I've been having an interesting tag-email debate with someone for a couple of weeks now. This is a fellow I've "known" for years on the net. We used to both go to the same political forum before it degenerated into an off-topic arena for guys to simply beat on one another with ad hominem attacks. Before we both baled, we traded email addresses.
This fellow... let me call him Dev so I don't have to keep calling him "this fellow"... Dev is a socially conservative, fiscally moderate Roman Catholic in late middle age somewhere in the US northeast. We've had some spirited public debates over the years, especially about the wisdom of US and Allied efforts overseas. I have noticed a trend in his interests towards withdrawal from the broader political scope, to a tighter focus on morality as the big issue.
Recently, after a gap of a couple of months, I emailed him to inquire into his impressions of his country's election(s). Given the dichotomy of his concerns, I wasn't sure if he'd see the results as positive or negative. There was a lot to talk about, I knew. Obama's record, the health care system, various referendums around the country, this "fiscal cliff" thing, the possibility of Puerto Rico moving on statehood, and so on.
When he replied, it was abundantly clear that for him, the election was about one issue: pro-life vs. pro-choice. Everything hinged on that result. He told me that Romney lost because he didn't take the pro-life constituency seriously and they stayed home. Likewise, that McCain lost the 2008 election for dissing Sarah Palin, whom the voters were really interested in—again, because of her pro-life credentials. I was told that God gave the 2012 election to Obama to punish the people for their loss of faith; hardening their hearts, I suppose, much as he did to Pharaoh.
I've been spending the last couple of weeks debating the nature of humanity with a man who assures me he has personally seen angels and devils, and, if I remember correctly, been addressed by God. Whether this is actually the case or not is sort of beside the point. There's no way he can prove it to me, and I'm certainly in no position to insist it never happened. It may have; I can't honestly say I know it didn't (though I'm disinclined to believe it, not surprisingly). The point is that he believes it. This forms a part of his reality, and he feels compelled, and justified, to act on it.
I think I can sum up Dev's position succinctly and without fundamentally misrepresenting it in its broad strokes. Dev believes in souls, that ensoulment occurs at conception, and that the zygote is a fully human being from the moment of conception, imbued with all human rights and subject to the protection of the law. For him, with only a few humane exceptions, abortion is murder, and the women who avail themselves of it and medical practitioners who assist them, murderers.
I understand this position because it is one that I once held. When I was a teenager, I reached the conclusion that human life was sacred, and no one had any right to end it, at least against the will of its possessor. I'm not sure what, if any, opinion I held back then about assisted euthanasia, but I do know I was adamantly opposed to both capital punishment and abortion. My views were based pretty much entirely on the sanctity of human life in the abstract, and had little to do with the realities of life.
While Roe v. Wade happened early in the 1970s in the United States, a qualified federal law technically permitting but actually strongly limiting access to abortion here in Canada persisted well into the 1980s. One reason is that Canada has had, until recently, a far more anemic tradition of judicial review than the United States. I'm no expert but I think you could count on both hands the number of laws courts struck down in Canada over the years. Even after Prime Minister Diefenbaker opened the door for greater judicial oversight on legislation with the Bill of Rights, the courts were reluctant to step up to the plate. It was really only after Prime Minister Trudeau patriated the Constitution from Britain in 1982 with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms added to it that Canadian courts finally suited up. Long story short, after the repeated actions against abortion crusader Dr. Henry Morgentaler, he sued the Crown and in 1988 the Supreme Court held that the law limiting abortion violated section 7 of the Charter. Other court decisions denied the fetus the status of human being, depending on the Common Law "born alive" rule instead. This is where the matter has rested ever since.
The ruling upset me at the time. But somewhere along the line, those "shades of grey" The Monkees sang about crept into my thinking on the matter. I began to see the issue on the basis of practicalities, real demonstrable measures of harm and suffering, and I came to see that if I really thought about these matters instead of simply nailing my flag to a principle come hell or high water, my position wasn't sustainable. I don't know when I came to see abortion as a sad, but necessary fact of life, but I did. My thinking on the matter now runs like this...
