American Culture

A few words on the subject of abortion…or, what do words even mean, anyway?

Humpty_Dumpty_TennielJust the other day I encountered a euphemism for abortion that I hadn’t seen before: “the death penalty for accidental trespassing.” But honestly, I had no earthly idea what that meant. Is the fetus “accidentally trespassing,” i.e., didn’t mean to be there, but, voila, there it is anyway? That’s the only thing I could come up with, considering it’s the fetus that gets the “death penalty.”

As it turns out, in searching for that exact phrase using Google, I located precious few references to it. One was to the comment on a blog article by Russ Wellen here at Scholars & Rogues where I first spotted it (see comment #4 by one Tangle Eye Blues). Another was to a CBS News article about Sarah Palin (where the phrase does not actually occur, alas, not some cranky Palin-ism). A third was to the comments page for that CBS News article, where the phrase actually appears

by dronemonk May 15, 2010 4:50 PM EDT
I don’t understand the temptation. Abortion is the death penalty for accidental trespassing. I wouldn’t shoot someone for accidentally crossing onto my property, and I would not have a fetus sucked into a sink for the same “crime”.

That’s one way to describe the procedure. One way. Another way would be to consider it euthanasia, which, while hotly debatable, is certainly of a more benevolent connotation. Or perhaps we could see it as a mercy bestowed. In any event, dronemonk, whoever that is, fails to mention how he or she would feel about an accidental intruder that was there to stay for 18 years, all at dronemonk’s expense. Maybe they would just shoo such an intruder away. Shoo, fetus. Nothing for you here, just go!

All of which begs the question of whether such a “death penalty” is a homicide of any description. Something must be killed before homicide can be said to have occurred, before a human life has ended. Before you know it, the debate dovetails into personhood. What is it, exactly, that some people are so determined to see not happen? The ending of what, exactly?

Is it the “humanity?” If so, then what about all the other humans for whom it is okay to administer one form of death penalty or another, e.g., convicts, soldiers, collateral damage?

Is it “life?” Life, in itself, can’t be so terribly sacred, or we’d eat no meat, spare the vegetables their lives, and refrain from pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics. At least we would only have to do that for a few weeks to resolve all our issues for good. No, so it would have to be some particular kind of life to save. Not just any life.

So what’s so special about a fetus, then? It’s the conflation “human life,” human, inasmuch as it could be determined, with a test, to be human and not an ostrich. But what puts this type of human life in some sacrosanct category, never mind that we haven’t even touched on what it means to be human?

It can’t just be its genetic structure. The healthy tissue that gets taken out along with a tumor has that much, and it’s not safe from termination. Its level of organization, then? But no, got a bad kidney, out it goes. So level of organ isn’t far enough. Organ systems, then! No, I don’t think so. Nobody is crying over the fate of all those digestive tracts and circulatory systems. Gotta be the organismal thing, right, but only if it’s a human organism, and only at that stage of development or before. Funny that so much science would find its way into such a debate. But why would development make a difference here. After all, an acorn is not an oak tree. The thing not developed is not yet that into which it may develop.

Ah, so it must be the prospect of development. Well, no again, see “collateral damage” above. Such prospects in and of themselves are clearly not enough.

Is it that it doesn’t have a voice? No, I don’t think so. See “collateral damage,” above. Innocent civilian casualties don’t have a say over the enemy strikes that take them out. So that’s inconsistent, too.

Could it be its “innocence?” What does that even mean?  Even taking it apart, straight from the dictionary, it seems to provide no sufficient rationale for granting to a fetus, or an embryo, blastocyst, or zygote a right to birth. Freedom from sin or moral wrong? Well, since we’re talking about a matter constantly subject to legislation, surely it can’t be the sin it is free of. That’s a religious concept, after all. It’s a thing that has absolutely no meaning outside of its religious context. Moral wrong, perhaps? Exactly what constitutes a moral wrong, anyway? We can’t know if one has been committed unless we first know what it is. Certainly it couldn’t be a wrong as conceived by atheist philosophers in their attempts to define a rational, necessarily existent ethics with no need for recourse to a First Cause, or a Prime Mover, or a deity of any sort. It must be “moral wrong” as defined by some revealed source, am I correct? Again, a matter of religion.

Maybe it’s the freedom from legal wrong, then. Well, no. Again, those poor innocent civilians are messing things up for us. Then surely it must be “simplicity; absence of guile or cunning.” Again, no. Simplicity in itself hasn’t spared a convict the electric chair. Absence of guile or cunning refer to specific modes of intention with regard to moral behavior, which itself leads us nowhere as seen above. Lack of knowledge or understanding, then? Nope. See that poor developmentally disabled guy smoking in his electric chair? Gotta be the harmlessness, then, except for those times when the fetus actually does pose harm to the mother, except that there are no exceptions. That just leaves innocuousness. What? Well, it’s harmlessness, as noted, is hardly to be taken for granted. It’s propensity for irritation and offense is well known to every expectant mother. Then it would absolutely have to be the most boring fetus ever, “not interesting, stimulating, or significant; pallid; insipid.” Dull, insipid fetus, of interest to nobody, anywhere, you we’ll save, because, um, we’re interested, as we find your lack of vitality and alabaster skin significant and stimulating! Lack of vitality, hrmmmmm. What’s that life issue, again?

