Safe, Legal, and Rare

Greetings, loyal minions. We seem to have come a long way from the days when Democrats wanted abortion to be “safe, legal, and rare.” Haven’t we? I have contemplated writing a post on abortion for a while now. But I haven’t. It seems like this might be the time to do so in light of recently passed laws in Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, and Kansas.

For those of you who might be reading, this post will have the following form: I’ll discuss my own personal views on abortion, then I’ll discuss what my views are about abortion in America. These views are in conflict with one another, and are the cause of some intellectual distress within my own conscience.

To begin. Simply put, my own view is that abortion is the willful killing of an innocent human life and is wrong. There isn’t much subtlety to that position. It is as starkly absolute as it looks in the words on your screen right now. It is a clearly stated and forceful statement.

I wasn’t always as clear on this personally. Though raised Catholic, I went through long portions of time away from the Church. Certainly my Catholic upbringing has always influenced my thoughts on abortion, it would be an overstatement to say that my views were always in line with Catholic teachings. (Or are now…) There was a time in and around college, where my views on the subject were better described as “well, it seems wrong to me, but I just don’t really care that much.” I feel a certain amount of shame in that supreme ambivalence given the words I just typed a few short sentences ago. But that was where I was. I didn’t think about abortion much and deliberately avoided thinking about it for quite a while. But I was forced to think about it one afternoon while walking in a park with a girl.

We were friends in college. We never dated each other. It frankly never occurred to either of us that we should date each other. It was a plain old friendship in which sex rarely came up as a subject. I was dating others. She was dating others. And everyone seemed pretty cool about it. We didn’t talk much about sex at all. A rude joke here and there. Perhaps some clumsy innuendo once and a while. Innuendo that was always a little forced between us.

One day, shortly after we graduated, we were walking in a park near my house. We chatted about all the normal things we talked about. Then she stopped at a small playground in the park and sat on a swing. I sat in the swing next to her and there was silence. She didn’t look at me when she plainly stated, “I’m pregnant.” I wasn’t sure how to react. I looked at her and I’m positive my confusion in how to respond was plain on my face. She looked at me, and with tears welling up in her eyes she said, “I don’t want to be.”

The circumstances that lead her to that point are as unimportant as they are common. Not paying attention. Messing around. Accident. Knowledge of what was happening. Realization that the boyfriend is all wrong. Their relationship is all wrong. She isn’t ready. She doesn’t want to be ready. She doesn’t know exactly what to do.

So she tells me.

I was the only person she had told. That sort of surprised me. I would have figured I was down the list of people she would confide in. But I was at the top of the list. I didn’t know what to say. So she did the talking. She thought she was going to abort the baby. She wasn’t 100 percent yet, but she was 85 percent. She was telling me because she wanted me to take her and be with her and if needed stay with me a day or two after.

I admit that I am told by my friends that I am a pretty loyal friend and will do what I can to help a friend in need. My first reaction to being “asked” to help my friend get an abortion was that I would take her, and be with her, and let her stay with me after if she wanted. She seemed greatly relieved by my answer. We sat for a while, then continued on our walk in silence. We parted with kisses on the cheek, but few words. She said she would let me know.

I didn’t sleep much for the next few days. Her boyfriend didn’t know. Should he? Should he be given some say in the matter? How would he react? Shouldn’t he help her out? What about my friend’s brother with whom she was especially close? Wouldn’t he be more appropriate? After going through all the others in my mind I started to reflect on my role in all this. What was I doing? Should I counsel her to seek another choice, or at least investigate another choice? If she wanted my help and I gave it what would I be responsible for doing?

In that moment I realized I was against abortion. Why would I worry about the moral consequences of an abortion to which I was tangentially a part if the whole act wasn’t wrong? Is driving a hitman to a hit and letting them stay in your house to lay low for a few days after not morally wrong? In that moment I had terrible misgivings. I was conflicted because now I realized I didn’t want to do what I’d agreed to do. I was a wreck. And if I was a wreck, I could only imagine how my friend felt.

