there can only be one legal definition of the beginning of life (pertaining to a given set of circumstances). So some people's faith is always bound to differ from the legal definition. It is important, therefore, that the legal definition respect and accommodate a range of beliefs.
That doesn't mean everyone is going to agree about other people's actions. But it allows each individual to act according to her own conscience, within the scope where we reasonably differ. After all, which is of overriding moral importance: agreeing with another's actions or living one's own life according to one's conscience?
The Supreme Court defined the beginning of life as first breath. This definition respects and accommodates individual convictions and faith. It allows a strict Catholic, for example, to choose not to elect abortion. It accommodates both those who regard the embryo as inviolable and those who reserve the option of abortion.
3. Rights and responsibilities
Anti-choicers say a fertilized egg should have full civil rights.
Pro-choicers see that as a pro-embryo position, not a pro-life position; it values the embryo above the life of the woman -- who is undeniably a person.
Anti-choicers say the embryo needs the protection of the law because it is helpless. But "pro-life" legislation routinely and characteristically gives no consideration whatsoever to the woman, making no exception for her health, her circumstances, or her life. The conspicuous absence of the woman's life in the equation makes the "pro-life" label ring hollow.
How would you expect women to react to laws that would force them to bear any and every pregnancy to term?
Answering merely "with abstinence and responsible sex" is inadequate. The human condition and social environments are far more complex. "Responsible sex" doesn't save the married-with-kids woman who is faced with a life-threatening pregnancy. "Abstinence" doesn't answer the rape victim. Nor does "adoption," necessarily.
Admonitions like "don't have sex if you don't want to have a baby" are as reality-blind as abstinence-only sex education is. In spite of responsible behavior, women sometimes will have unplanned or unwanted or unhealthy pregnancies. Conversely, in spite of any irresponsible behavior, men will never get pregnant.
Half of all high school students have had sex by the time they graduate. The US has the highest teen pregnancy rate of any developed Western country. At the same time, we have among the most conservative sex education, contraception, and STD prevention policies of developed Western countries. That should tell you something.
There is nothing wrong with teaching abstinence, but failing to teach about safe sex is sure to doom thousands of young people to getting pregnant or contracting HIV/AIDS -- or both. There is nothing pro-life about that.
As most Christians know, Jesus emphasized compassion, tolerance, and equality, and had little or nothing to say about bedroom behavior or abortion. Yet certain Christians act as if policing sex, withholding contraception, and outlawing abortion were the key to heaven.
I'm talking about those who loudly call themselves "pro-life" but fall silent about the destruction of children by war, poverty, and disease. Jerry Falwell, in a sermon entitled "God is Pro-War," praises George W. Bush for launching his war in Iraq. Yet Falwell, Bush, and other so-called "pro-lifers" are silent about the thousands of children killed by their war in Iraq, where "forty-six percent of all Iraqis killed by coalition forces were under 15." [Online Journal, 8 April 2005]
And they are complicit in the Bush Administration's Gag Rule that denies aid for clinics that are working to prevent the spread of diseases in Africa and elsewhere, while, by 2001, Africa had 12 million children orphaned by AIDS, with the number expected to rise to 43 million orphans by 2010. [BBC News, 14 May 2001] The silence and complicity of these "pro-lifers" speaks loudly of their hypocrisy.
Social problems in our diverse and complicated world are better addressed by intelligent investigation than by the parochial assumption that they result from one group of people not following the marginal morality of another group.
Many anti-choicers concede that abortion is justified in the case of rape, incest, and life-threatening pregnancies. But multitudes of other cases involve profound life decisions that no one but the woman in question ought to judge, because only she can best understand the moral dimensions threading through the complexities of her life.
I say dimensions -- plural -- because moral questions can involve more than one moral concern. The woman's life is a moral concern. That is certain. Yet she seems to be invisible to many anti-choicers.
Why do anti-choicers and pro-choicers get so frustrated by each other's moral assessments? An anti-choicer who believes an embryo is a person may see no reason to consider any other moral concerns involved in the decision -- even though there will always be other moral concerns.
But someone who believes an embryo is not yet a person will naturally look to other moral concerns to make a decision.
