Thursday, June 4, 2009

A Time to Kill?

I recently participated in a lively, mostly civil and thoughtful discussion/debate in the comments for this blog post on slacktivist regarding the history of the "Pro-Life" movement in the United States and the recent killing of abortion doctor George Tiller. I generally try not to get involved on slacktivist because a lot of people who discuss there tend to disagree with me pretty rigorously about a lot of things and it makes me uncomfortable. Some of them are pretty incisive when it comes to ripping apart bad logic, and it takes me a while to figure out why I still disagree with them (if, in fact, I do). Maybe I just think slower, but I need to really weigh things out carefully before I jump in or I end up overextending myself into an untenable position. So that's what this post is: an attempt to sort out for myself what's really going on in the abortion debate.

The first step I think is to point out that, as with most things, there is a lot more nuance to this than the boxers and de-humanizers would have us think. Not everything fits quite so comfortably under the "Pro-Life"/"Pro-Choice" headings. People are complicated, and when you get a bunch of them together, their belief systems become almost infinitely complicated. Still, writers are in the business of making sense of the world by simplifying it and then pointing back to complexity, so let me try to complicate things out a bit more while acknowledging that I am nowhere near to nailing down the actual positions of everyone on this issue.

Let's start with people who are generally lumped under the title "Pro-Choice". Whom you feel belongs in either camp will largely depend on where you are on the spectrum, but chances are good that if you fit in one of the categories I'll outline, people on the "other side" would lump you as a "Pro-Choicer" (and vice-versa, when we come to "Pro-Life") I'm just going to list, because it's easier.

1. The people who think that abortion is always wrong, but should never be regulated by government.

2. The people who think that abortion always becomes wrong at some point between conception and birth, and only at that point ought to become illegal.

3. The people who think that abortion becomes wrong at some point and at that point ought to become illegal, with exceptions at any time for rape, to save the mother's life, or because the fetus is not and will not be viable outside of the womb, as in cases of ectopic pregnancies or cases with serious fetal deformity.

4. The people who think that abortion is never wrong in any circumstance, and should always be a legal option available to the mother.


There are also a variety of opinions under the umbrella of the term "Pro-Life".

1. The people who think that abortion is always wrong and should be illegal no matter what from even before conception, because every sperm is sacred.

2. The people who think that abortion is always wrong and should be illegal right from conception.

3. The people who think that abortion is wrong and should always be illegal except in cases where there is a threat to the life of the mother, in which case the mother should be allowed to decide.

4. The people who think that abortion is wrong and should be illegal; except in cases of rape, cases where the mother's life is at risk, or cases where the fetus has zero chance of being viable outside of the womb.


That, I think, provides a fairly general overview of the situation. These positions could be nuanced ad nauseum, but I think I'll leave it at that.

Before I go any further, I think I will point out a few approaches that people on both "sides" of the debate take that keep them from ever actually discussing anything - starting off with how they try so hard to slot everyone else into one position or another so that they can write them off as "those idiots" and stop listening. Having said that, I admit with trepidation that I fit more generally into the category of "Pro Life", and at the flip of the coin have decided to begin with a critique of what everybody would want to call my "side".

First and foremost, I think it's important to stand in horror against the actions taken by nutjobs (like this guy who just shot an abortion doctor at church) - people who think that lethal violence against those who perform abortion, and/or hatred of those who have them performed, can somehow possibly make things better. These people are nutjobs. I also want to stand wholeheartedly against the morons who gloat about these sorts of things, instead of weeping with those who weep and mourning with those who mourn yet another senseless killing.

Next, I want to point out the failure of many, many, many of the people on the "Pro-Life" side of the issue to care as much about the lives and well-being of the women involved in these cases and to be willing to work just as hard and just as tirelessly to love on them and help to heal. I know the argument among so-called "Christians" is often that the mothers are the more culpable ones because they made their own choices; but folks, that is a ridiculous oversimplification and a damnable attitude that reveals an anti-Christian, hypocritical sentiment.

Third, I want to stand against what I view as the inconsistency of claiming the moral high ground with regard to the "sanctity of life" while at the same time raging on in bombastic bombasticity about the merits and necessity of capital punishment and killing during war. I realize that those are different issues with their own nuances and complexities, but if you are going to be passionate about the value of life and the need to preserve it, then you ought to at least pretend that it bothers you when you have to (as you believe) kill someone yourself.

Finally, I want to stand against liars and propagandists who intentionally, willfully stir up hatred against those who disagree with them by lying and spin doctoring away the truth. Go BACK, I say, to the PIT!

I will be nicer, now, to those whom I'll lump together under the category of "those with whom I disagree". I will do this not because I disagree any less, but because I am aware that the actions of many who lump themselves in with me have really hurt some of them, and I desperately want them to know that I am sorry for that, and hope they will be willing to hear me out.

Still, I do take issue with some things. I don't like people who both think abortion is always right and then go further to hate/dehumanize anyone who disagrees with them. It may not hold water with them if I were to quote Jesus' upside-down call to "love your enemies", but hopefully they can see that it's stupid to hate your enemies, if for nothing else than that it doesn't work. I also don't like people who don't value human life and have that as the reason why they think abortion is no big deal. You know who you are, you haters, and we're gonna getcha... all of us. Finally, I get just as mad at the propagandizers on the "Pro-Choice" side who oversimplify the issues, demonize anyone who disagrees with them, and willfully tell lies and manipulate facts in order to whip up hatred and shut down the truth. Cut it out. Please.

