Thursday, May 17, 2007

On Abortion

As the election cycle begins, social topics and "moral values" start bubbling up more and more in public discourse. At the recent debate of Republican presidential hopefuls, in fact, abortion was one of the "social" topics touched on briefly. (Although abortion is also an economic and class issue as well.)

Following is my take on the situation, from both a ministerial and a politically strategic (that is, democratic) perspective. I hope I'm not offending anyone with this discussion. In fact, it is my express hope to alleviate some of the contention around this issue. (And, of course, this post should not be interpreted as having any relationship at all with official church policy or position.) -Flannel Christian

It seems to me that much of the contention and vehemence around the issue of abortion is due to how we've structured the public discussion about it. Both sides of the argument have convinced themselves that to cede any ground is to lose all ground; to grant any point to the other camp is to yield all claims; to allow the other any reasonableness is to give everything they say one's approval as reasonable. And the premise is held in reverse: each side has convinced itself that if it can just gain one point over the other, then the whole battle is won - and so there is no interest in compromise or finding agreements. This forces each side to take extreme positions at either end of the spectrum. One camps holds that full-humanity begins at the instant of conception, while the other withholds full-humanity until the moment of complete birth. And I think the vast bulk of reasonable Americans have been left in the middle and somewhat abandoned.

For instance, partial-birth abortion (when the fetus is carried full-term, and in the process of being born, it is terminated/killed before entirely "out" of its mother) seems absurd to me. At the same time, considering a glob of cells the size of a pencil point to be a human being deserving of the rights and consideration of any fully-developed human being is also stretching my imagination. These two extremes are maintained against common sense (note, not "commonsense") because such extreme claims are necessitated by a reluctance to give any ground in the debate. This intransigence is not only unhelpful in discussions of public policy, it also runs afoul of what I sense is the calm, rational, sensible, emotionally informed and morally interesting conclusions that most Americans would come to in a discussion guided by the intent to come to some degree of agreement.

Having said and illustrated my point that it is by and large the philosophical underpinning of the discussion that is holding our public culture from having more fruitful and meaningful discussions, let me go out on a limb here. Enough discussing the discussion... let me throw something into the actual talk. I think most Americans - even those who ardently disagree with each other - could come to some degree of consensus.

I don't think the claims of either camp (humanity-at-conception and humanity-after-birth) square with our emotional or rational experience. We humans see humanity in fetuses that resemble us, that react in ways that we interpret as approaching how we act, and so on. Few of us, however, feel emotionally attached to or ethically bound to respect, a glob of cells that in no significant way resembles us. When, how and why we designate "full humanity" isn't universally shared, and varies among individuals and populations. But this lack of unanimity doesn't withhold the possibility of significant agreement.

I haven't done any research on what I am about to say, except anecdotal and reflective, so I just throw this into the proverbial ring as a starting point.

I think most Americans could reasonably agree that a glob of cells is not deserving of consideration as "fully human" (we don't send paramedic teams to save them, we don't allow them to own property or to marry, and so on). On the opposite end, I think most Americans could reasonably agree that a child in the process of being born is pretty much a fully human being with some or most of the rights we accord to other human beings. Once we have established that basis, we can move inward on the timeline and determine where there range is for the vast majority of reasonable Americans. Just for an example, perhaps most people can agree that in the first trimester the fetus doesn't really merit full humanity in the political sense (although the potential humanity is oh so precious on a personal level), and perhaps most people can agree that in the last trimester the fetus is clearly deserving of the political and legal protections that we afford any human being. This doesn't mean that everyone agrees on the instant when the glob of cells becomes "human." But even with all the diversity, we have some significant agreement.

With even this limited agreement, we can start enacting laws and policies that articulate our best thinking in a pluralist society, and answer both the individual's and community's need to protect life and respect the worth and dignity of each human being. The range of agreement may not be as large as I suggested - it may be in the range of a few weeks on either end - but the principle guiding the discussion is fundamentally different than that which has been underlying the public discussion up to this point.

The discussion that reflects this gradiance and yearning for fruitful compromise won't be a clear or clean or easy discussion, but frankly the supposedly clear and easy claims made heretofore have been anything but clear and easy in the public forum. I believe that is because humans are capable of much finer and more subtle moral distinctions than the moral philosophers of the past have given us credit for. Instead of seeing our moral flexibility as an obstacle to be overcome in public policy, part of living in a democracy is learning how to take advantage of it to serve the greater good of all (or nearly all).

This has been on my mind for several years now. I appreciate you reading it in the spirit of someone who sees the public debate being derailed unnecessarily and sent in unhelpful directions. I believe that there is room for disagreement, but that disagreement on some things doesn't mean a total lack of shared conviction or common ground. It is in this spirit that I offer these thoughts on this difficult and contentious issue. (And, of course, I reserve the right to revise both my thinking and this post.) Thanks.

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