Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The problem with the abortion "debate"

Abortion is certainly a sticky issue in America, and probably one of the longest-lasting; it's been a front-burner issue for many people for pretty much my whole adult life; few other issues can claim that sort of longevity. Why is this? What is it about abortion that makes it so fundamentally intractable?

I think the biggest problem is that, as with many other ideology-based issues, it's one where the principle zealots talk right past each other. Here's the thing: I think that upwards of 99% of Americans actually agree on this issue. As proof, let me offer the statement that I think would garner that level of support: "Infanticide is wrong." Is that really a controversial statement? (Gosh, I sure hope not).

So why the problem? I think it's the whole definition of the Magic Point where something becomes worthy of the designation "baby" (or "person" or "infant," take your pick - it doesn't really matter.) Termination or prevention of pregnancy after the Magic Point is infanticide and hence morally unacceptable; prior to the Magic Point, it is morally a non-event.

I think this gets to the key about why the abortion debate is so intractable. The defining point of babyhood is ultimately a matter of faith, ideology, laws, or convention; it's not a hard-fast scientifically provable point. Catholicism holds that the Magic Point must occur even prior to conception - that it's wrong to even prevent conception via birth control. Many folks including most fundamentalist Christians believe the Magic Point is at conception, whereas at the other extreme Judaism considers the point of viability to be graduation from medical school or law school. (Easy, easy, folks, that was a joke).

Religions might also define the Magic Point as when a new soul is created. That seems reasonable to me, but of course it begs the question of when that happens. Conception is a pretty good candidate event for this, but it doesn't quite work because identical twins arise post conception, and nobody would argue that they share a common soul.

My own point of view? The Magic Point is, unfortunately, to my thinking, very hard to crisply define.

I'll use a loaf of bread as an analogy. (And remember, it's just an analogy - although the similarities are striking, babies are not loaves of bread.) To make bread you must mix water, flour, yeast, and salt together and bake it in an oven for some period of time (we'll skip kneading and rising for simplicity). The "point of conception" for a loaf of bread is the point at which the ingredients are mixed - after all, if you don't mix them, you don't get bread, and it's at the point that you mix them that you have something that is neither flour nor water nor salt nor yeast but something somehow different. Mixing of the ingredients also has a nice secondary property that it is a very well defined point; you can easily point to "before" and "after".

But is a lump of dough just about to go into the oven fairly called a loaf of bread? That's where I have a hard time with this definition. In my view, it clearly is not a loaf of bread - and I do not think that a fertilized egg or a clump of cells shortly thereafter is a child either. Some very critical and very well defined steps have taken place, but additional critical steps still remain, and unfortunately they are not so neatly defined. In the bread case, if the baking time is 20 minutes, it's pretty clear that I will have bread at 20 minutes. I will probably have something that is still decent bread at 15 minutes. I may have something salvageable at 10 minutes. But at 1 minute it is still just dough. Somewhere between minute 0 and minute 20 the Magic Point is clearly crossed, but darned if I can point to the precise point.

It's certainly not satisfying to me to wave my hands over the gestation process and say "somewhere in there a clump of cells becomes a baby," but the clarity of a specific point in time (sperm fertilizes egg) is also not a satisfying criteria.

I consider myself "pro-choice" and think that the trimester model is a reasonable approximation (and just an approximation!) of the process, but I also recognize that this is just my point of view. I can argue (as I have above) that this is the right way to view the Magic Point, but cannot prove it - it's fundamentally just my point of view. And unless someone figures out how to get broad consensus on the Magic Point, I believe that this is why the abortion debate will not go away, nor will its acrimony decrease, anytime soon.

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