OK. I've nuanced the arguments a bit, and pointed out some of my pet peeves against both "sides", so now I want to get down to the gritty and ask what, really, is the core question at hand here. This is important, so pay attention: Before we can actually have a discussion about this, we need to know what it is we're really arguing about. Setting aside the name-calling and the propaganda, I think the question is double-pronged:

One: At what point does the fetus become a human being, worthy of protection by law and society?

And Two: If it becomes a human being worthy of this protection while in the womb, is its "right to life", as they say, more important than the right we would all want to uphold for a woman (or a man, for that matter) to be able to control what happens to her own body? In other words, when those two are in conflict, which should win?

I hope you got that, because those two questions are the crux of the issue and, in our superheated cultural climate, almost never get talked about. There are three reasons why they do not. First, because people like conflict and will use it for all sorts of nefarious purposes. Second, because for a great many people, the abortion issue is a deeply personal one with very real emotional associations. And Third, because communication is difficult and with all the background noise, folks coming from all points of view end up getting distracted by side issues and just talking at each other using arguments that are easier for them to make because they require less work, such as just screaming at your "enemy" that they are "murderers". This does not help.

This lack of communication is often exacerbated by the psychos and the people who foolishly endorse them. The media knows a good story has controversy and an ability to produce knee-jerk, gut reactions, so they ramp up the broo-haw-haw and watch as escalating tensions diminish the chance of communication and meaningful dialog.

Let me just pause, quickly, to head off anybody who is just about to skip down to the bottom of the post so they can comment how "you just can't talk to those people" by begging them to consider that those people are probably saying the exact same things about you, and that it is decidedly not virtuous to give up just because it is hard.

Now, you may have noticed that this post is about trying to get people to understand people - not about trying to argue my own point. Nonetheless, I am a person as well and will therefore throw in my two bits. It is, after all, my party.

This I believe:


I believe that a human life is begun at conception and that it will generally, if unimpeded, develop into a rickety old man or woman with dentures. I believe that any attempt to pick a point other than conception at which human life begins is arbitrary nonsense. I do.

I also believe that all human life is precious and ought to be treasured and valued and nourished more than anything else in this world. I believe this partially because of my Christian idea of the mystery that people are made as bearers of the Divine image, and partly because of my personal experience of the the wondermussness of the sacks of flesh, guts and bone that are people. I believe that ours is a culture that holds human life in tragically low regard - on all sides of the abortion debate - and that as Pope John Paul II said, we live in a "culture of death". I believe that when we do not value the life and well-being of the mother as highly as we value the life of the unborn (and vice-versa), we lose the right to plant our flag on the moral high ground in the debate.

I believe that the laws of a country only ever provisionally and loosely parallel the actual Truth and that they never actually define or contain it. Therefore, I do not believe that changing laws will ever solve the key issues, which are always issues of the heart and soul. To bring it back to my home turf, I believe that the so-called "Pro-Life" movement has often lost its moral footing by acting shamefully, hypocritically, and in tandem with other movements that show great contempt for human life and for Truth. Changing the laws will not magically change the people who do these things into kinder, more loving folks.

I also believe that in a perfect world, abortion would never be a legal question because no one would ever rape anyone, women would not have health issues in childbirth, and everyone would see sexuality in a more holistic sense as not just a recreational activity for self-gratification, but also as a foundational aspect of personal identity and a cornerstone of community and society as a whole. I also believe (and this one takes very little effort) that we do not live in such a perfect world. As a result, I am conflicted about the nuances of the argument and about what, in fact, is the best way to stop what I continue to view as a tragedy. I am troubled as well because I know that at some point it can (and should) become personal and difficult for me.

I have a son, who was delivered after 18 hours by emergency c-section. If we had not had that medical option available to us, at some point we would have had to think about who would die and what, if anything, we should actively decide to do. Therefore, I have thought about this. I do not know what I would have chosen to do. I also have a brother, who has suffered with his wife through two miscarriages. There has been so much pain there, and I heartily recommend that you take a moment to go read their story.

This is me and my life, but I have never known anyone who has been forced to deal with a child conceived of rape. I cannot begin to place myself in that excruciating position, nor in the positions of the hopeless, overcrowded throngs I saw in Port-au-Prince, Haiti this year - nor all those others who suffer in poverty and despair around the world, ignored by the wealthy few who claim to believe that the lives of others are sacred and are more important than just as a point of argument for their particular Shouting Club.

Abortion has many faces and they all wear pain in some manner or another. It would be ugly and arrogant of me to prescribe some sort of catch-all solution, and then to act as though it ought to be obvious to everyone.

Nonetheless, I believe what I believe about where human life begins, and I believe what I believe about the sanctity of that life. Two wrongs do not make a right, and I do not believe that the answer to a forced or inadvisable pregnancy is further force or further destructive action. It gets really conflicting when in an "inevitable-life-or-death" situation, but I think it's a shame to apply the genuine conflict of a truly difficult situation to all related situations. My gut tells me that a just society would not allow this killing to occur, but my heart reminds me that it is never as simple as it seems, and that the most important factor in this equation is people, God Bless 'Em.

For just a second, can't we all just put down our rocks and swords and try to defeat each other as God intended - not with violence and aggression, but with love?

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