As for rights, women (and their families) have a life-altering stake in not just pregnancy and childbearing but child rearing, a responsibility stretching outward for decades of years and inward to the depths of the heart.
A woman's right to control her own reproduction is not a matter of "convenience" -- it is a fundamental human right. It is the right to control her own life. It is the right to control her own body. It enables her to achieve physical, economic, and familial security before having (or having more) children so that she can best ensure the physical and emotional well-being of her children.
With full reproductive rights, if and when a woman does have children, they are less likely to suffer from ill health, malnourishment, poor education, abuse, crime, mental illness, and child mortality.
This is one area where pro-choice is pro-life: pro-child's life. And where reproductive choice is a moral choice.
Not every woman will always make the best choice. But no one else is in a better position to make such often-difficult decisions about her life and her family.
What about responsibilities? Above all, a parent has a responsibility to a child. It is in part because of this responsibility that a woman needs the right to control her reproduction. Reproductive rights are a prerequisite to best fulfilling her responsibility to her present and future children. She must be able to say, yes, I'm ready to bring a child into the world now. If the answer is "no," it is an injustice to both mother and child to force the mother to bring a child into the world.
(Men, of course, have responsibilities to their children, too. But because men don't get pregnant, have abortions, or bear children, among other reasons, the prerequisite rights are not the same issue as for women.)
4. When abortion was illegal
Ignore history and you are doomed to repeat it, as they say.
One doesn't have to go back very far to a time when abortion was illegal in most of the United States. Many middle-aged and older people remember that time. Did women stop getting abortions when they were illegal? Absolutely not. They sought illegal abortions. They obtained illegal abortions.
Before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, an estimated 1.2 million women obtained illegal abortions annually.
And women died from unsafe, illegal abortions. Women bled to death. Women died from unsterile conditions, died of massive infections. Women died and women were maimed. Each year, thousands of wives and daughters, mothers and aunts, perished from botched illegal abortions.
This is another area where pro-choice is truly pro-life: pro-woman's life. Pro-choicers ardently care about this tragic and needless loss of women's lives.
The legality and availability of abortion is a moral issue for me. When it is illegal or unavailable, women's lives -- and the quality of their lives and their children's lives -- are in jeopardy. For me, that is morally reprehensible.
So, people disagree with anti-choicers on moral grounds. And women will seek and get abortions regardless of the legal status of it.
I wonder sometimes if it may be difficult for many anti-choicers to understanding the diversity -- and validity -- of others' moral codes, or the profundity -- and diversity -- of women's life experiences with regard to pregnancy and reproduction.
Anti-choicers argue, why can't we bring our religious values into the public debate? But values are not the question. Pro-choicers value life every last bit as much as anyone else does. The real question is, when does personhood begin? And that is a matter of religious doctrine and belief, not a question of values.
Yes, bring your values into the public debate -- but leave your religious doctrine out. And be wise enough to know the difference.
People of a broad range of faiths recognize a moral prerogative of each woman to choose abortion. Pro-choice is pro-religious freedom because, in fact, the morality of abortion varies by religious doctrine and faith.
The majority of Americans consistently favor access to legal abortion:
When politics encroaches on the womb, women, and the men who stand with them, will fight back. Anti-choicers ought not fool themselves into thinking that they will "convert" people to their view. Why? Because when women fight to retain control over their own reproduction, they are not only fighting for their own lives, they are fighting for their children. They are fighting to promote the quality of life of their present and future children. The quality of a child's life depends to the greatest extent on her mother's health and well-being. And the mother, with unhindered access to health care, best knows the circumstances of her own health and well-being. Legislators enacting a priori laws certainly don't.
Abortion has been practiced by human societies for thousands of years. In the age of modern contraceptives, we have the ability not to completely eliminate, but to greatly reduce, the demand for induced abortion. Yet many people who are opposed to legal abortion are also opposed, in whole or in part, to contraceptive programs and opposed to complete and realistic sex education in schools. They are opposed to the very programs that can reduce abortions.
The two sides arguing this issue are each deeply committed to its belief by conscience, not by any deficit of conscience. Our laws should encompass freedom of conscience for both sides -- not just the no-choice position. One can be anti-abortion without being anti-choice.
