Friday, February 24, 2006

Life begins at conception...or within in six months of it...more or less...maybe...

Not that it will do me any good to say it, but...

I am pro-choice.


No argument for unrestricted abortion holds water unless it includes the argument that at no point is a fetus anything more than a parasitical accumulation of tissues taking up space in a woman's body.

There are a few pro-choice advocates who believe this and say it, who will argue that a fetus is not a person until it can survive on its own outside the womb.

Trouble is that human beings can't do that until they are four or five years old, at least.

Old Jewish joke:

When does a fetus become a full-fledged human being?

When it graduates from law school.

Most people who are pro-choice don't believe it. They will say that a fetus becomes a baby when it can survive with help outside the womb. Since science and technology keep pushing that point back---we can probably grow babies from conception to nine months in artificial wombs if we choose---it's best to add "when it can feel, think, and respond in kind" outside the womb. But we don't know exactly when that is. We do know that it's pretty much the case that everything that needs to be in place for the fetus to be considered a person is in place early in the third trimester, which is why most people who are pro-choice accept bans on abortions in the third trimester except when the mother's health is at stake. (Nowdays this is could be an argument for early induced delivery or Caesarian sections, not abortions, except, as many anti-abortion types refuse to acknowledge, very often what puts the mother's health at risk is that the fetus has not developed as it should have.) This means that most pro-choice people accept that at some point while still in the womb the fetus turns into a baby.

But we don't know that point.

We know it isn't during the first three months, which is why a sane country would allow an unrestricted right to abortion during the first trimester, but we don't know what's going on in the second trimester. Exactly when does the fetus start paying attention to its surroundings? When does it start to learn?

Some pro-choice people are content to think and act and argue as if it really is the very first day of the third trimester. Before that day, the fetus is a thing. A growth. And the woman who finds that thing growing inside her has every right to decide all on her own, without any interference from the thing's male co-planter, the state, and certainly not anti-abortion zealots, to keep it and see what comes of it or have it excised, just as she is free to have a burst appendix or an impacted wisdom tooth or unsightly mole removed.

This is generally not a good tack for pro-choice advocates to take because it is unpersuasive and insensitive---or it's unpersuasive because it's insensitive. It amounts to saying to a lot of expectant mothers who are happy to be pregnant and looking forward to the arrival of their child, That thing you're carrrying around in there, trying to decide on a name for, playing Mozart to, buying diapers for, painting the nursery for, starting a college fund for? It's no more a person than a bad tooth or a precancerous mole and you're just being sentimental and even delusional in thinking of it as a "baby."

But besides this, the third trimester date is arbitrary. Babies outside the womb develop at different rates; so do fetuses within the womb. One fetus can become a baby a few days shy of entering its third trimester, another might need another week in. We don't know.

On top of this it often can't be said for sure when the third trimester begins. Some women know exactly what day they conceived. Others have to guess. A woman who think she's in her second trimester may be a few days, even a couple of weeks, into her third. What if she has her abortion too late?

Well, she wouldn't know.

We wouldn't know.

Nobody knows.

And that's the pro-choice argument's basic premise. We don't know. Not exactly. All we know is that at some point around here (gesturing toward a calender) it's a baby. Anything we do or say about it before then is just guessing.

The question is, who should make the guess?

For thirty-five years, as a nation, we've agreed that the guess should be left up to the woman who has to live with the outcome of the guess.

The anti-abortion crowd think they know.

They don't, of course, they have no proof, only a belief. God puts the soul in as soon as the sperm smacks through the egg's outermost membrane.

Anyone who says that is guessing and should be told so.

If there is a soul---and let's say there is---when does God, if there is a God---and let's say there is, as long as we agree we're all just guessing---when does He or whatever angels are detailed to the job insert a soul?

Catholics used to believe that it was at quickening, when the mother felt the baby kick, which is pretty late in the game.

The Church has since changed its mind. Now, the priests tell us, life begins at conception. How do they know?

They don't know.

They're just guessing.

Abortion is murder!

