Independent Life

Posted in Society at 19:20 by RjZ

I decided to take on a very difficult subject for this post and the result was about 1000 words that led nowhere. I had selected abortion to write about and from the very beginning I wanted to point out just how challenging this discussion is. Failing any conclusion, I started asking friends to discuss their views with me and promptly discovered that, just as I thought, this is a very difficult subject about which few of us have thought thoroughly.

So I am beginning again, this time not so much with a conclusion but with a thesis that I hope you will comment on and either strengthen or weaken it. Abortion will be on many people’s minds very soon, what with the latest supreme court nominee, so it’s a good time to start giving it some real thought.

No matter which side of the issue you’re on, abortion rights shouldn’t be considered lightly. Advances in modern medicine have made the debate even more difficult. In the past, deciding to have an abortion was probably a bigger risk to the mother than bringing the baby to term. Meanwhile, delivering a baby before full-term meant that it’s chance of survival was extremely unlikely. In both cases, the situation is better today. Legal abortions now pose less risk to the woman than a tonsillectomy, but the question of viability is more difficult to answer as well as more than 90% of premature babies who weigh 800 grams or more (a little less than two pounds) survive. Figures are much lower but not insignificant for babies at around one pound.

Pro-life supporters make a wide range of arguments for their position. They state that abortions are dangerous for the mothers in spite of the fact that women’s health is in graver danger from illegal abortions. Some women regret having abortions, even though many women, their children and their partners, if they have any, may also suffer greatly from the burden and responsibility of an unwanted child. Pro-life supporters imagine that making abortions illegal means there will no longer be abortions or at least that there will be fewer of them. Making rape illegal hasn’t reduced the number of rapes either but, there probably will be slightly fewer, it’s just difficult to say how many. Abortions increased after Roe v. Wade but since leveled off. Meanwhile, illegal abortions are under-reported for obvious reasons.

Pro-life supporters speak of responsibility. Shouldn’t women be responsible for their own bodies? “She’s had her fun now she must pay the consequences” I’ve even heard. This hardly sounds like the line of reasoning that is pro-families and about protecting lives, but the fact is women should be responsible. Except that we cannot legislate responsibility any more than we can legislate supportive families for these women who, once an ‘irresponsible’ accident has occurred will now have to have and potentially raise a child. Condoms break, birth-control pills fail. There will be unwanted pregnancies in teenagers who do not practice complete abstinence and there will be unwanted pregnancies among loving married couples living check to check who think they are taking every precaution. Our only alternative is complete abstinence, although there will be unwanted pregnancies from date-rapes and violent rapes too. Alas, abstinence-only is a naïve solution. (Three states have now refused federal education money because this money demands abstinence only sex education. The state of Maine recently turned down that money because they felt that refusing to teach about methods of contraception in addition to abstinence would be tantamount to turning the clock back 20 years and ignoring the lessons they’ve learned and the lower rate of teen pregnancies they now experience.)

Most effectively, however, pro-life supporters refer to abortion as murder. And for all the arguments of the pro-choice side against the claims of pro-life claims, few if any address this claim. Is it or is it not murder? Various religions have different views on when life begins, and scientists do too. A couple of cells in a blastocyst certainly has the potential to become a life but hardly a strong likelihood. (Many, if not most, pregnancies are naturally aborted.) An eight month, 20 day old fetus is another matter entirely. How can we reconcile just when life begins?

The idea suggested to me (and the one I hope you’ll comment on) is that there is something special about the ‘life’ inside the womb that distinguishes it from a newborn baby. The fetus inside the womb is utterly and exclusively dependent on the mother. Once the baby is born any human would be capable of taking care of it. The mother, a midwife, an adopted parent, anyone. Before it is born, it is quite literally part of the mothers body. And here’s the sticky part: as an integral part of her body, she has complete domain over it. Are we denying the rights of this unborn baby? Yes! For it is not an independent life like the mother’s. This is not without precedent. Once the baby is born it still will only have limited rights until it is 18 years old. The parents can’t arbitrarily end it’s life or even make the child perform undue labor but the baby and teenager do not have the same rights as adults do.

We may still have a quandary here, but at a minimum we’ve addressed whether or not the act of abortion is murder. The unborn fetus is not an independent life and part of society and therefore is not privileged with the same rights. To end it’s dependent life is not the same as ending the life of an independent being such as a newborn and therefore cannot be subject to the same rules.

Does this mean that we have to support abortion? No, To quote the Clinton administration, abortions should be “safe, legal, and rare.” There might be a scientifically determined point where ‘consciousness’ begins that will make this discussion easier. A point before which the fetus doesn’t even satisfy Decartes’ “I think therefore I am.” Pending that, both sides of the discussion can probably agree that there should be no reason, outside of the health of the mother, to abort a child after the second trimester. If the mother hasn’t been able to decide what to do at this point, she’s signed up to the next three months and even child-birth. She hasn’t signed up to raising the child, of course–she can immediately put the child up for adoption.

Without this new definition, both sides get caught in a dilemma. Pro-life protects unborn babies at the expense of the mother. They make a value judgement on who is more important. Worse, in the case of rape, they are divided into two groups. Those who would allow the unborn children of rape victims to be aborted, thus claiming that some lives are more important than others and those who would force the mother to have this child and thus diffuse their own argument of responsibility as well as force a woman through a terrible ordeal. At the same time, without the dependent life distinction, pro-choice supporters protect the mother, and along with her, all women’s rights to have domain over their own bodies, but without even addressing the idea that aborting a life might be reasonably perceived as murder.

I propose, therefore, that this dependent life might very well become a human being someday, and that ending pregnancy is not something to be taken lightly, but that we can also, very reasonably distinguish the newborn and the unborn which is still an inextricable part of the mother.

While you’re thinking about this see if you can find where on NARAL they even discuss whether or not abortion could be considered murder. See what you find at the National Organization of Women too. You’d think they’d at least have a counter-argument to this fundamental point in the pro-life movement. I missed it somehow.


  1. Traveling Hypothesis » Fox News: Federalism May Offer Abortion Solution said,

    February 23, 2006 at 17:25

    [...] While it pains me to say it, I must agree with Balko that Roe is probably on shaky constitutional ground. I also agree that repealing it will do little regarding the legality of abortion save for returning this issue to the state’s rights question it rightfully is. The question remains as to what the states will actually do? This argument will continue to rage in the short term. I think the alternative view to the viability argument Balko makes may be useful for many if these discussions do, in fact, leave Washington and come to our backyards. [...]

  2. Traveling Hypothesis » Contradictory ideas: personhood and mothers said,

    February 20, 2012 at 11:43

    [...] proposed, imagine this, a middle ground, simply by reviewing the definitions of life during pregnancy. There is something special about [...]

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