Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Getting political for a moment

A week or so ago, Hugo wrote on his blog the story of a group of anti-abortion protesters on the campus of Pasadena City College. In that entry, he asked the following:

So the question I would have for my pro-life friends is about policy. What specific policy recommendations do you call for? If doctors continue to perform abortions once it has been made illegal, what charges do you intend to bring against them? What crime do you think a woman ought to be charged with if she seeks an abortion? If you believe that women are “victims” of abortion, do you see them as emotional children who cannot be held accountable for their actions? Do you think penalties should be enhanced for women who seek more than one abortion over the course of their lifetimes?

It's a good series of questions, questions we don't seem to talk about very much. In my experience, the push is all toward repealing Roe v. Wade and then outlawing abortion. But supposing that succeeded - what then? And why isn't this part of the conversation?

Perhaps it is, and I've missed it. But, as a pastor, I receive a fair amount of literature in the mail regarding abortion; as a reader of Christian newsmagazines and websites, I certainly hear many who labor tirelessly to 'end abortion,' mostly by working to have abortion made illegal in the U.S. But, honestly, I think this is the first time I've ever been asked "and then what?"

These are questions I admit I haven't really thought through, and questions for which I'm not sure I have any good answers.

Let me be clear about this: I am of the firm belief that life is a gift from God, be it life in the womb or life in a convalescent home, and that life ought only to be taken by God except in the extreme necessity of self-defense (even then I'm not so sure, thanks to those Mennonites. . .). I've read most sides of this debate, and, in the end, I believe that a human fetus is still human, and thus, killing it is wrong. Again, lest there be any confusion: abortion is a sin. Having an abortion is the wrong choice. Performing abortion is the killing of a human. So, yes, you could say I am against abortion, and would gladly vote for laws curtailing abortion rights, even making it illegal, just as murdering somebody on the street is illegal.

But Hugo's opened up some interesting questions. If we were to see abortion outlawed in our day, what, then, should be the consequence of having an abortion? Of performing abortions?

Just the other day I heard of a young woman, barely a teenager, who became pregnant; uncertain what she should do, she followed her mother's advice and had the baby aborted (the mother, btw, does consider herself a fine Christian woman, or so I am told. . .but felt her daughter was too young for this responsibility, so abortion was the 'sensible' choice). And this story is told time and again across our nation. Place that story into a world where abortion is illegal. What would we expect as a proper consequence? Prison? Paying a fine? Community service?

With the doctors, I suppose it may be an easier call. If abortion is illegal, and one performs an abortion, if one profits from performing abortions, I personally wouldn't have trouble with mandating jail time. Immediate revocation of one's medical license. Paying fines, doing community service.

Except. . .would it be equitable to give one set of consequences to the doctor, and another to the woman who sought the abortion in the first place? Would we think it fair to imprison the abortionist, while only giving a slap on the wrist to the one who wanted their child aborted? Because if not. . .then are we ready to start putting 14-15 year old girls into prison for this? Or 26-year old women, or 35-year old women who may just happen to have other kids at home for whom she is caring?

And what about the mother who pressures her teenage daughter - is she guilty? And what about the boyfriend/husband who pushes his girlfriend/wife into this decision?

In a moral universe, all share some of the guilt - the doctor, the pregnant girl/woman, the person pressuring them. None can claim complete innocence for causing the end of a baby's life.

But in a legal universe, are we ready to charge them all with the same crime? Are we ready to call these women "murderers"? (Okay, I know some are; I've seen the signs and bumper stickers. That's not primarily the crowd I'm addressing here). Do we want to make the case that aborting a baby is the same as murdering a child or adult? If so, do we want the same set of consequences?

Viscerally, when one hears of a woman throwing her child off a bridge, or a man murdering the little girl next door, we instantly think "lock them up," or at the least "stick them in an institution somewhere so they can get help." But what about our next-door-neighbor, the PTA president, the woman who volunteers at Little League, what about our teenage daughters - otherwise normal kids or upstanding adults, who just happen to have had an abortion.

