you may think you’re very smart, young man, but it’s tortoises all the way down!

This is a post about abortion. I thought about it for many days before writing it. If you want to comment, I’d ask that you think at least a few minutes before hitting that button. Hostile and trolling comments will not be posted.

Kansas state Rep. Pete DeGraaf has been the target of a great deal of withering sarcasm recently for commenting that women need to “plan ahead” for the possibility of rape, including the possibility of pregnancy. Money line: “I have spare tire on my car.”

DeGraaf was arguing in favor of a Kansas state bill banning insurers from including abortion in their general plans, forcing women who would like to be covered for abortion to buy a separate, abortion-only plan. There’s no legitimate state interest in passing such a law, of course, unless you consider making abortions hard to get to be a legitimate state interest. Such a bill certainly places a burden on low-income women who receive health insurance from their employer and would find it onerous to pay for a second plan. (Once again, we find that making abortion hard to get disproportionately punishes poor women.)

But DeGraaf’s “plan ahead” comment is interesting, since it suggests that women would best be served by the plentiful use and easy availability of semi-permanent or ongoing forms of birth control: the IUD, the Pill, and so on. A “spare tire,” if you will, because the road is dangerous. If DeGraaf is serious about protecting women from the exigencies of life, he should be a full-throated supporter of the vast majority of the family-planning services provided by, for example, Planned Parenthood. I eagerly await his statement on the matter.

Meanwhile, has published this article by Frederick Dyer lionizing the 19th-century doctors who first agitated to make abortion illegal. Writes Dyer:

[Horatio Robinson] Storer not only initiated efforts that led to passage of stringent legislation against abortion, he also worked to make the public aware that abortion was a crime. His primary tool was a popular book, Why Not? A Book for Every Woman, first published in 1866. “Physicians have now arrived at the unanimous opinion,” he wrote in one chapter, “that the foetus in utero is alive from the very moment of conception.” “The law, whose judgments are arrived at so deliberately, and usually so safely, has come to the same conclusion… By that higher than human law,” Storer continued, “the willful killing of a human being, at any stage of its existence, is murder.”

There’s probably a very interesting article to be written about the effect of medical study of fetal development on our society’s perception of of the morality of abortion. Unfortunately, this is not that article, in part because Dyer seems unable to consider the other side of the coin: if doctors change their mind about the ethics of abortion, as most now seem to have done, does that mean that abortion should be legal? Surely we’re not going to cede the decision of what or who is “human” for the purposes of basic legal protections — a fundamentally philosophical decision — to the purely descriptive science of medicine? Obviously better information about reproductive biology and fetal development is useful; we must have facts before we proceed to judgement. But ultimately the philosophical and legal decisions about categories cannot be taken out of our hands.

But the part of Dyer’s article I really wanted to get at is the final paragraph:

This brings us to the legacy of the laws against abortion overturned by Roe v. Wade. From 1860 to at least 1973, those laws saved the lives of millions of babies who would otherwise have been aborted. Most of these millions of babies grew to adulthood. Most married, had children, had grandchildren, had great-grandchildren, and even had great-great-grandchildren. Unless you or your parents are recent immigrants to the U.S., it is fairly certain that one or more of these pregnancy survivors are among your two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and sixteen great-great-grandparents. You, dear reader, are very likely a part of the legacy of the laws that existed before Roe v. Wade.

This is an argument I’ve heard before — the “consider the lives lost!” argument. But what awful reasoning! Consider the implications. This logic can make a good out of even the most heinous evil. “Slave rape was great! Think of all the people who would never have been born without it.” And it makes a dog’s breakfast of conservative social policy, to boot. “Abstinence? Fidelity in marriage? But think of the as-yet-unconceived children!!!”

Even the more-logically-consistent “Quiverfull” types, who believe that married couples should not use birth control or refrain from sex, fail Dyer’s implied moral test inasmuch as they don’t have sex before marriage or fail to have sex as often as they could. Every time you watch Friday Night Lights instead of having sex, folks, you’re killing a potential human being.

You know who would never let a good reproductive opportunity go to waste? The families and tribal leaders who marry off teen and pre-teen girls in traditional villages in India, Pakistan, and Yemen:

The local leader, or sheikh, was short and red-bearded, with a mobile phone jammed under his belt beside his traditional Yemeni dagger. He showed us to a low-ceilinged house crowded with women, babies, and girls. They sat on the carpeted floors and beds, and more kept ducking through the doorway to squeeze in; the sheikh squatted in their midst, frowning and interrupting. He regarded me dubiously. “You have children?” he asked.

Two, I said, and the sheikh looked dismayed. “Only two!” He tipped his head toward a young woman nursing a baby in one arm while fending off two small children with the other. “This young lady is 26,” he said. “She has had ten.”