I don’t recall praying, or asking advice of others, or doing anything to work through my impending moral dilemma. And then the weirdest thing happened. My friend and I never spoke of it again. About a week later she gave me a call and suggested we meet for a quick dinner and a walk. I agreed. I had decided to play it by ear not bring up the subject and see what she wanted to do. We had dinner. We walked. We got ice cream. We parted company. About two weeks later she told me she was accepting a new job in Pittsburgh. She asked if I would help pack up her truck. I said yes. I helped pack her up. Her brother was there too. She told me that the boyfriend wasn’t in the picture any more. She went to Pittsburgh. We talked for a few months after, then we truly parted company. We haven’t spoken since. I heard about her for a few years through mutual friends. There was no single parenting talk. I don’t know what she did or how she did it. I don’t know if she sensed my misgivings and decided not to ask me afterall.

And that is the story of how I came to have the views on abortion that I hold. As you can read, my view crystalized pretty sharply back then. It hasn’t changed too much over time. I still think abortion is wrong because it is the killing of an innocent, defenseless, person who deserves a chance at life.

In light of this, one would think that I would applaud the recent changes to the laws of Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, and Kansas. Well… That is where I run into problems.

I realize that we live in a constitutional republic. I also want the maximum amount of liberty possible under that government. I am suspicious of government and am often suspicious of the motives of others. I also realize that though I believe what I believe about abortion strongly, I can’t help but also believe that others don’t share my beliefs in this matter.

One would think that I wouldn’t have a problem with abortion in the public sphere. If I believe in liberty, and the sacrosanct nature of the individual as an individual entitled to the protection of and from the state, then I should support abortion rights. I get hung up on the fact that there are two people in this equation and how should they be treated. How, in fact, should they be treated? Does a woman have the same, more, or equal rights as a baby within her?

At this point I find myself falling into a legalist mindset, or perhaps it is a type of etymological/verbal sophistry. I want to find terms from which the argument can flow. This is likely some sort of latent attempt at Socratic reasoning or just some sort of self-justification to assuage a guilty conscience.

I can tell you where this mindset on the issue of abortion started in my brain. College, some time in early 1988. I went to a fascinating (and horrifying) debate. The debate was between a Philosophy professor at my school and a visiting Philosophy professor. It was a dispassionate and intellectual exchange. No heated words. No protesting. No finger pointing. It was just two smart people exchanging thoughtful arguments on a hotly debated issue. The professor from my school set out the “Pro-life” position. It was the visiting professor that was most memorable to me however. She set out her “Pro-choice” position. I was young and dull-witted and didn’t see where she was going when she started off. She started with cognitive abilities of various apes. Then got into human language and reason. Then proceeded into conscious thought and ability to express complex abstract ideas. Before I realized it, she had set up an argument in which she had gotten many of us to accept the position that in order to be fully human one had to have some apprehension of language and reason in order to be fully human. Then next thing you know, she is arguing that one should be able to commit infanticide of children up to about 6 months old because prior to that point they weren’t fully human and thus not entitled to full protection of the state.

In retrospect, it is interesting that back in 1988 a rational, and horrifying, intellectual debate suggesting infanticide could be viewed as an academic exercise that was dismissed by everyone who heard it as “going too far to make a point.” Now in 2019 there were bills being introduced in my state legislature that wanted to codify roughly the same point. And the Governor of my Commonwealth went on radio and seemed to advocate for the very position that was seen as “too much” 30 years before.

So people have differing opinions on abortion and it seems to be advantageous to find some consensus under which we can all live. But the problem is in the definition of terms that no one can agree upon. If that fertilized egg has become a human, then it is entitled to the protection of the state. If that fertilized egg is just a “fetus,” or an “organism,” or a “parasite,” or a “clump of cells,” then it seems pretty clear that it isn’t a person entitled to the protection of the state.

For many years, I (and others) wanted to try and define “viability.” If we could decide when that “pre-human” became viable outside the womb then we could establish a point at which one could say “A-ha! The pre-human is now fully human and shouldn’t be aborted as it is a person with rights and entitled to the protection of the state.” Viability was a thing I really tried to figure out with an earnestness that amuses my more cynical self today. Do you want to know what I came up with? I figured out that with technology and medical advances “viability” doesn’t mean anything. I would almost be willing to wager that in my lifetime (I’m 50 now) we will have artificial wombs into which we can put fertilized eggs and have them develop until they are grown into babies ready to be born in the traditionally understood sense. I am certainly willing to say that the point during a pregnancy that a baby becomes viable outside the womb keeps getting pushed closer and closer to the time of conception. So viability is a moving, and thus meaningless, target.

