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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 action...is broad
enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate
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.