April 26, 2004

On Abortion in America

Did you ever have to make up your mind?
Pick up on one and leave the other behind.
It's not often easy and not often kind.
Did you ever have to make up your mind?

-- The Loving Spoonful

No Answers Here. Just Observations and Anecdotes

Like most serious people in America today, I’ve had to struggle with my “views” on abortion. You are required, in this deadlocked and soul-locked society to have a view on this issue. “I don’t know,” just won’t cut it. You’ve got to know. It says so right here in “America: The Instructions.”

But what *do* I know? Here’s what I thought I knew then and what I think I know now. Why today? Because I read the news today. Oh boy.

Any day that sees long lines of pro-choice demonstrators massing in Washington and across the nation in an event advertised by them as “non-political” makes it certain that you’re going to get a lot of political coverage right away.

The media did not disappoint in its usual disappointing way and today we get Senator Kerry’s wife’s position on the issue:

”I don't view abortion as just a nothing. It is stopping the process of life....

"Ultimately you're either for choice or you're not, so I am" for abortion rights, she says. "I ask myself if I had a 13-year-old daughter who got drunk one night and got pregnant, what would I do. Christ, I'd go nuts."

An admirable, understandable and human position. Refreshing because it is true.

Alas, we do not get the same sort of candor from her husband-who-would-be-president in his now daily disappointing statement on one issue or another:

When I ask [John Kerry] if their views are similar, he says, "I do not know the answer to that. We've never—she's never had to vote."
The in media res contradiction of that statement convinced me yet again that this man is not ready to make any decision other than deciding to not to decide.

Abortion is, as we all know, one of the 25 or 30 third rails of American politics. So what? You don’t get be President unless you can prove to the American people that, from time to time, you can reach out and touch a few of these rails with both hands. This can be, as I am sure George W. Bush has discovered, a shocking experience, but I wouldn’t want a man as President who couldn’t do it.

Like it or not the issue of abortion is one of those rails. Bush has grasped it. Whether or not you like his choice depends on yours. But grasp it he has. I’m pretty clear where he stands on abortion. Kerry is just the big question mark over the head of Felix the Cat on abortion. He’s vexed. And well he should be.

The Vexation and the Fear. The Abstract Issue and the Real Child

Abortion is one of the most vexing issues going... and going... and going. There’s no good in it and no good end to it.

It is currently resolved one way, in favor of choice, but the palpable, visceral fear of those who support choice no matter what is that “one supreme court appointment” could overturn Roe v. Wade. I’m not so sure about that, not sure at all, but the energy source here is fear and fear is a big motivater, especially if you are on the Left in America these days. Indeed, fear and hate seem to be driving most of the concepts coming out of the Left lately which is why I distrust them so deeply.

On abortion, my view has shifted over time. It shifted noticeably after the birth of my daughter. Something about birth makes you realize the stakes involved in the abortion issue in a way that was merely abstract before.

It seems to me that if the issue remains, or is contained, as an abstract notion (“What would you do if...) then "choice" -- given the agnostic temper of the times -- remains paramount. In the abstract. we’d all like a choice and not a mandate -- from the state, from God, from our society, or from ourselves. We’d all like to go through life doing what we want, when we want, with no consequences. You know, “No judgments, man. Hey, no blame.” Alas, abortion is not an abstract procedure or some harmless gedankenexperiment, although many of the more virulent Pro-Choice people would like it to remain that way.

My own experience has been that when you are confronted with the abortion issue after having nurtured a child, abortion is no longer an abstraction -- i.e. “Resolved, all women should be able to control their bodies without interference” -- but becomes more concrete -- i.e. “Resolved, all women should be able to control their bodies without interference including ending a life within them at will.”

It seems to me that (absent the usual banal disclaimers involving crime, rape, incest, danger to the mother, etc.) the abortion issue splits between those base their position on the abstract notion of choice, and those with more concrete experience -- parents. This is not to say that those with children and remain pro-choice are caught in an abstraction, quite the opposite. I place them in the latter camp. It is to say that, no matter where they stand on the issue, the opinion of people with children have more standing, to me at least, than those without children. They have, to use an expression not without irony, “Real skin in the game.”

Beginnings: Life and Human Life

Evidence that life begins at conception is obvious and conclusive. If an egg has become a zygote that zygote is alive. This is how babies are built. Once fertilized and viable, a zygote will become -- barring misadventure or intervention -- a blastula, a gastrula, a pharyngula and so on, but always alive. Life is a property is possesses by definition and it needs to grow. No life, it does not grow. Life, it grows. Life begins at conception. Full stop. Period. End of discussion.

When human life begins is harder to know.

Certain lower life forms can already be grown to term from zygotes in artificial environments by our scientists, and it is foolish to think that human life will be immune from our technologies in this regard, unless by decree -- and even that is foolish. American policy may currently be squeamish and retrograde in this regard, but other cultures are neither so religious nor so delicate.

