Two opposing things happened almost simultaneously a short while ago–the March for Life in Washington and the signing of the Reproductive Health Act in New York. Much has been said on the issue, and much more of the same will continue to be said. It is hardly possible to say anything that has not already been said. But the mere fact that two such different events can happen at the very same time shows that the two sides in this debate are no closer to hearing each other. In fact, it appears that they are growing further apart. One mechanism that enables the widening of this divide is the linguistic spin being put on the issue of abortion. Each side creates its own narrative that appears to reflect a fictional world that does not actually exist.
The pro-life movement, for example, often speaks of beliefs and insists that these beliefs be used as a foundation for public policy. The beliefs that a human life sacred or that an unborn child is a person who deserves legal protections are just that–beliefs. I personally also hold these beliefs, but it is important to keep in mind that not all people do. To an atheist, for example, a human life may be of importance or of some value, but it is not sacred. And to a New Yorker, under the new Act, a person is “a human being who has been born and is alive.” So, in practical terms, telling an atheist that Jesus died for him or a New Yorker that your unborn child is a person is like telling an Evangelical Christian that Odin will not take him into Valhalla–different systems, different worldviews, different beliefs. But can there be a way to find some common language through commonly-agreed-upon definitions?
For example, let us return to the New York definition of personhood. First, this particular definition is not only purely arbitrary but more arbitrary than most. It is a legal construct that can be changed or re-interpreted at any time for any reason that seems compelling enough at that time. Secondly, people who are not lawyers or medical doctors (I am neither) may think that being “born and alive” is a simple enough concept. It is not. The process of human labor has three recognized stages, and much could depend on whether the third stage is legally necessary for one to be fully born. The third stage is the expulsion of the placenta. In other words, For as long as the placenta remains inside the “female” (a strangely non-progressive word used by the writers of the Act in a State that allows “X” as an official sex on birth certificates), and the umbilical cord is intact, presumably, an abortion provider (who in New York no longer has to be a medical doctor) may remove the baby’s brain in full view of the mother, if she chooses to watch. In the past, a so-called “partial birth abortion” had to take place with most of the baby’s body still in the birth canal and only the head protruding. It is impossible to imagine that this scenario could become commonplace even in New York City, but theoretically, it is impossible to draw any meaningful distinction between the state of a baby who is still partially in the birth canal and one who is mostly out (or even just recently out).
Similarly, much can depend on the definition of the word ‘alive’ (as in ‘born and alive’). What exactly is necessary for a baby to be ‘alive’? Only a certain level of function in most major organs? An ability to survive independently outside the womb? (No human baby can survive independently–at least, not for long.) Is a premature baby who requires life support a person? Depending on how ‘alive’ is defined, he or she (or X) may not be a person and may not have legal protections. Again, it is completely unlikely that someone accused of killing a premature baby will be able to use the lack of personhood as a defense–even in New York City–but the very fact that such a conversation can now be had highlights our society’s lack of agreement on what it takes to be a person–in a legal, social, psychological, philosophical, or religious sense.
So, what if we tried to avoid all of this unnecessary complexity and proposed that some people simply think that it is acceptable to kill off their children under certain circumstances: health problems, emotional problems, lack of social stability, or lack of desire to be a mother? In other words, instead of getting bogged down in the legal and philosophical debate over a baby’s personhood, what if we simply started talking about the concept of ‘a human being’? This term encompasses every stage of the human lifecycle–from a zygote, to an embryo, to a fetus, to an infant, etc.–at every single stage, it is unquestionably human and unquestionably a being. Thus, it must be honestly and calmly stated as fact that some people find it acceptable to place various other values, such as their own health or financial security, above the life of a human being.
The “pro-life” activists should try to control their moral outrage. Many of the people who insist that the right of a baby to be born trumps most other considerations, also happen to insist on their own right to shoot that same baby dead if a couple of decades later he sneaks into their home in an attempt to steal some cash. “Pro-lifers” also do not seem to voice loud objections if that same baby grows up to join the Army and is sent to die on the other side of the globe while “spreading freedom and democracy.” Thus, many people who argue that a human life should be above the various concerns that may push a woman into seeking an abortion, will place the same human life of the same child below their own feelings of safety and security in their private property, or even below the need to force our version of “democracy” on the Iraqis and many others who never asked for it in the first place. Our invasion killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and tens of thousands American boys and girls sacrificed their lives and limbs. And this is just one war of the many we have been fighting. In the Orthodox Church, for example, we have the Rite of the Blessing of the Weapons of War, and some of our clergy appear to be using it without any moral reservations as they sprinkle tanks and missiles with holy water. This is a matter for a separate discussion, but clearly, it is time for all of us to have an open and honest conversation about the value of human life and what other things we routinely put above it.
Maybe, instead of “pro-life,” the movement should be more correctly named “anti-abortion” or even “pro-choice”–as in, “choose not to get pregnant.” My personal preference would be “anti-abortion,” because in Orthodoxy, ‘anti-‘ means ‘instead of’ (‘anti-minsion,’ ‘anti-dorion,’ etc.). Instead of being against something, how about we also look for solutions–“instead-of-abortions”? (One hugely-positive example among many–Family of Restoration Ministries in Lititz, PA https://familyofrestorationministries.org/)
The term “pro-choice” is equally or even more incorrect. There is, of course, some truth in it. Pro-choice advocates do not want all women to get abortions, nor do they want to force good Christian women to get abortions if they do not want to. They do not object to Christian women choosing not to get abortions. They are just that–pro-choice. However, by the same logic, the pro-gun lobby or the drug legalization lobby are also pro-choice. They do not want everyone to walk around with bazookas or everyone to be on drugs–they simply want people to have a choice if they want to. Thus, the “pro-choice” movement is really pro-abortion or, even more precisely, pro-right-to-kill-unborn-children. Cumbersome, to be sure, but very precise and honest.
