Life, Death, and the Politics of Abortion

Life, Death, and the Politics of Abortion

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Life, Death, and the Politics of Abortion


        Few issues have fostered such controversy as has the topic of abortion.

The participants in the abortion debate not only have firmly-fixed beliefs, but

each group has a self-designated appellation that clearly reflects what they

believe to be the essential issues.  On one side, the pro-choice supporters see

individual choice as central to the debate:  If a woman cannot choose to

terminate an unwanted pregnancy, a condition which affects her body and possibly

her entire life, then she has lost one of her most basic human rights. These

proponents of abortion believe that while a fetus is a potential life, its life

cannot be placed on the same level with that of a woman.  On the other side, the

pro-life opponents of abortion argue that the fetus is human and therefore given

the same human rights as the mother.   Stated simply, they believe that when a

society legalizes abortion, it is sanctioning murder.


      In today's more industrialized societies, technology has simplified the

abortion procedure to a few basic and safe methods.  Technology, however, has

also enhanced society's knowledge of the fetus.  Ultrasound, fetal therapy, and

amniocentesis graphically reveal complex life before birth, and it is this

potential human life that is at the heart of the debate.

      In order to form an opinion on this matter, we must first question and

define several common factors which are numerously debated.


I.  When does human life begin?


      Scientists identify the first moment of human life as that instant when

a sperm cell unites with an ovum or egg cell.   The billions of cells that

collectively make up a human being are body cells.  Unless manipulated, these

body cells are and remain what they appear to be: skin, hair, bone, muscle, and

so on.  Each has some worthy function in life and performs that function until

it dies.  Other rare cells, known as germ cells, have the power to transform

themselves into every other kind of human cell.  The sex cells are the sperm

cells in the male and the egg cells in the female.  It is only in combination

that these cells can create a fetus.  The merger is complete within twelve hours,

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at which time the egg is fertilized and becomes known as a "zygote," containing

the full set of forty-six chromosomes required to create a new human life.   It

is at that point that life begins and should be respected with the same laws

that apply to us all, whether we are dependent on a womb or not.  Conception

creates life and makes that life one of a kind.


      The opposition would argue otherwise.  To be a person, there must be

evidence of a personality.   Animals contain biological characteristics, but

that does not qualify them as a person.  It takes more than ten days after the

fertilization for the conceptus to become anything more than a hollow ball of

cells.  During the first week, it is free-floating and not even attached to the

uterine wall.  Not until the beginning of the fourth week does a heart begin to

beat, and then it is two-chambered like that of a fish.  Not until the end of

the fifth week is there evidence of the beginning of formation of the cerebral

hemispheres, and they are merely hollow bubbles of cells.   The possession of

forty-six chromosomes does not make a cell a person.  Most of the cells of your

body contain these forty-six chromosomes, but that does not make a white

corpuscle a person!  If possession of forty-six chromosomes make some thing a

person, then it would seem that possession of a different number would make

something else.  A personality is formed when a baby has entered the world.  It

acts and reacts to situations it is put upon and forms its opinions in that

manner.  It is only then that we can consider it a unique person with a unique



II.  Is abortion immoral?


      Pro-life activists would argue that the taking of a human life is wrong

no matter what the circumstances or in which tri-mester it is done.   The

controversy over abortion has avoided the real issue facing today's woman - her

need to grow beyond stereotypes.  Whenever an individual or group realizes it

has been treated unjustly, the first reaction is anger, but often the anger is

first expressed as aggression.  People outgrowing oppression have so much

stored-up bitterness, so many memories of powerlessness and so little knowledge

of how to make themselves heard, that violence toward others is the result.

