In the local paper (online) today, I read an interesting perspective on the abortion debate by Paul Carpenter (you can read it here, and please do). Mr. Carpenter got me thinking (a herculean feat by any stretch!); I haven’t weighed in on abortion in some time. As I started thinking about what to write (οἷς κατ’ ὀφθαλμοὺς, as St. Paul might say, is the product you are reading), I was surprised about how torn I was about such a divisive and hostile issue. The more I thought about my feelings on the matter, the more I felt disgusted on the black and white polemical attacks from both sides.
Like many Americans, I am split on the discussion of abortion. I am aware of the arguments on both sides of the debate, and for the sake of discussion and fairness, I’ll explain the difficulties on both sides, if only to extrapolate my divided feelings on the matter. I can completely understand the pro-life movement (though I cannot agree with all of what it stands for). However, it has a religious overtone that has completely taken over the discussion. Religion clouds this issue, in my humble opinion, and turns off a lot of people to the recognition of the emotional part of the discussion. Sure, firm rationalists might find emotional arguments unpersuasive. But such a rationalist might as well be a logical dogmatist; if we so swiftly disregard our emotional reasoning, we might as well give up on our humanity. But I also see the problems inherent in pro-life campaigns, and completely abolishing abortion has terrible and tragic consequences, and is certainly not necessary. So allow me to work through this, piece by piece, and when all is said and done, I shall express my concluding thoughts.
It might behoove the reader to know that I am not religious, so my reasons for finding fault with abortion have nothing at all to do with faithful convictions or a literal interpretation of scripture (Read a debate between two secularists arguing both for and against abortion). From a secular perspective, I can appreciate the desire to preserve life, the concept of personal responsibility, and the value of adoption to those who cannot conceive. Parenting appears to be one of those gargantuan tasks which can lead to incredible, if not devastating, consequences if the parents are not completely devoted to their roles in it. But often those roles are not well perceived by the young, who engage in sexual promiscuity, servants to their hormones and to society. As a result, those who are whimsical with protection (condoms, if used correctly, prevent pregnancy 98% of the time), whimsical with their choice in mates (care little for the type of person they might be—for example, if they hook up with someone who has motives to sabotage a condom or might forgo contraception), whimsical with the amount of partners they have, or whimsical about being on narcotics or alcohol while engaging in sex (ahem, Bristol Palin), will most likely end up pregnant without a valued understanding of what it means to be a parent. Personal choice has a HUGE role to play.
Jim West often reminds his readers that abstinence is 100% effective (except if you happen to be named Mary, living in Roman Palestine, some 2,000 years ago), and that is true. But staying abstinent is not easy. Sure, moving against peer pressure is like trying to wade through a river against a strong moving current, but the urges we have to have sex are biological (and as Hamby points out in the comments section, also socially necessary). The drive starts young, that is to say, it starts at a time when we are not mentally ready to have children and parent. Whether Jim likes it or not (he can call it the Devil, if he so wishes), we have an evolutionary drive to reproduce; it’s a survival mechanism that we cannot rid ourselves (and if we did, our species would no longer exist!). This is why Catholic campaigns in Africa for abstinence aren’t successful and why they aren’t successful here either (and in fact are failing exponentially). They fail because abstinence isn’t in our genes. Every fiber of our being urges us to have sex, and many of us are slaves to that urge without realizing it (the way we dress, what type of car we drive, what status we achieve or hope to achieve—all contribute to our end goal: to attract a partner and reproduce). According to the Guttmacher Institute:
A strong body of research shows that these programs do not work,” says Heather Boonstra, a senior public policy associate at the New York City–based organization. “Fortunately, the heyday of this failed experiment has come to an end with the enactment of a new teen pregnancy prevention initiative that ensures that programs will be age-appropriate, medically accurate and, most importantly, based on research demonstrating their effectiveness.” Among teens who were not heeding the abstinence advice and were sexually active, about 15% became pregnant, down from a peak of 22% in 1990.
In the end, this implies that those who are becoming more educated about the practice of safe sex have staved off pregnancy better than those who are not. But while I firmly believe in personal responsibility, there are some parts of this argument that are very problematic. The truth is the highest age risks for sexual promiscuity are children only 14 year olds. Why? Well, it’s simple. Most children (and this includes teens) are not yet capable of making mature decisions about the rest of their lives. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of youth—that is, being completely and totally oblivious. This also means that many also lack complete sense of responsibility. But the drive to have sex is still there and it is at one of its peaks around the age of puberty. Of course there are other mitigating circumstances, which factor into this discussion.
