An Abortion Debate

A friend of mine on Facebook always responds to things I post that are particularly liberal/political, especially when they refer to abortion.  The most recent conversation was pretty fascinating, so I want to post it here.

It originated because of a link that I posted on Facebook, and then a couple people made comments about the evils the said article discussed (the proposed cutting of all funding for Title X, which supports family planning services and provides a large proportion of the funding for Planned Parenthood). And then a friend (we’ll call him X) who I met while I was at Appalachian made the following addition to the conversation:

PP is the nation’s largest abortion business. It was founded by a eugenicist interested in racial purity through selective breeding and its employees have been caught on tape multiple times accepting donations to specifically target minorities for abortion. Most recently, its employees were caught on tape offering to collude with rapists and sex traffickers.

Planned Parenthood does not offer “family planning.” They hawk abortion and artificial contraception, which is something very different. While it is an article of faith among liberals that contraception is the magical cure to all sorts of social ills, this is simply not born out by reality. In fact, artificial contraception does not even prevent pregnancy. According to Guttmacher’s own numbers, 54% of women who obtain abortions in the US were using contraception when they got pregnant. California, which has one of the highest rates of contraceptive use among low-income people, also has one of the highest abortion rates, and a recent study out of Spain – published in the journal Contraception – found a correlation between increased condom use and an increased abortion rate.

For all its tidy euphemisms, the service PP is most committed to is pitching unwanted babies in the trash. There is no reason that Americans should be forced to pay for this with their tax dollars. The supposed segregation of tax dollars is an accounting gimmick that frees up more money for abortion.

I’m not sure why the organization is even worried – birth control, eugenics, and abortion have always been promoted by rich white people bothered by the high birth rates among minorities, and these people are still around to fill in the funding gaps.

Thus began a very long conversation via Facebook that ended up being, I think, pretty interesting.  As I say, it is EXTREMELY LONG, so not for the faint of heart.  But it is an interesting argument.

My father (Bron) responded:

Where do right wing thinkers get these insane plots and notions about organizations such as Planned Parenthood? Been watching too much of Glenn Beck. His latest rants about what’s happening in Egypt even have the conservatives scratching their heads.

X’s response:

That’s funny, I don’t recall mentioning Glenn Beck in my previous post.

What I did point out was the fact that Planned Parenthood’s employees have been caught multiple times offering sympathy and aid to various racist and criminal schemes.

It is also a fact that Margaret Sanger was involved in the American eugenics movement of the early 20th century, which was focused on achieving racial purity through sterilization, birth control, immigration restrictions, and anti-miscegenation laws. Several figures in this movement held views that the Nazis frankly admired and took inspiration from. The movement was heavily funded by the wealthy Progessive social engineers of the day – the Carnegies and Rockefellers. Today, their counterparts Warren Buffet and the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation continue to promote the ideology of international birth control.

But don’t take my word for it. A comment from a 2009 interview with Ruth Bader Ginsberg lays out the reasoning behind the movement: “Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion.”

At the end of the day, it’s about getting rid of those undesirable populations.

Female friend’s response:

Regardless of what has been “caught on tape”.. The Planned Parenhood that I have gone to for years is nothing like what you describe X. Planned Parenthood has provided family planning for multiple familys of different races that I am friends with both in the Triangle and in Asheville. They are an organization that promotes sexual education & sexual health. I have also volunteered for Planned Parenthood and it is nothing like you describe.. Also, the ratio of black/white/hispanic people that came through the doors (in a clinic in Durham, no less) – were equally varried. Have you ever even been to a Panned Parenthood Clinic? Seen a doctor at one of their clinics? Maybe you should experience a modern clinic first hand before making this assumption, regardless of your facts from 2009?

X’s response:

The organization Live Action has obtained over a dozen videos of Planned Parenthood employees in ten states engaging in illegal activities including the covering-up the sexual abuse of minors, skirting parental consent laws, citing unscientific and fabricated medical information to manipulate women into having abortions, and accepting donations earmarked to abort African-American babies. Some would call that evidence of a pattern.

Planned Parenthood is a relic of an era when “racial hygiene” was in vogue and states were founding eugenics boards and forcibly sterilizing the “unfit.” Their abortion and birth control agenda is paternalistic both in nature and effect, as evidenced by the disproportionate number of minorities who obtain abortions nationally.

[Female friend], how deeply have you looked into the “sexual health” that they promote? Have you ever assisted during an abortion? Watched one on video or ultrasound? Have you ever questioned the effect that the widespread dispensing of contraception actually has on people’s lives? The birth control ideology has been around in earnest for almost a century, promising the moon if only we could get enough condoms in the streets. But that time has only seen an unprecedented proliferation of social pathologies like the broken family, teenage pregnancy, abortion, sexual violence, and STDs. Is it really “health” that is fostered by this approach?

My response:

So, I’m gonna step in here and remind everyone that this is a really personal issue for everyone involved. X, you perceive the way that abortion and artificial contraception has been dealt with in this country has been an effort of eugenics. I know about Margaret Sanger, but I also know what a difference having the option of birth control for women has on your life as a woman, both from personal experience and from hearing others’ stories about it (and reading the Bell Jar).