Are we ready to lock them up? To institutionalize them?

So we have Hugo's question. What should be the penalty for performing abortions? What should be the penalty for seeking an abortion. If we were to see abortion outlawed. . .what then?

(final note: the assumption of this discussion is that pro-life people ought to have a discussion about the far-reaching consequences of acheiving their goals. It's not to have a debate on whether or not abortion is wrong/a sin. Please remember that, should you choose to leave any comments.)


Ann said...

Dan, I agree that this discussion in Christian "pro-life" circles usually reduces to laws that should be passed. However, after working with battered women, abused children in the domestic violence field, I've come to believe that the only remedy that can begin to cover the pain, fear, and needs of many pregnant women is love in action. Laws won't feed the babies after they're born, laws can't tether the fathers and mothers equally to their "responsibilities" and laws can't comfort a rape victim (even a marital rape victim) whom some people think should literally "bear the sin" of the man for 9 months. Of course, I'm not saying that the baby is "sin", but to the rape victim who was impregnated the reminder of the rape lives within her body as well as her memory. Great grace and love to her may enable her to overcome and rejoice in new life, but laws and consequences never, ever will. The threat of poverty also limits women's "choices", particularly girls and women who didn't want to become pregnant, and whose men may not be present. How can the church nurture both women and children, instead of penalizing women who feel doubly entrapped by loss of hope for self-improvement or education, and necessity of provision for self and newborn? Love, hope and feeding the whole person may reduce abortions more than laws ever can.

Charlotte said...

Plus, there's another (medical) complexity here: What if, as in the case of advanced pre-eclampsia, a doctor is faced with the choice of either aborting the fetus to allow the mother to survive, or allow the mother to die--and the fetus along with her?

Anonymous said...

Really, you've been advocating this policy against abortion and never thought through what the consequences ought to be? That seems very strange to me and I'm appalled to think it could be true, but you seem sincere in saying so.

It seems very irresponsible to never have thought about what legal consequences you're purportedly trying to impose on women. If you haven't thought about it, it must not be important to you. Almost as if you don't care about women at all. Hmm.

mythago said...

Dan, I too am a little baffled at the "haven't really thought about it". I'm not surprised, because I've heard similar sentiments from others, but it's a bit like listening to the bride who goes on and on about her wedding, but doesn't appear to realize that right after, she's going to have a marriage.

John G. Spragge said...

You have another obstacle: you have to convince juries to convict specific doctors in specific cases. That killed the Canadian abortion law: three Canadian juries (in Ontario and Quebec) accepted the defence of necessity against charges of performing an illegal abortion, effectively nullifying the law even before the Canadian Supreme Court found it in conflict with the Charter of Rights. As a result, since Canadian politicians do not have an endless appetite for humiliation, Canada has no statues regulating abortion at any stage before birth.

This naturally raises another question: where do you propose to set the balance between carefully investigating cases of unlawful abortion while ensuring that you never subject a family that has suffered the tragedy of a spontaneous (unwanted) abortion to a degrading and intrusive investigation?

Rob Carr said...

Pro-choice folks should not sit here and gloat about how the pro-lifers have failed to think about the consequences of their actions. Neither should the pro-lifers.

It's easy to point up hard situations where a law against abortion might create some horrid consequences. Mirror image it and you'll find that any law permitting abortion will still create some horrid consequences.

Do we make abortion freely available up through delivery of a full-term child? Is an abortion of a child as thinking and as self-aware ok if it's simply for convenience of the parent?

What happens if the fetus is accidentally born? Can the abortion still be performed on the fetus? 1 second after birth? 1 hour? 1 day? Why not?

Where do you propose to set the balance between carefully investigating cases of murder while ensuring that you never subject a family that has suffered the tragedy of a spontaneous (unwanted) child's death to a degrading and intrusive investigation?

No matter where we put the dividing line--conception to 120 years old--there will be situations where an innocent party will be humiliated by an investigation--and possibly even found incorrectly guilty. There will be situations where someone attempts to skirt the law to get away with murder.