For many children, particularly in low-income families, or from families without the care or attention of loving parents, who become delinquents (miscreants, deviants, what have you) are more likely to engage in sex, often without STD or pregnancy prevention . Without guides–and by this I mean parents—to explain sex, to explain what it is and what it isn’t, to encourage responsibility and demonstrate that responsibility (to avoid confusion, I mean that parents shouldn’t say one thing and do another), children will have sex without a sense of the consequences, and they will do so especially if they are often irresponsible about other things (and many kids are). Having a stable home is necessary towards the promotion of responsible actions (and therefore responsibility towards sex). By this, and to be clear, I do not mean to imply that single parent family homes cannot be stable—they certainly can be and have been demonstrated to be just as stable as a two-parent household. But responsible parenting is especially key to responsible children.
Yet the amount of young women impregnated every year seems to be on the rise. This leads to a problem: now you have a situation where a child without grasp of responsibility is bearing a child. Hopefully the reader will recognize the cycle. And it is a vicious one. Delinquent teens giving birth to children who will, in turn, likely become delinquent teens, and continue the trend. And it is precisely because household life contributes to the development of the child; irresponsibility breeds irresponsibility. But this is also an argument that is often used by those in support of abortion rights for first term pregnancies. According to Time:
In 1990, 43.9% of pregnant white teens terminated their pregnancies, according to the Guttmacher report. In 2006, 29.3% did. Among Hispanics, the rate dropped from 28.1% to 22.9% in the same period. But among black teens, the rate has not moved much in 15 years — holding steady at about 41%.
Nearly half of all irresponsible pregnancies were aborted. While this might disgust some, it has actually provided some interesting statistics, provided by the (now well-known) Donohue-Levitt hypothesis. Popularized by the recent book/documentary Freakonomics, this hypothesis demonstrates that the legalization of abortion contributed to a dramatic decrease in crime (see the hypothesis above, but also this article on Freakonomics for full details). ‘Why had this happened?’ you might be asking. The answer is surprisingly concrete: unwanted pregnancies which were aborted did not lead—as it had in the past—to unwanted births, to unwanted children (coalescing in disruptive or violent or abusive family life), to delinquent teens, for the process to repeat itself. The cycle, effectively, had ended. According to the study (in brief):
After abortion was legalized, the availability of abortions differed dramatically across states. In some states like North Dakota and in parts of the deep South, it was virtually impossible to get an abortion even after Roe v. Wade. If one compares states that had high abortion rates in the mid 1970s to states that had low abortion rates in the mid 1970s, you see the following patterns with crime. For the period from 1973-1988, the two sets of states (high abortion states and low abortion states) have nearly identical crime patterns. Note, that this is a period before the generations exposed to legalized abortion are old enough to do much crime. So this is exactly what the Donohue-Levitt theory predicts. But from the period 1985-1997, when the post Roe cohort is reaching peak crime ages, the high abortion states see a decline in crime of 30% relative to the low abortion states. Our original data ended in 1997. If one updated the study, the results would be similar.)
And if we look at statistics, in 2010, crime rates continued to fall, especially in big cities. Now, the fallacy of argument should not follow that I think that more abortion rights would lead to lower crime rates. That is not at all what I am getting at. In fact, while this statistic in quite interesting (and it does account for other mitigating factors, like drug abuse, if you read the research), I would not want to strengthen our existing abortion laws. But it would benefit the reader to recognize, at least, that abortion has led to a surprising result.
I am not so sure that pro-life advocates have a way to handle the fallout of illegalizing abortion. For example, how do they intend to handle in increase of unwanted pregnancies? What contingencies do they have to appropriate handle, and with what sort of care, the increased stress to foster homes (already brimming with inhabitants and, moreover, often in impoverishment) and the increase in crime? I would be especially interested in hearing solutions from them, since pro-life advocates tend to be those who also want to limit government control in our lives (and there is the argument that, if they really wanted less government control, why are they advocating for government control in this instance? It is a little hypocritical—but this is neither here nor there).
And while I support the concept of foster care and adoption agencies, the truth is that they don’t work as they are structured currently. Indeed, it seems as though there is an epidemic of unwanted pregnancies among young women who are in foster care! The system is not only failing, but it is proving to be a haven for that same vicious cycle that was just discussed above! So while I think that there should be a means to develop a better system for those who seek another option rather than aborting their child, the current system will likely destroy that child, emotionally and physically, probably just as terribly as if the unwanted child were to be raised by their own parents. The current pro-life movement, with their heads predominantly in the heavens, believes that more religion will do the trick, as if bringing their children in closer to God will protect them from the desires of sexual intercourse. But this is wishful thinking at best, which can lead to dangerous consequences.
