Answering questions about abortion requires flexibility

November has returned to Loras College – trees are shaking off any lingering leaves, stepping out the front door and beyond the warm glow of central heating is slightly more unpleasant each morning, and the field in front of Keane Hall looks like a World War One cemetery. A grid of white crosses is spread over most of the grass, standing in tribute to the roughly 4,000 fetuses removed from mothers-to-be daily in the United States. Such a high number should be unsettling regardless of your opinion in the Life-Choice debate. While the viability and personhood of unborn humans and the related ethical questions are clouded in ambiguity, the fact that nearly 1.5 million pregnancies are terminated annually in the United States is a troubling and undeniable social issue in itself.

Molding a response should take many variables into consideration: the causes of so many undesired pregnancies, the respective rights of women and unborn humans, and how those rights and their relative weight shift in different contexts. The dominant dialogue has instead boiled into two camps – both of which are tagged with inevitably problematic labels. On one side, the Pro-Life movement, while stating the admirable aim of protecting vulnerable persons, operates under an absolute: that life and personhood begin at conception, and should be valued and protected accordingly. If this is accepted, the removal of a fetus from a uterus and its resulting death are as morally reprehensible as murdering a sentient adult. This framework is short-sighted, not seeing the importance of a good-faith analysis of the relevant questions and instead simplifying the dilemma to the point of distortion.       

The pro-life stance relies on the premise that protecting life from active termination is our foremost moral obligation and supersedes any importance which individual sovereignty may have. This ethic, however, fades once it passes beyond abortion and euthanasia. It’s prohibitive, not active – it sees life as sacred, non-negotiable, and in need of protection from a planned end, but otherwise neglects it. The Life Ethic pulls crowds of protesters to Planned Parenthood, but not death row. The same congressmen bemoaning the “Massacre of the Innocents” solemnly nods for more Predator drones and Hellfire missiles.

The Catholic Church, fixated on sexual repression rather than tangible social progress, has insisted since the discovery of HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s that no matter the incalculable amount of suffering brought by the epidemic disease, OK’ing condoms would leave us worse off. This kind of dogmatism gets uncomfortable when impregnated rape victims take the spotlight – if protecting life is our paramount goal, then shouldn’t those females (saying “women” would falsely imply that they’ve all had the relative fortune of reaching adulthood) count her blessings, accept the murkiness of divine will, and carry the child to term? Or should we consider the further aggravation of the psychological and physical maiming she’s already endured because someone forcibly intruded on her sexual privacy? Articulating a decision demands consideration of various moving parts and an appreciation of their complexity – not an unbending insistence on revealed moral truth.

Once it is accepted that there are many angles from which to view the question, the dialogue will rightfully fall on a spectrum, not into two adjacent dugouts. This requires some level of admitted uncertainty, and the recognition that opinions must constantly tailor themselves to new evidence. As our understanding of individual rights, fetal viability, and medicine evolve, we must adapt the ways in which we apply them to questions surrounding abortion. Instead, one side answers the question from the pulpit of religious truth – and who can argue with God?

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