The current fashion of law seems to be the “heartbeat” standard. When the “pre-human” has a heartbeat it changes into a human and is entitled to the protection of the state. A fetal heartbeat can start after about 4 weeks. As is often said in the news, the fetal heartbeat can begin before most women know they are even pregnant. The upstart of this argument is that a woman needs time to learn she is pregnant so that she can decide if she wants an abortion. There is something in me that wants to see both sides of this argument. If you want to allow abortions, you need to allow a woman sufficient time to realize she is pregnant. But if you want to make sure you are protecting innocent life, then the heartbeat seems like an objective and observable milestone at which one can set a benchmark. I am not sure if the heartbeat is the benchmark I would set, but I fully recognize that any benchmark at all is arbitrary.

Do I support the “heartbeat” laws? I’m not sure. I certainly don’t support unlimited abortion on demand. I am left wondering where did “safe, legal, and rare” go? I also would like to know where the rape, incest, and life of the mother exceptions went.

So that I am clear, I realize that, intellectually, how a baby was conceived shouldn’t affect the baby’s legal status as a person with rights. But I freely admit I have a real problem making a woman (or young girl) carry a child to term that was conceived by rape or incest. I can’t do it. It seems wrong to even consider it in fact. Forcing a woman to bear a child that will end up killing her also seems too far to go for me. So removing the exceptions for rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother seems to be going too far for me in our society. (NB: Another dear college friend of mine, Ashley, was faced with the choice of having a baby or taking cancer treatments. She chose to have the baby and delay cancer treatments. She died shortly after delivering her son. I don’t know how I would have dealt with my wife having to make that choice. I’m glad I never had to. But I do know that I pray for Ashley, and her surviving family, all the time.)

I don’t pretend to have answers for society at large in this. I know that there is a point after which abortion should be prohibited. I just can’t articulate in a meaningful way where that point is that doesn’t seem completely arbitrary and thus irrational.

Broadly speaking, I would like to prevent pregnancy so that abortion isn’t the primary focus of our arguing. To that end, I wouldn’t mind if birth control became more widely available. I know some of you out there are saying to yourselves, “What? As if it isn’t already widely available.” I know what you are saying, but making some birth control pills over-the-counter wouldn’t upset me in the least. So many places give condoms away it amazes me that people buy them. And “day after” pills exist in this morally gray area that I don’t contemplate much. Mostly out of a selfish desire to leave a morally gray area for me to hide my conscience within like an ashamed shadow.

I wish that we, as a society, on this issue could get a commission together of intelligent and rational people on both sides and lock them in a comfortable, isolated, hotel somewhere and have them come up with a compromise that everyone hates but agrees to live with for the sake of civility towards one another. Sadly, civility isn’t valued and both sides prefer becoming more intractable in the hopes of “winning” the argument once and for all. But this is one of those issues for which there is no real winning at all.

Carry on.

2 Comments »
Christine Bellis said:

I’m at a loss to understand how “the day after pill” (otherwise known as emergency contraceptive) is a moral grey area? By definition a contraceptive prevents pregnancy, it does not terminate one. You have written a long and passionate post on a subject that you are unfortunately not adequately informed about. Please consider obtaining more accurate and current medical information on the subject. Your misunderstanding of reproduction and contraception has already cost you one friendship, perhaps some small effort on your part could keep that from happening again.



Thank you for your comment Christine. The morally grey area of which I mention relates to the fertilization of the egg. Perhaps I should have been more clear in this. I understand quite well the process and medical information in this area. Perhaps I did not articulate clearly enough, I’ve come to believe that conception, that is to say fertilization of the egg, is the logical beginning of life. We are fast approaching a time where artificial wombs will nurture fertilized eggs for a full term pregnancy. This is what I was meaning in my discussion of viability. A drug that prevents a fertilized egg from implanting in a woman’s uterus is a morally questionable drug in this context.



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