Abortion, Again.

May 19, 2009 at 5:21 am (By Amba) ()

A blogfriend sent me the link to a Chicago Sun-Times column by Neil Steinberg, titled “What’s Behind the Anti-Abortion Frenzy?”, which revives the old canard that pro-lifers are really anti-sex.  More interestingly, it links to Beliefnet editor Steven Waldman’s essay “Safe, Legal, and Early,” which maintains that the legal question about abortion shouldn’t be “Yes or no?” but “When?”  This was my response.


Obviously, Waldman’s position (I read through the link) is the one the great majority of people hold, myself included.  I’d like people to be a lot more conscious of the real stakes when they consider having an abortion at any stage (or, a significant step back, having unprotected sex risking an unintended pregnancy), but most traditions (the Jewish tradition certainly) have long recognized a continuum on which the woman’s (or family’s) decision prevails early in pregnancy and that shifts as the fetus develops.

I don’t know that it matters whether the abortion debate is a proxy for a desire to make sex safe, legal, and rare (LOL).  I used to think that, but second-guessing and psychoanalyzing pro-lifers’ moral convictions has come to seem condescending and insulting to me.  What matters is whether they can impose their own choices, noble as they may be, on everyone else, and whether, if they can’t, they view it as an utter defeat by a satanic society.  (The rhetoric around Notre Dame’s invitation to Obama — from some of my own blogfriends, I might add — was so overblown, it was really depressing to me.)

Maybe no change happens without absolutist fervor (as a commenter says here, “Seriously, it’s nice to be civil, but Obama has to realize that it took a wild-eyed extremist (John Brown) and the death of 600,000 Americans to end slavery and make it possible for him to be President”), and without the feminist push for “abortion on demand” all abortion would have remained illegal and dangerous, and without the pro-life movement people would have blown off the moral momentousness of the decision and settled down in a very degraded place.  To the extent that I’m getting my wish of people being more conscious of the stakes, the push-back by pro-lifers is largely — no, almost solely — responsible.  Thanks to free speech they’ve done a beautiful job of dragging our attention back to the gravity of wishing away a unique human being.  Thanks to that, we are within reach of finally getting the legal balance right.  If the absolutists on both sides will let it happen.  Which requires the vast middle to finally speak up.

Thanks, maybe I’ll even post this, although the whole topic hits me on my broken heart.  I will repeat that I’m grateful for the change in the culture the pro-life movement has wrought, and that it is culture, not law, that could have tipped my own decision the other way.  Just living in today’s culture, instead of on the condom-littered beach where the tide of the ’70s had just begun to creep out, would have been enough.  I want us to continue moving, voluntarily, in that direction.

P.S. Steinberg coins a rather chilling term for abortion:  “murder lite.”  Here is what I think is the most literal and accurate description of what early abortion is and what it does:  nipping a human life in the bud.


  1. realpc said,

    Obama said abortion is always a hard decision for every woman — but he doesn’t know the same women I know. Lots of women — especially if they are very “liberal” politically, are casual about abortion. I am less sentimental on the subject than Amba, but I much more sentimental than the women who think abortion is no big deal. I had an abortion in the 1970s and I was the only one in the waiting room who was crying.

    I very strongly disagree with the pro-life movement — I think they are nuts who are ignoring everything in life that matters, and are focusing all their energy on one little thing. Yes, abortion is a little thing compared to everything else that’s going on.

    And I strongly disagree with the extreme liberals who would probably legalize infanticide if they could.

    It IS a continuum. As far as I know, all questions surrounding pregnancy and childbirth were handled exclusively by women before modern medicine took over. Women have probably always controlled the size of their families, using secret herbs or whatever.

  2. amba12 said,

    As I’ve obviously said before at length, I don’t think abortion is a little thing because it undermines the value of everyone, by suggesting that individuals are interchangeable and disposable, and that we exist not only by the random chance of our conception, but at others’ whim. From a scientific-secular point of view, that’s exactly how it is. And yet those who believe it tend to hold their own persons sacred. As one who often decries the scientific-secular point of view, real, you might want to reconsider.

  3. realpc said,

    “As one who often decries the scientific-secular point of view, real, you might want to reconsider.”

    I don’t see it that way. From a spiritual point of view I think an early embryo is a potential vehicle for a spirit, but many of these potential vehicles would miscarry anyway. Nature creates many potential organisms and most do not survive. The wind takes seeds from a tree and scatters them all over, so that just a few can take root.

    If you treasure each and every one of those millions of seeds thrown out in the wind, you are not understanding nature, in my opinion. Or you understand nature but, like many humans don’t approve of its ways.

    Yes I know, having an abortion could be seen as defying nature, not going along with it. But you have to consider that until not long ago women expected to lose a third or so of their children. Now that childhood diseases (nature’s “loving” way of keeping a species healthy) have been eradicated, we need abortion to control population.