Aside from the fact that parents who replace parenting duties with religion ultimately are no better than delinquent parents who replace parenting duties with television or drugs, it is simply not supported by the facts. In truth, states with highest number of conservative Christians tend to be the same states with the highest number of teen pregnancies. Why? Because when you teach your children it’s bad to use condoms and to have sex, when they have sex, they won’t use condoms; which leads to unwanted pregnancies, which leads to unwanted births (because abortion laws are more strict in those states or because peer pressure from their family and church forces the adolescent to have the child rather than to abort it), and the cycle repeats. And if that doesn’t really prove it to you, I’m not sure much else will. With the rash of perverse ministers, preachers, pastors, and clergy, how anyone can really think that more religion will lead to less sexual activity leaves me completely baffled (it didn’t work for Ted Haggard). It seems the most religious are the most at risk.
But while I do not think abortion is the answer, finding solutions to these problems—real, serious, worthwhile solutions—appears to be the furthest thing from the minds of the pro-life activist community. Removing funding from Planned Parenthood, for example, will only flood other clinics with more unwanted pregnancies (because both information and contraceptives will be more difficult to get), result in more STD transmission (because people won’t know where else to get tested), and will ultimately become a self-fulfilling prophecy for a pro-life movement (which will claim, hands down, that safe-sex education doesn’t work, even though statistically it works better—and is healthier—than their methods!).
When you limit options, and unwanted babies are still being conceived, you are only making the situation worse. So instead of helping people, they make them desperate, and when you make people desperate they are likely to do unthinkable, terrible things. You’ll start to see people spending extravagant amounts of money to fly to other countries, set up abortion clinics on ships in international waters, or build their own illegal underground clinics with subpar equipment. It may even get to the point where people take their lives in their own hands and attempt to abort their own children still inside of them. People (re: sick people) do it today, even when appropriate medical care is provided; take away the choice all together and who knows what might happen. Indeed, there might be a link between “successful” campaigns for pro-life (like in the 1990’s, where abortion rates dropped in all but 15 states) and infanticide (which rose exponentially in the 1990’s, and has since declined a lot since that time—60% of all known cases of infanticide were committed by parents, another 7% by other family members). This is something that needs to be studied more thoroughly, but it would not at all be surprising to find that this were the case.
Some might now argue that killing an infant and abortion are the same thing. Perhaps in some circumstances, yes, it might very well be the same. But in most circumstances, and with the laws we have in place, they are not the same. I think back to what I once read in Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation on the issues of embryonic stem cell research and abortion:
A three-day-old human embryo is a collection of 150 cells called a blastocyst. There are, for the sake of comparison, more than 100,000 cells in the brain of a fly. The human embryos that are destroyed in stem-cell research do not have brains, or even neurons. Consequently, there is no reason to believe they can suffer their destruction in any way at all. It is worth remembered, in this context, that when a person’s brain has died, we currently deem it acceptable to harvest his organs (provided he has donated them for this purpose) and bury him in the ground. If it is acceptable to treat a person whose brain has died as something less than a human being, it should be acceptable to treat a blastocyst as such. If you are concerned about suffering in this universe, killing a fly should present you with greater moral difficulties than killing a human blastocyst.
Perhaps you think that the crucial difference between a fly and a human blastocyst is to be found in the latter’s potential to become a fully developed human being. But almost every cell in your body is a potential human being, given our recent advances in genetic engineering. Every time you scratch your nose, you have committed a Holocaust of potential human beings. (p. 30)
And when one considers the use of contraception, like a condom (where conception doesn’t even happen!) or with a birth control pill (where again, contraception is prevented when the pill releases hormones that stops a woman from ovulating), one must wonder why it is considered so bad? I believe Paul Carpenter handles the situation well enough, citing, for example, Gen. 38. But using this verse to support anti-conception measures is problematic, and the reader might wonder why the religious would attempt to argue moral authority from a verse where God demands a man to impregnate his sister (and killing him when he doesn’t abide).
This is perhaps my biggest concern in the whole abortion debate. I would perhaps be less opposed to abortion regulations if pro-choice advocates were better educated about the differences between contraception and abortion, rather than dumping them together in odd ways like this. Restricting both contraception and abortion makes little sense (since one prevents pregnancy and another terminates existing pregnancies). In the end, it does seem to me to be an attempt to subjugate what people can and cannot do with their own lives (i.e., utilizing ‘free will’), which once more raises the question ‘Do you want more government control in people’s lives or less?’