At some point, yes, it is. But when? You don't know. You're guessing. So am I. Your guess is as good as mine and our guess is no better than the woman who is actually pregnant. Since we're all just guessing, but it's her body and her life depending on whose guess wins, shouldn't she have the first and final guess?

So far I don't think I've said anything that isn't obvious to most pro-choice people.

Here's where I go off the reservation.

What if the mother is guessing wrong?

What if the fetus becomes a person earlier than she supposes?

How does she know how to make a good guess? Since nobody knows when a fetus becomes a person, a good guess has to be hedged. She has to think, "At this point, today, when I'm going in for the abortion, the thing inside me is probably not a person."

That seems a little bit thin.

Let's face it, human beings are selfish enough that they can blithely justify to themselves torturing other human beings who are undeniably persons in their own right. Do you really think that they're any better at deciding between their own self-interest and that of what may very well be a person inside them?

You are, I know, a moral and intellectual paragon. Or your wife or girlfriend or sister or mother is. I believe you. But most people aren't paragons of any sort.

They are selfish, foolish, scared, desperate, and, often, not very bright.

This is why we don't leave decisions about right and wrong up to individuals. We take them on as a society.

We put limits on our own and each other's behavior.

We do this all the time.

We do not operate from the assumption that what you do is your own business, although we pay lip service to that idea.

We put limits around what we can all do with our lives.

Here in the United States we believe that we should set as few limits as we can and we should set them pretty far out from the epicenter of an individual's self.

I am pro-choice because there's too much guessing involved in an absolute anti-abortion/abortion is murder argument.

But I am not in favor of unrestricted abortion rights. At the moment the only restriction I can think of that is not really an attempt to ban abortions entirely is the one on abortions in the third trimester, except when the mother's health is in danger---but I'm open to restrictions on what it means to say the mother's health is in danger.

But because I believe that most people advocating other restrictions are arguing in bad faith doesn't mean that I can't see the point in certain restrictions, including parental notification, waiting periods, and mandatory instructions on how to put an unwanted baby up for adoption and why it might be a good idea to consider.

And if the Supreme Court were to decide or Congress were to pass a law stating that except in cases where the mother's health was at risk, abortions should be banned, or severely restricted, after the fourth month instead of the sixth, I wouldn't be outraged.

The Court would still be guessing, Congress would be guessing, but as it is we're all just guessing.

I would be outraged if they banned abortion any earlier than that, which is what is going to happen in many states as soon as the Supreme Court gets around to letting them.

I do not believe that men should have no say in the debate, except when they make the case that men should have no say in the debate, any more than I believe that only people who drive should have a say in making traffic laws or the young men in the military who will be on the front lines should be the only people who have a say in whether or not we go to war.

I don't think it is shaming a woman or guilt-tripping her to have it generally acknowledged that a lot of people think that the fetus she wishes to abort may be a person. Part of making an adult decision is knowing that other people won't agree with it and will even disapprove.

I don't think that women should have to face this fact on their way into the clinic in the form of raging mobs waving bloody pictures.

Now, if you have had an abortion or someone you love has had one, as several people I love have, you might be inclined to be offended at the idea that I might think you or she might have guessed wrong.

Before you get angry, remember that I might not think you or she did, because of the point when the abortion was done, which is none of my damn business. But whenever the abortion was done, let me restate my position. I think that any attempt to decide when a fetus becomes a person before the third trimester is just guessing. We as a society have an interest in trying to pin that point down, if we can, which is why the question should always be open for discussion. But as long as we can't agree exactly when that point is, we have to leave the final say to the person most affected, the woman whose body and life are at stake.

The anti-abortion crowd does not want to discuss it. They've made up their minds and they want the rest of us to accept their guessing as the ultimate truth.

But that isn't the way the country works. Minorities do not get to impose their guesses on all the rest of us. We should be allowed to have our say.

If they really want to end the discussion they should amend the Constitution to say that life begins at conception.

I know some of them would like to. But it's not going to happen. Most people in the country just aren't that sure.

We're still guessing.

And our guess is just as good as theirs.


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