Even if birth control and condoms are not the answers to all the world’s woes (which they aren’t, I will be the very first in line to admit), it is one way to begin to work towards equality of genders. Admittedly, the over-arching issue to ME is giving both men and women WITH children more options in terms of work-child-rearing balance. More flexibility at work for fathers and mothers, and more financial support for higher education, as well as higher quality lower education for EVERYONE.

Is that something we can agree on? I think this is a really important conversation to have, but I also think that focusing on our differences in opinions and interpretations of fact are not helpful, and in fact, make us believe we share a lot less than we do.

Dad’s response:

One of the interesting things about this Planned Parenthood controversy is that this latest attack comes as a consequence of undercover tapings that were done by people with an agenda. They posed as people from an element of the streets that we all would admit is seedy at best. The responses of the staff in those tapes seemed to me like, all be it somewhat clumsy, attempts to be helpful while taking a non-judgmental stance about the life style of the scurrilous soul that they were having to deal with. They should probably have refused to have any dealings with anyone who was admittedly running a prostitution ring. It was designed as a no-win scenario and then propagated to “prove” how all the things X espouses about PP are true. To me it proves nothing except that the organization is trying to help people without respect to their occupations and, in the end, pretty scrupulous in the way it carries out delicate business that is difficult to do non-judgmentally. They dismissed the employee who made the wrong choices in the tape. And that clinic is having all employees undergo further training sessions to correct any problems. You can’t really ask for much more in the way of a response than that. That’s called “continuous quality improvement” in my book.

Planned Parenthood does offer abortions. So it’s understandable that anyone opposed to such procedures would find that untenable. But I am really tired of hearing from the conservative right about all the freedoms that they want from government regulations and interference while at the same time sitting in judgment of those who want to maintain women’s rights to make choices for their own bodies. We can’t make any kind of rules to regulate arms, but it’s okay to tell women they can’t have abortions or be counseled about contraceptives. We can’t regulate corporations, but it’s okay to shoot people who perform abortions and label them baby killers. If you’re going to pronounce libertarian positions, than at least be consistent. If government should not regulate gun ownership, then government should not be making rules so women can’t have health insurance that pays for contraception and/or abortions or organizations like Planned Parenthood find it impossible to offer abortions or contraception options to women.

I am also pretty fed up with males, particularly white and elderly, making laws that determine what kinds of choices women are going to have for taking care of themselves. I suspect it is a way of acting out misogynistic feelings that they have no other way to express. We as males, and I believe that includes X, have no right to be making judgments and laws or legal decisions that affect women. Women should be the only ones allowed to vote on these issues as far as I’m concerned. We don’t have to carry the fetuses or endure the subjugation that women have had to bear over the centuries. So I think we, as males, would be wise to step back and defer to our distaff members of society to help us determine what is best for women. As an example, I notice that the proposals in Congress now related to this subject are coming from white men, and I have not heard reports in the news of what women in that body are thinking about it.

Now let’s assume that X has a point with respect to Planned Parenthood and that some of its clinics are not maintaining squeaky clean records of unbiased counseling and women’s health care for those who find it difficult to obtain elsewhere (remember this is a nationwide operation and not all clinics are going to be operated with the same level of integrity). I would be happy to see a critique of the organization that led to recommendations to help PP do a better job of what they are doing, and to adhere more closely to the mission that it propounds. It’s always a good thing for organizations to know that folks are watching what they are doing. However, the tactics being used are clearly aimed, and much more likely to result in, the destruction of a generally pretty good operation that has been a constructive resource for women of all sorts, but particularly those who find it most difficult to find women’s health resources (and it does do more than contraceptive counseling or abortions–it offers women an inexpensive place to get pap smears and annual checkups) that are affordable. While X may find that result satisfying to his sensibilities regarding contraception and abortion, there are thousands of young women who will be denied access to care that is going to be very difficult to replace. It would be better to use the data, ill-gotten as it is by undercover agents from operations like Live Action, and let PP make corrections and get on with its hard and thankless task.

Finally, X says in his response that he did not mention Glenn Beck, to whom I made reference after his first posting. The reason that Beck comes to mind is that he seems to make parallel spurious connections to plots and socialism as X is doing with respect to contraception and early efforts to link contraception to population control as something founded by people interested in eugenics and goals of racial purity. The fact that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting contraceptive use wherever has nothing to do with eugenics or plots to achieve racial purity, and to suggest such associations is akin to what Glenn Beck does all the time. It amounts to finding boogey men in the closet and then looking for facts to support your worst fears. Contraception, today, is being supported by the Gates because it is a proven way to manage the spread of AIDS and it has nothing to do with population control. That seems more of an argument to suggest they want to try and preserve the health and well-being of the populations in Africa and India and elsewhere rather than to do away with them through population control.

There may be some truth that contraception has attraction to those who want to control population growth. That makes sense since the planet has a limited capacity to support life but hardly qualifies as proof of plots to engage in eugenics. In any event, contraception has limited effectiveness in this respect and we have learned that the best way to reduce birth rates is to improve the standard of living. So I would just caution about the kinds of plotting that we think we see in the actions of individuals, groups, governments or corporations. It’s usually more complex than a simple plot to some clearly definable end.