At the center of each reproductive decision is a woman. Women are as qualified as anyone, and frequently more qualified, to exercise sound moral judgments about their own lives and their own families. Freedom of choice embraces all women; it defends equally the right to have an abortion and the right to have a child. There is no choice without both.
Some links: Religious views
Religious Coalition for Reproductive
Americans of all faiths are pro-choice because of our religious beliefs, said Reverend Carlton W. Veazey. Christians, Jews, Unitarian Universalists, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and many other faiths are speaking up in the face of the Religious Right's assault on reproductive choice. We're marching in unprecedented numbers for justice and equality -- and to debunk the notion that the Radical Right speaks for religion.
More than 200 churches and synagogues and religiously affiliated groups marched. The co-sponsors of the march included the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church USA, General Synod of the United Church of Christ, two agencies of the United Methodist Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and official bodies of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Jewish movements.
Catholics For a Free Choice
Christian Alliance for
Recognizing that Jesus teaches us by his example, we hold that he would treat women as full and complete partners today, just as he did in his own time. Therefore, we assert that creating secular laws to give control of a woman's body to the state is unchristian. We assert that compulsory childbearing (if Roe v. Wade were overturned), compulsory abortion (as in China), and compulsory childbearing or abortion based on the state's decision (as in Nazi Germany) all deny a woman's essential humanity and are immoral. ...
Americans know, from the time before Roe v. Wade, that prohibiting safe abortion procedures led directly to deaths of multitudes of desperate and frightened women. Extremists who want to return us to that time are unlike the Jesus we know from the Gospels; they implicitly hold that the life of a woman does not matter. Our government has a moral obligation not to enact laws that have been shown by history to cause women injury or death.
On one hand, there's the behind the scenes power of the Roman Catholic Church and the more public positions by the leaders from the ultra-conservative end of fundamentalist Christianity. They demand the passage of government laws based upon an unprovable, fairytale about God's instantaneous, supernatural, transcendental, conception magic act.
Their proposed laws are also based upon the unprovable belief that a human being is his/her physical body. Unless the forced motherhood peddlers are derailed very soon, they will succeed at using these two unprovable religious stories to outlaw abortion. They can succeed for two reasons. First, because they have the money, the positions, the followers, and the political power to force their ways onto the rest of us. And second, almost nobody is publicly speaking the truth about these two religious fairytales.
"Religious Belief and Public Morality -- A Catholic Governor's
As a governor, however, I am involved in defining policies that determine other peoples rights in these same areas of life and death. Abortion is one of these issues, and while it is one issue among many, it is one of the most controversial and affects me in a special way as a Catholic public official.
Appendix 1: "Pro-life" legislation
"Pro-life" legislation has been deceitful and has harmed women physically and mentally.
While its purported purpose is to provide informed consent, it is transparent that its real purpose is to throttle abortion services and to instill guilt in women who seek abortions. Legislation has required mandatory waiting periods, parental or husband consent, and mandatory scripted "counseling and information."
After mandatory delay legislation was passed in Mississippi in 1992, the proportion of second trimester procedures increased by 17% [F.A. Althaus and S.K. Henshaw, Family Planning Perspectives, vol. 26, no. 5, p. 231, 1994]. Because the risk of major complications from abortion increases in the second trimester, such delays endanger women's lives.
The mandatory information is thinly veiled propaganda against having an abortion. Mandatory scripted "counseling" has included showing to the patient pictures of fetal anatomy at 2-week increments and suggesting that the patient listen to the fetal heartbeat. Clinicians attest that patients, who have made their decision with the deepest integrity, typically find this politically-mandated information degrading.
Other mandatory information presents the risks of abortion and the advantages of carrying to term.
In fact, "in developed countries where induced abortion is legal, the procedure is now safer than pregnancy and childbirth" [S.K. Henshaw, Family Planning Perspectives, vol. 22, no. 2, 1990].
One legislative act requires that physicians tell patients that abortion poses danger to subsequent pregnancies and a risk of infertility.
