The Challenge of Abortion


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There are few issues confronting our nation today more divisive than abortion. Core Democratic Values cannot "solve" the abortion issue, but they can help focus the debate on a civil solution - - a solution that turns out to raise even larger questions than our society is ready to face.

The abortion landscape is usually divided into two camps- ProLife and ProChoice. The ProLifers maintain all life is sacred and that human life begins at conception. Abortion, therefore, is the same as murder. The ProChoicers maintain that women have a right to privacy, a right to control their own bodies, and a right to choose the time and place to start a family- at least until the end of the first trimester, as codified by Roe v. Wade.

The Freedom to Be colliding with the Responsibility for Others.

Clearly, these two philosophically opposing viewpoints address each other from two completely unrelated premises. It is hard to even acknowledge both camps are debating the same subject- we hear two monologues instead of one dialogue.

Yet neither of these positions epitomize strong, consistent and defensible points of view.

For ProChoicers, using the word "choice" implies abortions are no more important than deciding between red or white wine for dinner. ProChoicers appear to demean life, and take "murder" as casually as a fashion statement. Often, they point out 1/3rd of all pregnancies are naturally aborted- so why not one more? Presumably, this implies we can kill a child if both of his parents have already starved to death... And, they seem to ignore the messy fact that perhaps two human lives are now intertwined, so privacy rights are less clear cut.

ProLifers, on the other hand, are often against effective birth control and seem to ignore the harsh reality faced by many mothers who will either raise children under dreadful conditions, or may seek out unsafe abortions no matter what the law mandates. The quality of life matters less than the quantity. ProLifers claim to support a "culture of life" from conception, but then neglect to effectively support that child with adequate social programs, respect for the parent(s), and an equal fervent concern for the quality of that life after birth.

In other words, the debate is larger than the initial act of abortion. It is about the relative value of human life, from conception to completion. Which is why determining the exact moment of human inception may be besides the point.

For many Buddhists, who do not condone the killing of a worm let alone a fetus, abortion is clearly murder. While the Old and New Testaments never directly mention abortion, most Judeo-Christian religious leaders believe the commandment against murder extends to the fetus at some early date- perhaps at conception, perhaps 40 days later, but certainly sooner than the first trimester- an arbitrary date set to roughly extend below any chance of fetal birth viability. Other people believe an embryo is not human until it develops from a mass of undifferentiated cells to a fetus, with well defined organs and nerves. Other religions and groups lay somewhere in between.

But the real question is not the point in time when an embryo "becomes" human (which is a philosophical, and not a scientific issue), but are all humans entitled to the same rights, at all stages in their life? In other words, is it acceptable to kill some humans and not others, simply because of their age or circumstances? Is ending a life, always murdering a life?

Our society chooses to ignore the unpleasant fact that we make this distinction every day, on adults who unambiguously qualify as human. The Golden Rule is broken when:

In war, we chose to bomb and kill tens of thousand of Iraqi civilians before launching a ground attack, in order to save a few American lives. Clearly, American lives are more valuable than Iraqi lives.

In charity, we deny effective birth control to Africans because of moral concerns over promiscuous sex and AIDs, though statistically it is absolutely clear 3/4ths of all those children conceived without birth control will die quite horrible deaths. Would we condemn American children to the same fate?

In pregnancy, we allow pollutants, cigarette smoke, poor nutrition and other environmental hazards to affect the health of a fetus. Tens of thousands are spontaneously aborted each year, and perhaps a million more go through life with reduced mental capacity, or physical infirmities. All without triggering a legal case, or a sermon from the pulpit.

We honor those people who bravely give their lives to save others (whether by choice or by circumstance), yet we undervalue the lives that might be saved by embryonic stem-cell research.

In other words, why single out abortion as a unique case where human life is ended by choice or inaction- since every day both ProLifers and ProChoicers terminate lives with few consequences?

Each side understands abortion is part of a greater social agenda extending beyond the question of when human life begins. Both sides are wary of compromising on the issue of abortion, in fear that other related rights will be undermined, or undervalued.

In this context, abortion is just one more example where our Responsibility for Others is being applied in too narrow a regime to earn credibility. As a country, we will never come to a satisfactory solution to the abortion debate if we ignore the greater context over the relative value of human life. This context includes the death penalty, "just" wars, death by inaction, abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, and a host of related issues which must be understood as aspects of one single subject.

Today we are creating a patchwork of laws and regulations with no coherence. We need an open debate on the entire issue of life first, and then legislate second. These four core values are the first step to framing that debate.



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