Four days ago the Women’s March on Washington concluded. The protest wasn’t about a singular issue, so much as it was a demonstration of concern for all issues related to women. That being said, a major area of worry and anxiety for the women at the march was reproductive rights under a Trump administration. With Republicans also having majorities in the House and Senate, this is an understandable fear to have.
Yesterday, the House of Representatives approved a bill (H.R. 7) that bans taxpayer money being used to fund abortions. The House GOP Whip, Steve Scalise, remarked after the passing of the bill that it would “save millions of lives” and improve the country’s “moral fiber”.
These two events highlight the fact that many conservative religious people are hoping the new Trump administration will be the end of legal abortion in America, and that many progressives worry the same. This, inevitably, means that the internet is having it out right now. “Pro-lifers” and “pro-choicers” are currently hurling bumper sticker-slogans at each other with lightning speed (perhaps in the hopes that for the first time in internet history someone’s mind will be changed by reading comment sections).
This isn’t anything new. We’ve seen it over and over again. While the abortion debate goes through periods of dormancy and flare-up, it never completely goes away. It is, I think, the most divisive issue in the United States. More divisive than guns. More divisive than gay marriage.
On a personal level, I feel reluctant to talk about this subject at all. I am not religious or conservative, so why would conservative religious people want to hear my thoughts on the topic? I am also not a woman, so why should women desire to hear what a man thinks about an issue that has nothing to do with him? It just seems all wrong, me talking about this.
But I guess the reason I finally did decide to write on abortion, is because I keep bumping into it in political dialogue. When I talk to old friends of mine who are conservative, and they ask me why I’m liberal, after I finish talking to them about labor rights, the economy, environmental protection, and civil liberties, they nearly always ask at the end: “But what about abortion?” It becomes clear to me, again, that for many people abortion is not just one of many issues, but is the issue that makes all the difference in who they “side with” in American politics.
In the South especially, what liberals are primarily known for is not our positions on income inequality or public education or healthcare or even our history of getting women the right to vote, ending prohibition, and stopping slavery. We’re known— almost solely— as being the people who are “for abortion”. So one cannot hope— as I once naively did— to be openly left without having to explain where one stands in relation to the topic.
All of this being said, do understand that this is the only time I will talk about abortion. Ever. It is not a subject I feel comfortable speaking on (again, because who I am seems so far removed from the type of person who should voice their opinion on abortion), and I would just like to let this article be it.
There are blind spots in both the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” camps that, to me, seem to be big gaping holes in the argumentations of both but which rarely get addressed. The “pro-life” camp has a problem, I believe, with when they say life begins, and the “pro-choice” camp has a problem, I believe, with refusing to remark on when life begins at all. In order to tackle both of these issues, I’ve decided to remark first on the “pro-life” argument and then remark next on the “pro-choice” argument.
Prominent voices in both Roman Catholic and conservative evangelical communities have defended the ending of life support for brain dead patients, and have said that it is not a part of the “sin” of euthanasia. This, according to them, is because a person dies when their brain dies even if the heart is still artificially kept beating.
Dr. John Haas of the National Catholic Bioethics Center writes: “It is impossible to commit euthanasia on someone who is brain dead, because you cannot kill someone who is already dead.”
Matt Slick of the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM) writes: “Medical life support procedures being utilized to keep blood flowing to organs donated to transplant services, does not change the fact that once brain activity has ceased, death has been medically certified. Given the scenario presented above, it is reasonable to conclude that the soul has gone on to be with the Lord.”
There are a multitude of statements one can find online from others in both of these Christian communities (Catholic and evangelical), who agree with this notion that person and soul depart when the brain does.
Bearing that in mind, wouldn’t it be reasonable then to conclude that because person and soul depart when the brain departs, that person and soul also begin when the brain begins? This seems to be the most rational conclusion if one is a Christian. It would be unreasonable to assert that “personhood” and the soul leave once the brain dies, but that they somehow enter before the brain comes into existence.
This would, of course, mean that evangelicals and Catholics would have to stop arguing that “life begins at conception”, and would have to approve of abortion up until the fifth week when the brain starts to develop in a fetus. Unless, that is, they were to argue that just because “personhood” and the soul enter an embryo during the fifth week, that that doesn’t mean life itself enters during the fifth week. But that would be a very bizarre argument to make, seeing as how the entire point behind “life begins at conception” is that the soul also begins when life begins, and that’s what makes human life precious.
But I don’t just want to pick on religious conservatives.
The “pro-choice” camp has a troubling problem too. Mainly, that most of them don’t care about the question of when life begins (something Naomi Wolf called out over two decades ago).
I recall a conversation I had once at a county Democratic Party gathering with an older woman, and after a half-hour of talking about abortion, she looked at me with frustration and said “What it boils down to, Mr. Hochdorf, is a woman’s choice. Is a woman free to do whatever she wants with her body or is she not?” (Her interrogative tone reminded me of one of those film noir detectives who, when they corner the bad guy at last, bark “So what’s it gonna be, pal?!”)
I replied, “I understand that a woman’s choice is important, and I would never argue that reproductive rights should be rolled back. But at the same time, if the abortion debate is only about ‘a woman's choice’, then according to that logic a woman can choose to abort the fetus only a few minutes before delivery.”
At that moment, this lady looked visibly uncomfortable. It was clear to me that she instinctively knew there was more to the subject of abortion than she was willing to admit to herself. But after a few silent seconds she just laughed off this discomfort by telling me, “You're just being dramatic.”
There’s a real problem with progressives believing that the abortion debate is strictly about a woman’s choice and nothing more, because thinking this allows society to ignore the question completely of when a person begins and what qualifies as “personhood”. If we don’t talk about what features make a person and when, then what are we to think of babies born without brains (Hydranencephaly), or even of babies born with severe brain damage? In other words, the fundamental philosophical question that surrounds the issue of abortion also goes beyond it. And that’s why it needs to be talked about.
As a secular leftist, I would like to see a third way in the abortion debate. One that understands the need for legal abortion in accessible safe medical facilities, while also taking seriously the concern over life exhibited most frequently by the religious. A third way that— through means of reason and a scientific understanding of mind/consciousness— can pinpoint the approximate time a person becomes a person, thereby pinpointing a time during a pregnancy when abortion is morally okay and a time when it no longer is. This “hybrid” of pro-life and pro-choice thought might not be accepted by right and left. In fact it definitely won’t be. But quite frankly I’m not in a popularity contest, and there has to be a way to break out of these old debates that seem to never go anywhere.