    And we NEED abortion Amba, for our sanity. If I were a young woman now I would lose my mind at the thought of not having abortion rights. Sex is not just for reproduction; it has social functions. Do you want women to be scared every time they have sex? What fun would that be?

    I know you are not against abortion. But I think you take early pregnancies too seriously. And of course I realize this is all a matter of opinion because none of us knows whether an early embryo has thoughts or feelings or cares whether it gets born or not. We do not know.

    And by the way — the whole idea that life begins at conception came from secular science, not from religion. When people didn’t know about conception women had more control over pregnancy.

  4. realpc said,

    Oh and I don’t decry the scientific-secular point of view. I disagree with scientific materialism, which is different from science in general.

  5. amba12 said,

    If you treasure each and every one of those millions of seeds thrown out in the wind

    Real, you probably know I once wrote a post on IVF and frozen embryos called “People Seeds.” In it, I said life can be said to begin at implantation, because on so many levels, there is no human life without relationship. Fertilized eggs up to the the blastocyst stage are potential life. Once an embryo implants, a relationship is struck. For that to happen, the embryo has to act rather aggressively on its own behalf, AND the mother’s body has to be sufficiently receptive to it. At the next level, her mind and heart have also to be sufficiently receptive to it. At that point, I believe, you can’t force a woman to submit to a pregnancy, though you can certainly try to persuade her. Also, once your body has accepted a pregnancy, your body and part of your psyche is rooting for the embryo and you become divided against yourself if you reject it. This is why I approve of Plan B. To prevent implantation (if that’s even what it does) is to take more “selfish” control of your own sexual and life-giving capacities than orthodox Catholics like — who are we to decide these momentous things, such as who comes to exist and when, they feel — and I respect, even admire that view but adamantly oppose it being imposed on everybody. The human capacity to plan is God-given, if there’s a God, and there

    I’m meeting a deadline today (only little stuff left, but lots of it), so can’t write a lot, but: my point is that we treasure individuals even though nature does not. We know how momentous a single human existence is (at least we feel that way about our own, knowing the vast spaces of thought and feeling inside it). So we kind of act as ruthless as nature when it suits us and as loving as God when that suits us, which basically makes us part of nature unless we deliberately choose to try to be part of God (and I say that whether God objectively exists or not).

  6. realpc said,

    “we treasure individuals even though nature does not. We know how momentous a single human existence is (at least we feel that way about our own, knowing the vast spaces of thought and feeling inside it). So we kind of act as ruthless as nature when it suits us and as loving as God when that suits us, which basically makes us part of nature unless we deliberately choose to try to be part of God (and I say that whether God objectively exists or not).”

    I can see you have thought a lot about this subject, much more than I have. I just think the fact remains that we do not know. And I think we make too much of our individual existence — most other cultures did not — thanks to secular humanism. What good is our individual existence if the planet gets destroyed because we have to save and nurture each and every single one of us? If we really are part of something infinitely greater — and that’s what I believe — than glorifying the individual is not necessarily healthy.

    Each of us is programmed by nature to hang on to our individual existence, because survival is the first goal of any living thing. And most of us are very happy to be here, although I don’t always see why. (I have heard that each of us had to be extremely lucky to get our chance to be on earth, but I don’t know if any of that is true.)

    I think God exists, but not objectively because “objectively” describes things on our level, not on an eternal level. I think none of us knows what God wants us to do, and it is arrogant of the Catholic church to have decided life begins at conception. I like the Catholic religion well enough, aside from that. It is just ridiculous what that idea is doing to our so-called society.

  7. Rod said,

    “Nipping a human life in the bud.” I used almost the same phrase the last time I was dumb enough to venture into the abortion debate killing zone. In one scenario, a child is born, feels the warmth of someone’s love, goes to school, sneaks a kiss in the back seat on a date, has a child, has a family, etc. In other words, that person gets the same chance to live a life as we have had. In another scenario, that same potential human being is never born, and is denied all of the things we take for granted. Every single one of those things. It is a huge tragedy, and one does not need to be a killjoy upset about people having sex to be opposed to it.

    Analytically, opposing abortion is as logical as opposing the Holocaust. True, the victims of the Holocaust were already running around on the surface of this planet, but that just reflects how much of their lives was cut off. True, most of the victims of the Holocaust suffered and many experienced great and terrible fear, but the Holocaust would be no less tragic if someone flipped a switch one day and killed everybody instantly, with no pain. True, many, if not most of the victims of the Holocaust had relationships with other people, who were shattered by their loss. That is one way in which abortion is different. Murder almost always robs the friends and family of the victim, but abortion is usually at the hands of that family, and none of us really know an aborted child, so any mourning is a little more abstract.

