The recent Hobby Lobby ruling on contraception has motivated me to take a stab at the topic of abortion. I am not one to avoid contentious topics, but the topic of abortion seems a tough nut to crack. It’s a topic so emotionally charged that it makes social taboo of talking religion and politics seem tame. This, because it combines both and then wraps it up in morality. I will chip off a piece of this topic and limit this discussion to where the Hobby Lobby ruling and abortion intersect…at the very earliest stages just prior and just following conception.
The problem discussing abortion is that, no matter which side you might take, you are as correct and as justified as the person on the other side. This, I suggest, is because the discussion is rooted in the subjective and not the objective. As in art; one might truly believe that Braque is the greatest cubist painter, but others will champion Picasso as the master. Both are subjective opinions and neither is incorrect.
Like many debates; labels assumed by a group do so because the converse is a passive-aggressive aspersion of the opposition. While one camp has taken the name “pro-life”, I can say with little exaggeration that nobody is “anti-life”. In an effort to avoid inserting the pre-charged vocabulary, I will use the more neutral terms of “permitters” and “resisters” for “pro-choice” and “pro-life” respectively.
The point that does not admit to decisive proof is: When does life begin? More specifically; when does human life begin and accrue its corresponding protections of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness (to put an American framework to it)?
I could get all wonky with biology but, suffice it to say, as you look at more and more primitive life forms, there is not the bright line that you might expect separating life from non-life. In this discussion; every cell is well advanced on the spectrum of biological life including those hundreds that you destroy when scratching your nose.
But human life? What separates humanity from mere biology? Most every human cell in our body contains all the same coding in its DNA as a fertilized human egg and, in theory, can spawn another human life if immersed in enough white lab coats. [Fascinating biology trivia: By number, only 1 in 10 cells in our body are actually human. Humans are primarily bacteria and viruses!]
Is it a human life because a persons’ spiritual tradition or faith leader has told them a fertilized egg was bestowed a soul? Is it that the fertilized egg is on a trajectory to, eventually, self-organize into a crying, writhing baby? Is it when undistinguished embryonic stem cells begin to differentiate? Is it when enough of the nervous system and brain develop to the point that sensory input can be transmitted and processed achieving sentience? Is it when the fetus can survive outside of the womb unaided? Is it, as some ancients believed, at the age of three years?
All of these are subjective metrics. None are, necessarily, wrong because humanity is something separate from biology.
No matter which side you are on, we must all understand the implications of unintended pregnancies and we reliably know the following:
- Unintended pregnancies disproportionately afflict the poor.
- Unintended pregnancies disproportionately afflict the uneducated.
- Unintended births feed the cycle of poverty
- Comprehensive sex education reduces unintended pregnancies and abortions
- Access to contraception reduces unintended pregnancies and abortions
- Access to free, advanced [comparatively expensive] contraception (e.g. IUDs) dramatically reduces unintended pregnancies and abortions.
- Teen birth rates are highest in states with the lowest academic achievement, highest level of religiosity and highest poverty rates.
- Large sums of public money go to public assistance for needy children that result from unintended pregnancies.
I would like to think that we can all agree that avoiding unintended pregnancies is a good thing. There are those that disagree, but this essay is not for them. There are two basic ways to avoid such pregnancies:
- Don’t have sex
- Utilize products/methods that interfere with pregnancy.
According to the National Institutes of Health; “Despite the many contraceptive options available in the United States, nearly half (49%) of the 6.4 million pregnancies each year are unintended”. If we could avoid a significant portion of those 3,000,000+ unintended pregnancies, we could avoid many abortions [however one defines them], save enormous sums of public money, make inroads into breaking the cycle of poverty, and avoid untold human suffering.
These things, I feel, should be self evident and must inform the individual when formulating one’s position as a permitter or resister.
Making it [not] happen
To option (1) of not having sex:
If we focus on teens…where the problem of unintended pregnancy is most acute and the societal cost is greatest…this is certainly the best option. Not only is there no chance of pregnancy, but the still-forming, hormone-drenched teenage brain is often unprepared emotionally for such complex and charged interactions. Unfortunately, relying on abstinence fails spectacularly amongst teens.
If we know one thing about biology and evolution, it is that we (and every other species) want to a) eat and b) have sex…and not necessarily in that order. Biological life (of which we are members) has procreation as its first and overriding [if unconscious] priority. We are hardwired to pursue sex and it is only through various aspects of cultural conditioning that we exhibit any restraint whatsoever. (It’s more complex than that, but I’ll save you a boring paragraph of two by resting on that slight simplification).
The math shows that people have sex regardless of whether or not the consequences are understood by the participants. No amount of social/religious conditioning has done better than slightly shifting the curve as to when sex occurs. It may work for an individual, but abstinence only programs have not appreciably improved on the problem of unintended pregnancy. If we recognize the inevitability of sex happening, then it is incumbent upon us to pursue methodologies to help mitigate the fallout. Enter contraception…
To option (2) of interfering with pregnancy:
It was probably in our human infancy some hundreds of thousands of years ago that our increased cognitive capacity allowed us to connect the dots regarding conception. That understanding…I suspect…didn’t go much past “Insert tab ‘A’ into slot ‘B’ and baby appears ten moons later”. It wasn’t until the 17th century that we cracked the egg and sperm part of the puzzle. Around that time we were trying some [necessarily] crude techniques to put barriers between the [then mysterious] male and female ingredients. With our new understanding about sperm/egg and subsequent discoveries about conception, we were then able to conceptualize interfering with the process at various stages.
Medical science has since provided us with a broad range of contraception options. None are perfect (save for surgical options) but all have disadvantages/risks to one degree or another. Among the least expensive and most readily available…“the pill” and condoms…the chief drawback [IMO] is diligence and skill and planning on the part of the user. One has to remember to take a pill and remember to carry a condom…and running to the convenience store in the heat of the moment is problematic. We know that options that take the human factor out of contraception (surgery, hormonal implants, IUDs, etc) Dramatically reduces unintended pregnancies and abortions.
Let’s recognize that the debate surrounding abortion is unresolvable. There are no new arguments and nobody is wrong in any objective way. It’s not generally productive to demonize the other side’s sincere beliefs. Speaking for myself (as a permitter), reducing net human suffering is first and foremost, but I have to be cognizant and empathetic that my position makes some part of the population very uncomfortable. And…to be clear…our discussion here is at the contraceptive level of undistinguished cells. While I do count myself among the permitters, that support diminishes as the embryonic cycle advances. (FYI: Roe v. Wade considered the nervous system development as an important factor…as do I)
Resisters also need to acknowledge that there are real, objective problems that need to be owned up to. A Catholic nun capsulized it well by saying that resisters have unmet responsibilities:
“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”. — Sister Joan Chittister, Catholic Nun
Insurance and religious liberty
It’s ok that the Greens (of Hobby Lobby) believe that an IUD causes an abortion…even if it is factually incorrect. They should be allowed to believe that, but that shouldn’t empower them to limit those choices by their employees. We need to decouple insurance from employment in the U.S.. It is an absurd, vestigial practice that institutionalized a cludgy employer workaround. If we could change this one thing, much of the heat and smoke surrounding this would clear.
[Next time: Decoupling Insurance from employment]