Thursday, February 24, 2005

Common Threads

NTodd of Dohiyi Mir is a weekly contributor to the new on-line magazine Blue and Red. This week his column, Common Ground, takes on the debate about abortion.

A lot of the argument surrounding abortion rights rests on rhetorical framing and false dichotomies. Just look at the labels the passionate factions choose for themselves: ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’. The “other side” is usually condemned as being “against” all that is good—you’re ‘anti-choice’ and want women to be barefoot and pregnant, or you’re ‘anti-life’ and want immoral swingers to have access to abortions on demand. Right-to-life advocates have been especially good at using language to strike at the emotional core of this issue with phrases like ‘partial-birth abortion’, which immediately puts folks who favor reproductive freedom on the defensive. None of this is altogether useful when trying to resolve our differences, enact good policy, and balance the various rights that are at stake, but I guess it’s the nature of the beast. For the record, I’ve found it very difficult to write this article because the words I choose are clearly going to be loaded. I pondered for quite a while just how I was going to handle that last paragraph, for example. In the end I decided I can’t completely ignore my own filters and people are going to read into whatever I write, so I might as well not be too self-conscious about it.

That said, I should make my position perfectly clear just in case it’s not obvious from the outset. I consider myself pro-choice and think that a woman’s body is her domain. She has every right to make all decisions about sex and reproduction without the government and moralists judging her. Yet, while I don’t believe that life begins at conception (a debate for another day), like many Americans I want to reduce the number of abortions that are performed in our country.

Pro-lifers obviously disagree with me on when life begins, and whether a woman’s right to control her biological functions overrides rights they presume a fetus (or embryo or zygote or teeny mass of cells or whatever) has. Let’s face it: they’re not going to persuade me at this point, and I’m not going to change their minds either. So how can we find common ground on such an emotionally-charged, divisive issue?

Read the rest of the column here.

I join NTodd in hoping that there can be a point where reason and logic can play a part in this discussion. But if the last thirty years are any indication, I don’t hold out much hope. Passion – from both sides – can be overwhelming. But in the end it comes down to the one thread that holds us together: the Constitution. In a comment discussion over at Dohiyi Mir, I threw in my own two cents, and I’m reprinting them here.

I have been aware of the debate and discussion about family planning all my life; my parents have been involved with Planned Parenthood for over forty years. I also think that as a gay man, I am the very last person to tell a woman what to do with her body – and I wouldn’t even try – but my orientation isn’t the point. My gender is, though. This has been a male-dominated issue when it has no right to be. It is the woman’s body, it is her life, and the assumption that she is incapable of making the choice is beyond chauvinism. Yes, the father ideally has to participate in the choice, but the ultimate decision must be hers. Otherwise you’ve turned the woman into a human copier.

Not to be too quippy about this (who, me?), I usually have a short and quick answer to the “right-to-lifers” when they go off on the “every sperm is sacred” riff. That is to ask them if a fetus can get a passport.

“Huh?” is the usual response.

The Constitution is pretty clear that our rights are obtained when we are born. You get to vote when you’re eighteen years of age, and that’s counted from your birthday, not the day you were conceived. Therefore, you can’t obtain a passport for a child that hasn’t been born yet because they’re not a citizen. Medical science may determine that there is a specific point of viability so that we can pin down when a fetus can survive outside the womb and therefore obtain the rights of citizenship, but, unlike birth, it’s not a real specific point in the process of pregnancy. Birth, on the other hand, is well-documented. So unless there’s some plan to re-write the definition of citizenship in the Constitution, a fetus is, until it can live on its own, a part of the woman’s body and she should have the final say as to what should happen to it.

Perhaps it’s too coldly logical to think of human reproduction in strictly constitutional terms, but what other choice have we? This cannot be a theocratic argument, and using terms like “the miracle of life” loads it up with emotional baggage. (If we value all life equally, then certainly it can’t be applied only to humans; all means all, and Orkin would be out of business.) Certainly those on the “pro-life” side who argue for the strict interpretation of the Constitution in so many other cases should see that the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies to all citizens as defined in the Constitution, not to the “unborn,” and any other interpretation would be as gross a distortion of the law as they claim Roe. vs. Wade is.