My post of January 30 prompted a thoughtful and well-written comment from one of my most avid readers--my son Colin! In it he makes several points in favor of the "legal right to terminate a fetus." His position is generally in line with that of most defenders of legalized abortion, so I thought a response from one holding a different view might help illuminate the issue--and hopefully touch the heart and change the mind of someone near and dear to me.
First, I'm very glad we agree that to what reasonable extent abortion should be permitted is a decision properly made by state legislatures, not by the federal courts. The central issue turns on such things as when human life begins and at what point an unborn child should enjoy legal protection, as well as on what role the father or a minor mother's parents should play--matters which should weigh in the balance together with the privacy interests of the mother. These are issues of social policy and governance that only democratically elected legislatures are competent to determine. The federal courts have no proper powers or jurisdiction in such matters; they can only apply the Constitution as it is written, and then only to the extent (if at all) it extends to the mother's privacy interest. Necessarily, this is an inadequate and one-sided approach to some of the weightiest issues confronting society. So, if for no other reason, Roe v. Wade should be set aside in favor of allowing the states to resume their traditional authority in "family matters," subject only to federal constitutional oversight to make sure that these legitimate public purposes are rationally served by such limits on abortion as the people decide to impose.
At least as important as the issue of who should decide the permissibility of abortion is whether, or to what extent, it should be permitted at all. And here is where so many part ways. Here is where purely rational social policies collide with fundamental convictions about what human life is, when it begins, and how, if at all, it can be weighed against other interests.
Colin points out that while some people deplorably use abortion as a “backup” method of birth control, “having the legal right to terminate a fetus can be a godsend to people in many different situations.” He may not be aware of how sadly ironic is his choice of words: rather than the coldly clinical phrase “terminate a fetus,” why not just say “kill a child”? And how could “the legal right to kill a child” be a “godsend”? To those of us who believe that an unborn baby is a person, that baby is the “Godsend”--literally--and killing it, at least without any legal showing of necessity, would be an awful crime and the most terrible tragedy.
Here lies the rub: if one believes that a “fetus” is not a person at least until live birth, or “quickening,” or “viability,” or ____ weeks, or some other gestational point selected by the medical or bioethical establishment (and changed by them from time to time according to developments in medicine or the prevailing culture), then it might make sense to relieve the mother, if she so chooses, of the tremendous physical and psychological burden (not to mention the danger to her) of carrying to term what, until that moment, would essentially amount to an inflamed uterus. But if one accepts the proposition that the “fetus” (or embryo, in its more primitive stage of physical formation) is a unique and infinitely precious human being from the moment of conception, then even the direst circumstances facing the mother would not justify its killing without any kind of legal process. In today’s enlightened society, people may not abuse or kill animals with impunity; so, if it were generally recognized that any unborn child is a human being, we wouldn’t countenance its wanton destruction.
This divergence of belief is the very heart of abortion as a social policy issue. Those who want abortion to be freely available generally do not (and cannot, consistently with their own humane principles) accept that a human embryo or fetus is (or could be) a person entitled to as much legal protection as the mother, at least until whatever point the medical and legal professions say that it’s convenient and acceptable to so recognize it. Until that point, they reason, the needs, interests, convenience, or even whims of the mother (or parents) are all that legally matter. Those who oppose the free availability of abortion generally do so because they accept that conception results in the creation of a person whose own life and future, in a humane society where the helpless aren’t forgotten, deserves as much protection as does the mother’s. Without such protection, they reason, countless human lives are casually sacrificed in the interest of whatever is deemed safe, convenient, desirable, or even economical by people who at least had a chance at their own lives and (except in cases of rape or undue influence) a choice how to use their own powers of creation.
Before I get bogged down in discussing whether these fundamental views can ever be reconciled on a legal or political level, let me respond to some of Colin’s specific points as one who believes in human life from conception, and therefore opposes today’s liberal abortion regime. I must confess rather passionate feelings on this issue, as to me there is nothing in all Creation more miraculous, more precious, or more pregnant with hope and promise--nor more helpless and needful of care and protection--than a human child, inside or outside the womb.
A woman is raped, becomes pregnant, and isn't in a situation where she can face 9 grueling months of carrying a baby. This is an awful situation for a woman to be in; fortunately, it's rare, and most proposed restrictive abortion laws would significantly relax restrictions on abortion in this case.
The pregnancy will risk the safety or health of the mother. Every pregnancy involves a significant risk to the mother's safety and health. Unless we're to embrace abortion as a routine safety measure in all pregnancies, it would have to be limited to situations in which carrying the child to term would present an unusually high risk of death or permanent physical or mental disability to the mother. Most proposed restrictive abortion laws that I am aware of would significantly relax restrictions on abortion in this case as well.
The fetus has a severe mental or physical handicap that will inhibit it from ever being able to live a normal life, and the parents aren't emotionally or economically capable to care for a child in that condition. Suggesting abortion as a solution to birth defects or genetic disability breaks my heart. Just imagine the countless millions of precious children afflicted with congenital blindness (e.g., Stevie Wonder) or deafness, Downs' syndrome, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, dwarfism, autism, missing limbs, etc. who would never have a chance to have a life at all, let alone a "normal" one--never know laughter, music, beauty, joy, kindness, friendship, love (at least in this world). How do we know whether they would choose life or oblivion if they were allowed a choice? Does anyone have a right to make that choice for them? Anyone who has been close to such a child knows what a tremendous challenge, and what a marvelous blessing, they can be. Should we the “normal” deny ourselves the opportunity for learning and growth that having disabled children among us provides?