The crux of the abortion dispute is, as mentioned above, the question of when human life begins. At this point, we all know the oppossed political and religious positions. At some point, human life begins and the fate of the fetus is either at the absolute will of the mother or it is not. Nevertheless, it is still hard to say exactly when humanness happens since:
1) We do not agree on the term “human” and
2) as a result, all evidence on this issue remains anecdotal once you strip away the slant of your preferred “research.”

A Small Island of Agreement -- But Isolated

Still, a bit of progress in this politically religious or religiously political cleft-stick has been made.

We seem to have found some small island of agreement in the fact that children who can survive premature birth are good indicators that human life began sometime previous to the time they were delivered. This is an inch of progress, but I don’t look for people to set a date certain anytime soon.

The two sides now seem to be that, on the one hand, all human zygotes are human life in potentia, therefore all zygotes are babies. This treads awfully close to the “Every sperm is sacred territory” and I’m not sold. On the other hand, the extreme opposite side seems to be saying that up until the moment a woman delivers a child it is her sole property to do with or dispose of at will. I’m not ready to buy this either, nor do I think most women would endorse a proposition that seems to argue for the concept of “chattel” since they’ve been pretty vigorous getting rid of that notion when it comes to women.

Either way, I’m left not knowing but knowing that I’m not alone in my ignorance. Yes, we do know a certain amount about when higher brain functions arise, but is a higher brain function some sort of real sign of human life, or a concept that is merely attractive to the intellectually insane? It seems to me that wise people also know, first and foremost (and what the last 10 decades of our tremendous expansion of knowledge are a testament to) is that what we know most is that we do not know very much at all. And I don't mean that to be a cute little circular statement.

Abortion: The Buckminster Fuller Gambit

Last December, in another online venue, a thoughtful person advanced Buckminster Fuller's proposition: "'the status of an "individual" [is] established as soon as there is "consciousness of otherness.'" I’ll allow that Buckminster Fuller was a brilliant man, if not the one I’d turn to for his track record of being right (As anyone who has lived in a dome can attest.). But for politeness sake, our discussion went on from there. My remarks were:

“‘Otherness' strikes me as a bit furry. Almost as furry as 'consciousness' but I'll say I accept it for the present.

“Suppose the fetus which, in its development, recapitulates the fetus forms of lesser orders and at some point comes to a 'consciousness of otherness.' We really do not know, and we really, as far as I can see, *cannot* know what the instant of such an awareness would be.

“If the ambiguity of life and a human beings’ general development once born is any guide it could be at any moment within a certain time range. The fetus as embryo might have a knowing of “otherness” -- that which is not what it is -- but it is a purely poetic exercise to suppose this. Indeed, it nothing but a leap of faith.

“Does a fetus only achieve the knowing of otherness when, as an infant, it says 'mama' or does it know it at some point in the womb? That point would be the nub. Since after that point the abortion would amount to the ending of a human life and before that point it would be, what?, a mere “medical procedure?” I can realize that rationally, but I don't have to like it. And my visceral dislike of it signals to me that what I really feel is that, regardless of any right to freedom of choice or what is going on is still wrong. We do many wrong things for a 'better' result in life, but that doesn't eliminate the wrongness of the action. It is mere mitigation. And to argue that everyone must stand up and assert that there is nothing wrong with “the right to choose” seems to be asking for vindication rather than toleration. I don’t think it is wrong to pursue your rights, but don’t think the pursuit of this right leads you to wrong action. While having the right to choose may be a right, that doesn’t mean you get to have a pat on the back and a big cheer from society. Unless, of course, you want to have the kinds of medals and awards that were once given out in socialist dictatorships for following the instructions of the state to limit your children to one (and throw away the girl children while you’re at it.)

“My own experience tells me that the child knows the other in the womb before birth. The movements of the child in the womb. The reactions to music or other external stimuli. I'd say, without really knowing, that the fetus knows "otherness" certainly at some point within the last trimester. I suppose that most reasonable people who have been through a pregnancy to term would agree with me.

“Okay, it knows other in the last trimester. How do we know? Only because it is doing something that *we* perceive as knowing the other. But is it capable of this before knowing before it can exhibit behavior we can perceive? Is it in some sort of coma state where its knowledge is in advance of its ability to act on it? Probably. And if so, how far back into gestation does this go? Is it possible to know other before being a viable fetus that can live outside the mother? This we do not yet know and we may never know.

The Death Camp Book

“But.... but... something persists in me from a book read long, long ago concerning the Death Camps during the Holocaust. Read more than forty years ago as a teenager and not read since. Read so long ago that I cannot remember anything but the title and the photographs of Dachau in the center that shocked me out of childhood... anything except one particular passage. I find it strange that, given my youth at the time, and the thousands and thousands of books since, that this passage should stay with me.

“I cannot quote it but its import went something like this:

The person being interviewed was a female concentration camp survivor. She survived by being 'of use' to the camp. This use was to take the unborn, the aborted, the babies, the infants and the small children (dead or alive, I'm no longer sure), and throw their bodies into the ovens. At the end of this passage she reflected (in paraphrase): "Were we throwing another Mozart or Moses into the flames? We'll never know."

