by A. C. LaMonica
edited by Rhonda Hill
When I was a Christian, my decision regarding the abortion debate was simple and clear-cut. "Abortion is wrong and I am pro-life." End of story. As the basis for my beliefs shifted towards atheism, I remained inclined to my pro-life position. The idea of abortion still seemed wrong to me. I felt like I was missing something being that so many atheists appear to be pro-choice and tend to have more liberal opinions on such matters.
As a Humanist, I strongly believe in the protection of individual rights, freedom, tolerance, and equality among all people. This stance leads me to make an honest attempt to start from scratch in my perspective of the ongoing abortion debate using reason and rationality as my guide. The following is what I found and my opinionated interpretation. Again, I tried to remain as objective as possible. That being said, I happily invite your opinions and input on this incredibly complex issue.
The first question I asked myself was, "At what stage in prenatal development are human beings considered protected by the constitutional rights of an individual and why?" Ultimately, this is the question at the root of the abortion debate and will likely continue to be so. To begin, here is a bit of background information on where the law currently stands regarding abortion.
Based on the Roe v. Wade decision, the state can choose to restrict or prohibit abortion at it's discretion during the third trimester (weeks 27-42 of the pregnancy) when the fetus is viable. Exceptions can be made in order to preserve the life or health of the mother.
Viability is the term used to describe the point at which the fetus is able to survive outside of the mother's womb; albeit with the aid of medical intervention. There is certainly no clear-cut point at which all fetuses suddenly become viable. Currently, the lower limit of viability is five months, however, viability usually occurs later. According to The Developing Human it is even difficult for fetuses between six and seven months to survive "because the respiratory system and the central nervous system are not completely differentiated..."
Already we begin to see one of the many gray areas that color the complicated dispute over abortion. Even without the aid of medical science, viability is difficult to pinpoint. It is clear that the age of viability will continue to recede towards conception as advances are made in medical science in order to increase the survival of premature babies.
Personhood is understood as the recognition of status as a person or individual human being. Most pro-lifers feel that personhood begins at conception whereas pro-choicers believe that personhood begins later in pregnancy or at birth. The fundamental issue here is a conflict of definitions and interpretation. There are what seem like endless angles supporting pro-life and pro-choice views with surprisingly convincing reasoning. I will take a moment to describe only a couple of these perspectives to give an idea of the varying and compelling abortion arguments.
Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D. describes the human zygote as a human being and not just a "potential" human being. She goes on by saying, "It's an actual human being-with the potential to grow bigger and develop its capacities." To be scientifically accurate with terms like "human being" Irving says that a separate and unique human being (a single-cell embryonic human zygote) is present after fertilization. I would agree with this statement; however, I question whether or not the zygote is a human being, and what differences exist between a human being as a zygote and a human being as a baby and if they should have the same rights.
When beginning research for this article I had the idea that it would make sense to base viability on the presence of consciousness and self-awareness. I felt that this would demonstrate the separation between a zygote and a fetus based on my concept of what it means to be a person: the ability to think and feel. In this sense, one might say that I am pro-fetus. I wasn't to keep this line of thinking for long.
Dianne N. Irving goes on to address my idea described above and why it does not work logically. Although brain waves are detectable beginning at 20 weeks of pregnancy the human brain is not completely developed until young adulthood. Therefore, it is not accurate to say that the developing fetus has all of the mental faculties for thinking and sentience. And if this standard of personhood is used, what does this say for the mentally handicapped, the comatose, or Alzheimer’s patients? Are they not considered human persons because of their diminished rational attributes? When considering this point I dropped my essentially philosophical conception of when a human being becomes a human person.
So what if we are to consider the zygote a person with the same right to life that all born people have?
Eileen L. McDonagh, Ph. D., Harvard University presents an interesting interpretation of granting personhood to the human zygote/fetus. As explained by McDonagh, "to the extent that the law protects the fetus as human life, the law must hold the fetus accountable for what it does." In other words, if the unborn fetus is to have the same rights as born individuals they are to be held to the same laws as well. With that said, it follows that no person (born or unborn) has the right to intrude into another's body without his or her explicit consent. McDonagh explains that the pregnancy caused by the fetus has an immense impact on a woman's body and therefore women should have the right to resist the denied intrusion by a fetus and do so with the assistance of the state.
If one thinks there should be a legal exception for the unborn, it implies that the unborn should have more rights than the born.
Another possible issue of granting personhood to the unborn is described by Laura R. Woliver, Department of Government and International Studies, University of South Carolina. Woliver states that if a woman does consent to a pregnancy and the fetus is protected under the rights of personhood "would that woman's tobacco, alcohol, or drug (legal and illegal) use be legitimately monitored by the state, and her behavior sanctioned and controlled through the state's interest in protecting the health of the fetus/person?" This is a valid question which makes one wonder how such a thing would be legally enforced and if it would even be possible.
RELIGIOUS AND NON-RELIGIOUS VIEWS
It is commonly understood that most religious people are of the pro-life stance. What I've come to find out is that although this may explain the majority, it certainly does not represent the whole. There are religious pro-choicers and atheist pro-lifers.