The women's movement has been caught up in the same process.  American men and

women are among the most fair-minded on earth, but have slowly begun to feel

that 4,000 abortions a day is enough.   The abortion mentality has encouraged

women to think of themselves as victims.  Much emphasis is placed on pregnancy

as a result of rape, even though the statistics show only about .1% of all rapes

actually result in conception.   That means that a large majority of pregnancies

that resulted in abortion were the result of free-choice.  The assumption is

that a woman does not have control over her own body until after a male partner

is finished with it.  Only then does she hear talk of "rights."  The term "pro-

choice" evokes their sense of fairness, but what is really being considered is

the killing of an innocent human life.   Women are abandoning the abortion

mentality because it weakens their greatest strength - creation.  They are

looking at responsibilities as well as rights, choosing instead of reacting.


      Pro-choice supporters argue that abortion should be viewed as a

sometimes necessary choice a woman must make in order to be in charge of her

life.   Considering pregnancy from a woman's point of view, it can be very

dangerous to carry a baby for ninth months with accompanying symptoms such as

nausea, skin discoloration, extreme bloating and swelling, insomnia, narcolepsy,

hair loss, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, indigestion, and irreversible weight

gain.   Equal rights is an issue the  women's movement has fought for for many

years.  Denying them the right to free choice would demolish everything they

have fought for and all the respect they have gained as individuals.


III.  The religious aspect.


      The Church's judgment on abortion is neither male nor female.  It is

social.  It places the rights of the child in the womb into the hands of the law

which sees individual rights as inalienable.  The relationship between morality

and law, as between Church and society, is surely complex.  The historical

source of the Catholic teaching on abortion was conviction of the early

Christian community that abortion is incompatible with and forbidden by the

fundamental Christian norm of love, a norm which forbade the taking of life.  By

the fifth century, while the condemnation of abortion continued without

diminishment, distinctions were on occasion being drawn between abortion and

homicide.  Both were seen as grave sins, but not necessarily exactly the same

sin or to be subject to the same penalty.  While theologians of the Eastern

Church were apparently the first explicitly to draw a distinction between the

"formed" and the "unformed" fetus, there quickly developed a strong tradition

against using the distinction to differentiate homicide and abortion.


      The substance of the Catholic position can be summed up in the following

principles:  (1) God alone is the lord of life. (2) Human beings do not have the

right to take the lives of other human beings. (3) Human life begins at the

moment of conception. (4) Abortion, at whatever the stage of development of the

conceptus, is the taking of innocent human life.   The conclusion follows:

Abortion is wrong.


IV.  Can abortion be justified?


      There are, indeed, several situations in which abortion would seem

necessary.  Birth defects, although rare, sometimes occur and must be dealt with

in a personal manner.  If a woman knows she is going to give birth to a mentally

retarded baby, she is faced with the option of aborting it.  If she is not

prepared to give the retarded baby the attention and love it needs or if she

cannot afford to treat the babies problems, abortion would be the logical answer.


      From the opposition: "It is only when we love the handicapped that we

can truly value every human life."


      The anti-abortion movement believes that the fetus, even in its

embryonic stage of development, is human life and that any deliberate

termination of  embryonic or fetal life constitutes an "unjustified" termination

of human life.   Conversely, proponents of abortion deny that the fetus is human

life, particularly during its embryonic stage of development, and therefore

believe that the termination of fetal life does not constitute homicide.

Further, proponents of abortion justify the termination of fetal life by

asserting that the woman has the ultimate right to control her own body; that no

individual has any right to force a woman to carry a pregnancy that she does not

want; that parents have the moral responsibility and constitutional obligation

to bring into this world only children who are wanted, loved, and provided for,

so that they can realize their human potential; and that children have basic

human and constitutional rights, which include the right to have loving, caring

parents, sound health, protection form harm, and a social and physical

environment that permits healthy human development and the assurance of "life,

liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."   Conclusion: if a child cannot be cared

for properly, it should not be brought into this world.


      Pro-life advocates sustain that a child, originally unwanted, may cause

a change of heart in his or her parents, and should be born on that argument

alone.  Children born in the face of hostile animus from their parents are not

crippled by that original unwantedness.  There are no clear signs that children

first unwanted face abuse.   Healthy, adaptive parenthood must be prepared from

the start to make one's own wants second to one's children's needs - including

the need to go on living.