To be clear, I think that it is perfectly acceptable if a certain religion says that, theologically, it is a sin and if anyone participates in a sexual act which utilizes contraception or they have an abortion, they will be banned from the church and doomed to a spiritual damnation—that is religious prerogative and as Americans, they have a right to preach what they want and, as private organizations are welcome to accept or dismiss any member from it without recourse. But when it comes to public law and policy, well, I wouldn’t want someone telling me how I can and cannot live in the privacy of my own home. I certainly agree with Carpenter when he writes:
I am sure people can find just as many passages in the Bible that support the argument that abortion is immoral or unholy, and if individuals or churches preach against it on that basis, I shall not object, as long as they do not try to impose purely dogmatic views on others by force.
After all, how can I take responsibility for my actions if I have someone telling me how to act? Again I think back to the hypocrisy of it all, how completely backwards it is, and am reminded of Harris’ words again:
Indeed, religion allows people to imagine that their concerns are moral when they are highly immoral – that is, when pressing these concerns inflicts unnecessary and appalling suffering on innocent human beings. This explains why Christians … expend more “moral” energy opposing abortion than fighting genocide. It explains why you are more concerned about human embryos than about the lifesaving promise of stem-cell research. And it explains why you can preach against condom use in sub-Saharan Africa while millions die from AIDS there each year. (p. 25)
Still, as I’ve said before, I am not advocating for abortion, nor am I suggesting we limit it in any way as it is. Instead I think that the conversation, as it stands, is old and unhelpful, reiterating old arguments that produce zero solutions and work to make more enemies than compromises. The religious trends in the pro-life movement, those that control the rhetoric, argue that life starts at conception—if that is the case, then why limit the use of tools which prevent it? I certainly don’t know where they get the idea that life starts at conception, in any event, as the Bible is a little vague on it, as Carpenter points out in his article:
Even if Santorum and others are right about forcing all Americans to fall in line according to Judeo-Christian theology, we need to at least consider what the Bible actually says about abortion and related issues. I am not a biblical scholar. Far from it. But I can read, and some biblical passages get a little confusing about that. For example, if we want to make laws conform to ecclesiastical doctrine (assuming Roe gets overturned), and if we say abortion is murder because “personhood” begins at conception, how about Genesis 2:7, which says “man became a living soul” only when he took his first breath?
Deuteronomy 12:23 is about eating, but also says life depends on blood. The human fetus does not have a circulatory system for a few weeks after conception, so how can the holy claim it’s a live human being?
Exodus 21:22-24 says that if somebody injures a pregnant woman, causing an abortion, it warrants only a fine, not the standard “eye for eye” penalty for murder.
So the Bible calls for only a fine if it’s abortion, but it says the death penalty should be imposed for a man who spills his seed instead of depositing it where it can make somebody pregnant.
I believe these are interesting concerns; it should raise the level of conversation a notch, however, and I think that is what I am attempting to do here.
In conclusion, as someone with no definitive position, I am looking to be persuaded, but not by the same old arguments. I don’t want to hear ‘well it constitutes the death of a person’ when the data shows something different. I don’t want to hear ‘abortion is a fundamental human right’ because I simply don’t agree. Abortion is at times practical and necessary, but not something of which to take advantage. Perhaps the development of a program whereby sexually active individuals can get checkups regularly to determine pregnancy earlier rather than later might solve the troubling issue of early development abortions (after week 4, for example)? Perhaps better access to contraceptives to prevent pregnancy would be a better goal? Indeed, if the pro-life/anti-abortion groups were more active towards preventing pregnancy than advocating for celibacy (completely unrealistic, as demonstrated above), lost the religious rhetoric, and started advocating for stricter laws rather than the complete illegalization of abortion, I might jump on board.
But it certainly depends, and some might argue that I am coming from a biased position. That position of course being that I’m alive! Though, I suppose my problem with abortion is much more introspective. That is not to say I was about to be aborted (nothing of the sort), but I was born. And my life, its success and its failures, stands as a testament to that birth. I think of all the hardships and all the triumphs I’ve had, the various emotions and the experiences, and I wonder what I’ve shared with the world—whatever small contribution it might be—and where others around me might be had I not been.
Though I also am very privileged; I’ve always had a great deal of luck on my side. I come from a large, happy, middle-class, white, suburban family. I don’t have the sorts of complications that others might have and therefore my position might very well be skewed by my position on the social chain. At this point, I see the arguments on both sides. I just feel that the conversation is losing its grasp on reality—it needs a good swift kick in the pants, a refresher course on the data. Maybe that would help? Who knows for sure. But isn’t it worth a shot, before it’s too late?