Once again abortion has made its way to the front of the public debate on policy and in a substantial way. A Romney presidency could mean the end of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States. [i] The GOP Platform includes severe restrictions in a woman’s right to have an abortion. Several states around the US have tried to pass personhood laws, giving a zygote the same rights as a human being. These laws are intended to make abortion a violation of the rights of the zygote, and thus limit or eliminate the ability to have one. Abortion rights foes, perhaps sensing that they are on the verge of real change in policy, have been making forceful public statements as they run for political office, statements that run the gamut from the ludicrous to the outlandish.
Senate candidate Todd Akin made headlines when he opined that a woman’s body can prevent pregnancy from rape, provided that the rape is a legitimate one. This position, which flies in the face of human biology, is taken so that abortion in the case of rape can be taken off the table as a legally protected reason to allow abortion. As typically occurs when a statement of such outrage is uttered, Akin’s campaign issued a statement trying to express what the candidate for Senate really meant to say.[ii]
Senate candidate Richard Mourdock felt compelled to defend his position against abortion in all cases except to save the life of the mother, including if a woman were to become pregnant because of rape. While staying away from his colleague’s position that the female body had a way of “shutting that whole thing down” if the rape was “legitimate,” Mourdock instead indicated that while the rape itself was a horrible thing, the pregnancy was what God intended. [iii]
In my attempts to make sense of these arguments against abortion, that occasionally come from educated people who should know better than to make unscientific claims or to speak for The Almighty, I will attempt to address the core problem that can get lost in ideology.
- Is abortion murder?
Unless you’re a sociopath, everyone would agree that murder is a bad thing. There isn’t much to discuss—although capital punishment is certainly murder and Americans overwhelmingly support it—or debate about the pros and cons of murder and whether there are instances when we can all get behind it. If you take the position that life begins at conception, then it becomes easier to understand a strong anti-abortion position. A woman who chooses to terminate a pregnancy at any stage of said pregnancy has committed murder, and arguably her doctor is her accomplice. Murder, as previously mentioned, is bad therefore abortion is bad.
So perhaps the best way to address this issue is to determine whether there is any reason to accept that a fertilized egg is a human life that can be murdered. The Supreme Court refused to take up that issue in deciding Roe, stating: “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.” But without deciding that key issue, we cannot possibly address whether abortion in all cases is considered murder.
Studies have determined that the majority of infants born at 24 weeks of gestation survive, although there are still high rates of morbidity. So perhaps this is the tipping point; the age where we can say that most of these children will survive their premature entry into the world. [iv] Interestingly though, if the fetus is still in the womb, studies have shown that it has not developed the neural pathways to feel pain until as far along as the 26th week of gestation.[v] So is it an accurate position to take that a fetus that cannot feel pain and cannot survive outside the womb is a human life with the same rights as a living human being?
If you take the position that life begins at conception, then you must face the ugly truth that nature herself is the most prolific abortionist. The majority of fertilized eggs do not make it to term, whether by failing to implant in the uterus, or if they did implant, by ending in a miscarriage.[vi] This makes the “life begins at conception” argument a difficult one to make.
Assembling what we have so far tells us that most fertilized eggs never become a human life, a fetus can’t feel pain or survive outside the womb until around 24-26 weeks of gestation, and even then has a high rate of morbidity. So a more logical position to take, one that can be supported with reason and evidence-based positions, is that a human life begins either at the point when it can feel and register pain, or more likely at the point when it can survive outside the womb of the mother. An abortion of a bundle of cells cannot be logically and factually considered the murder of a human being.
For those who believe fervently in a god that is all-powerful and all-good, there’s yet another component to this emotionally charged issue. These folks believe that life itself is a miracle bestowed upon humanity by a loving Creator and that an abortion, apparently at any stage of gestation, is an affront to The Almighty. I sometimes feel truly bad for The Faithful because they are perpetually faced with the fact that there is untold misery, suffering, misfortune and downright evil in the world that flies in the face of a being that is all-powerful and all-good. If God were all-powerful, he would stop the incredible, needless suffering of his creations, because he is also all-good. This contradiction cannot be solved logically and creates a dissonance that must be dealt with in the minds of The Faithful.
True believers, as apparently Richard Mourdock is, really have no option in their mind but to accept that God must have intended for awful things to happen, otherwise why wouldn’t he have stopped them? Natural disasters that bring calamity and death at a horrific scale must somehow be squared with a loving, all-powerful God, even though it logically cannot be done. As a result, people like Mourdock end up saying things that outrage those who either do not believe in an interventionist God or whose belief in such a being is weaker than those of Mr. Mourdock’s. Imagine telling a grieving family who has lost a child to cancer that God had a reason for killing their child and that we must accept it. This would be incredibly callous and yet, in the true believers mind, they may sincerely feel that it’s the case.
So what we are dealing with in the abortion debate is a clash of emotion, biology and faith. Until we can address the fundamental, underlying issue as I’ve attempted to here, that a mere bundle of cells is not in fact a human being, and that an abortion is a medical procedure and nothing more, we will be mired in the ugly morass of God, rape and murder.