There's something any biologist has to confront early in her or his training. The human brain likes to divide things into categories: alive and dead, plant and animal, mammal and reptile, human and non-human, male and female, etc. Nature doesn't give a crap about our definitions. They're all on a spectrum. There are no real dividing lines.

As a paramedic, I had to work with varying degrees of "dead" on a regular basis--and live with the consequences. I've delivered a baby that might be 20 weeks gestation (obviously doomed) or 26 weeks (viable) and had to over-rule the doctor who wanted to just let the child die no matter the age. I did the heroic thing that everyone later said was right and gave that 20 week gestation baby several more hours of suffering.

Friends by law had to mark the sex on the birth certificate of their child, but years later they still aren't sure if the child will ever fit into female or male.

As a direct result, no matter what we decide, the results are going to suck. The only question is what version of suck we want to live with--based on current technology.

I don't think most people on either side have really thought about the consequences of their political stances.

Typical human bias: give your own side a pass, run a microscope over the opposition.

Doctor Pion said...

Found my way over here from mareserinitatis' blog.

I would say that those questions are seldom part of the discussion because they require hard choices and a complex discussion that does not fit on a bumper sticker for either side of the debate. But it *was* part of the conversation back when "and then what" was covered by a variety of laws in the US.

What makes it complex is that the law, and sometimes theology, requires consistent treatment of similarly situated individuals. That is what you were struggling with toward the end of your article.

I would put it this way: Suppose we agree that a human fetus is a legally protected human life (what you refer to as a "human") after a certain age. Let's not argue about whether that age is upon conception (before implantation) or after 30 weeks, or some other age that gets a majority vote (like the 24 week standard the court settled on). Once we agree on the protected status of that individual, then abortion is first degree murder and asking for one or conspiring to obtain one (driving the car, for example) is also capital murder, depending, of course, on proving intent to drive to the abortion doctor and after considering "state of mind".

But there is more. Having a miscarriage is certainly manslaughter, particularly if alcohol, smoking, or drug use is involved. Even if the law chooses to define some cases of miscarriage as a form of involuntary manslaughter that deserves no punishment, it would remain true that the woman's body has taken a human life if you decide that a fetus is a protected human life. It would at least require a Grand Jury to decide that the death resulted from "self defense", as in other cases where manslaughter is legally permitted.

Discussion of these kinds of issues would not fit into a typical 10 minute political shouting match time slot, let alone in a small flyer. That is why they are not discussed, but they have often been asked in my experience over the decades.

But there is another set of questions that should also be asked. What is the theology here? Abortion isn't an issue in the OT, because that unwed mother in your example is to be stoned to death. When the death of a fetus is addressed in the OT, it is basically a civil rather than criminal matter, with a fine being paid to the husband. The "red letter" part of the NT touches on some issues that impact the treatment of living breathing humans (viz. your comment about Mennonites), including the punishment of that unwed mother, but generally moves toward less punishment for sin rather than more. I've always interpreted abortion as a sin that is far less than murder but more severe than "spilling your seed", partly because I don't believe that there is a human soul in a cluster of a few cells that don't manage to get implanted in the womb.

Anonymous said...

The combined total of early pregnancy loss and miscarriage comes to 33% of all pregnancies. Miscarriages account for 8% of all failed pregnancies. By contrast, the cumulative death rate (according to CDC mortality tables posted on the web) for persons between birth and eighteen years comes to 1.3%. That makes the risk of an inappropriate investigation into the circumstances of a miscarriage at least six times more likely than an inappropriate and insensitive investigation into the manner of a child's death.

mythago said...

Rob, you seem very angry. It's not "gloating". It's utter disgust that apparently reasonable people have not thought of any consequences of their ideology, except perhaps 'and everyone lives happily ever after'. We'd excoriate a politician who proposed a new environmental regulation, or a new criminal law, but admitted he had no idea what the effects of that law would be, or how it should be enforced or what the penalties are.