Monday, November 16, 2009

The Crux of Abortion

This quarter's UU World contains this article about abortion by my colleague, Scotty McLennan. It's a well researched article about Christian (and Jewish) positions about when human life begins over the centuries. Abortion rights folks, so often battered by people with their Bibles, do love to see that the biblical and religious view is not as clear cut as conservatives think it is. But UU's don't tend to look to the Bible for advice about specific moral issues, so the article is at best, preaching to the converted and at worst, doing more harm than good to the pro-choice cause by belaboring the wrong point.

UU's look to science for clues to what is right and wrong, and science no longer looks for "breath" to determine the presence of life. It looks to brain waves, heart beats, and genetic science. This has been very problematic for abortion rights. There's no doubt about it...any layperson can see genetically human life squirming around in every fetal ultrasound. If we want to support abortion rights, it just won't do to travel old paths of biblical argument or parse out the ancient meanings of "person". If we want to support abortion rights in the modern world, we have to be able to clearly say why a woman who is unwillingly pregnant, or who is carrying a fetus whose life will be painful, short, or terribly compromised has the legal and usually the moral right to terminate her (early and middle) pregnancy.

Here it is in a nutshell. The western political and religious tradition values human life supremely, and we usually value human freedom even more. "The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time" said Thomas Jefferson, and there's the even starker, "Give me liberty or give me death." These two values often conflict, as in, the freedom to make money and vs. need for regulation to protect public health. In these conflicts of values, "freedom" is often the winner, as in, "If you come from a country that is threatening the freedoms of my county, I will kill you."

Thus it is that Rev. McLennan, a man, will never be forced by law to give up so much of a drop of his own blood to save the life, even of his own newborn child, as that would infringe on such a basic freedom, the freedom of bodily self-determination. He'd be asked, perhaps expected, to make this easy donation from love or duty, but he will never be forced to do it. His freedom is naturally valued, by everyone and by the law, as more important than the life of another human being, even one he is responsible for having brought into the world. Of course we might condemn him morally for his selfishness, but the law will never compel him to give any part of his body to his child.

So iMinister, a woman, thinks it's pretty irksome to hear him opine that her decision to decline to provide her uterus, which is to say, a whole lot of her body and that huge medical drama called childbirth, to a developing fetus is only ok because he thinks that the fetus isn't a human being yet. He just so doesn't get it! It doesn't matter whether the fetus is a bit of tissue or a full person. It doesn't have a right to use my body unless I want it there or consent to be it's hero and provide my body for its use. If I decline to support it I undergo and abortion and the fetus dies. That's the end of a precious possibility, but if my humanity (and freedom) is valued as much as Rev. McLennan's is, it wouldn't be against the law.

Like McLennan, but for different reasons, I think that Roe v. Wade did a good job of parsing out how this fundamental conflict between life and freedom can be managed. A woman can choose her freedom over the life of the fetus during the first 6 months of pregnancy. After that, the life of the fetus (and the trauma to society of aborting it) is the more important value, unless it's life is hopelessly compromised or hers is in danger. I honor them for seeing, a generation ago, that women are human beings with the human right to freedom.

We've spent 40 years yammering on about when human life begins in fetuses. Let's ask ourselves instead when all the benefits of a human life (beginning with the right to freely choose when to donate one's body to another the cause of life) to half of the human race begin.

Then we'll be talking.

P.S. Rev. McLennan, "Abortions of convenience" undoubtedly happen, do they? Tell me about one....tell me a real story about a convenient pregnancy, abortion, or decision about motherhood. Just try it.

There are other posts on this subject in the backfiles. Search for "abortion" in the search box above.


Anonymous said...

Rev. Robinson,

I guess, in my gut, I am a little troubled by this post. I take your point that this is not about whether or not a fetus is human but rather about the freedom of any individual to decide whether to give the whole or part of her or his body to sustain another.

As a man, I know I will never understand this issue in my heart.

But isn't freedom as much about our responsibility to share our freedom with others or, as James Luther Adams (admittedly a man) said:

"Only the society that gives every man the opportunity to share in the process whereby human potentiality is realizable, only the society that creates social forms of freedom in a community of justice (where every man is given his due), only the freedom that respects the divine image and dignity in every man are dependable.”

In other words, doesn't every member of society (not just the woman carrying the unborn life) have an obligation to give that unborn human her or his ultimate due - i.e. life itself? And isn't it our obligation as UU's to help build that society?

Yes, men like Rev. McLennan and me will never be forced to give up one drop of blood for the life of an unborn child. But our society forces men and women to give up lots of blood for lots of things - depriving us of our freedom to live in the cause of unjust wars, arbitrary definitions of just laws (think death penalty), etc.