X’s response:

Shannon, as usual you outdo me in generosity of spirit. I apologize to you, [Female friend], and Bron if I let my passion get away with my fair-mindedness.

We can certainly agree that giving men and women more flexibility in their lives and more access to education is a goal worth pursuing. To bring it back to the issue raised by the original article, I would then ask, does PP promote this goal, and more to the point, should my tax dollars go to supporting their work? By the author’s description, Planned Parenthood is a benign and value-neutral health care organization, something that no reasonable person would object to giving public funds.

I think this characterization is misleading and inaccurate, and my comments on the history of the organization and Margaret Sanger were intended to challenge the white-washed picture presented in the article. I do not think that PP or its employees as a whole are engaged in conspiracies to exterminate black babies or anything of that nature. I will try to clarify my objections.

What the dispute is about:

Planned Parenthood IS engaged in the largest and most well-funded campaign in the nation to promote access to contraception and abortion. They are also part of the massive world-wide campaign to promote the same, ostensibly, of course, for humanitarian purposes. They justify this by claiming that it is “health care,” but clearly abortion and contraception are not health care in any usual sense of the term. Arguments about their morality aside, they do not rectify any illness or pathology, or solve any genuine medical need. Hence, the protest that PP deserves your tax monies as a health care organization is simply a rhetorical ploy predicated on the assumption that you already agree with the organization’s goals and methods.

Thus the dispute over funding Planned Parenthood reduces to whether you support the ideology of abortion-as-healthcare or not. Are the current pro-life calls to de-fund the organization motivated by prior convictions about the issue as well as the new criminal evidence that has come to light? Of course. But the defense from pro-choicers is also ideologically motivated, and not merely an argument from the organization’s merits. Pretending that it is otherwise, as the author of this article does, is a dishonest attempt to sidestep the argument. It seems to me that the most value-neutral and disinterested position for the gov’t to take would be to decline to give PP tax dollars, and this is the only thing the bill in question in pushing for. The non-controversial services that the organization provides could be met in other ways by other organizations (perhaps with the newly freed contract money).

Abortion and eugenics:

It is certain that easy access to abortion allows people with eugenic motives – whether they be based on race, disability, or gender – to easily carry out their goals. “What Happened to 300 million baby girls?” asked The Economist two years ago. What indeed? Sex-selective abortion is commonplace in Asia. In this country about a month ago a couple conceived through IVF and then aborted their twin boys – because they decided they wanted girls. Almost 90% of children conceived with Down Syndrome are aborted simply for that reason. Minorities obtain abortions at disproportionate rates, and abortion clinics profit nicely off of this. And the old idea that the poor and minorities need abortions because there are simply too many of them is still around, it is simply expressed in different language. Eugenics is less systematized and more covert than it was in the 1920s, but it is alive and well, and organizations like PP have a significant hand in making it possible.

It is disturbing that attempts to point out the aspects of the abortion business that should bother anyone (regardless of their views) are often brushed off and met with a circle-the-wagons response by the pro-choice crowd. This type of response is seen most chillingly in the Kermit Gosnell case in PA. The grand jury report notes that the pro-abortion governor’s office basically eviscerated any type of meaningful oversight of the state’s abortion clinics in the 90s, because this was seen as a concession to the pro-life side. The National Abortion Federation was also aware of the serious health hazards at Gosnell’s practice – but didn’t see fit to report him. So Gosnell operated for years without even attending to basic standards of sanitation. The result is that two women died under his care, and he developed a policy of delivering viable children alive and dismembering them with scissors. It is frustration with situations like this that leads many pro-lifers to welcome the Live Action videos, because they show the shadowy and exploitive side of the abortion business that pro-choice advocates, whatever their motivations, too often refuse to acknowledge.

Contraception:

The argument is consistently made by pro-choicers that increasing access to contraceptives has positive social effects, such as reducing STDs, pregnancy rates and hence abortion. However, the data on this subject is far from conclusive. As I mentioned above, it is not even clear that gov’t funding and easy access to contraceptives is effective at reducing pregnancy (and they are certainly available, Guttmacher estimates that 99% of women who have ever been sexually active in this country have used contraception at least once). The same dubious results apply to the use of condoms to combat AIDs (see for instance: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1728-4465.2004.00004.x/abstract ) Hence I dispute the claim that contraception is a social good on empirical grounds.

I also dispute it on ethical grounds. Contraception creates an environment where sexuality is easily divorced from commitment, seriousness, and even basic dignity. This has social repercussions far beyond any particular relationship or sexual encounter. Promoting contraception de facto promotes the ethics that go along with it, and these are degrading to everyone, but particularly to women. No one who has set foot on a college campus in the last few decades should dispute this. I also read The Bell Jar, Shannon, and I remember the scenes you are referring to. I don’t think the arc of Sylvia Plath’s life is the pattern we want to promote in society however.

I don’t doubt that some people use contraception responsibly, but the big picture is bleak. It is also important to note that family planning need not involve artificial contraception. It can be practiced using natural methods based on the woman’s fertility cycle. I do not necessarily object to contraception being legal, but I do object to the proliferation efforts, the moral hazard they promote, and the one-dimensional picture of sexuality that goes along with them. I also resent being forced to pay for such things through public monies.

