Sunday, January 30, 2011


I was commenting elsewhere, and thought I'd edit and expand my comments and post them here. I don't think I've ever mentioned abortion before, and I certainly wouldn't want to skip a controversial topic, now, would I?  :)

So many people want everything to be black and white. Shades of gray are too difficult for them, too confusing, too imprecise. Reality is too difficult, so they retreat to fundamentalism. They retreat to dogma. They retreat to black and white.

An egg is not a human being, fertilized or not. It's human, yes, but so is every cell in our bodies. But it's not a person, by any stretch of the imagination except one: religion.

You can believe a fertilized egg is a person if you want, just like you can believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old and that you didn't come from no monkey. But we have freedom of religion in America. We don't make laws based on your particular religious belief. Our laws need to make sense in secular terms.

Does a fertilized egg or even an undifferentiated mass of cells, too small to be seen with the naked eye, have a "soul"? Even the Catholic Church didn't believe that, not until relatively recently. And you can't have a personality, you certainly can't have a thought, without a brain, without even any nervous circuitry at all.

But then, is human life only a "person" after birth? After all, there's very little difference between a child immediately before birth and immediately after - except, of course, that the latter doesn't reside in the mother's body. I don't mean to minimize that difference, certainly not. It is an important distinction, since the mother has the right to make decisions about her own body. But it's really not that black and white, either, is it?

There's a lot of gray area between the "every sperm is sacred" crowd and a living, breathing child. That makes many people uncomfortable, but it's reality. It's simply not possible to make simple, easy rules about this - not if you also want them to be right.

Our abortion laws may not be perfect - what is? - and we will always disagree about the details, I'm sure, but Roe v. Wade came a long way towards acknowledging the fact that reality isn't black and white.

There should be no restrictions on early abortions. A fertilized egg or a minuscule mass of undifferentiated cells is not a person. That's just a fact. It may be your religious belief otherwise, and you are certainly free to follow your own conscience. But this is America. In this country, you can't force your religion on everyone else (no, that doesn't just apply to Sharia law!). And this is clearly a matter of a woman's right to make decisions about her own body.

As the fetus develops, especially as it comes close to term, more restrictions would seem reasonable. But we're also talking about a woman - a woman who is, clearly, a person. She does have rights, whatever you may think about the fetus living inside her. A woman is never just a vehicle for a fetus.

Late-stage abortions should be rare, because fetal development is advancing closer and closer to that "child" or "person" category. Rules must be made for good reason, most appropriately to preserve the health of the mother (because the mother is a person, no matter what). But it's a gray area. It's naturally a gray area. You simply can't come up with the right answer using a black-and-white brain.

We humans don't do well with shades of gray. We want things to be black and white. We want our legal system to be black and white, too: this is right and this is wrong, and there's absolutely no gray area in between. But reality tends to be gray. And if we're smart, we'll acknowledge this.

PS. I originally commented on an article about an anti-abortion speaker who supposedly survived a failed abortion. She was glad to be alive. Well, aren't we all? I'm sure you're glad to be alive, even if your mother got pregnant when she was only 14, even if she was raped.

But that doesn't mean we should encourage all 14-year-old teenagers to get pregnant. That doesn't mean we should make rape legal, or even encourage it. Should we require that all girls have unprotected sex as soon as they reach puberty, for fear of missing out on all the wonderful children that will otherwise never be born?

None of us wants to change the circumstances that led to our own birth, not matter what they were. And mothers generally love their children, even when the circumstances were really, really bad. But the issue is what we do in the future, not what's already occurred in the past. And in reality, the vast majority of potential people will never exist anyway, no matter what we do. Many of us just aren't thinking clearly.

If you really think that every sperm is sacred, what does that say about the billions of potential people washed down the drain every year? And that's inevitable, no matter what we do. Each of us has won an incredible lottery, just to be born at all. And that's not just the lottery at conception, either. Truly enormous numbers of embryos never attach to the uterus at all or spontaneously abort before birth, usually before the woman even knows she was pregnant.

Likewise, we human beings desperately need to use birth control, to limit our population growth before we completely destroy our own planet (or at least our own environment). If we do that, a lot of really great people will never be born. But so what? We simply can't keep pumping out children at a rapid rate, or we'll destroy everyone. And no matter what we do or don't do, the vast majority of potential people - most of them just as great - will still never exist. It's just a fact of life.

There's a great deal of emotion tied up in this - for good reason, since we're hard-wired to love and protect babies - but all too little rational intelligence. To my mind (with no legal training at all), the basic idea behind Roe v. Wade is that it isn't easy. It isn't simple. It isn't black and white. It's competing interests. It's shades of gray. It's doing the best we can, knowing that it will never be perfect.

And for that reason, even rational people will disagree on the details. That's unavoidable.

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