This is the logical end of the “women-must-make-sacrifices-so-more-humans-can-exist” line of thought. The Yemeni sheikh is just taking Rep. Pete DeGraaf and Frederick Dyer’s ideas to their proper end. Once you insist that no circumstance of conception or birth, however vile, exploitative, or dangerous to the woman, outweighs the right of a potential person to come into existence, the only logical conclusion is to force women into sexual slavery at puberty and impregnate them as often as humanly possible. After all, who knows what beautiful, noble, thoughtful people might not be born if we allow women to refuse their rightful role as reproductive vessels?

Dyer doesn’t believe the Yemeni sheikh is right, of course, and neither do I. A few outliers always excepted, America has moved the discussion from whether women have a general right to sexual and reproductive autonomy to when and how they may reasonably exercise that right in the narrow circumstance of an actual pregnancy already under way. And we have done this, biblical scholar Sarah Ruden convincingly argues, in large part because of the influence of a man who doesn’t get a lot of credit for his feminism, the Apostle Paul:

The Apostle Paul, the founding authority on Christian family life, was probably the greatest force in moving childbearing from the place it still occupies in the Third World into the realm of freedom and responsibility — to the great benefit of us Westerners.

The critical Bible chapter is 1 Corinthians 7. Paul did not consider marriage to be as good as celibacy — hardly a surprising opinion, considering that in the Roman Empire marriage was typically a business relationship between clans, for their benefit, not the couple’s. The institution was one of the chief ways the society locked people — especially women — into a single, quite taxing way of life, of questionable value for fulfilling personal aspirations.

Greco-Roman marriage featured a wildly skewed sexual relationship, in which a young girl was initiated by rape and was never in her life supposed to feel pleasure, while her husband went to girlfriends (who were on their own with any pregnancies) for “love” and to prostitutes for fun. The point of the marital union was childbearing, in a crude, materialistic sense: All of the imperfectly formed babies, and many of the girls, were to be thrown away and the survivors to be raised for the clan’s purposes in their turn….

Paul was therefore deeply concerned that, in the new Christian community, any marriage entered into at least be voluntary, loving, equal and secure. Mutual erotic attraction was the right reason to get married, and mutually generous sex was the basis for a harmonious union. The double standard was out: Men now had no more right than women did to visit prostitutes or have affairs. There would be children (given the state of medical technology, Paul couldn’t have imagined any choice about that), but they were not the point. He mentions them a single time, in Verse 14….

Paul condemns by clear implication most of the conditions in the Third World that are blamed for catastrophic overpopulation: the forced marriage of young girls, the general oppression of women, marriage as “just what you do” and marriage as a mode of production. He insists that both men and women consider their own needs and choose freely what the best life will be for them as individuals. Astonishingly, he even writes that a widow can either keep to the celibacy he thinks will make her “happier” or marry “whomever she wishes” (Verses 39-40).

It’s worth pointing out again and again that for many women in this country, it’s already very difficult to obtain an abortion. Mikki Kendall writes in Salon that she nearly died in an emergency room because the doctor on duty refused to perform an abortion despite the fact that she was hemorrhaging rapidly from a placental abruption and the pregnancy had long since ceased to be viable.

Many people who consider themselves pro-life, of course, are willing to countenance exceptions if the life or health of the mother is in jeopardy. But why? Imagine two mountain climbers tied together on a treacherous slope. The lower climber slips and is dangling by a thin cord from his partner. But the upper partner can barely hold on; he’s losing his grip. If he doesn’t cut the cord, they’ll both fall. Is the upper climber ethically justified in cutting his friend loose in order to save his own life?

I don’t know, and probably neither do you. It’s possible that the methods human brains use to tease out the correct and ethical behavior in a given situation simply have their limits. We are all certain that shooting a man in cold blood for no reason is murder, and that shooting him because he’s about to shoot you is not. But what if you come upon a man about to shoot another, and shoot him, only to discover that the second man, too, had a gun, and was in fact robbing the man who now lies bleeding on the pavement? Unsurprisingly, courts are split on the question of whether you’d be liable for your mistake.

Much of the time, morality is clear and seemingly instinctive — a strong rule can be stated. Other times, not so much. Evolution has given us, as it so often does, a rather stingy gift: a moral sense that works well enough, most of the time, but that can’t possibly resolve all scenarios with perfect, mathematical precision. Our moral sense is a shotgun blast, not a rifle round. It hits the broad side of a barn.

It probably shouldn’t surprise us, then, to find that we are divided on the tough moral puzzle. I come down pretty heavily on the side that says that abortions, preferably early and preferably rare, are the final backstop on women’s ability to control their own fertility. I feel that way because the advancement of the condition of women — and especially empowering them to make reproductive choices for themselves — is an absolute social good. It reduces poverty, creates better lifetime health outcomes for women, improves the lot of the children women do choose to have, encourages a more educated and productive workforce, enables men to have lives broader than merely slaving away to support vast families, and reduces the effectiveness of rape as a means of subjugation, whether in marriage, in broader society, or in times of war.

