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.


  1. Good for you for posting this and braving the vitriol of the no-compromise zealots on the pro-choice side. I too have conflicted feelings about abortion and am as uncomfortable with the zealots just mentioned as I am with the no-abortion-never "prolifer" zealots. I cannot abide those who regard a growing fetus as nothing but a "fertilized egg," just as I cannot abide those who consider all abortions as simply murder. Full disclosure: I am the father of two aborted fetuses, the first when I lost my virginity in 1963 and the procedure was very illegal, the second in 1972 when it was just barely legal in NYS. In both cases I felt horrible about it yet did not hesitate in my endorsement and funding of it. Also I am the father of a beautiful daughter who died in 1987 of heart failure as a result of the rigors attending her full-term birth 10 minutes before she was taken out of my wife's C-section and had to fight NYS bureaucrats to grant an official birth certificate; clearly the state did not regard her as a real person. I envision a viable solution to the war between these sides, the side that considers abortion murder versus the woman who considers an unwanted fetus as an invader (like a cancer) taking over her body. With only slightly better technology we could "save" all aborted fetuses (no matter how early aborted), have the woman who did not want the baby sign legal papers waiving parental rights, keep the fetus alive in incubation, and enabling adoption whenever he or she was "viable" outside incubation. The technology isn't there yet, but--like you--I wish we could come up with a compromise here... something like complete access to first-trimester abortions no questions asked but allowing very late abortions only with a very good reason, such as the health of the mother. Thanks for posting this.

  2. It's indeed sad that you were castigated for simply asking, "How late is too late?" In my mind, that's a simple yet reasonable request. I mean, don't most of us (except, perhaps, for Peter Singer) believe that murdering a 2-week old infant would constitute murder? So, where does the line between murder and abortion end? Seems rather simplistic to just say "at birth."

    That's just my $.02, but please, don't stop asking reasonable questions, even if it earns you scorn.