I guess that, to me, this is part of a larger issue for UU's. Are we truly committed to our principles such as our value of the inherent worth and dignity of every person (born and unborn) to the extent that we will collectively act to promote justice in practical ways? Such as:

1. Promoting universal health care including reproductive health care.

2. Supporting and sustaining all children (and their parents) with adequate resources.

3. Collectively renouncing war and violence - which force all of us to shed our blood, often against our will

4. Promoting compassion as an essential component of justice by ending cruel punishments such as the death penalty.

...etc., etc., etc.

In other words, coming together as UU's and placing ourselves at the forefront of building the Beloved Community.

Then we will really be acting.

Thanks for listening.

Tom Beall

Unknown said...

I just read a very interesting piece (it's been around for a long time) by Naomi Wolf. I found a copy at I thought that she did a good job of framing it for what it is - a no-win decision, and I agree with you that there is no abortion for convenience. Only a man could say that, who has never seen that double pink line.

I also also heartened by Daniel Maguire's thoughts as a Catholic, who tries to get beyond the rhetoric on both sides.

fausto said...

Are you saying the following two hypotheticals are morally indistinguashable?

1. Rev. McLennan's infant son is born alive but with a grave condition that requires a blood transfusion from his father. The father refuses the necessary transfusion and the son inevitably dies.

2. Rev. Robinson's otherwise healthy unborn daughter is in the twelfth week of gestation, and needs to borrow Rev. Robinson's uterus for another 3-4 months before she reaches the point of viability. The mother refuses the necessary uterus and the daughter inevitably dies.

Because if you are, that's not exactly a resounding refutation of the moral argument against abortion.

Bill Baar said...

It's these kinds of posts that turned me into a "pro-lifer".

With technology giving us clearer and clearer images of a fetus we can stick on the fridge door with magnets, (we just posted on our first grandchild due in March) expect more conversions.

Christine Robinson said...

Ok, let me make it clear that I am making two arguments; firstly, that the old "when does life begin" rhetoric, on both sides, is pointless and superseded by the real issue, which is of rights and responsibilities.

Secondly that a woman should not be forced by law to give the body that is her self over to a fetus that she doesn't want there. That's an outragous violation of her precious freedom. As one person commented above, an unwanted pregnancy is a no-win proposition. One way or another a value most of us consider ultimate is going to have to be violated.

Society can change itself to support unwillingly pregnant women, but..and I think that this, rather than the rigors of pregnancy is what men really don't understand...most women will bond with their babies by the end of pregnancy and will, for better or for worse, need to rear them themselves. So we're not really just talking about pregnancy, we're talking about motherhood. And social supports can make that easier, but never easy enough to justify required pregnancy.

Now, whether it is MORAL for the unwillingly pregnant woman to terminate any given pregnancy is another matter I deal with in earlier posts on this blog. It will involve a complex moral calculus... was she as careful as she could have been to attempt to prevent this pregnancy? What will the consequences to be to her? How much support does she have? Will she become so bonded to a child she carries to term that she will be tempted to/need to raise that child and can she do that? What are her other responsibilities to others and to herself? What of the father?

These are mostly very personal elements and they will mostly be hidden from onlookers, who ought to be exceedingly careful about passing judgement on what they do not know...and the word "convenient" should be banished from the debate altogether.

And Fausto, the last I heard, a pregnancy was 9 months long, most women of average intelligence know they are pregnant after the sixth week. The remaining seven and a half months may involve "only" a couple of dozen doctor visits, abstention from alcohol and smoking, gaining 30 pounds, and the medical...too often surgical...drama of childbirth, and at worst diabetes, weeks of nausea, high blood pressure, bedrest, and complications that leaves her body completely different that it was before. So...really, if you think about it, you can't directly compare childbirth and a blood donation, can you? My point was that the LAW will never require a man to undergo even a needle stick to save the life of his child, and therefore the LAW shouldn't require a woman to undergo pregnancy to save the life of hers.

There is one time when a man undergoes a somewhat similar loss of his freedom, and that is when a man is drafted to fight in a war. I am against such a draft, myself, but when it is used, it is used to equalize risk and commitment from a generation of men in service of a widely shared, very important goal of preserving life and freedom for the rest of society. Note that when men fight in war, they are paid, honored, supported, and given life-long benefits.

At the moment, not only does the world most emphatically not need more babies, especially unwanted babies, but women who bear children, especially if they are young, single, or unable to bear the cost of care and support of the child, are considered irresponsible and selfish rather than brave and sacrificing. So...women get the short end of that analogy, too.

Anonymous said...

Rev. Robinson,

I appreciate this statement to the extent that it recognizes the similarity between the two situations:

"There is one time when a man undergoes a somewhat similar loss of his freedom, and that is when a man is drafted to fight in a war. I am against such a draft, myself, but when it is used, it is used to equalize risk and commitment from a generation of men in service of a widely shared, very important goal of preserving life and freedom for the rest of society. Note that when men fight in war, they are paid, honored, supported, and given life-long benefits."