On elderly, white, misogynistic males:

Bron, if the dispute were only about what women do with their bodies, then perhaps we would be forced to resort to extravagant theories about the motivations of white males with opinions on abortion. However, in an age of true-light fetal endoscopy [1], 4D ultrasound [2], and a sophisticated understanding of embryology [3], only someone appalling ignorant of biology could deny that we are talking about two bodies – and specifically what is to be done with the body that is not the woman’s.

Forthright arguments for abortion acknowledge this, and seek to justify why it is sometimes permissible to destroy the body of an unborn human being. I do not believe that it is ever permissible to do this; I am pro-life because I believe in human rights for all individuals. That is the position that is consistent with libertarianism (which privileges individual rights above all), and with both conservatism and left-liberalism (which privilege human community, though they understand it in different ways).

Perhaps I am wrong about this, and you are welcome to try to convince me that I am. But spare us the old straw-man about this being an issue of men telling women what to do with their bodies. The many women I know who are involved in pro-life work (which tends to be dominated by women) would no doubt be quite surprised to hear this. That position is not even an honest engagement of the issue, quite aside from its scientific, philosophical, and moral flaws.

[1] http://www.youtube.com/user/ProLifeInstitute#p/c/B0184BCB4B5E11FE/1/xIS-8WEmE2s
[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uXYc0JojI-E
[3] http://php.med.unsw.edu.au/embryology/index.php?title=Main_Page

My response:

First of all, I would so much rather have this conversation in person. I appreciate your much more reasoned response, X–this sounds a lot more like something I can see eye to eye on, even if I don’t agree. I’m a bit confused at the claim that condoms don’t prevent the spread of HIV, since reading only the abstract of the article you linked means, to me, that in fact, condoms DO work, it’s more a problem of motivating people to use them (which is certainly an issue). Actually, from what I’ve seen, access to HIV testing, and when positive, medication and support in adherence would be a much better route, since decreases in community viral load decreases transmission rates (http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0011068), as well as provides longer and healthier lives for those with HIV infection. Condoms+use of Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy could=the end of HIV. We just need across the board support (in so many ways) for people living with HIV infection, which isn’t happening since in the states, being poor puts you at risk for HIV and makes HIV the least of your problems.

I find your argument regarding contraception fascinating. I agree whole-heartedly about not wanting to promote Sylvia Plath’s life arc in society (at the very least, not the end of it); touche. But the birth control/baby part of her thinking, I really identified with as a woman–in reading her explanation about what the option of birth control meant to her, I realized that since I have always seen birth control as an option, I have allowed myself to have dreams about my future and my capacity to contribute to society apart from making babies. I would quite literally not have been able to become the woman I am without CONSISTENT access to effective birth control on the table. (the rhythm method is not something I sneer at, however for the VAST majority of women who are totally out of sync with their bodies, another thing we could fix but is huge, it is completely and brilliantly unrealistic).

I think, X, we have different ideas about sexuality.

You say:
“Contraception creates an environment where sexuality is easily divorced from commitment, seriousness, and even basic dignity. This has social repercussions far beyond any particular relationship or sexual encounter. Promoting contraception de facto promotes the ethics that go along with it, and these are degrading to everyone, but particularly to women. ”

I disagree. Birth control gives women the freedom to be sexual beings, as men have always been. Birth control has the ABILITY to give women sexual agency. I’m not sure what “social repercussions” you think open sexuality has, but I believe we take sex way too seriously, especially women having sex. I actually think sex should be totally removed from commitment–commitment is so much bigger than sex!! You should not make a commitment to someone just because you enjoy physical connection with them.

About basic dignity–I am the first to admit that the sexual world on most college campuses and for many many young women is not one of freedom and agency, despite birth control. But birth control is not the problem. Self-respect is essential, but I do NOT think it precludes sex without commitment. I know that’s racy, but I don’t think it’s bad for people to have permission to have sex outside of relationships (provided they use condoms, which I realize are not 100% but when used consistently and effectively, are very good at preventing transmission of STIs and pregnancy). Sex has NEVER been primarily about making babies (see the book Sex At Dawn), but about being connected to other humans, even if just for a moment.

We live in a society where women determine whether they want to have sex with someone based upon whether that person wants to have sex with them. Which I believe is a function of us not teaching our women to listen to themselves. We also raise men who feel like they cannot reject sex when it is offered because it makes them look “weak” or “gay.” These are things I am SUPER HAPPY to fight against. But I disagree entirely that commitment-less sex, by definition, is degrading to anyone, especially women. It can be, but I don’t believe it has to be.

As far as taxes, none of us gets to choose how our taxes are spent apart from abortion. I have a list of things I wouldn’t pay for if I had a choice, but it’s an all or nothing deal–you pay your taxes, they go to shit you don’t support. It’s the cost of living in a structured society.

I appreciated the fact that in this most recent leg of your post, X, you included a bit more about what you see as a solution. And as I say, I do hope that at some point, we could have this conversation in person.

