Dusting Off My Ten-Foot Pole

I had a friend in high school who was adopted. She confided in me once that her birth mother had seriously considered an abortion before deciding to carry her to term and put her up for adoption. She told me this matter-of-factly, without much in the way of existential angst on the topic. She said it the way she might have relayed the fact that she’d been born dangerously prematurely but had ultimately come through fine, or that she’d had a close call with an oncoming car when she was too young to remember it. “Sure am glad I’m here to tell the story!” but without any immediacy or fear to the knowledge that, if things had gone just a little bit differently, she wouldn’t be here right now.

Still, ever since that conversation, I haven’t been able to see the pro-life/choice conflict through any other lens. If her mother had had an abortion, my friend would be dead. Or “would never have been alive” if you prefer, although the practical upshot from my perspective years later would have been the same. Is that entirely rational? Probably not. But if I’m to be perfectly honest, it probably informs my own opinions on the topic more than any other experience.

In the past couple weeks, I’ve seen friends on social media — good friends, friends whose opinions I respect — up in arms over the latest attempt by the opponents of Planned Parenthood to eliminate its funding. They view it as an attack on women’s health, and I don’t think they’re wrong. Planned Parenthood does an insane amount of good in the world. They fill a niche that needs to be filled and that no one else is filling, or at least not nearly so well.

Opponents of Planned Parenthood: you want to destroy Planned Parenthood because it provides abortions? Then make it redundant. Make it unnecessary. Make sure that everyone in America has access to low- or no-cost cancer screenings, HIV and other STD screenings and treatment, sex education, and contraception. When de-funding Planned Parenthood doesn’t mean depriving people of health care, then you can attack them for providing abortions and still claim the moral high ground. But as long as the people who (in your view) kill babies have a better claim to being “pro-life” than you do, any move against them is the soul of hypocrisy.

That said. I see tweets on my friends’ feeds like “People have a right to make decisions for their own body. There is no ‘debate’ to be had,” and I cringe a little. Because, while the actions of the most powerful and outspoken opponents of abortion are often cartoonishly evil, the truth is that it just ain’t that simple.

To use a crass metaphor, a person has the right to make decisions for their own car, but once they take on a passenger or drive on a road that includes other drivers, they have a responsibility to those other people that must inform their decisions. The debate, then — and there is grounds for one — comes back to the age-old question of when and whether the unborn make the transition into personhood.

You can show me the science about fetal development and viability, but those are slow and gradual things, and it’s just plain not possible to point to a fetus on the last day of the second trimester and another one on the first day of the third and say, “this one’s a person and this one isn’t” with any degree of intellectual honesty. And yet the line does have to be drawn somewhere, and since there doesn’t seem to be much disagreement that what you’ve got after you cut the umbilical cord is a person, that line is likely to be somewhere between “conception” at one end and “birth” at the other.

This isn’t like climate change, where the science is in and only those willing to willfully ignore the evidence are capable of denying it outright. This is a complicated issue that gets into questions of science, of course, but also philosophy and metaphysics and, yes, religion. There just plain aren’t clear-cut “correct” answers to questions like “what is life” and “what is a person” the way there is to “are human beings contributing to climate change?” And the stakes are high: it’s a question of life and death and personal rights and freedoms.

I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this. I’m not willing to definitively state when or whether an unborn person or potential-person’s right to life outweighs a woman’s rights over her own body. But I’m fairly sure that nothing is served by treating the problem as definitively solved when, as far as I can tell, it’s not. That’s reductive and dismissive and does nobody any good.

I’m not sure what the answer is, or if there is a good answer to be found. If pressed for my own opinion, I suppose I’d say that life is sufficiently important that where there’s ambiguity, it’s better to err on the side of protecting what might be life, even when that requires terrible sacrifices. I suppose that makes me pro-life, however distasteful that may be when I look at some of the others who claim that label. There are arguments to be made in the other direction, and I respect that. I’m willing to be shown that that answer is wrong. But that requires respecting the question.