Whether you believe it or not, there is Biblical support for abortion. There are Jews and Christians that reference Genesis 2:7 when defining personhood. In this verse, Adam "became a living soul" only after God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life." This appears to imply that the personhood of Adam begins with his first breath. Using this interpretation, a newborn would only become human after it starts breathing on its own. There are also numerous references throughout the Old Testament that can give some more information regarding the value of the born and unborn human. For an informative list of the various passages please go to http://www.religioustolerance.org/abo_biblh.htm
In doing my research I came across the website at http://www.godlessprolifers.org. This is the Atheist & Agnostic Pro-Life League and in order to become a member one must "oppose abortion and desire it's abolition (with or without exceptions)." After reviewing the list of members it appears that the majority is against abortion but with exceptions. One atheist pro-lifer, Randall M. Jones, says, "Every one knows that sex will result in a pregnancy, so sexually active people (and everyone else) should be responsible for their own actions unless they are not free. Freedom carries with it a requirement that you must accept responsibility for your own actions."
When considering this point, it is understandable to postulate that the human zygote/fetus is only present as a result of the actions of other human individuals. That human zygote/fetus never chooses to exist and yet after successful fertilization has no choice but to exist. In light of this consideration is it conceivable to see why even some atheists are also pro-life advocates?
Regardless, the only way that abortion should have further restrictions or become illegal is if it is based on secular grounds. Any other reason should immediately be dismissed in a democracy such as our own.
It's also interesting to note that according to sources at The Alan Guttmacher Institute and Planned Parenthood's Family Planning Perspectives, the majority of women who have abortions are Christian (Protestant or Catholic). They constitute for 68.7% of the abortions performed. It would appear that pro-life advocates are their own worst enemy.
The Partial-Birth Abortion Act was passed in 2003 and was seen as a triumph for pro-life advocates. While this does place restrictions on abortion, it is only a restriction on a method of abortion. Ultimately, this does not do away with late-term abortions but rather lessens the number of options for late-term abortions. For those pro-lifers against partial-birth abortion I recommend the story of a Christian woman who had a partial-birth abortion to save her life and save her severely sick twins from suffering (http://www.barryyeoman.com/articles/gina.html).
Say, for example, our government were to make abortion illegal and allow only for exceptions of incest, rape, and when the mother's and/or fetus' health is in danger. How would such a law be enforced? If the state is to require an appropriate reason for the abortion, is that not a violation of the woman's privacy? What is to stop the woman or the doctor performing the abortion from simply lying? How would the government verify this? These are loaded questions which I pose to demonstrate how difficult and non-Constitutional such laws could potentially be.
This and many other circumstances regarding abortion are not always as black and white as everyone would want them to be. It is for this reason that the laws and regulations for abortion must be based on and applicable to the varying gray areas of this matter.
According to the National Abortion Federation, when abortion was illegal in the United States during the late 1800's until 1973, "more pregnant women died from complications from self-induced abortions or abortions performed by untrained practitioners than from any other cause." This is yet another situation to consider when pushing for outlawing abortion.
FOCUSING ON A SOLUTION
It is clear that it is virtually impossible for advocates of pro-life and pro-choice to compromise when it comes to abortion. For this reason, it is important to focus on what leads to abortion and how to prevent unwanted pregnancies. I think that both sides of the abortion debate will (or should) agree that it is in everyone's best interest to find effective ways to prevent an unwanted pregnancy.
When considering methods of preventing pregnancy, some Christians receiving millions of dollars in government funding are presenting abstinence-only sex education to our youth. According to Columbia University researchers, 88% of teenagers who take "virginity pledges" may wait longer to initiate sexual activity but eventually have premarital sex. When these misinformed teenagers do have sex, it is more likely to be unprotected and will have a higher chance of resulting in pregnancy.
According to the American Humanist Association, comprehensive sex education programs (which does not exclude abstinence) have been shown to encourage teens to delay sexual activity and to use protection, whereas "abstinence-only sex education does little to lower pregnancy rates and has been shown to lead to greater exposure to sexually transmitted diseases."
With this in mind, would these abstinence-only sex educators rather teach our youth about comprehensive sex education to perhaps lower the need for abortion, or would they rather continue deceiving our youth and increase the rate of teen pregnancy and abortion? It is difficult to understand why the conservative right of the government would be against comprehensive sex education, especially when presented in this light.
I believe this is an area in which a reasonable compromise could be reached that would inevitably decrease the need for abortions.
After months of research regarding the issue of abortion, I feel as though I have only scratched the surface of this immensely complicated and layered debate. It is truly overwhelming when presented with the varying arguments of which some are ignorant and others surprisingly convincing but most are conveyed passionately. Many of us can't help but look for absolute answers to questions that are ambiguous at best. The question of whether abortion is right or wrong is one of those questions.
My own personal stance on abortion has changed to say the least. Although I am more knowledgeable than before, the ethical and moral questions of abortion remain abstract to me. It is for that reason that I am comfortably pro-choice. The particular reasons for an abortion may seem wrong to me in some cases but that is no grounds for imposing my own philosophical understanding on every other individual. There are far too many nuances in the circumstances surrounding abortion and to apply black and white distinctions and regulations is inappropriate.
With that I leave you the following quote from Paul Campos, professor of law at the University of Colorado (2002) :
"Whether or not abortion should be legal turns on the answer to the question of whether and at what point a fetus is a person. This is a question that cannot be answered logically or empirically. The concept of personhood is neither logical nor empirical: It is essentially a religious, or quasi-religious idea, based on one's fundamental (and therefore unverifiable) assumptions about the nature of the world."