What the Living Owe the Not Yet Alive

If it werent for the fact that real, live women are people already – complete with feelings, desires and free will – the abortion issue would be a purely intellectual matter. But recognizing the rights of zygotes, embryos and-or fetuses is a zero-sum game that necessarily abrogates the rights of the women carrying them – women whose thoughts, sensibilities and volition are NOT mere theoretical constructs, nor the invention of medieval mythologies, but observable facts. The question ultimately posed by the issue of abortion is: What duty should we place on existing people to bring subsequent people into existence?

Best we can reckon, the great preponderance of material in the universe is unconscious and dumb – water, dirt, sunlight, air. Entities like you and your dog – with the ability to see, feel, think, desire, enjoy and fear – are spectacularly rare. Instinctively to us all, life has inherent value – and accordingly, actions that create or destroy life are vested with significance. Abortion is problematic because it terminates the developmental path of a discreet, identifiable entity that had the potential to become just like us – alive, awake, aware – turning it back to the mass of dumb and insensate material that comprises the bulk of everything.

The issue as to where that path begins, or where on that path lie its most significant markers, is not easily resolved. The Monte Python bit, “Every Sperm is Sacred”, pokes fun at the absurdity of tracing the path too far back. Similarly, while seeking to make a larger point about the double standard for men and women, Oklahoma State Senator Constance Johnson tried to illegalize male masturbation. The text of her amendment read, “Any action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman’s vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child.” All are surpassed by Bill Maher’s satirical proclamation: “Life begins at erection!”

Conception isnt nearly a guarantee of achieving anything resembling life as we value it (seeing, feeling, thinking, etc.) The data is murky, but the most thorough study suggests that miscarriage rates are greater than 30%. (The rate most frequently cited is 15-20% – but that figure is for detected pregnancies. Perhaps half of all miscarriages end pregnancies that were never detected.) If we back it up another step, we find that in any given month, 25% of women seeking to become pregnant will succeed – and so when one forgoes sex, or uses contraception, there’s an excellent chance of preventing pregnancy (which is why birth control is so popular), ending someone’s potential journey from non-existence to conscious being.

Other than birth and fetal viability, there isnt one discernibly ascendent moment in the long process through which new people are made. The imposition of Christian mythology is particularly unhelpful in resolving the matter, since it relies solely on magical thinking, not reason, fact or science. The notion of “souls” leaping into newly formed zygotes is of the same species of inanity as the theory that malevolent fairies cause laryngitis when they leap into the throat. For centuries, Christian “thinkers” deemed the quickening (when the fetus is first felt to kick) to be the magic moment of “ensoulment”, after which abortion was not permitted. This changed abruptly in 1869, when Pope Pius IX declared it to be conception. Both positions are fundamentally arbitrary, primitive expressions of animism.

Debate must exclude opinions based solely on religion, because as articles of faith they cannot be engaged rationally, and so cant be discussed, but only offered for belief without evidence or argument. The extreme zealot’s position – if you conceive it, you’re stuck with it – cannot be given any weight in a non-sectarian, polyglot society, which depends on reason as a universal language to resolve differences.

Beautiful though life may be, rights bestowed on zygotes, embryos, and-or fetuses come at the cost of rights lost by women. And so any argument for forcing women to continue an unwanted pregnancy must, at a minimum, bear a substantial burden, and be supported by fact-based, logical reasoning, not mere recourse to mythology. Since distinctions among abstinence, contraception, and termination of an early-term pregnancy are based primarily on magical thinking – not science, and surely not rationality – they do not meet the minimum standard for inclusion in the debate.









PS Death isnt an end, so much as life is a pause – between two comparably infinite stretches of nonexistence. Take a moment to look out your window, walk down your street or hold your children, and wonder at it. Life is an exceedingly brief window, between the darkness we left and the same darkness to which we’ll return. When contemplating what it will be like, consider that everyone alive today will probably experience the year 2200 the same as they experienced the year 1800, during which there were some great parties, a few disasters, some notable events, some perhaps involving family members – all of which slipped by undetected to us.

Given the brevity of it, it’s extraordinary, bizarre, miraculous and FORTUNATE – that people can get so bent out of shape by the minutia of the quotidian. (We should be grateful for our ability to be so easily distracted.) Analogously, it’s difficult to assess or express the tragedy of beings who never even attain consciousness for the short time life affords it…. Have a nice Memorial Day weekend. Make sure you take 5 to grab a beer and a hot dog, chill, and gaze into the sky. Repeat if necessary.


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