Thursday, May 16, 2013

Arkansas Abortion Bill Not Pro-Life

Human fetus, 7 to 8 weeks of gestation

In all the controversy surrounding the Arkansas bill that would prevent abortion after 12 weeks of pregnancy, we’ve consistently heard it described as a “pro-life” measure.  This is one thing it isn’t. 

The bill would, if enforced, curtail some abortions that otherwise would occur, so it could fairly be described as at least somewhat “anti-abortion,” and certainly any abortion advocate who believes that any limits to abortion on demand constitute a threat to “abortion rights” could correctly label it thus, but to call this bill “pro-life” is misleading and just plain wrong.  By making it illegal to end the life of a human fetus—unless that fetus is less than 12 weeks old—it continues to affirm our culture’s current view that denies the human life, the personhood, of an individual, as long as they are immature enough. 

Let’s be clear:  any individual human life begins when the egg and sperm unite to start the life process that progresses through prenatal development to post-natal development; through however much of life that given individual ends up experiencing.  If we trace your personal life backwards, the moment when your life ceases to be recognizably you would be that moment before sperm and egg were united, when some other sperm might potentially fertilize that egg and thus begin a life that would be genetically somebody else.  This is not some far-“right” religious viewpoint.  This is the only definition of an individual human life that holds any kind of water, from a strictly scientific, biological perspective.  Your life began with the union of that egg and sperm; at no time after that is there a qualitative moment when you were not biologically recognizable as you, and then you were.  Biologically speaking, the ongoing process that is your life began with the fertilization of that egg by that sperm, period.

Thus, no scientist could reasonably argue now that a living human fetus does not constitute a living human organism.  A dependent one, certainly, but a newborn infant is also entirely dependent upon others for its survival; the only difference is that it need not necessarily be its biological mother that provides for it, whereas before it is born, that is necessarily so.  So upon what basis of argument can it be "not okay" to end the life of a child who is in the developmental position of being entirely dependent upon someone else for its survival, where that "someone else" might be a range of people, but "okay" to end the life of the same child in a somewhat less developed stage, where it is entirely dependent upon one given person for its survival?  

Indeed, ironically, the only people who would have a leg to stand on in arguing that an individual human life begins any later than with its biological conception would be people who hold the “human life as spirit” view—that the individual human life is entirely contained within a disembodied spirit, the body no more part of that human life than the clothes you happen to be wearing—and who believe that that spirit is somehow added to the fetus at some point after conception; for example, at the “quickening,” when the mother first begins to feel the movements of the child within the womb.  So perhaps people holding these religious views could argue that, since the quickening generally happens sometime after 12 weeks, this bill (if enforced) would prevent the ending of human lives. 

The Catholic Church, which has provided the most systematic reasoning and debating and clarification of this issue, does not hold such a spiritistic view; it clearly teaches that a human life is an embodied spirit; that when our bodies are formed in the womb, we are formed—our personhood is formed—as one integrated person.  The church’s teachings thus align with science’s confirmation that each individual human life begins at conception.  I suspect that most Christians would agree with this, even if their denominations’ teachings were less clear (or quite unclear) on the subject, and certainly the Bible’s repeated mentions of God “forming me within the womb” tend to confirm (the Bible doesn’t speak of a separate “forming” for the spirit and the body, but the “forming” of the person—of “me”). 

This means—returning to the issue at hand—that any law that continues to allow abortion on demand at any stage of pregnancy, however early, is continuing to reinforce the prevailing notion in our culture that it is okay to end a human life as long as it is sufficiently undeveloped.  As long as it is sufficiently helpless, unable to defend itself; sufficiently silent, unable to cry for help; sufficiently out of sight--we do tend to have at least momentary qualms when confronted with pictures of tiny human body parts torn to pieces, but of course by that time it is too late for the baby in question—but basically, yeah, if we can’t see them, we don’t (as a culture) really care.  But doesn’t that fly in the face of our usual American drive to defend the helpless and innocent?  One little girl trapped in a well in Texas and the whole country turns up to get her out, or at least tunes in to watch the rescue, with baited breath—can they get her out?  will she survive?—but 55 million helpless babies trapped in the wombs of women who don’t want them. . . ?  Is it really that we are so completely driven by visual media that if there isn’t a PICTURE available, we just can’t connect to the baby in question?  

Some may argue (an evangelical Christian friend of mine, who also happened to be a geneticist, once expounded this view to me) that, since many (perhaps most) fertilized embryos don’t even make it to full-term, we can’t really say that an early-term baby would “make the cut” anyway, so they shouldn’t be considered human lives until they reach some medically set stage of viability, anyway.  But that age of viability is changing all the time, and this argument could equally be made of any person.  None of us knows how long our life will be.  We may be diagnosed with a terminal illness in the next few months, and not survive the year; we may be hit by a bus tomorrow and die; we may drop dead before reaching the end of this sentence from a burst aneurysm we never knew we had.  Does that mean that I could kill you, and argue my innocence of murder from the possibility that you may not have lived much longer anyway?  

 It comes down to this—is it wrong to end a person’s life, yes or no?  However much longer it may have lasted—and we cannot know that, not for anyone, born or as yet unborn—however small, undeveloped, or apparently “unwanted”—and bear in mind that these classifications can apply to people after birth, too—do we have the right to end that life, because it is inconvenient, or even deeply distressing, to us?  Right now, our culture says yes—yes, you can end that life, as long as it is small enough, undeveloped enough, unseen enough.  This current Arkansas law just confirms that answer. 
Myself, I stand with Dr. Seuss:  A person’s a person, no matter how small. 

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