Dad’s response:

X and Shannon: This has been a very interesting line of conversation. I’m glad I got a chance to be included in it. It has been stimulating enough that when, in a rather unusual state, last night I was unable to fall asleep immediately my mind was mulling over the various ramifications of this discussion. That in itself tells me that there is value in our give and take. Too bad the country’s politicians cannot find a forum in which to conduct similar respectful conversations about the issues we face. For some reason my attempts to follow the links each of you posted resulted in notices of page expiration, so I was unable to avail myself of whatever additional research you two had added as reference.

Like Shannon, I find that this would be easier in a face-to-face engagement. But I feel compelled to make just a couple more comments.

1) Regarding Shannon’s comment regarding agency coming as a result of women’s sexual freedom: I have to agree that the choices women make in regard to their bodies seems to have much more to do with their own level of self respect than anything else. It also occurred to me to note that I doubt that without the institution of contraception as a way for women to control their own destinies with respect to when they were going to get pregnant that we would be seeing the amazing changes that we are seeing today in the proportions of women a) going to college and b) the number that are going into professions such as medicine and law. We are now at the point where more women are getting college educations than men. Likewise, in medicine and law the proportions of females have sky-rocketed to where I believe women now represent close to half of the student body in these areas of study. I know that my own personal experience working with Family Medicine allowed me to track this amazing transformation. When I began with the discipline in 1979 the program had 18 residents and it was unusual to have more than 3 women at any one time. By the time I retired we had 8 per year and the proportions had reversed–we were lucky to have 2 males per class. I suspect that such changes would not have been possible had society not been affected so profoundly by the invention of contraceptive strategies that allow women to reframe how they are going to live their lives such that they can realize their individual potentials beyond and before what might be offered as a wife and mother.

2) RE X’s comments about contraception becoming a tool of eugenics for those so inclined. That is a point well taken. There’s no question that those who are inclined toward believing that there is ethical room to limit certain elements of the population through birth control will take advantage of whatever line of argument is socially acceptable while covering up their true motives. Such is the character of human underhandedness. I don’t know how we control that other than to do our best to maintain a watchful eye on events as they unfold and intervene on behalf of the victims of this kind of behavior where it is being perpetrated. I still am not convinced that PP has these kinds of motivations as an organization. Perhaps its founder did–I really don’t know. And to the extent that there have been abuses of the women who use PP’s services I certainly would support interventions to see that they are stopped. My sense overall from what I know about it is that PP does more good than harm, and I would vote for corrective, rather than punitive, action where called for.

3) RE X’s contention that abortion and contraception are not forms of health care. I find the notion that the contention that

“they do not rectify any illness or pathology, or solve any genuine medical need…”

is way too narrow a definition of health care. I spent almost 20 years working with doctors and training them. One of the issues that we faced in the discipline of Family Medicine was that much of the medical community seems to hold with this view. However, one of the lynch pins of FM’s practices is that the psychosocial elements of a person’s life are equally as important as the physical. In fact, there was a common saying in the business that more than half of everything that comes into the office requires more of psychological treatment than medical treatment using drugs or procedures of some sort. So I don’t think that it is much of a stretch to call what PP does with respect to abortion and contraception health care. Today most of the medical community would support that view without much question.

4) RE my comments about white, misogynistic males. I believe that I may have been too specific. This is largely due to the fact that most of our legal codification in the US from the Constitution to an enormous proportion of all the laws on the books can largely be traced to a) males who perpetrated them (both the good and the bad) and b) white males because that’s mostly what has been elected to our political offices from the days of our founding fathers to the current days. I don’t know this for a fact, but I would be terribly surprised if we did not find that white males make up the largest proportion of all classes of legislators in the US Legislative branch today, despite the increases of minorities and women who have managed to get elected. It’s changing but slowly. I would actually suggest that if we examine the historical records that we would have no trouble supporting the claim that males throughout history and without regard to cultures around the world, have been responsible for making the laws that determine how women are treated as well as telling women what they can and cannot do with their lives. Sexism and victimization of women in the US and around the world is very alive and we have hardly made a dent in the deleterious effects that it has on untold numbers of our sisters’ lives. It is anything but a “straw man” as you referred to it. Talk to a woman who has suffered abuse or had to make heart rending decisions about their bodies and you will understand that very real and palpable damage is being done because men take their rage and self loathing out on the women in their lives. Call me naive, but I am one who believes that supporting feminism is an ethically proper position for a male to take.

5) Finally, regarding the question of bodies and life. There is a scientific argument that is powerfully used by those who oppose any sort of abortion that because we can observe all the features of a human being in a fetus that in fact we have a human being. Therefore, we should hold this life as dear as the life of the adult who is carrying that fetus. The truth is that we do not really know, and no one can prove, whether the body of a fetus should have equal value to that of the mother based on suppositions of consciousness. The appearance of human features proves nothing. Particularly if the argument, which it often does, diverts into a teleological or theological direction. People want to suggest that the fetus is a conscious person with the same rights as an adult or a newborn and therefore we should preserve the “life” of the fetus as we would a baby or the mother. One could view it equally as well as a seed of life yet to be fulfilled and therefore a reasonable choice to terminate its continued existence should it be deemed to be better for the mother, or for the child for that matter. Equality of rights for fetus and mother may be a perfectly legitimate position to take if we all agreed on the same principles of our relationship with Nature or the Great Spirit. However, we do not. Given certain theological positions one could say that the fetus is an offering from the spirit world of life which we can accept or reject. Since we have consciousness prior to coming into this world, there is no harm in ending the beginnings of that consciousness here and letting it return to whence it came. Likewise, atheists as well as many believers in God of many stripes are probably going to hold with the belief that the life of an adult deserves more consideration than the fetus that has yet to really have consciousness as we know it.

