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Parsing abortion debate terms, Part 1

Like many others, I attended the recent Rick Santorum and Howard Dean debate at Fort Hays State University. It was generally civil. The closest thing to a spitting contest had to do (surprise, surprise) with abortion. Factions in the audience applauded to support one side or the other.

Me, I got to thinking how inadequate the exchange was. Like too many current debates, it was far too short. But in today's information-by-sound-bite world, it was all too common. That fussy old Athenian Socrates would demand clearer definitions.

I'm no Socrates, but one question he'd ask is, "What do you mean by pro-life? That term is broad-brushy. Explain."

In India today, Jainism, an historic religious sect with about 4 million adherents, might be closer to honoring all life. Faithful Jainists walk barefoot to avoid stepping on anything living, and even sweep the path clean before them to save tiny insects. I'm not sure how they feel about microbes or fungi, or secular humanists.

Most humans I've known have a less absolutist view. Most will swat a fly. Most will run over a already ran-over carcass on the highway rather than swerve respectfully. Few will stop, go back, and scoot the body to the shoulder. A fly comes down into my office, buzzes around my nose, I'm looking for something to fold up and whop him, her, it. (I don't bother to sex them out.) No dignified burial will follow.

The point is that as a species we're much pro'er some forms of life than others. It depends on a number of things.

And, I've yet to meet anyone resolutely pro-death, pro-life's polar opposite. In a theoretically sane population, attitudes differ about the morality of capital punishment. More commonly than many of us should, we accept war -- when killing fellow human beings is commonplace -- as a necessary, even a patriotic, quasi-religious obligation. The point is that all-inclusive labels are convenient, but also arbitrary. They benefit from thoughtful reconsideration.

So, in debating abortion, for starters we need more accurate terms than the all-inclusive and polarizing "pro-life" or its deliberately polarized opposite, "pro-death."

The term "pro-abortion" is also broad-brush.

Frankly, I have yet to meet anyone who's for indiscriminately aborting all human fertilized ova at any and all stages. However, the opposite term "anti-abortion" may in fact usefully describe someone opposed to all abortions at any stage of development or condition of the human zygote, blastocyst, embryo or fetus. (You can find those terms defined at umm.edu/health/medical/ency/articles/fetal-development.)

Even then, also in fact, most (but not all) of those labeled anti-abortion would make exceptions in the case where the mother's physical life is at risk. Several polls over the last 10 years indicate no more than 25 percent of Americans would make all abortions, without exception, illegal. One poll found only 12 percent would disallow all abortions. (www.pollingreport.com/abortion.htm)

More accurate terms for those passionate about the subject would seem to be "pro-choice" versus "anti-choice." However, even those terms are inadequate, as I think Socrates would point out. The choice here involves not only a decision whether to carry a pregnancy to term, or to end it prematurely ... or to choose to disallow a choice. It also involves a choice as to whose choice that should be.

Sound confusing? Not really.

Choice A is that of the pregnant female, perhaps involving anyone whom she voluntarily chose as advisors. Choice B is the choice by someone(s) else whether the female (barring unintended miscarriage) must carry whatever is in her womb or fallopian tube to delivery, irrespective of stage or condition. Choice B might be that of a division of government, a religious organization granted or assuming authority, or even an ad hoc self-justifying decider.

For the purpose of argument, a third choice might allow what's in the womb or the fallopian tube (an ectopic pregnancy) to decide, but as it stands that opinion is routinely relegated to someone outside the womb -- which returns the choice to A or B.

"What's in the womb" is important to define, of course. In the next column, we'll consider intertwined phases and terms that figure into the debate. For example, we'll consider the phrase "Life begins at conception" and words like "personhood."

Then we'll weigh the logical implications of repealing Roe v. Wade.

Bob Hooper is a fourth-generation western Kansan who writes from his home in Bogue.

celtic@ruraltel.net