Abortion is often promoted as a “healthcare choice.” This, of course, is nothing but a misleading connection. I suspect that no one–not one anti-abortion activist–would argue that a pregnancy cannot possibly have health complications that may require healthcare services and medical intervention. Furthermore, most of the debate is not centered on cases when a woman’s life is at risk–those are mostly uncontroversial. At stake is a healthy pregnancy that should result in the birth of a healthy boy or girl (or X, if one is a New Yorker). A pregnancy is not a disease, and a baby is not a cancer. A woman is not sick merely because she is pregnant. Terminating a healthy pregnancy is not a healthcare choice, it is a lifestyle choice. A woman who is seeking to kill a healthy unborn child is not doing so in order to cure an illness, but because she does not want to be a mother. There is a huge difference! It is important that the pro-abortion movement be honest about their “healthcare” rhetoric. But it is equally as important for the anti-abortion advocates to take the lack of desire to become a mother very seriously. Some people’s philosophy/culture/religion/personal beliefs allow the killing of a human life if a woman does not want to be a mother. And it is not some tiny radical minority! In 2015, for every 6 babies born in the U.S., there was 1 killing of an unborn child. Overall, more than 23% of women in the U.S. have killed their unborn child–that is almost 1 out of every 4 women (and no, they do not all live in NYC). These are not small numbers. This likely means that almost every single person in the U.S. has a friend, acquaintance, or family member who has chosen to kill her child. This cannot be simply dismissed, and the anti-abortion movement must put forth a serious effort to understand and address the reasons why so many women make that choice. Sadly, simply reversing Roe v. Wade does nothing at all to address any of those reasons.
“My body, my choice” is another slogan that must be clarified. If what is understood by this chant is that a developing baby is somehow a part of the mother’s body in the same way that her liver is, then this is absolutely incorrect. A growing baby is not an appendix or a liver, and it is utterly dishonest to portray him or her as such. Our healthcare system does not give patients a choice to remove perfectly healthy body parts. One cannot go to a doctor and ask for a healthy arm to be amputated. In fact, one also cannot ask a surgeon to remove a perfectly healthy appendix, even given the fact that one in 20 people in the U.S. (5%) will eventually get appendicitis. (In comparison, severe complications of pregnancy affect only 1.5% of pregnancies.) The chant “my body, my choice” is simply ridiculous if understood this way. More correctly, a mother’s body is more akin to life support for her unborn child. Understood in this way, “my body, my choice” becomes “my life support equipment, my choice.” In other words, abortion advocates argue for a woman’s right to turn off life support for her unborn baby. This is not an idle argument if the life support “machine” is her own body. In our society, for example, no one can be forced to donate blood even in cases when the lack of donated blood will cause someone else to die. So, not only should the pro-abortion arguments be more honest and precise in their terminology, but the anti-abortion position should likewise grapple with the question of whether a woman can be forced to provide life support to her unborn child if she truly does not wish to.
These are only a few of the problems with only a handful of the terms used (or misused) in the debate between the proponents and opponents of abortions. These are not accidental mistakes. Each term is carefully chosen and misused by the respective side in order to present their argument is a way that suits them. For as long as this continues, no real progress of finding any common ground is likely. In fact, common ground may simply not even exist. Taken to its conclusion, the anti-abortion position is really founded on the idea that life belongs to God, and only He alone has the right to grant it or take it. (Some of the flaws of this foundation were briefly discussed above.) The pro-abortion position, taken to its conclusion, is really founded on the belief that only self-aware humans capable to forming rational relationships can be considered persons and deserve consideration and protection. Not too many people yet publically justify infanticide up to the age of one (although, some already have–see my previous writings on this topic). But, taken to its logical conclusion, a woman’s right to kill her unborn child is in no way different from her right to kill her one-day-old, one week-old, or one-month-old infant. Anyone who attempts to explain why a woman in NYC can perfectly-legally get an abortion on her due date, but cannot simply break the newborn’s neck if she happens to be late for her abortion appointment or if the baby arrives fifteen minutes early, would necessarily have to resort to only one possible argument: the killing is legal earlier in the day, but becomes illegal later in the same day. And what makes the killing legal or illegal depends solely on what bills were passed or not passed in whatever State she happens to be at the time. That’s all. Purely arbitrary.
The arbitrary nature of terms, definitions, and positions makes the existence of any common ground impossible. We will never be able to force abortion proponents to believe in God, the sanctity of life, or the personhood of an unborn child; and they will never be able to force us to believe that the unborn child is nothing but a tumor or that a mother should have the right to kill her child because her pregnancy came at an inconvenient time in her life. At most, one side can force its definitions onto our legal system. This may be important, but surely, this is not the solution to the problem of divergent worldviews. And because there simply may not be a solution to this problem, the least we can do is be honest and open about our core beliefs–without twisting or spinning, without misleading, without exaggerating statistics or engaging in pseudo-scientific arguments. Let our yea be yea and our nay be nay. In the end, our stance may be more important for us and our children than it will ever be for our opponents.