Whatever of the diverse positions that are possible that one might hold, we live in a country whose premise is that individuals should have freedom to make personal choices and that these should not be limited by someone else’s explanation of how God and the Universe relates to us. Since no one explanation suffices for all, the only thing that we logically and legally do as a country is provide people with the option of ending a pregnancy or not depending upon their personal consciences. And I would agree with Shannon on this that taxes are collected as a part of the structure of society as we know it. If some of it goes to support programs that allow abortion, I find that no less burdensome nor horrific than that my taxes go to support a war machine that wreaks havoc throughout the world. I would love to say that you can’t use government funds to kill people in my name. I don’t get that privilege.

As a final comment on this theme I personally, if I examine my heart, find it difficult to think of terminating a fetal existence. Fortunately, I’ve not had to make that decision. It is not to be done lightly, however, I do see situations where it seems that it would be better to terminate than continue a pregnancy for humanitarian reasons having to do with either the state of the mother or the situation that a child would have to endure growing up. If our society were more inclined to provide the kind of support that a woman would need to carry a pregnancy to term and raise the child, I would personally be more swayed that narrowing the times when we allowed abortion made sense. But our current societal attitude seems to me to put young women in an untenable position of making them feel that they have to have any unwanted pregnancy and then leaving them virtually out in the cold to fend for themselves as best they can. That seems inhumane and a world that a newborn is perhaps better not to be brought into.

This has gone on way too long and I apologize for the long-windedness. This only touches on the tip of the iceberg of thoughts that I have countenanced. But I thank you both for stimulating my thoughts in this way.

X’s response:

I would also like to have this conversation in person, but for now this final salvo will have to do. I’m also glad that I’m not the only one who regularly exceeds the 8,000 character limit for FB comments. 😉

There is too much going on in this conversation to respond in detail to everything, but I will try to address the main threads of thought.

Regarding Planned Parenthood:

We may not be able to choose where our tax dollars are sent, but in many cases we can influence the process. And sometimes, if enough people push for it, we do get to choose. There is good reason to push for change if there are legitimate reasons for concern. And there are multiple reasons to be concerned about Planned Parenthood. The availability of abortion and contraception may be great for young, professional women on the upswing in life. But it is also great for those interested in eugenics, those who would coerce abortions, sex traffickers, abusers, and rapists interested in covering their tracks. And the Live Action videos show that in many cases, Planned Parenthood is less than careful about how they investigate the circumstances surrounding the services they provide – and new videos keep coming out. Bankers, businessmen, and generals are scrutinized by Congress when questions arise about the way they use federal money. Planned Parenthood should be subjected to the same scrutiny.

Regarding HIV and condoms:

Shannon, the article I posted noted in the abstract: “the public health benefit of condom promotion in settings with widespread heterosexual transmission, however, remains unestablished.” You responded with the common argument that this is because people aren’t using condoms correctly or often enough. But that is a little glib isn’t it? With that position, you can never lose the argument. No matter how available condoms are, and regardless of whether their availability actually stems disease transmission, you can always respond with “people just aren’t using them enough.”

Condom promotion has mixed results, and this is because it is an approach that mistakes what is a multi-dimensional social problem rooted in how people live their sexuality for a simple technical problem rooted in keeping bodily fluids separate. As the article notes, reigning in the number of sexual partners has been more beneficial than condom promotion in countries with widespread AIDs epidemics. Social problems are always more than merely technical – at their root societies are built on how people view and treat each other, and at the root of social problems we can always find distortions of these relationships. In the case of AIDs, the promotion of condoms distorts how people see each other, lending a false sense of security (and even legitimacy) to promiscuous behavior. Anti-retrovirals are needed for sure, but they should be accompanied by a humanized view of sexuality, not one that encourages a merely instrumental view of other people.

Regarding contraception:

You are right that our disagreement ultimately leads from abortion through contraception to views of sexuality itself. We must linger on contraception for a moment because that is the crux of the disagreement. It is actually more fundamental an issue than abortion, because abortion is, at the end of the day, a species of contraception, and this is why it is clung to so fiercely. The sexual revolution begins with contraception; once this was accepted in society, abortion would inevitably follow.

You say that contraception puts women on equal footing with men, allowing them to be sexually active without fear of life-altering pregnancy, allowing them to use their sexuality in a purely instrumental way – in service of and only to the extent of their desires. I am not unsympathetic to these arguments. The point you made the last time we disputed this issue about the continuing vulnerability of women to unplanned pregnancy has stuck with me. Hopes, dreams, and plans, not to mention bodily autonomy, are very good things, things that every person should have a chance to make, and things that can be irrevocably altered by the exercise of sexuality.