Speaking as one who has served (25 years) and has been honored and given life-long benefits, I know for a fact that many who have sacrificed in war have not and are not today so nurtured at least to the extent needed to live the full life you and I do. Further, to accept your argument, one has to accept that some wars can be just, i.e. accept that a just war is one that has the "...goal of preserving life and freedom for the rest of society."

Some people, like myself, no longer (or never did) embrace the notion that war can ever be just and, therefore, would view the demands of society on a woman or man to shed blood in war just as much an assault on freedom and one's right to life as requiring a woman to undergo pregnancy to save the life of an unborn child.

I would like to see all UU's come together to embrace both of our arguments about these unjust assaults on freedom - something I am coming to regret will never happen.

Thanks for listening and writing.

Tom Beall

ogre said...

When society requires that males who have sex turn themselves in and are randomly selected for a year of at-risk military (or equivalent risk) service, there might be a worthwhile parallel that would justify the imposition on women on the grounds that it was equitable. No benefits. No pay; you have to support yourself (or have other private means of support). No VA benefits. Nothing.

Ain't happening.

Christine Robinson said...

to Bill Barr,

Congratulations on the no doubt well planned birth of a well-loved grandchild. I wish you and your family all the best. There's no conflict of rights when the woman is willingly, joyfully pregnant.

But to doesn't always happen that way, and the day you find yourself required by law to donate one of your kidneys to a relative you've never met is the day I'll consider you an expert on the sacrifices of pregnancy.

Christine Robinson said...

To Captain Beal,

I'm not a pacifist, obviously...there's no pacifist case that can be made for the morality of abortion...

I'm a pragmatist. I think that there are some wars that are the lesser of two evils, just as I think that there are some abortions that are the lesser of two evils. But I thank you for your comments.

Anonymous said...

Rev. Robinson,

Thanks for your feedback. Fear not, this will be my last comment on this thread.

I feel that I too am a pragmatist - that is how I arrived at my pacifism after a thorough military education and 25 years of military service.

I won't belabor the point here - especially since this really isn't the point of your post. I'll just refer you to an address I gave my UU church this summer which you can find on my blog at: - if you want to take the time to read it.

Thanks again.

Tom Beall

Bill Baar said...

....and the day you find yourself required by law to donate one of your kidneys to a relative you've never met is the day I'll consider you an expert on the sacrifices of pregnancy

Life should be protected from conception to death.

That doesn't mean the Government can ask a person to risk their life on behalf of another.

A women can not be asked to bear the risks of child birth.

None of use can be asked to deliver our organs for the sake of another.

A embryo should be protected from use as therapies for the benefits of others.

But I am quite certain love-and-creation will judge us harshly for failing to nurture gifts of life.

For failing to carry the burden of risks we're fully equipped to carry. For failing to care for those least able to care for themselves.

Of that, I am quite certain.

I don't know what sacrifices will be asked of me, and if they are sacrifices for an unknown relative or any other, I hope I acquit myself well.

kimc said...

Just to complicate things, let me add the cases of willing joyful pregnancy that go horribly, unwillingly wrong. As someone who trained in ultrasound, I have to speak for the women who discover, sometimes late in pregnancy, that the fetus is not viable outside the womb, and sometimes is giving off toxins dangerous to the mother if she carries to term. While UUs would generally be pretty clear that an abortion is reasonable in such a case, those who are strongly anti-abortion would prefer if no abortions at all were allowed, even if the fetus has no chance of living and might kill the mother in the process.
While we think of this kind of pregnancy is rare, and thankfully it is, still, when working at a clinic doing ultrasound on high risk pregnancies, we saw one of these about once a month.
I guess my point is, the more complex the issue is, the less a "one size fits all" law is appropriate and the more appropriate it is that the decision be between the woman and her doctors.

Bill Baar said...


Morally that's not a complication AT ALL. It greatly simplifies decisions and makes abortion the ONLY option. I think by almost anyone's standards too.
A non viable fetus directly threatening the mother is an easy ethical decision.


Tom Stites said...

How wonderful it would be if the abortion issue could be seen not in narrow pro-life and pro-choice frames but in the wide-angle frame of what Forrest Church calls the American creed: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

All three matter, and all three need to be taken into account when making challenging life decisions and in considering policies that address them. The three often clash, and this is why it is so important to always be working to deepen our moral discernment skills.

Bill Baar said..., liberty, and the pursuit of happiness...

It is seen this way. By all parties.

But life and liberty of the mother and unborn child can clash, and the issue becomes whose rights prevail.