Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Minefield of Abortion

I waded into a discussion on abortion on Facebook and got slammed. I was called a ‘republican troll’ a misogynist, a Neanderthal, and worse. What was my sin? Was I promoting abortion’s abolition? Was I spouting pseudo-scientific apocrypha that women who are raped secrete a special chemical that prevents pregnancy? No, I was speaking honestly about my unease with late-term abortions.

Between thrown insults, one young woman said: my decision whether and when to have an abortion is between me and my doctor, period. It is not society’s business. I will fight to the death to keep that right unabridged. I asked: what if you decided to have an abortion on the date you were due? Would that be OK? I was accused of hyperbole, and of course, I was speaking hyperbolically, to make the point: there is not some magical ‘state change’ that takes place between a baby about to be delivered and one already born, so… when does that change take place, and why are abortion rights advocates so reluctant to define that line?

I was essentially asking people in the discussion to ask themselves: when does late become too late, for you, and why? What internal measures do you use to determine that for yourself? If we can all agree that infanticide is wrong, and that killing an unborn baby at term is wrong, at what point backwards in gestation does it cease being wrong to those of use who support abortion rights? And why?

I am not bothering with those who are completely opposed to abortion, often with no exceptions, even if the life of the woman is in jeopardy – as if, somehow, an unborn child is worth more than a grown woman, a moral calculus I find impenetrably immoral and viscerally repugnant. There is a divide there that I will not attempt to bridge.

I asked questions in this discussion like, could we possibly judge when a fetus’s brain wave patterns start to resemble a newborns? When they start to dream, to experience REM sleep etc?

Note that I did not ask when the fetus’s brain starts firing off electrical impulses, which is supposedly at about 2 months – this “brain wave” issue is a canard that abortion foes tout – as if a few neurons firing is equivalent to thinking. Of course the animals that many of these abortion foes eat have far, far more complex and cohesive brain activity than a 2-month-old fetus. These animals think, dream, feel fear and pleasure, and yet, these people slaughter and eat them without giving any thought to morality.

I was speaking to fellow pro-choicers, and I was trying to have a civil, logical discussion regarding how we decide when late is too late for an abortion. Everything I said to this group of liberal women was met with a level of vitriol that astounded me. It was as nasty and personal as anything I’ve seen from the Tea Partiers. It was, most sadly, utterly devoid of reasonable discourse.

In my mind, the biggest mistake of the abortion rights movement is that it has insisted on a ‘slippery slope’ argument against the abridgement of any abortion rights. This turns a blind eye to any moral evaluation, and, frankly, weakens the argument. I understand it, of course: any abridgement can lead to abolition, a strategy that anti-abortion forces are utilizing with great success across the country right now. However, drawing a scientifically valid line would buttress the abortion rights position for thinking people, and remove a lot of the squeamishness that many feel with the no holds barred approach that most abortion rights advocates seem to support as a default, often unspoken given.

Supporters of late-term abortions complain that the increasingly-restricted access to all women’s health services, the result largely of right-wing Republican efforts, actually force more women into late-term abortions. I say, we as a society have to help them get their abortions earlier then, not wait until we too feel that what is happening is, at best, in a moral gray area. Just supporting late term abortions because abortions are hard to get in some places is not logically acceptable.

The very angry young feminist notwithstanding, I also think that we as a society do have some say in the matter, though this position seems to enrage most of the feminists I know. I actually supported the pro-choice ‘no slippery slope’, no exceptions, party line myself until quite recently. But it has started to haunt me. Though it may be unfortunate, a woman carrying a late-term fetus may be seen as carrying a thinking, feeling human not unlike a newborn baby – that inconvenient truth forces us, as a society, to enforce some kind of moral code, as a society does against murder, rape, and many other taboos.

I would much prefer some kind of biologically logical model for abortion rights. This model would not be based on viability: because I have no doubt that eventually we will have technology that allows a 1 month old fetus to survive, ex-utero. Viability is not the issue, humanity is. If this fetus is actively thinking, feeling and dreaming in a way that is biologically hard to distinguish from an at-term baby, does it deserve more moral scrutiny than, say, a cat being put to sleep, or a cow being led to slaughter?

My approach may be flawed, I’m not saying it’s the right solution. Rather, I’m saying that the pro-choice movement would do itself a great service by owning up to the moral unease that exists somewhere within almost all pro-choice supporters, and then by coming up with a rigorous, intellectually-cohesive set of rules for when late is too late for an abortion – excluding, always, issues of the health of the woman, including incest, and rape.