However, if we take these values as absolutely inviolable, then abortion must inevitably be kept available. For the gestation of a child will interfere with all of them. If the woman’s will is absolute, then she must be allowed to be the final arbiter of the child’s life. And this is where I can no longer be a fellow-traveler with the rhetoric of liberation and autonomy, for the simple reason that this line of reasoning has created a massive body count. If only it were an issue of the woman’s body alone, then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

With abortion we find ourselves staring into a moral abyss. And if we turn around and ask how we got here, the path runs straight through contraception. Contraception seeds the ground for abortion, because it makes the intoxicating promise that people can expect to engage in consequence-free sexual behavior. No society that has this expectation will surrender the right to abortion as the final solution and last resort escape from the consequences of sexual behavior. The contraceptive mentality banishes responsibility entirely from the picture of sexual behavior, and the only moral value becomes having “safe sex.” But this sex is never entirely “safe,” no contraception is 100% effective, even if contraceptive use could be guaranteed 100% of the time. It is sometimes argued that no one is really “pro-abortion,” they just want to keep the option on the table. To some extent I believe this, but I do not accept it as a morally superior position. The end result of abortion is the same, regardless of whether we weep or laugh on the way to the clinic.

“Safe sex.” Isn’t this an odd concept? If sex is for bonding, as you describe, why must we keep ourselves “safe” from our partner? Why must we hold back? A humanized view of sexuality would recognize that sex is inherently a procreative-type act. I say “procreative-type” because of course procreation is not the only purpose, it is also for bonding, for union. And even though sex pursued with procreative intent is not successful in achieving this every time, it is still worthwhile. The reproductive telos of sex is readily apparent from the biology of sexuality – procreation is removed from the picture only under the highly artificial circumstances made possible by modern contraceptive technology. But that is not the full picture. Sex also has a unitive telos, but the irony is that we can only authentically experience this unitive aspect if we do not contracept. For the unitive aspect of sex is an objective and true unity – not merely a simultaneous experience of orgasm (which can only be experienced individually) or a subjective experience of emotional bonding. The unity of sexuality comes because together the man and woman have the ability to unite their bodies along a new dimension of their being toward a common biological purpose. Though rooted in the biology of our sexuality, we experience this unity in the emotional and spiritual dimensions of our being as well.

And this is the root of the confusion in our society over love and sex – we are out of touch with our bodies. The attempt to banish the biological aspect of sex from the picture has left our minds and souls longing for the real unity that can only be rooted in biology, but once anchored there, can be fully experienced in our emotional and spiritual being. This kind of sex provides a natural link between old and new generations, and a natural relationship between bonding and family. Without it we are atomized and abstracted individuals lacking any intrinsic relationship to each other, and this is the source of much of the distrust, alienation, and breakdown of families in our culture.

Are women losers in this rejection of contraception? I do not think so. While certainly both sexes must surrender their freedom to use sex purely for their own desires, in the end, I think it is radically equalizing. To paraphrase Elizabeth Anscombe, the view of sexuality I am describing holds that men ought to be as committed in their sexual relationships as men historically expected honest women to be; but the contraceptive morality teaches that women need to be as little committed as men have gotten away with being in the past (and of course, the present).

I realize I may have lost you at some point during this exposition of sexuality. But perhaps it at least fascinated you, and perhaps you understand a bit better why someone would reject contraception.

Regarding the moral status of the fetus:

I was not clear enough about my position regarding the critical question of what the fetus destroyed by abortion actually is. And this is absolutely the critical question. Whether we call it ‘abortion,’ ‘terminating a pregancy,’ ‘choice,’ or what-have-you, it is undeniable that the embryo or fetus is destroyed by this process. The question of whether it is permissible to let anyone have this procedure must depend on what kind of thing it is that we are destroying when we end the pregnancy. If it is just tissue, something like a tumor, then clearly it is permissible. But if we are destroying a human being, the moral status of the act changes dramatically, and we can legitimately question whether anyone should be allowed to make this choice.

Let me be absolutely clear: my argument is not based on the simple presence of visible human features on the fetus, nor is it based on ideas about consciousness in the fetus, nor is it based on any sort of religious idea about Spirits or Souls. I only ask you to accept two things: a) the biological facts of human development and b) the founding principle of our society that human individuals have certain “unalienable rights… life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Since your background is in medicine, I hardly need to explain to you that the fetus is a human individual – that is, an individual member of the species homo sapiens. Biologically, it is not merely a seed or a potentiality – there are critical differences between the gametes and the embryo. As Robert George and Patrick Lee have written:

“… the entity produced by the union of spermatozoon and oocyte is a complete, though developmentally immature, organism. Unlike the gametes, it is not merely part of another organism; nor is it merely something that can be used to produce a complete organism. At fertilization, the ovum and the sperm cease to be and something new comes to be — an organism (the embryo) whose genetic constitution and epigenetic state orient and dispose it to develop in the direction of maturity as a member of the species.”