Even were we to accept “innocence” as the rationale, why should that not be, instead, the rationale for termination? Spare it, now, before it has a chance to commit a moral wrong. If there is no afterlife, honestly, why would that even matter? So any grounding for concern over this issue must depend from some afterlife-oriented issue. Again, a matter of religion. Even then, why not then? A quick ticket to heaven, without all the pain and grief and suffering and risk of moral wrong could almost even be construed as obligatory. But no, there’s this whole concept of original sin that paralyzes the issue at its root. Again, religion. A very particular religion. Only some strains (perhaps most, but not all), even, of that particular religion.

And laws derived specifically from that particular form of religion should be enacted so as to enforce their religious views on all citizens why, exactly? And if on this matter, then where do we draw the line? A national blue law? How about an amendment that makes adultery a felony? Criminalization of ham? Mandatory veils on women and turbans on men? Imagine the constitution once it has been thoroughly Leviticized.

All that said, I can see how a great many see the issue of abortion as principally a “control over women” issue, but on that particular point I disagree. I think that may well factor into it, but I do believe the real root of the pro-life stance comes down to the attempt to protect innocent human persons from an untimely demise at the hands of the godless heathens would who condone such a practice. The problems come in, as I described above, when there’s no way the pro-life movement can just come right out and say, “because, Jesus!” right in the law. It is too clearly a separation of church and state issue at that point, so they need a dodge to get around it.

Control of women is also a huge part of their religiously inspired agenda, but this, too, serves to show that abortion is a separate issue, however conjoined it may be with patriarchy. Were men to have seized full control over women, it would devolve to the men to determine whether a fetus be born or aborted. I am of a mind to believe that, were such the case, some men would latch on to the power to decide yes in some cases, even without any need to consult with the woman in the matter. “MY wife was raped and now is pregnant?” “It’s another man’s baby?” “We can’t afford this!” “That means commitment, doesn’t it?” “Oops!” The only way those less pious men would get the chance, however, would be if their religious counterparts failed to make the case that, “well, really, only certain men get to choose, and that’s us, and the answer is no.” Again, religion. Take the woman out of the power struggle (only for the sake of argument here!) and what remains is the religious component.

And if that is ultimately the root of this issue I have to wonder, not only just why we’re wasting precious time arguing this in the face of separation of church and state, but I have to wonder just why it is okay for the very folks who want this religious matter resolved in their favor to engage in such blatant duplicity, also a sin in their book, in their attempts to make it happen.

If there is a secular anti-abortion argument that holds water, I’d love to hear it.

Image credit:  Illustration of Humpty Dumpty from Through the Looking Glass, by John Tenniel, 1871, thus in the public domain, courtesy of Wikipedia.

4 replies »

  1. Here’s my secular argument.

    1. It is irrevocable.
    2. It is dilutive for society. The whack job Christians are overpopulating and the intelligent secularists are underpopulating.
    3. At some point, it is a life, and parents do not have the right to kill their children. If someone kills a child six months after it is born, they go to jail. Six months before, and it’s just a procedure.
    4. Availability of abortion may encourage poor sex practices.
    5. A study I saw on young black mothers suggested that it was not economically harmful to them over the long term.

    By the way, the argument around “life” and vegetarianism is silly.

    Are pro-lifers hypocritical about this, e.g., anti-abortion while pro-war? You bet. Does that mean that only religious crackpots are unsure of abortion? Nope.

    As I have argued before, I would have opted for abortion at one point in my life with my oldest and it would have been a horrible mistake. Luckily my wife overruled me. I am pro-choice because believed then, as I do now, that the woman gets the vote because it is her body (even though I certainly had a stake in the decision.) However, I think abortion is a Hobson’s Choice.

    Not with you on this one.

    • Okay, good of you to take a whack. Here’s my response to your five points.

      1. It is irrevocable.

      While this is true, I’m also unaware of any standard that makes this relevant. A lot of what the law does is irrevocable and I’ve never understood this to be a criterion one way or another. Letting an unwanted child be born into poverty and abuse is irrevocable, too, right?

      2. It is dilutive for society. The whack job Christians are overpopulating and the intelligent secularists are underpopulating.

      Heh – okay, this true. Not sure we can use it as a terribly effective argument, though.

      3. At some point, it is a life, and parents do not have the right to kill their children. If someone kills a child six months after it is born, they go to jail. Six months before, and it’s just a procedure.

      This is true, but only if I buy into the insidious little rhetorical sucker punch assumption upon which it is based. This only works if I buy that a fetus is a human life. It only works if I buy into the hokum of the term “unborn citizen,” or whatever the pro-lifers are calling it these days. A) I don’t. B) Even if I do, this is a religious argument, not a secular one, because it asks me to assume that something is a full-blown human deserving all human rights months before it attains viability. That is a religious argument.

      4. Availability of abortion may encourage poor sex practices.

      While this may seem intuitive to some, I’m going to need to see evidence before I overturn Roe v Wade.

      5. A study I saw on young black mothers suggested that it was not economically harmful to them over the long term.

      This is an interesting factoid, not something that rises to the level of valid rationale in an argument about human rights and constitutionality.

  2. We also end up with religion vs. religion on this too. All the Jewish friends I’ve asked about this issue are pro-choice because their faith says that life doesn’t begin until after birth. They’ve also been pro-embryonic stem cell research because their faith demands that they endeavor to live long, healthy lives.