We have covered some hefty topics on Kairoticast, before. We’ve talked about truth, conspiracy, misogyny, and race, but today we are courting controversy in a way we have not done before. Of all the things we have talked about before today’s topic is possibly one of the most divisive and produces some of the worst arguments, on all sides, and leads people to do and say terrible things. It is emotionally charged and divisive and has been driving American politics and discourse for decades. This is the abortion episode.
My goal today is not to sway you to one side or the other. That would require me to believe soundly in the moral authority of one side or the other. I can’t, and don’t, do that. Which inevitably means I am going to alienate some of my listeners today, because some of you have very strong opinions on this. I know some of you think of this issue as DECIDED. And that’s fine. But I have been wrestling with this issue for decades. I grew up in a fiercely religious, evangelical household, and for us abortion was the baseline issue. It was the issue at the heart of all politics. This was before gay rights was really part of the conversation, so abortion was THE driving social issue. I remember in fourth grade proudly proclaiming to my class that if I could vote I would vote for George H.W. Bush because I strongly believed that abortion was wrong. I was so sure. So certain. It seemed so simple and straightforward. I am much older than 9 now. Things look a lot less clear from this perspective. Fourth grade me was much more ideologically certain in her stances and free from nuance and the complexities of life. Forty-one-year-old me lacks that kind of confidence in my position. So I’m going to go on kind of a roundabout sort of discussion today. We’re going to hit this from a lot of different angles. Because I think there are a lot of different angles to this issue. I think it is disingenuous to pretend this is anything but complicated.
Roe v. Wade was the 1973 case the legalized abortion. But what most people don’t realize is that the case wasn’t actually decided on the merits of abortion itself. In 1970, Norma McCovey, going by the name of Jane Roe, filed a lawsuit against Henry Wade, the district attorney of Dallas County, Texas, challenging a law making abortion illegal except by a doctor’s orders to save a woman’s life. In her lawsuit, Roe alleged that the state laws were unconstitutionally vague and abridged her right of personal privacy, protected by the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court decided that Inherent in the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is a fundamental “right to privacy” that protects a pregnant woman’s choice whether to have an abortion. However, this right is balanced against the government’s interests in protecting women’s health and protecting “the potentiality of human life.” The Texas law challenged in this case violated this right.
According to oyez.org, The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects against state action the right to privacy, and a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion falls within that right to privacy. A state law that broadly prohibits abortion without respect to the stage of pregnancy or other interests violates that right. Although the state has legitimate interests in protecting the health of pregnant women and the “potentiality of human life,” the relative weight of each of these interests varies over the course of pregnancy, and the law must account for this variability. In the first trimester of pregnancy, the state may not regulate the abortion decision; only the pregnant woman and her attending physician can make that decision. In the second trimester, the state may impose regulations on abortion that are reasonably related to maternal health. In the third trimester, once the fetus reaches the point of “viability,” a state may regulate abortions or prohibit them entirely, so long as the laws contain exceptions for cases when abortion is necessary to save the life or health of the mother.
Specifically, the Court held: State criminal abortion laws, like those involved here, that except from criminality only a life-saving procedure on the mother’s behalf without regard to the stage of her pregnancy and other interests involved violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects against state action the right to privacy, including a woman’s qualified right to terminate her pregnancy. Though the State cannot override that right, it has legitimate interests in protecting both the pregnant woman’s health and the potentiality of human life, each of which interests grows and reaches a “compelling” point at various stages of the woman’s approach to term.
What’s really important to note here is that the decision was based on the right to privacy of the woman – that’s why abortion was legal. Because it was a private decision between her and her doctor. So if Roe v. Wade was overturned, as many people want it, we have to ask, what would be the ramifications of that? Because what would be overturned would be a case that confirms the right to privacy.
Certainly, those who advocate that we overturn it would say it would be a very narrow instance – we would only mean the right to privacy in that instance. But rarely does the law work that way.
If we get rid of the right to privacy in that instance where is the right to privacy, especially in the realm of health and medicine, eroded next? We have already given up so much of our privacy because of security concerns. Do we need to give up our privacy in the matter of our health, as well? These are real questions we would have to face is Roe were re-visited, and nobody talks about that when we think about Roe. But that’s at the very heart of this decision.
For a long time the pro-choice crowd has tried to use science to their advantage, but science doesn’t necessarily serve their purposes as well as it once did. For many years the argument was that an embryo was not human – it was not developed, it did not have human systems, it did not function as a human, it could not survive as a human beyond the mother, so it was not a “life” as we understand it. Therefore, abortion was not taking a life. The response to that was generally not scientific, but values of philosophically driven – life is sacred and begins at conception and cannot be defined by physical science. Life is something more than just the systems of our body. In religious terms, Before God formed you in the womb, He knew you, before you were born, He set you apart,” as it is written is the book of Jeremiah.
But scientific advancements have moved the needle some on whether pro-life or pro-choice advocates have the advantage in these arguments. An embryo, even in its earliest stages, well-before it has any indicators that it may be called anything “human” has the DNA code that is unique to human beings. That DNA is what makes a human being a human being. The code for human life is there at the moment of conception – so the question of what it means to be human is complicated by our ever-advancing understanding of genetics. While a zygote certainly can’t survive outside of the womb, the very thing that makes a human human is part of that zygote. So who is to say what is life or where it begins? I don’t think anybody has a monopoly on that argument. There is not a good answer to that question. Science hasn’t given us a solid answer. People argue from values a lot, but those don’t provide a lot of wiggle room. So if science can’t help us what can?
A lot of people say they are pro-life with the exception of rape or incest. I think that deserves a little exploration.