The proper biological answer to the question “what is the human embryo/fetus?” is “it is an individual and complete, though developmentally immature, human being (organism).” To be sure, the few-hours-old embryo is extremely developmentally immature, however this does not change the fact that it is a member of the species. Human development is a process that lasts until the individual’s mid-20s. No one would deny that an infant or toddler is a human individual based on the fact that they are also developmentally immature. The important reality here is that the embryo or fetus, no less than the infant or toddler, is a complete and individual human organism that is developing to maturity by an internally self-directed process that, given proper nutrition and environment, will continue until the individual’s mid-20s. That is my first contention. This much is demanded by basic biology, and notice that I have not made reference to ideas of mind, soul, or even personhood.

Now, consider a teenager. No one who accepts the basic principles of our society would deny that this teenager has an unqualified right to, at least, life. However, many deny that the fetus has the same right to life. Biologically, both are developmentally immature human individuals, thus those who deny the right to life of the fetus must hold that there is some decisive difference between the two. But what is this difference? Why does the teenager have a right to life? It cannot be tied to his level of development, because this is a property that is not equally possessed by all humans. We would be forced to conclude that the right to life is contingent on age, and is not shared equally by toddlers, teenagers, and adults. Tying it to any particular physical or mental power introduces the same sliding scale problem. This brings us to my second contention: the reason that the teenager, you and I, and anyone else share an equal right to life, even though we do not share equal mental or physical powers or the same level of development, is simply because we are individual human beings. If the right to life depends on anything other than membership in the human species, then we cannot consistently hold that it is either universal or unalienable.

Some still protest that it is obvious that a teenager is a person and that a fetus is not, and only persons can have rights. At this point I would point out that it is the pro-choice position that has introduced (and now depends on defining) the difficult concept of personhood, not the pro-life position. And I would further ask: how sure are you that the fetus is not a person, and when does personhood begin? For it is now absolutely critical to make that determination, lest we deny a human person the right to life, violating both our commonly held standards of morality and the 14th Amendment. And thus the pro-choice position ends in a vexing difficulty: if we turn around and try to tie personhood to physical or mental features that are contingent on the individual’s state of development, we run again into the sliding-scale problem. We cannot provide a consistent justification for considering personhood either unalienable or universal, and we could reasonably deny personhood and thus basic rights to large numbers of human beings well past birth.

The position that the human fetus is somehow less than human and has less than a full claim to the right to life can ultimately be grounded only in sentiment or nebulous and poorly-articulated ideas of personhood and “full humanness.” A teenager looks like us, and thus is easy to empathize with. A fetus does not look like us, and it is harder to feel a moral obligation to him, especially when our desires and autonomy are imposed upon by the continued development of the fetus. However, any attempt to articulate this position in a way consistent with both biology and our fundamental concepts of human rights ends up undermining the case for protecting anyone’s human rights. And this is why I reject that argument.

We can go further however. Some, and I am thinking of Judith Thompson’s defense of abortion, will grant that the fetus can lay claim to both humanity and a right to life, but will still hold that the mother retains the permanent right to end the pregnancy if she so desires. To be sure, in Thompson’s essay there is some attempt to distinguish good and bad reasons for ending the pregnancy, and Thompson leaves open the possibility of some restrictions on this right. However, I am inclined to think that if you are pro-choice, it matters very little from a moral standpoint *why* you take this position. The end result is after all the same whether a woman has an abortion simply to preserve her bikini body or whether she chooses it only because of a truly desperate situation. Since the only reason to have even the mildest hesitation about abortion would be because of some concern for the moral claims of the fetus, and since these claims are equally ill-served by the abortion chosen for frivolous and the abortion chosen for serious reasons, then it cannot make any difference why you think abortion is permissible. The woman either has a right to choose or she doesn’t, there are really no meaningful gradations in this position. Both of you, Shannon and Bron, argue from this position: that the woman simply has a right to choose.

I submit to you that this is nothing more than privileging the strong over the weak; it is oppression, plain and simple. The unborn fetus cannot speak up or defend herself, and thus is easily traded away in favor of the woman’s will in the situation. Whatever the woman’s real or imagined grievances against history and society, she is undeniably the stronger party in the relationship with her unborn child, and in abortion, the stronger party wins. The fetus undoubtedly presents a hardship for the woman, imposes a nine-month obligation, but the weak often impose an obligation on the strong. If we reject our obligation to the weak, this also will not end with the fetus. Already we see this in our society. Having abandoned the unborn to the ideology of the will, we are beginning to turn against the disabled and the elderly. Ideas are becoming current again about who is and who is not fit to be born and to live based on genetics and based on consumption. Where will is paramount, the weak will always lose.

My mind is (obviously) unchanged, at least as far as the law is concerned, but I think X makes a pretty solid case for the protection of some kind of innocent life.  I just can’t support that at the cost of women’s happiness/convenience lives. Abortion (that is legal) is safer than childbirth.  And therefore, requiring a woman carry a fetus to term, even if she is to give the infant up for adoption, requires not just the inconvenience of being pregnant, but really and truly possibly her life.  That, to me, is really the bottom line.  If childbirth NEVER ended in the death of the woman, I could agree to X’s argument (perhaps) to protect the weak in our society.  But this is not about that to me.  Anyway, I don’t deny it’s a contentious issue, and I really do appreciate having the opportunity to think more about it.