The Lost Children I’ll Never Know

“Early in my first marriage, involved in my career and my first wife involved in hers, she became pregnant. Because we still thought of children in the abstract, we 'agreed' to have it aborted. It seemed like the 'sensible' thing at the time. We 'weren't ready’ (Who is?). We went ahead and, after a short recuperation, life went on as before. At least it felt as if went on as before.

“Two years later, my first wife became pregnant again and this time “we were ready." We moved back from Europe, got jobs, got settled, had an little girl. Being at the birth of your child is an amazing thing. Stunning. You feel your whole previous life close like a giant circle coming together. You feel another another circle begin.

“Two years after my daughter’s birth that my wife told me one day that she was pregnant again. She had been raising our daughter for two years and was not, she said, 'ready' for another. This time, though, my mind and soul had changed. I was not in such an abstract frame of mind about abortion.

“Money was short, my future uncertain and I was fearful of another responsibility as large as another child, but I loved the daughter I had. I hung back. I wasn't sure. But then she reminded me that it was her body and she had a right to choose. My choice was not to be a hypocrite-- a churlish choice as I now realize -- but really the only one open to me as I was only the father.

“And so, with my freely-given support, she went ahead at a hospital in Massachusetts on what I remember as a particularly raw late Autumn day. Although it was her right to choose the decision was ours and I was fully complicit. Perhaps if I had earned more money or been more confident of my future, she would not have seen it as a necessity. I don’t know. I just know that that is the way in which I participated in what I have come to think of “the loss” of my third child. It sounds less awful that way even if it is not.

“All this was long ago and far away, but still, today, here on a different coast and in a different life, I think at times, usually late at night, about those two “losses” to which I agreed. Were they, maybe, another Mozart or Moses? Not likely. Almost certainly not. Be that as it may, at some point they would have become two of my children, and I do not know, still, what point that would have been. I do know that it was right and wrong, and rightly and wrongly, I was complicit in their destruction. It was my choice too. If I knew, would I miss them? The question is absurd. With abortion, you never get to know what you are missing. That’s part of the deal.

“And that, leaving aside all the abstract notions and the tidy ideas about “consciousness” and “otherness,” is the private hell everyone involved in an abortion enters. It’s not a hell your in, but one you carry with you. There are no fire escapes.”

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Posted by Vanderleun at April 26, 2004 5:51 PM | TrackBack
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Excellently written, sir. While I am patently opposed to abortion, I can say that I highly respect your thoughts on the matter, and to some degree, can understand where you're coming from.

Posted by: Jeremiah at April 27, 2004 5:56 AM

An incredibly well-written, personal story. Thank you for sharing it with us. What I find sad is that there are folks, unlike you, who suppress or ignore the "private hell" they are in, encouraging others to join them in it. Hopefully, some may read your words and reconsider the message from the DC march last weekend.

Posted by: Doug Payton at April 27, 2004 6:10 AM

Wow, terrific post. Thought-provoking, memory-stimulating...and you do well highlighting the confusing nature of the choice issue. It's so much easier to be be pro-choice before you have your first child - and so much harder afterwards. I was party to an accidental pregnancy a few years ago, and being the father of three, would have been willing to "do the right thing" and meet this new life. Only, the same phone call that informed me of the pregnancy also informed me of the termination of that pregnancy, coincidentally on my oldest daughters birthday. I had no choice; I suppose that's what part of the argument is about. But I did promptly get a vasectomy. Just don't ever want to have to go through that again.

Posted by: rick at April 27, 2004 7:19 AM

I am a father as well. When I hold my 19 month old - I cant even concieve of abortion. Will she cure cancer - who knows, will she be the next Martin Luther King - God only knows.
We are an incredibly selfish nation who have killed our children by the millions to live a "better" lie..life.
Yes, I hear about choice...but at some point I hope we wake up and discover all that we have lost in the name of choice.
I hope God has mercy left for us.

Posted by: John at April 27, 2004 3:46 PM

That was a fine piece of writing. The personal part in the end really got to me. And now I remember a thing from when I became a father:

Right after the birth of our daughter, she was crying. She simply didn't stop, although several nurses tried. Then one of the nurses laid my daughter in my arms, because my wife was taken care of by a doctor, and no one could get the baby to stop crying. And when I carried her around the delivery room, talking to her, she got quiet. The nurse said it was perfectly normal: the baby learns to recognize the fathers voice when in the womb, and therefore she didn't respond to any of the nurses, but stopped crying when I was carrying her, talking to her.

I know this hardly constitutes scientific proof, but my daughter knew my voice when she was born - some sign of 'knowing otherness' i'd say, be it on an instictive level.

btw Gerard, you must be Dutch with such a name :-)

Posted by: G.J. Wolfswinkel at April 27, 2004 4:54 PM

My Great Grandma always told my mother and now she has pasted on to me that children don't ask to be born into the world, but I know that you should never take away a life. It's a creation that is not to be ruined or changed. Instead of always saying yes sometimes the best thing to do is say no. Because you never know whos life you're affecting.

Posted by: Kimberly Hnat at May 21, 2004 12:41 PM
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