The idea is that life is more important that a woman’s bodily autonomy except in some very specific circumstances. But consider those circumstances – it’s when a woman’s bodily autonomy has been violated
What kind of stance is this?
So you value a woman’s bodily autonomy so much that she should be able to decide what to do with it that if her bodily autonomy is violated she should have recourse, but you do not value her bodily autonomy otherwise.
This is an incredibly complicated stance.
I’m not telling anybody that they shouldn’t take this position, but I am asking people to be honest about whey they are positing. When does a woman’s bodily autonomy matter? Who gets to decide when it matters? Why does it matter sometimes and not others? Who gets to suss out this complicated position? The government? A woman? Her doctor? If we value a woman so much that we make exceptions for rape and incest why are we leaving these decisions up to other people to begin with? This is a very tricky position that needs some parsing out.
Clearly here the argument is that the woman should not have to re-live the trauma of that violation for nine months, and possibly the rest of her life by carrying the pregnancy to term. But that doesn’t explain why that trauma trumps “life” if all life is sacred.
The thing is there ARE some people who take the position that women should be forced to carry a pregnancy from rape or incest to term – these people are generally met with horror from the average person. Because the average person makes these exceptions. To the average person the woman’s bodily autonomy matters. To the average person the woman’s trauma matters. But then the law is really tricky, and the average person doesn’t think about that – how does the law know what is traumatic enough to allow for choice? When does a woman’s autonomy start to matter? These exceptions, while seemingly pragmatic and compassionate, make for very tricky reasoning.
The pro-life argument is that life begins at conception and nobody has a right to snuff out an innocent life because all lives are valuable, even sacred. I can see the appeal to this argument. I grew up believing this argument, and there is still a part of me that clings to this. Because I don’t know when life begins. And I do believe killing is wrong. It’s why I’m against the death penalty. It’s why I’m against war. How can I be against those things and allow for killing of the lives of what I believe to be children?
But the truth is, so many of the pro-life arguments seem to be less about protecting children and controlling women. And if we were truly interested in protecting children, then why aren’t we investing in social programs, education, and public health? I want to be pro-life, but the pro-life arguments seem to ring so hollow. There seems to be no interest in the actual life of the child or the mother. I know I’m not saying anything original here, but this is personal because I’m trying to figure out myself. If I am not pro-life because I can’t see myself in that argument, what am I?
The thing is, I REALLY want to be pro-life. I want to protect life in all of its manifestations. But it’s hard to be a part of a philosophy that doesn’t seem to want to do what it says it does.
The pro-choice position is that women’s bodies are their own. There are so many valid reasons for ending a pregnancy – the health of the mother, the health of the unborn child, the mental stability of the woman…how is it the place of the law to come in and decipher of all the multitude of reasons to terminate a pregnancy. Which ones are valid or not? The variables and nuances to this situation are endless – how can the law possibly contend for all the possibilities? There is no law that can adequately address all the possible nuances, exceptions, and specificities of such a personal decision. The law is not equipped to handle such personal decisions with a blanket ban, with room for just a few exceptions. That’s why it was a matter of privacy. I understand this. This makes sense to me. But at the same time, there is a voice in my head that says, “but that is a life. Who gets to say when life ends?” And the whole thing is really upsetting to me.
Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get a little personal and tell you why this question really vexes me.
I have a number of health issues. They don’t make my daily life less full in any way, but they are things I have to be award of and take care of.
One of these things is that I have what’s called an a. Chiari malformation. It’s really rare but can be very serious. A Chiari malformation is a problem in which a part of the brain (the cerebellum) at the back of the skull bulges through a normal opening in the skull where it joins the spinal canal. I basically have extra brain shooting out of the back of my skull. And I don’t get mutant powers out of this or ANYTHING. It’s a real rip-off.
This puts pressure on parts of the brain and spinal cord and can cause mild to severe symptoms. In most cases, the problem is present at birth. It can also be caused by excess leaking of spinal fluid from the lower back or chest areas of the spine. This can happen because of an injury, contact with harmful substances, or an infection. This can cause headaches, muscle weakness, or balance problems. If it were to become a problem the treatment for this condition is a really nasty surgical procedure that I don’t ever want to have that takes weeks, to sometimes months of recovery. No thanks.
Malformation symptoms can also include:
- Difficulty swallowing
- Rapid, side-to-side eye movements
- And Nerve problems, including paralysis
So it’s nothing to laugh about. But of course I totally do because, you know, coping mechanisms.
I tell you this not because I’m looking for sympathy but to explain something – I should never, EVER get pregnant again. The stress and strain a pregnancy would put on my body would be incredibly dangerous. The pressure that the birthing process would put on my system could be potentially lethal. Pregnancy would be an incredibly dangerous thing for me.
Obviously, I am very careful. My partner and I have taken great pains to make sure that this is never something we will have to worry about. But we’ve thought about it – what if the unthinkable happened? What if there was an accident and I found myself pregnant? What would I do?
I believe life begins at conception, but this could be a life-threatening situation for me. Think about the position I would be in.
There would be no good choices there.
But there WOULD be choices – I have the option to protect my life. And in doing so take care of my family for the years to come. Because it’s not just me – I have to think about my husband and my son. People depend on me. My choices affect others in real, serious ways. So it matters that I have a choice.
And if I deserve that much others do, too.
This has been an incredibly difficult topic for me to talk about, so I’m not going to belabor the point. But what I hope is that regardless of which side of this debate you fall on you an appreciate there are good people on both sides. There are some crappy people on both sides, too. That’s what happens when you have a controversial topic.
But this isn’t easy. It is endlessly complex. And incredibly personal. And it is a nexus of science, law, philosophy, and values in a way that few other issues are. So it reaches into every area of how we approach life.
So this is to remind you, in all things, be kind. The opposition is human, too.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.