A horrific story hit the news this week about an abortion clinic in Philadelphia where it is alleged that the physician was delivering live births and then killing the babies by cutting their spinal cords with a pair of scissors. If the allegations are true, this guy deserves all he gets.
I am pro-choice... but it isn't a stand that I wear comfortably or easily. Let me first say why I'm uncomfortable and then I'll share why I still come out where I do.
When a fetus becomes a human being is a difficult question to answer for me and for most people. It is a matter of very fine lines. I know very few people who actually and practically believe that at the moment of conception, a person exists. (Yes, lots of people say they believe that but don't follow up on the practical implications... so I don't quite believe them). On the other end of the spectrum, everyone I know of who agree that the day before the birth of a full term baby, you've got a real person there. (Yes, again, there are those who would say that as long as the fetus is in utero, it is still a part of the mother's body but that also seems to be pushing things to ridiculousness to me). The question is where is the line in between? Is it as soon as the embryo attaches to the uterine wall? Is it when the fetus begins to look like a baby? Is it when what used to be called "quickening" - the first time the woman feels movement - happens? But now we know that movement happens long before the woman feels it, so what does that mean? Is it when the fetus could survive outside of the womb? that is a moving target given the changes in medical technology... I don't know how to answer that question of when. When we read stories like the one about the physician in Philadelphia it becomes clear to me both how difficult the question is and how important the answer.
There are significant theological questions here too... During my doctoral program we had an elective course on medical ethics in various Christian traditions and talked about abortion. The thumbnail Roman Catholic foundation says that we are created in the image of God. That image has nothing to do with capabilities, it is just there. So, a person with significant brain damage, to the point they are unable to do any of the things we associate with being human, still reflects the image of God as much as a world class athlete or Nobel Prize winner. You can easily see where this foundation would preclude abortion a any time under any circumstances. A Reformed view begins at different place. In the Reformed tradition, God's primary work is in re-creating the world and we are called to partnership with God in that endeavor. You can see where the Protestant work ethic grew from this theological ground. And you can see where it places value on the human being in a slightly different place which would, at least theoretically, leave room for abortion under some circumstances.
There are scriptural questions as well... which are not as clear as anyone would like them to be.
And there are sociological, cultural, and political questions which are as messy as they could be. Many of those who are anti-abortion under any circumstances also see no responsibility for the child once it is born. Social safety nets, medical care, support for the mother, even adequate school are all irrelevant. That seems to me to be the height of hypocrisy that a society forces a choice upon a woman and then offers absolutely no support.
So I don't sit comfortably in the Pro-choice camp. But I do still sit there. In part it is because of those difficult questions as I experience them. More so, it is because I cannot experience them the same way a woman who is pregnant would experience them. I cannot wrestle with the question of caring for a child whom we know will be profoundly disabled. Some families are capable and some are not. Given recent attacks on the social safety nets, it could be a terrible decision that would destroy the futures of other children in the family. I cannot imagine reliving a rape every time I looked at my swollen belly. I cannot imagine looking at a life that I had planned out and suddenly discovered that because of one irresponsible act or even just because of an accidental failure of birth control responsibly used, everything is destroyed. I cannot. And that is the key for me. I cannot make those incredibly difficult decisions for another person. And I do believe in my heart of hearts that part of what it means to be human, part of God's yearnings for us, is to be moral agents and to make those hard decisions.
In my most wonderful of dreams, I would envision a world where there are no more abortions. Birth control would be effective and readily available to all... and because of good education, used by all who didn't want to become pregnant. Rapes would be reported in a timely fashion and the morning after pill administered so the embryo would not attach to the uterine wall. I would envision a society where once a child is born it is not forgotten and that poor or differently abled children get the same opportunities as well off children. I would envision medical technology that could deal with problems in utero so that a child would not be born disabled or deformed.
For now, my dream is just a dream. In the meantime, I believe there are times when abortion should clearly be regulated. But where those lines are less clear, it is only the woman, in the middle of her community of support, that can make those hard decisions.