When does human life begin (revisited)?

November 21, 2008

Dear Cecil:

I was shocked by your highly ignorant column on "when life begins" [October 24]. You have a very conservative approach, and a misogynistic one at that. I appreciate your attempt at explaining brain waves. But what your article lacked was a woman's right to her body, and you had an even more disturbing view on rape. Apparently, you need to take a woman's course or ethics course. You included research on a boy's soul being present at 40 days, and a girl's at 80 days, but you failed to acknowledge how sexist that view is. Furthermore, you genderized your "child" at the end as a "he." True, "he" is one of us, but are you responsible for raising him? A woman's body is her own …

If the child was a mistake, it is up to the woman to decide if she wants to keep him/her. Men have used the power of impregnation over women for too long. Too many men do not understand how much work and money it takes to raise children (the same goes for some women). A woman's right to choose is her ticket to sexual freedom. A man's version of when "life" supposedly begins is HIS DEFINITION OF POWER OVER HER. A man does not know and will never be able to understand what having a child is like.

Silly male monkey, tricks are for kids.

Cecil replies:

Nothing personal, arcane_eye, but you're one of the reasons we got stuck with eight years of George Bush.

While I'm sure you're a splendid human being in person, in your letter you come across as a self-centered ninny, and you make the kinds of arguments that drive the religious right to new heights of zeal. I won't waste time on your goofier objections. Instead let's get to the heart of the matter: a woman's right to her body, and what that means.

Does a woman have a right to control her own body? As a general proposition, sure. The question is whether that right trumps all other rights, including those of her unborn child. You think it does. You need to understand how foolishly radical that view is. It goes far beyond the argument made by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. "[S]ome … argue that the woman's right is absolute and that she is entitled to terminate her pregnancy at whatever time, in whatever way, and for whatever reason she alone chooses," the court wrote. "With this we do not agree." On the contrary, "the State [has] an important and legitimate interest … in protecting the potentiality of human life." That was the rationale for allowing states to prohibit abortion of a viable fetus except to preserve the life or health of the mother.

The argument here is narrow, as judicial opinions tend to be. The court shied away from declaring that the unborn child was a person with rights. Instead it allowed states to act as guardians of potential persons. While that approach might work for lawyers, it's unsatisfying for almost everyone else. It suggests to some advocates of choice that the state is meddling in a woman's private business. For abortion opponents, it suggests the unborn child has no intrinsic rights and its life depends on the government's whim.

I advocated a different view: bestow personhood on the fetus at the point at which brain function starts. I won't reprise the argument; the point is that I joined Roe in accepting that the rights of the mother must be balanced against the rights (or potential rights) of the unborn. Better that, I felt, than let extremists take the pro-choice argument over a cliff. The logic of the absolutist position is that at any time prior to birth — presumably even five minutes before — the life of the unborn child may be ended without a pang. The notion seems primitive, like something out of the Old Testament. No wonder abortion opponents go nuts.

That brings us to the rape/incest/birth defect exception. Roe notes that it was introduced by the American Medical Association in 1967 as part of a policy statement opposing abortion. Never mind that the exception is tough to swallow on ethical grounds — it's a sop intended to get the pro-choice crowd on board with abortion restrictions, and unnecessary if early-term abortion is readily available. Why would you defend it?

Look at this from a practical standpoint. The failure to find a middle ground on abortion has been a major contributor to the polarized politics that has plagued the country since Roe was handed down. The idea that a fetus becomes a person at some point between conception and birth was the prevailing view for 2,000 years. It's a reasonable basis for consensus, and until that consensus emerges, advocates of choice will never be able to rest easy — witness the recent challenge by Catholic bishops.

So lay off with the yammering about how I'm a misogynist. I'm trying to help you out.

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References

Roe v. Wade (1973): http://www.tourolaw.edu/Patch/Roe/

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