I don't know whether or not souls exist. I doubt they do for a variety of reasons, but I don't claim to know. But, since it's not within the power of anyone that I'm aware of to persuasively demonstrate they do, then the claim has no basis in law and can, or at least should be, discounted. And if they do exist, and they are sent into the world by a God reputed to be all-knowing, then he delivers them to ensoulment in circumstances he already knew would result in abortion before the birth of the mother or even the creation of the world, and still chose to do so rather than deliver that soul into other circumstances where it could come to term, be loved, and be provided for. I consider it cruel, even twisted, to say this, then, is the fault of the mother, a biological creature with urges and needs and limited resources and perception of the future, but not the fault of a being that knows everything and can do anything, yet still blithely suffers millions of pregnancies to begin where, for any number of reasons, they really shouldn't.
What does it mean to be human? Is it just having a set of chromosomes unique from everyone else? In that case, it's murder every time you scratch or cut yourself, since every cell, nowadays, is potentially human (or will be, soon enough). While I certainly concede that human life begins at conception, the status of human being is not the same thing as simply being genetically distinct. It has to be more than just that.
Having a legally thorny issue, the courts here have fallen back on being born alive. No one can dispute human status at that point. I think many people, though, suspect that the definition could be pushed back. At what point should the fetus have rights? To me, it makes no sense to speak of rights for anyone or anything that has not yet acquired the ability to suffer: in some sense, to object to its treatment at the hands of another agency. Consciousness, the ability to experience pain and the attendant distress, are the requisite formalities of having rights. Prior to that point, it is a practical absurdity and they can only be asserted on the basis of metaphysical abstractions that, as stated previously, are undemonstrable.
Even having suggested that, at some point, a fetus ought to be seen has having some rights, what are the implications? Does its right to life supersede the rights of the mother to security of the person? Every pregnancy entails an existential risk to the mother. She may willingly assume these risks... obviously, millions of women do, every year. Can can she be obliged? Ultimately, this is to ask the question: does the right of person A to live grant person A rights over the body of person B? I want to explore that. If the fetus has the right to use the mother's body, regardless of her wishes, on the basis that it is human and has the right to life even at her expense, at what point does that right end? Why shouldn't the child have the legal right to some organ in the mother's—or the father's—body, provided its removal is not necessarily fatal (though its removal, like the process of childbirth, may cause the death of the parent)? After all, if the child cannot live without the use of some part of the parent's body, what difference does it make which side of birth that need occurs? And if this is a human right, aren't we all then subject to an organ draft? If it is a right, then it seems to me entirely consistent with that right that a kind of selective service for organ donation is justifiable in law, and that if you match the tissue type of some person in need, you can be called up. So I don't believe the fetus has rights that supersede those of the mother to her own body, or oblige her. Just as any of us might with a kidney or bone marrow, this act must be a gift and a donation, not a legal duty.
The practicalities of it are, it seems to me, that a woman is indisputably a fully human being, possessed of all rights, and fully subject to fear, pain, mental anguish, and doubt. Child-rearing at an inopportune time may not match the realities of her circumstances in terms of her finances, marital status, or education. It may prejudice her ability to look after that child, or those who might have done better being born later when she was better prepared for parenthood. To scold that she should have thought of that before she got pregnant does nothing to address, solve, or even acknowledge these very real issues; to oblige her only brings those problems to bear. If she reaches these conclusions, then she is within her rights to end a pregnancy, particularly if she does so prior to any kind of organized brain activity in the womb. Women have, and always will, be faced with these choices in this very real, very imperfect world, and we do nothing to make the world a measurably better place if we send women and doctors to prison or return them to a world of shady back alley procedures, supposedly for the benefit of beings who cannot suffer. Insisting we do so in the name of purportedly obeying the will of a God who should have known better is, despite all protestations to the contrary, a heartless and merciless recipe for human misery, and the subjugation of others against their own will and better judgement of their own aspirations and circumstances.
I feel that we must let people make the choices they feel they must in the matter. And if there is a God, leave it to him to work out what comes next.