      If abortion were to become impossible again in this country, the lives

of the vast majority of American women would worsen drastically.  Many would be

forced to spend decades living a life that they did not want.  For all women

sexual activity, even within marriage, would become a hateful risk.  The entire

revolution in sex roles is built on low, controlled fertility.  Without abortion

women could not be in the labor force in increasing numbers, and having

independent careers.  It is low fertility that makes day care economically

feasible for many families.  The leaders of the anti-abortion campaign emphasize

the fetus' loss of life.  However, some of the same people oppose the revolution

in sex roles, the new freedom to express sexuality, and would make birth control

illegal if they could.  Many of them make no secret of their desire to see women

return to obligatory domesticity and to a situation in which they are afraid to

have sex outside marriage.  They believe that a ban on abortion would further

that agenda.   It is certainly possible that Congress will give the Catholic

bishops their victory and make abortion once again a crime.  However, there is

so much at stake for women that there is little chance they will give up

abortions.  If they have to get them illegally, they will.


V.  Should abortion remain a personal choice?


      Whether abortion and birth control should be a woman's decision has been

a source of controversy throughout history.  To defend the morality of choice

for women is not to deny reverence toward or appreciation for many women's deep

commitment to childbearing and shield nurturance.  It does ask that women

collectively come to understand that genuine choice with respect to power is a

necessary condition of all women.  When the day comes that the decision to bear

a child is a moral choice, then and only then, the human liberation of women

will be a reality.


      Those who believe abortion should not be a personal choice argue that

the fetus is a separate entity form the woman who carries it, and therefore

entitled to the right to lice.  They believe that women who choose to abort do

so primarily out of convenience, a fact which trivializes unborn human life.


VI.  Abortion and the Constitution.


      In decisions handed down on January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court

declared unconstitutional the Texas and Georgia abortion laws.  The Texas case,

Roe v. Wade, concerned a statue which restricted legal abortions to those deemed

necessary to save the woman's life.  The Georgia case, Doe v. Bolton, dealt with

a state law permitting abortions only when required by the woman's health, or to

prevent birth of a deformed child, or when pregnancy resulted form rape.  The

court's invalidation of these laws implied that similarly restrictive laws in

most other states are also unconstitutional.


      The Constitutional basis for Roe v. Wade is found in the personal

liberty guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, in the Bill of Rights and its

penumbras.  In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court held that:


      "right of privacy...founded in the Fourteenth Amendment's concept

        of personal liberty and restrictions on state broad

        enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate

        her pregnancy."


      Opponents of legal abortion do not see it as a constitutional right.

They argue that the law places many limits on people's freedom of choice, and

should do so in the case of abortion.  In fact, abortion foes see the law

favoring one set of legal rights, the woman's, over another's, the unborn



VII.  Should abortion remain legal?


      Since 1973, the proportion of women obtaining abortions before the

eighth week, and using the safest method, suction curettage, has steadily

increased.  By improving availability and accessibility, legalization has also

contributed to a significant decline in complications.   The second major

consequence of the shift from illegal to legal abortion has been to increase

equity.  Before legalization, there was in fact not one legal abortion market,

but two.  Women with the knowledge and means could usually obtain a reasonably

safe abortion, performed by a physician.  For women without information and

funds, this option was unavailable.


      It is my personal opinion that abortion must remain legal if we are to

uphold the Constitution and respect women as equal individuals.  There already

is wide agreement that the single most important effect of legalization has been

the substitution of safe, legal procedures for abortions that formerly were

obtained illegally.  This substitution quickly led to a dramatic decline in the

number of women who died or suffered serious, sometimes permanent, injury.  A

second, equally important, result of legalization concerns equity: before

abortion was legal, it was poor women, minority women, and very young women who

suffered most, since their only options often were delivery of an unwanted child

or a back-alley abortion.


      Today the threat to women's lives and health no longer comes from

abortion.  It comes from those who want to outlaw it.
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