That said, I take seriously the moral claim that once a pregnancy is begun, something is on its way to being human. I find it hard to grant a single human cell, or an undifferentiated clump of cells, citizenship, but it’s surely clear from modern medical science — I’ll give Dyer this — that a third-trimester fetus is recognizably baby-shaped, with a baby’s organs and movements and capacity to feel pain. (Maybe dreams, too.) And it’s clear that, at least on the level of regard for what could be, abortion is not without moral moment, even if, in the great majority of cases, the needs of the woman, her family, and society vastly overbalance that moment.

The point here is that we are arguing over where to draw a line and say, “This is a life, and it is worth protecting,” which strikes me as being as arbitrary an exercise as defining the difference between red and orange. The “pro-life” movement is not, as far as I know, arguing that all potential human lives must be saved, or there’d be a bigger push to make discourage masturbation, and an equally big push to encourage unprotected sex before marriage. I hear of no such movement afoot. The “life begins at conception” mantra is a simple and comforting rule, but also a stupid and arbitrary one. The “viability” rule is also fairly stupid and arbitrary, but it does at least attempt to balance the actual interest of the (already living) mother with the merely potential interests of a few busily-dividing cells.

All of this arbitrariness should give us pause. Should make us think. Should counsel humility.

Some people, of course, feel more comfortable with certainty than others. A few days ago a man was arrested on charges of planning to murder abortion providers in Madison, Wisconsin. Now is the time when highly visible pro-life advocates distance themselves from such acts, insisting that their respect for the sacredness of creation forbids any taking of life. But surely that’s not the case. Who among us wouldn’t take drastic and indeed violent measures to stop the murder of an innocent child? You can’t say that abortion is murder without proposing that the use of violence to stop it is acceptable.

To the degree, then, that pro-life advocates are in favor of using violence against abortion providers, they are approaching a greater degree of consistency and moral clarity. They are the John Browns and Nat Turners of their particular abolition movement. To the degree that they claim to abhor violence in the pursuit of saving lives, we must ask whether they also condemn violence in other defensive contexts. (Quakers and the Amish might; most mainstream evangelicals and Catholics would not.) And if not, what makes the child in the womb less deserving of “rough men who stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm,” as the saying goes?

To fail to visit violence on abortion providers (and, presumably, mothers themselves) strikes me as either cowardice or an implicit recognition of the arbitrariness of the citizen-at-conception benchmark. And that recognition is fine — a good thing, in fact. It ought, at the very least, to enable a large majority of people who consider themselves pro-life to join with the pro-choicers in advancing the causes of family planning, comprehensive sex education, and promoting women’s control over their own lives and bodies before pregnancy.

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4 Responses to you may think you’re very smart, young man, but it’s tortoises all the way down!

  1. denwanai says:

    Well said Seth. Safe and reliable birth control means education and choice. You didn’t mention the “morning after” pill – which is another option that women should have in their birth control quiver. Good research on this topic.

  2. Darrell Tangman says:

    I find it interesting that Rep. DeGraaf favors the idea of that women should prepare for the possibility of rape by purchasing separate abortion coverage, because everyone should prepare for the exigencies of life, but doesn’t apply the same logic to other possible results of rape, such as injuries requiring medical intervention or STDs. The same logic would seem to suggest that those, too, could reasonably be excluded from general medical insurance policies. In particular, STDs (including HIV, which can be horrendously expensive to treat) are often the result of consensual sex, not unlike many pregnancies; why should they receive favored status over a life-threatening pregnancy?

    Actually, of course, his “logic” (if I may abuse that word in this context) would seem to apply to any medical condition. A state could, by the same reasoning, refuse to allow general medical insurance to cover lung cancer for anyone with a history of smoking (or just breathing in pretty much any large city), or broken bones for anyone participating in sports (or, again, for anyone at all, really).

    I think Congress should settle it all by passing a law that would allow any state to outlaw abortion, but require that any state doing so must provide an efficient and effective mechanism that would allow a woman to promptly evict an uninvited prenatal tenant, after which the prenate would become the responsibility of whatever state bureaucracy deals with the problems of the homeless.

  3. grambear says:

    Clearly a major part of the issue is, as you said, sex education, free or cheap, accessible birth control, including the morning after pill.

    I am not entirely sure I go so far as you do on the defending life by committing murder. Still thinking that one out.
    And right Darrell, shouldn’t we be excluded from rotator cuff surgery, since clearly we inflicted that injury on ourselves. Well ok someone else did it, but we volunteered to be in a position to get hurt. Just like women volunteer to get raped.

  4. Pingback: a couple of follow-ups on last week’s abortion post | The Handsome Camel

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