Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Personhood Amendment: Back With A Vengeance

Another election year, another chance to shake up the status quo. Or at least try, again and again.

I think abortion may be the most complicated social issue there is. Where else can you find people saying 'I believe one thing personally, and something else politically'? (except maybe the debates over the ethical vs. legal acceptability of building a mosque a few blocks away from Ground Zero).

Even gay rights, which has a fair amount of gradations in acceptability to people (everywhere from full rights to everything but the big 'M' to no rights at all), doesn't come close to the schism abortion rights brings about. Despite what certain traditionalists might have you think, gay marriage does not bring about fundamental questions of life and death.

What makes us human? What does being human mean? Are we a mere collection of cells? Do we have 'souls'? Are those souls something God-given, or are they just a bunch of electrical energy? Spiritual, scientific, or both?

And, of course, when does life begin and end? If an entity is biologically alive, but brain dead, is it important to maintain that life? Is it 'playing God' to make that decision? Is there such a thing as 'playing God?'

One could ask this of all our medical advances, and some surely have. Cloning and stem cell research have been under constant scrutiny. But few ask this of other technologies: bypass surgery and pacemakers, vaccines and penicillin. We take those for granted, and, personally, if letting a doctor save my life with amazing technology is having someone 'play God,' I think they can just keep on playing.

But people don't have a problem with allowing people to live. It's allowing them to die that's much trickier.

Taking a brain dead woman off life support, à la Terri Schiavo. It's tricky--if her body's alive, do we have the right to remove what's keeping her alive? Which one's playing God?

But more the question...what makes us a human being? What makes us 'alive' and worthy of being alive?

There have been so many answers over time. I think most of us would agree that mental illness or mental retardation are not excuses to put someone to death, nor are someone's race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or politics.

But where's the line? Is a fetus, incapable of thought or feeling, any different than an adult in a permanent vegetative state? Perhaps, in terms of potential. But in their current state--neither past nor future, but in that immediate moment--how different are they from one another?

Abortion is the most complex social issue even for me, a non-religious social liberal. Both sides have merit.

A fetus has human DNA. It is a potential person. But each cell in our body has human DNA, and we do not cry murder when we lose blood or skin cells. Nor do we call an egg a chicken, though it might once have had the potential to become one.

And that DNA is unique. But so is the DNA of every fetus lost in a miscarriage.

Some religions believe that the soul enters the new being at conception, others at birth, and still others at some point in between. People once believed that a being wasn't a 'person' until s/he was a few years old.

On the other side of the debate is the pregnant woman. If you're pro-abortion rights, she is an individual entity, a full person, who should have domain over her body and anything in it--including the fetus inside. If you're not, she's a vessel, who must sacrifice her bodily integrity for the sake of the fetus. She becomes secondary; her life, hopes, and dreams. And though maternal mortality is down in the developed world, it still exists. And who but the woman should make the choice whether to risk death for an unwanted child?

Some might say 'she should have kept her legs shut.' I hate that expression, and cringe every time I see it. It's completely demeaning, and makes a number of poor assumptions, not the least of is taking for granted the fact that the sex was consensual. If the rape victim had just 'kept her legs shut' would that have stopped her assailant?

And, if the sex was consensual, she wasn't the only one participating. Why does hardly anyone ever say 'her boyfriend should have kept it in his pants'? Yes, the woman has responsibility for taking care of her body as best she can, and trying to prevent unwanted pregnancies. But it takes more than one person to conceive, and the idea that a woman is somehow the dredges of society for acting upon her sexual needs is a sad relic of earlier times that needs to be discarded. So is the idea that she is merely a vessel, which one can trace back to the ancient Greeks and their belief that sperms were, in and of themselves, tiny people who merely incubated in a woman's uterus.

Tim Tebow, the Broncos new quarterback, did an ad for Focus on the Family promoting the 'right to life.' His mother followed her conscience, and was lucky enough to survive, despite her health obstacles. But each of us has a different set of beliefs, and should have the right to choose, not just whether we wish to raise a baby, but also if we wish to endanger our health.

The saddest example of a life lost for beliefs not her own was Angela Carder. A pregnant patient whose cancer reasserted itself, she chose treatment that gave her the best chance of survival, but also would, in all likelihood, kill her non-vital fetus. The hospital hired a lawyer to represent the fetus, and forced her to go through with an unwanted C-Section, which resulted in the death of both parties. Was forcing this 'treatment' on her, for the sake of the fetus, more humane than allowing a non-vital fetus to die?

It's complicated. We've all seen the pictures of so-called 'murdered babies.' We've also seen textbook pictures that show that fetuses, in their most common stage at the time of abortion, actually look nothing like babies. Nor can they survive outside the mother's womb. They depend on her body for survival in a way not even a newborn does, for a newborn can survive with anyone's nurturance. And, depending on the mother's state of mind and health, they may either be a symbiont or a parasite.

As a new personhood amendment pops up on the Colorado ballot this fall, I have to wonder: In a few hundred years, when we look back on the current abortion debate, which will we see as more barbaric? Abortion, or the attempts to ban it?

1 comment:

  1. Awesome first article! I loved the balance and the willingness to look at all sides. That's what's going to make your blog so much fun to follow!