A responsible married couple is practicing safe sex, but the condom breaks, the woman becomes pregnant, and the couple can't afford to have a baby at that point in their life. No method of birth control is foolproof, and every “responsible married couple” does, or should, know this. Yet, they take the risk inherent in having relations. That’s not a bad thing, but nevertheless we all need to be responsible for the foreseeable consequences of our actions, as difficult as they may be. In fact, this “planned-against-but-it-happened-anyway” situation is very common. At least two of my own children came along in this way. In the first instance we were just three months into the pregnancy when I lost my job, and we were initially denied insurance coverage for it through my next employer. By any rational measure we couldn’t “afford” to have a baby at that point in our life, but abortion wasn’t remotely thinkable for us, and we had our wonderful Donna anyway--Praise God! (our other unplanned pregnancy, for which we were better prepared, was--Colin himself!)
Indeed: faith, and the loving support of family, friends, and other helpers, are the keys to surmounting the tremendous challenges common to all of these scenarios. Carrying a child through pregnancy and birth, especially in such situations, can certainly be an exhausting, frightening, faith-testing experience. But it’s not impossible; it’s done every day, and monuments for valor should be erected to the mothers and the legions of caregivers who sustain them and their children through that difficult time.
Aside from life-threatening or (perhaps) rape-induced pregnancy, today there is rarely any compelling reason to abort an unborn child when there are so many health and support resources commonly available, so many organizations and people eager to help women in distress, and a range of other life-affirming options, such as adoption. We shouldn’t be treating the unborn as just another disposable item in our throwaway culture. Rather than rationalize and take the quick, (apparently) easy, and self-centered way out, expectant parents can and should dare to be heroes--to be brave, have faith, tough it out, and do what’s right, deep down in their hearts. What greater thing could one do for another person, for themselves, and for the world, than give the gift of life?
As I adverted to earlier, the stand one takes on the issue of abortion boils down, ultimately, to what one believes, at the core of his or her soul, about when human life begins. This is an extensive and evolving subject all by itself, and beyond the scope of one blog post. I only hope that readers will honestly and openly consider all sources of wisdom on this subject, religious as well as scientific, and not jump to a conclusion simply as a means of justifying his or her preferred position on the abortion issue. Personally--and with an increasing body of scientific evidence that essential human life begins at conception--I find the religious basis for this principle compelling. Nothing in the scripture of any faith more poetically or persuasively testifies of it than Psalm 139:
For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother's womb.I must confess to strong emotions on this issue, too, though I think they’re natural and right. In preparing my Roe v. Wade “anniversary” post I wanted to add a few pictures, so I naively ran an image search using the single term "abortion." You can probably guess at the results (bloody, dismembered fetuses, among other indescribable things); I just hadn't thought beforehand about what might come back. Well, what I saw on that screen no human eyes should ever see, because no "human" being should ever do such things to another. Once I realized what I was looking at my soul screamed in agony; I deleted the page as fast as I could, and was on the verge of throwing up. My eyes were full of tears, and I sobbed almost out loud, "God, please MAKE IT STOP! Please don't let this happen again!" I thought of my own children, and of the beautiful grandson I gained just a few months ago--none of whom were really “planned,” none of whom came along at a very “affordable” time for their parents--and realized that those dead and mutilated children I saw could have been them, had we made a different decision.
I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.
My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.
Given the strong moral case and deep-rooted conviction of many that human life begins at conception--and the undeniable damage that unrestricted abortion inflicts on the mother, the father, and society in general--is it not time to extend a measure of due process to the unborn child and everyone concerned? Many states prescribe court proceedings when someone seeks to end life support for a terminally ill and comatose person who hasn’t left a valid health care proxy or end-of-life directions. Judicial review is mandated for committing to a hospital someone who is alleged to be mentally ill or incompetent. Would it really be an intolerable burden, an outrageous invasion of privacy, to require some showing in court that an abortion is necessary and the only meaningful alternative in the particular case, before a helpless life is snuffed out?
As sensible and right as this seems, the idea is likely to be resisted by those who value personal and sexual freedom above all else, and who believe (or must maintain, in order to preserve abortion’s ethical legitimacy) that a fetus is a mere part or extension of the mother’s body rather than a person with rights. Can a compromise on abortion, acceptable to both belief/value systems, ever be found? Perhaps not. Wherever a democratic assembly of the people is pushed to a decision on what the law should be, one fundamental view or the other is likely to weigh more heavily and result in an abortion law that favors one or the other set of convictions about human life. But if we allow the states to have the autonomy and freedom of action they were meant to enjoy under the Constitution, each of these communities will be able to resolve the abortion issue in a way deemed wisest by a majority of its people--restrictively in, say, North Carolina, and liberally, most likely, in California. In other words, the pro-life cause is also pro-choice! That choice, that opportunity to peacefully resolve the abortion controversy in a way everyone can live with, is the main reason Roe v. Wade should be abandoned.
ADDENDUM: Please check out some marvelous videos on the Manhattan Declaration website, produced by ordinary citizens, that explore various aspects of the abortion issue. If you find some you especially like, you can even post them to Facebook! Also check out the website of the Women’s Health Center in Jacksonville, Florida, where my sister Patti works. Consider making a donation, if you can, to aid their work in helping expectant mothers to give life to their unborn children.