This letter is a response to the two letters from pro-life (i.e., anti-abortion-legalization) advocates that appeared in the Villager issue of Oct. 8. I am pro-choice (i.e., pro-abortion-legalization). I do not, however, regard the pro-life view as “wrong” or untenable. To me, it is a view that one might reasonably have, that I happen to disagree with.
It seems to me that many, many pro-lifers feel differently about my view than I feel about their view. That is, they regard the pro-choice view as absolutely, undeniably wrong. They cannot understand how any decent person could be in favor of legal abortion. Therefore, in their view, any person in favor of legal abortion must be indecent. This trend of thought can have significant consequences, as when extreme pro-lifers feel justified in harassing women seeking abortions, and even in going so far as to murder abortion providers.
My aim here is to present some of the reasons that a decent adult human might have for being pro-choice, in hopes that some pro-lifers might be brought to a different understanding of the issue.
I. Pragmatism and Statistics
Making abortion illegal will not stop abortion, any more than making alcohol consumption illegal in 1919 stopped alcohol consumption.
I suppose that the pro-life retort would be: making abortion illegal will make it less frequent. In the short run, they may be right about that, but it could be that in the long run, spreading knowledge of the full suite of legal reproductive services will diminish the frequency of middle- and late-term abortion, the most dangerous and grisly of those services; whereas if abortion is illegal, common sense says that more abortions will be middle- or late-term, and these will be even more dangerous and grisly, as the abortion providers will seldom be trustworthy medical doctors.
II. Differences between unborn fetuses
and newborn babies
Surely the greatest source of pro-life outrage is the belief that the unborn fetus is just the same as a newborn infant. If this were so, I would be adamantly against abortion (although, because of my first point, just above, still not necessarily in favor of making abortion illegal). But here are some properties of the unborn fetus that distinguish it from a newborn.
1. The fetus is inside and attached to another human being. (Note that I am agreeing here that the fetus is a “human being.” But I am not agreeing that the fetus is the same kind of human being as a newborn.)
2. The fetus is unconscious.
3. The fetus is not breathing. This may be a corollary of 1; I mention it separately as pro-lifers in the U.S. are mostly Christian, and I have heard that there is a verse in the Bible to the effect that “Life begins when the infant draws its first breath.”
I realize that item 2 is debatable. I believe this claim to be accurate because I cannot imagine what sort of consciousness a creature that a few weeks prior was a small packet of cells could possibly have.
One of the letter writers to whom I am responding repeated the oft-heard assertion that at 22 weeks, the fetus feels pain. What does it mean for an unconscious creature to feel pain? Are the pro-life people referring to ultrasound pictures of a 22-week-old fetus opening its little mouth in semblance of a cry, when prodded by a probe? If the fetus is unconscious, then what you are seeing is an unconscious reaction to stimulus. You get similar reactions when you microprod a paramecium.
What of the newborn? If the fetus is unconscious, how can the newborn, a short time after being a fetus, have a consciousness? This is where that “first breath’ definition of life’s beginning comes in. Ejected from the paradise of oblivion, the rudely awakened newborn begins to develop its consciousness immediately, in a process analogous to how a newborn antelope immediately tries to stand, and then walk, and then run — although it’s a much longer haul to a working consciousness for the human newborn than it is to mobility for the antelope.
The newborn can hear its own cries, and perhaps that is the beginning of self-awareness. It can soon sense the presence of others, as Avogadro’s number of photos of newborns staring up at their mothers attest. This is the big bang of consciousness; it is the beginning of a long journey; it is something fundamentally different from the nothingness of the fetal mind.
III. Privacy and the Law
In one of the letters to which I am responding, it was correctly noted that the majority opinion in the Roe v. Wade decision appealed to a “right to privacy” that appears nowhere in the Constitution. This infelicity may well turn out to be the lever by which that decision will be overturned.
Let me point out, though, that the fact that a woman has no explicit constitutional right to an abortion does not imply that any government has the right to deprive her of an abortion.
As conservatives never tire of explaining to us liberals, the general thrust of the Constitution, beyond setting up the machinery of government, is to limit the power of the government to constrain the freedom of the individual.
Now, let me refer you to item 1 under II, above, about the unborn fetus being inside and attached to another human. Even if you can tell that a woman is pregnant, what gives you, or your government acting for you, the right to intervene in the disposition of her pregnancy?
The treatment of pregnancy as a private matter by the authors of the majority opinion in Roe v. Wade makes constitutional sense if you interpret “private” as the polite form of “None of your gosh darn business!”