In America we have a war going over the subject of abortion. This war wastes enormous amounts of time, money, political attention and interpersonal good will as each side angles for a majority large enough to deliver a knockout punch to the other side. I believe it’s time we stopped.
I was raised Catholic. For those who don’t know it already, it’s hard to find another institution on the entire planet more reflexively opposed to any kind of abortion at any time for anyone than the Catholic Church. This opposition extends well beyond abortion to contraception and sex education to the point where the only form of permissible control over pregnancy is “the rhythm method,” known colloquially as “Vatican roulette.” The idea is that a married couple can have sex without the complication of pregnancy only when the woman is at a stage of her menstrual cycle when she cannot be successfully impregnated. As you can imagine, this is not reliable.
My maternal grandmother was Catholic. She was raised in an orphanage in New York City in the early 1900s, and she married a veteran of World War I who worked on the docks as a longshoreman. They raised nine children in a one-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village. During the Depression she worked nights as a maid in a hotel in Manhattan in spite of having so many children to care for. When she found out that she was pregnant with her tenth child she knew she could not do it.
Abortion was illegal then, so her only recourse was a “back alley” procedure that almost killed her. She carried the guilt of it for the rest of her life.
This is simply to say that I know something about abortion, and my grandmother’s story is only one of many with which I am personally familiar.
You may know that studies of abortion rates in countries where abortion is illegal are statistically indistinguishable from countries where it is legal. That means that laws against abortion have no effect on abortion rates.
People opposed to abortion as a matter of morality have a powerful argument. There is no question that a voluntary abortion terminates a human life. We can ignore this reality, we can dress it up or down as our personal values may compel us, we may resort to elegant or specious arguments to avoid the fact, but at the end of the day we must admit that a human fetus, left to develop until it is naturally born of its mother, is a person. It is best to acknowledge this reality before we attempt to argue about abortion.
The real argument about abortion as a matter of public policy is broader than the consideration of whether we are aborting a human being or a collection of cells. When we look only at the religious morality it’s like looking at the problem through a soda straw. If we really want to reduce the rate of abortion in this country then we have to look at a much wider array of issues.
But first it behooves us to consider another moral argument.
It’s easy to forget that a pregnant woman in America is a full-fledged citizen entitled to the entire scope of freedoms and protections that the Constitution affords. It’s also easy to forget or maybe just gloss over the fact that a pregnant woman is in a state of servitude to the child she carries, servitude being defined as a condition of being in service to another human being. This is a universal and undeniable feature of motherhood. A child in the womb takes its nourishment from its mother as it needs it. A child in the womb is protected by the body of its mother even if the mother would like to transfer that responsibility to someone else. This goes on 24 hours a day for nine months, give or take.
This leads us to the real public policy issue. The question isn’t whether abortion does or does not terminate a life. It isn’t whether abortion is immoral for everyone just because it is immoral for some. It isn’t whether a woman should love the life she carries no matter what the circumstances of its creation might be. The only question in terms of public policy is, “Who decides?”
A pregnant woman who wants her child is not an issue in the abortion war, even if the child is created by rape or incest.
But a woman who wants to terminate her pregnancy when the law says she can’t is in a condition of “involuntary servitude.” The 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States declares: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” [Italics added.] Therefore any law barring abortion is unconstitutional on its face, and the maneuvers and pretenses that ignore this reality are doomed to fail in time.
From a public policy perspective there is a way to end this war, and that is for the government to adopt a “neutral stance” with respect to childbirth. That is, the government should provide support to a woman either to have her child or abort it as she wishes, and it should, for the woman who decides to have her child, provide assistance as necessary not just for the birth but for the feeding, clothing, housing and educating of that child until it reaches an age of self-sufficiency. Government protection under the “Due Process Clause” – i.e., that no one shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law – shall apply at the moment the umbilical cord is cut.
A society that asserts its “pro-life” virtue and doesn’t see to the complete development of a child up to self-sufficiency is not “pro-life” at all. It is “pro-birth.” Those who want to demonstrate their pro-life commitment can still find assorted opportunities, from outlawing the death penalty to cleaning up our environment to ending war.
I have no problem giving sole and unreserved discretion over pregnancy to the mother. If she is the only one who can carry the child then she is the only one who can decide to.
In a nation that objectifies feminine beauty with pageants, magazines, movies and posters, in a nation that defines feminine worth by how sexually attractive she is, in a nation that hawks Viagra and other “erectile dysfunction” remedies with the same blasé acceptance as chewing gum, in a society that institutionalizes female-specific clothing, professions, wages and respect, elevating the status and prerogatives of women who are incubating our young would actually be a blessing to the species and a compliment to our enlightenment.