    I oppose abortion because I consider preservation of human life a categorical imperative. If I could banish it except in extremely limited circumstances, I would, not because I want to impose my values on anybody, but because I do not want abortionists to impose their values on an innocent child in the most final way.

    Still, murder and abortion are not exactly equivalent. I work with and celebrate life with people who have had or sponsored abortions all the time, I love some of them, but I would never choose to hang out with hit men.

  8. amba12 said,

    That’s telling. Even those who regard abortion as murder don’t treat individuals who have decided on abortions as murderers. The rage is focused on “abortionists” because it has to go somewhere, but not all of them are blood-slavering profiteers; many are just medical professionals providing a service women have sought. When abortion is illegal, there have always been people who still provided it, from women like Dolly Sinatra (Frank’s mother) to doctors ranging from the quietly realistic and even compassionate (from their point of view) to the filthy and sleazy. And that was in a culture that was much stricter about sex.

    One member of my family had an abortion young, getting pregnant by accident or carelessness with a boyfriend who was clearly just a passing fancy. (For that I blame the times.) I would like to have known that child and welcomed her (don’t ask me why “her”) into the family; however, then “her” half-siblings whom I am so fiercely attached to would not exist.

    I’m convinced we can do better than that, though we can’t achieve perfection. We can hold the power to make life in proper awe and handle it with much more care, in a variety of ways. We can show ultrasounds to high school kids. We can be really scared to get carelessly pregnant again, but not for fear of the law. We can commit ourselves at least to adoption if it happens anyway. We can teach awareness of what nature’s goal is in sexual passion and try to better strategize to align our goals with nature’s,

  9. amba12 said,

    And you don’t have to be anti-sex to think we’re handling sex way wrong.

  10. Rod said,

    Amba: Comment # 8 ends with a call to . . . maturity. That is occasionally brought forth in response to impending death, but not so often in matters wrapped up in sex.

    I was once in a Bible study in which the topic was forgiveness. Prompted by a few verses, everyone agreed that we were supposed to forgive the truly repentant (without necessarily releasing dangerous criminals), even if they committed heinous crimes. Everybody got it when it came to forgiving liars, thieves, and murderers. Than somebody brought up adultery, and it was as though we had discovered the unpardonable sin.

    Our sexuality is so basic to our being that I sometimes suspect we never address the topic with rationality, only with rationalization.

  11. amba12 said,

    It’s probably impossible to address rationally. What we’ve done though is to chicken out of acknowledging its power, diminishing it by trivializing it.

  12. Kip Peticolas said,

    I am puzzled. I wandered into this blog because of a question about Stephen Colbert and religion. The original blogspot was impressive both by blogger and commentators. Now I am in an awkward site that threatens to rush off and vote for Palin. If folk were allowed to stop a pregnancy within a few days, something that is more than possible, you are talking about discarding a few cells…not a human life. Because of the anti-abortion racket, the drugs to do this are not readily available. And the posters of dismembered babies and terminated human life can wave, apparently along with the Medicare death panels. And stem cell research is neatly curtailed so that those of us who are concerned about Alzheimer’s or arthritis can forget about medical advances. (While fertility clinics dump them daily.) Whose human life is more important? Someone who has struggled to live, at whatever age, or a few cells? One does clip the many cells of one’s fingernails without much angst. For a culture that so despises human life as to support invading other countries, to ignore the death and maiming of our poor warriors, (not to mention cheating them out of medical support when it comes to taxes), to support a death penalty, to support the deaths of any other species, and the death of the planet, this hysteria about incipient human life is blind. (No I do not think that whatever the last-term nasty abortion thing is should be done other than to save the mother’s life or sanity. In general, anti-abortion (pro-choice) is anti-women. Read some stories in Peru about the tragedies of young raped girls in a society that ostracizes any medical person who might help such a child.. The grisly specter of women casually aborting for no good reason is a lie.

  13. Kip Peticolas said,

    typo…anti-abortion is anti-choice.

  14. amba12 said,

    you are talking about discarding a few cells…not a human life.

    Kip, I am speaking in favor of early abortion (the earlier the better, and prevention better yet) remaining legal. That said, your own human life began as “a few cells”!

    The trouble with the feminist movement is that you have only to express any ambivalence about abortion and you must be “rushing off to vote for Sarah Palin.” I began to be able to hear “the other side,” yes — largely because of my own abortion. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything they say.

    So many people seem to want us to come down on the side of the embryo 100%, or the side of the woman 100% (as if they were pitted against each other). Unfortunately, both have a claim on our attention. In the post I linked in the last paragraph, I tried to express my nonreligious sense of all that we casually or in torment create and destroy when we conceive and abort. I think early abortion should remain legal, AND I think we should regard it more gravely, if only because otherwise we undermine the value of our own unique individuality.

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