Abortion is a fraught question, most (or at least very many) people have experiences and life commitments which invest the issue with deeply emotional resonances, and many have more direct personal experiences that intensify the power of the issue to hurt, shock, and anger. When we talk about the question we usually start from the wrong place. We begin with our commitments and targets. Since these are often opposite each other we end up faced off and opposed before we start. Soon since we all like to score points we are shooting at each other. Instead of shooting for the goal of laws that respect human life, protect young women whose lives are being turned upside down and are sometimes as a result of the storms around them traumatised, we battle to be ‘right’, or at least heard.
Surely a better place to start would be the principles and goals ‘we’1 can agree on, rather than those that commit us to fight? Such agreed principles may be unobtainable, but should we not first see if some are possible?
As an example, can I suggest what might be a first principle, the value of all human life. Left like this it might sound as if I am closing the conversation, not opening it, of one side in the political debate has labeled themselves “pro-life”. However, such a thought seems to me to ignore the fact that the young woman at the centre of the storm is a human whose life should be valued and protected from hurt. It also prejudges the questions of whether, and if so how much, a fetus is already a human life.
This question may seem to end the possibility for conversation and return us to a shooting match, for two extreme positions are common. On one side human life is thought to begin at conception when a potential human life has been activated. On the other human life does not begin till birth and that first breath, before that life is potential rather than realised. Yet these hard and simple definitions of when humanity begins seem unrealistic. A friend of mine wrote on Facebook:2
[T]he fact that post conception only 75% [of fertilised ova] actually implant successfully was a big factor in my hard conception=life/soul/human changing.
There isn’t another binary moment in a fetus/baby’s development but we try very hard to come up with them.
Viability? – it varies with technology. The Hebrews waited until 7 days after birth didn’t they Tim?
Heart beat? – the cells that will become the heart produce a rhythm well before a heart is even present
The only other yes or no moment has been eliminated with the introduction of c-sections. Has the child been born? ‘Well, they will be if we help them out of there safely.’
In short, neither clean absolute rule works, there is no neat firm assured moment when a potential human becomes human. This quickly becomes very dangerous thinking, for we might need to take probability and perhaps degrees of humanity into account. This is a potential minefield, for if we accept degrees of humanity in the unborn (and perhaps even newly born?) why not in other ways? The slippery slope is almost a vertical cliff! Perhaps probability of becoming a human being is better?
Yet if we can agree that there is no neat firm assured moment when a potential human becomes human, then there are important and difficult conversations to be had, rather than merely a shooting/shouting match!