This is not about controlling women’s bodies – what I was accused of in true knee-jerk fashion. It’s about we, as humans, evolving standards of what is humane, and what is right and wrong; and it is to be human.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Band Aids for Machine Gun Wounds

Band Aids for Machine Gun Wounds There has been widespread outrage in response to a video showing US Marines urinating on the corpses of their dead Taliban adversaries. I’m not sure how much of the indignation is genuine and how much is pro-forma, but it’s all hypocrisy. Don’t misunderstand: I do not find the desecration of the dead to be a trivial affair. I just feel the irony of the canard that war can be inherently civilized to be nauseating. I could point out that the Taliban, who were among those outraged, have engaged in beheadings, torture, and other appalling acts – but that would mean that I’m justifying this behavior by comparing it to our enemy’s – a moral dead end if there ever was one. I am not justifying this behavior; I am attempting to put it into perspective. The sad, shameful truth is, American military and intelligence personnel have not only practiced torture, but our government has actually taught it to generations of Latin American military men at the infamous ‘School of the Americas’. So, is urinating on a dead body really more reprehensible than institutionalized torture? Another point of perspective: Our men and women in uniform are shot at by snipers and blown up by IEDS. Their dead bodies have been dragged through streets and hung from bridges. They are inculcated into a warrior culture that glorifies violence and dehumanizes the enemy. It is absurd to think that some abstract concept of ‘honor’ will always rule the day in this stewpot of violence and desensitization. These abuses have happened throughout our history. I’ve seen photographs from 1900 of US Marines gleefully waving the severed heads of Filipinos like Al Queda terrorists. Look up a timeline of the United States Military Operations on Wikipedia – this country has been in wars and skirmishes almost non-stop since its inception. Our soldiers have engaged in bloody, murderous campaigns, mostly to subdue freedom fighters, around the globe, from the Philippines to Guatemala to China to Russia. We epitomize a society of violence, not, as pro-lifers like to say, ‘a culture of life’. We are taught that we should recoil in horror at war’s excesses, like the My Lai Massacre and Abu Gharaib torture, but to accept war itself as honorable and gallant. I’m sorry, but it’s all excessive, all morally reprehensible. I recoil at the sight of the severed limbs of dead children scattered in the streets after one of our drone strikes. The mayhem unleashed by these drones, flown from armchairs via joysticks, is once-removed, displayed on a small screen, a silent movie as seen from the air – not down on the ground with the smell of blood, feces, and urine and the screams of the dying and the maimed. The combatant is spared the visceral, first-hand knowledge of what they have done. Their killing becomes partially abstracted, sanitized, and therefore easier to perpetrate. What could be more obscene? There is a wonderfully telling scene in the movie Apocalypse Now when a solder panics and he and his compatriots machinegun an entire family in a sampan. One woman survives, though she is grievously wounded. The main protagonist, who had not fired a shot, remorselessly shoots her, much to the shock of the rest of the solders – who had just massacred her entire family. He laments about the hypocrisy of war, the barbaric cruelty combined with moralistic hand-wringing, saying “We’d cut them in half with a machine gun and give them a Band-Aid. It was a lie.” It is a lie. It’s a lie to think that war can be moral or honorable. Making it cleaner or more antiseptic for some of its participants through technology only makes it easier, not harder for them to partake in the most bestial carnage. And those involved on the ground are desensitized by the things they see and do in a different, more time-honored way. We wonder when some vet kills his family or a park ranger – what made them snap? It’s obvious: a system that turns a human being into a killing machine, that glorifies violence, is inhumane and inherently uncivilized. And participants in that system almost inevitably become less humane, less civilized themselves. You worry about urine on a dead body? What about the child who still lives, though he is burned beyond recognition and limbless? What about the father who has lost his entire family? The wedding party shredded by aircraft fire? The girl gang-raped by our soldiers? You think that war in the 21st century is materially different from what it was in the 12th? The obscenity is not only that this is not so, but that we pretend it is, and we shield ourselves, through media self-censorship and euphemism, from the truth. We do not see the photos of American bloodshed of civilians that the rest of the world sees. And NPR still calls American waterboarding an ‘Enhanced Interrogation Technique’ even though we actually executed Japanese soldiers as war criminals for the very same practice. There is no hesitation when speaking of Iranian or Taliban torture, but we insist on pretending that we never stoop to such inhumanity. The fact is, the retail torture practiced all over the world, though truly horrific, is not any more morally reprehensible than the wholesale death America metes out on a daily basis – it is merely more personalized. Instead of going on a witch hunt after a few grunts who vented their fury at their enemies, we should aim our indignation at our entire war-economy society. Even now, we hear of defense cuts promoted by Obama. But this is a lie too: Obama is not talking about cutting military expenditures, oh no! Our vastly bloated, economically untenable military budget still grows under Obama. He is merely talking about cutting some of its growth – slowing its monstrous expansion. Yet it is already larger than all other militaries on earth combined. Recoil in shock and horror from that, for it truly obscene...