In fact, scientific studies show no support for these statements. "Vacuum aspiration does not pose a measurable risk to a woman's future childbearing ability," according to the Centers for Disease Control [Hogue, et al, Epidemiologic Reviews, 4, 66-94, 1982]; poses no greater risk of subsequent infertility or ectopic pregnancy [Benson Gold, Abortion and women's health, Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1990]; and results in no increase in the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, infant mortality, or congenital malformations [Hogue, et al, 1982].
In the face of conclusive evidence that legal abortion is medically safe, anti-abortion activists have turned to supposed psychological effects, conceiving an "abortion trauma syndrome," which some legislation requires patients be warned about.
In fact, "there is now a substantial body of data, reported from many countries after careful and objective follow-up, suggesting frequent psychological benefit and low incidence of adverse psychological sequelae" resulting after abortion [World Health Organization, "Induced abortion," technical report no. 623, Geneva, 1978, p. 22].
The false information about a recognizable risk of "psychological trauma" mandated by legislation may actually lead to a self-fulfilling prophesy in some vulnerable patients. The legislation in effect creates the trauma that it scares women with.
In the doctor's office, a political potion makes bad medicine. These restrictive laws harass providers of safe abortion and punish women who have made a difficult decision.
Appendix 2: The "Partial Birth" Abortion Ban of 2003
Late term abortions are rare. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 88 percent of legal abortions are performed within the first 12 weeks of gestation. Just over 10 percent are performed between 13 and 20 weeks. Less than one-half of one-percent occur after 24 weeks.
Clearly, if a woman decides she is unprepared to carry a pregnancy to term, she will tend to have an abortion sooner rather than later. So whom does a late-term abortion ban affect most of all? It affects women who discover late in term that the fetus is suffering from severe or fatal anomalies or that their own health is threatened.
In other words, it affects women who wanted to have a baby but developed serious medical problems. Those are the women who were used as fodder in a calculated anti-choice strategy, the so-called "Partial Birth" Abortion Ban Act of 2003 (federal ban). The danger to women's health from banning medical procedures was of no concern to those who devised the ban.
Proponents of the federal ban sold it as a ban on a single late-term medical procedure. It was nothing of the sort.
In fact, the act would ban abortions as early as 12 to 15 weeks in pregnancy. The act is so broad that it would prohibit a wide range of medically appropriate abortions performed in the second trimester. It would outlaw second-trimester procedures that doctors say are safe and among the best options for protecting women's health.
The federal ban has been ruled unconstitutional by federal judges in three separate cases. In Nebraska, U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf struck down the ban, concluding that, "the overwhelming weight of the trial evidence proves that the banned procedure is safe and medically necessary in order to preserve the health of women under certain circumstances. In the absence of an exception for the health of a woman, banning the procedure constitutes a significant health hazard to women."
Judge Kopf also criticized the medical conclusions drawn by Congress when it drafted the ban.
"Three courts in three different parts of the country have now
struck down the federal abortion ban. These trial courts have been unanimous
because the Supreme Court has been clear: a patient's health and safety
must be a doctor's paramount concern," said Nancy Northup, President
of the Center for Reproductive Rights. "Congress ignored Supreme
Court and medical opinion in enacting this ban. Congress claimed to
be protecting women's health. In fact, they wrote a law that does exactly
Forty states and the District of Columbia already ban third-trimester abortions except when the life or health of the woman is at stake. So why did legislators enact the federal ban?
Why didn't they learn anything from those 40 states and D.C.? They had 41 examples of similar bills, but they drafted another unconstitutional bill anyway.
What reason would the drafters of the ban have for leaving out a provision that would have made it survive the constitutional test that struck it down? Why leave out a provision to protect the life and health of the patient when the Supreme Court already had clearly spelled out this requirement?
The anti-choice rank and file was misled into thinking the federal ban was a genuine effort to legislate a late-term procedure. But it was a Trojan horse, wooden and hollow. Once the anti-choice rank and file was roused by misleading rhetoric and inflammatory publicity, they would do their appointed job at the polls and vote against the incumbents who had voted against the unconstitutional federal ban.
T he American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stated, "The intervention of legislative bodies into medical decision making is inappropriate, ill advised, and dangerous."
The federal ban was a callous strategy, callous in its complete disregard for the health and safety of women. The effect was to endanger the lives of women who have hazardous pregnancies and medical emergencies.
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