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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Perfectly Simple

Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" has been on my mind a lot, lately.

As the election was approaching and since it has passed, I've had a lot of discussions about abortion. And when I have a lot of discussions about anything . . . actually, when I even think about having a brief discussion about anything . . . my mind obsesses over it. It stays with me when I'm trying to go to sleep and waits with the alarm clock to wake me up. In between, the topic usually pokes its head into a dream or two.

So I've been thinking a lot about the abortion issue. The way it's divided, the way people on both sides talk about it, your stance should be perfectly simple. But one tiny question just jumped out of my head, and I pose it to you to ponder along with me. It's really bothering me, because the answers I can come up with are either insufficient or horribly troubling or both.

Why is abortion a religious issue, or a political issue? 

I mean, come on. Nobody of any political party or religion or nonreligion believes it's okay to kill babies. I suppose there are, or there have been in this world's history, religions that included baby killing as part of their religion, but those are hardly part of the contemporary discussion. And there have been and are people so deranged, demented, de-whatevered that they actually have killed their babies. I know this. But they are the freaks, the horror shows, the grotesque monsters on the fringe of the outskirts of the wasteland of society.

Normal people don't believe in killing babies. 

With abortion, the question that divides us is . . . well, the scientists would argue it's a scientific question, I suppose; I'd expect religious people to say it's a theological or moral question; politicians would argue correctly that it's a political question, because . . . anything that determines someone's vote is a political question. But whatever category the question falls into, the question itself is simply stated: "When does life begin?"

People on the pro-choice side of things, I think, tend to take the position that life begins at birth . . . or they pick an arbitrary point in the development of the baby when he or she would be able to survive on its own (which I always thought was, like, 18 years, but if the third trimester works for them, hey, that's why they're getting paid the big science bucks). But from a legal standpoint, birth is really the definition, isn't it? Once a baby is born, it is not okay to kill or abandon the baby. In fact, it's more than not okay . . . it's awful. It's the worst thing a human can do. Killing a human being is terrible. Killing a baby is horrific. All the sane people are agreed on at least that.

And because we all agree that killing is really, really bad, I'm not sure why the terms would be defined so differently according to religion or the lack thereof. Is that really the determing factor in answering, "When does life begin?" Is it faith vs. science? Does the Bible speak louder for the unborn than science? I don't think so. I'm sure someone somewhere has a statistic about how many verses in the Bible refer to unborn children. But I would think there would be thousands, maybe tens or hundreds of thousands of scientific studies on babies at every stage of development in the womb, none of which could possibly reveal that unborn babies are lifeless.

I really don't see how you could persuade a scientist to tell you life begins at birth. I would expect scientists to give zero point zero zero credence to the idea of a change of existence at the point of birth. In fact, I'm not sure how scientists even define life to begin with without breaking their dorky little Jedi code of honor about only investigating measurable, observable things. The questions of life, existence, identity, and value have no place in science. I would expect scientists to care most about truly observable, measurable activity. Once egg fertilization whips things into a zygotic frenzy, cells start dividing, DNA starts doing its job, and the whole biology thing really gets interesting . . . I would think that would be the most significant thing to a scientist. Scientifically speaking, birth is nothing but a change in geography. Sure, there are plenty of physiological changes, matters of dependence, sustainibility, whatever. But, scientifically speaking, do those changes really compare to the metamorphosis from bodily fluids into . . . a body? I think not.  It seems that from a purely scientific argument, the phenomenon commonly referred to as life would begin at some point other than birth.

And then you have the pro-life side of the argument: Life begins at conception. How the mantra, Life begins a couple days after sex, could become so closely associated with religion escapes me . . . maybe it's the dogma. Because for the hard-core pro-lifers, a Plan B pill abortion is just as atrocious as any other abortion. Agree with it or not, you have to at least admit it's a dogmatic view. Dogma is religion's best friend. Maybe people who aren't religious can't bring themselves to be so dogmatic about baby killing that they would actually call it murder whan a women takes a pill within the first week of her pregnancy. Maybe religious people know that if you don't draw the line (and seriously, we draw a lot of lines) at the very beginning, you're subjecting a sacred human life to the sacrilegious whims of human discretion--allow the murder of a few thousand cells, and you're approving the murder of several million babies.

But then, isn't it dogma that stretches the laws of the land and the opinions of the public in the opposite direction? If you don't allow a woman to choose to terminate her pregnancy at 9 months, how can we stop the restrictions from appearing even earlier in the pregnancy . . . at 8 months, at 4 months, at 4 weeks . . . just after conception? Would the Plan B pill eventually be illegal? What's next, the banning of the morning-after contraception pill or all contraception whatsoever? Isn't it that sense of all-or-nothing dogma that leaves the blind scales of justice with only two possible options: life begins either at birth or at conception, with somewhere in between being an absolute impossibility? We all do so fear a slippery slope, don't we?

So again, I'm left with that same question . . . why do some think life begins at conception while others believe it begins at birth? The answer I'm beginning to settle on is the dogma-killing philosophy-class what-if discussion. You know, the hypothetical scenarios in which a decision that can't be ignored pits two undesirable results against each other resulting in dilemmas of the ethical and moral nature. The Anne Frank/Rahab questions. Is it okay to lie if it the death of a friend is the alternative? Or the hand-grenade questions. Someone throws a hand grenade into the room. Should you fall on it, thereby committing suicide while saving everyone else's lives, or should you avoid the sin of killing yourself, thereby risking the deaths of everyone around you . . . including you? Or, in the more appropos hypothetical . . . if the development of an unborn baby threatens the life of the carrying mother (which, some could argue, it always does to varying degrees . . . I will not argue that, but some could), is it okay to attempt to save the mother's life by ending the baby's?

I have this feeling that most people would say, yes, with heavy hearts. I think most people would at least say that the mother should be allowed to choose. And the sense of dogma (or is it the rebellious child) in me begins to push the matter, asking, well, if it would be okay in that instance . . . how do we draw up a law that only allows for it in that instance in a way that doesn't crumble to pieces when the hypothetical becomes real, when legislation leaves the quills of the lawmakers and enters the realm of physicians treating patients?

So why do some scream fiercely for anti-abortion legislation while others do the same for the opposite? Do we really disagree on the question of when life begins? Somehow, I don't think so. But I think both sides cling to dogma, and both sides fear abuse. Pro-life people fear that abortion legislation will kill babies by the millions. Pro-choice people fear that women's lives and health will be decided by James Dobson. Democrats and Republicans fear they will lose votes from the die-hards if they waiver at all from their parties' traditional positions. 

But I think we all agree that killing babies is an awful thing. And I wonder what would happen if everyone stopped arguing about whether abortion should be legal. Do you think both sides could agree together that it needs to stop being fashionable?

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