The Lightning Rod


Everyone agrees on so many issues related to abortion, you’d think we could find some sort of common ground that would move the discussion forward. Everyone agrees that abortions are undesirable. That ought to be a good starting point, but we seem to be at loggerheads even there.

The usual conservative position is absolute, and becoming more fixed all the time. The most extreme opinion is that a fertilized egg is a complete human beings, and that any abortion at all is morally unacceptable. I’ve never heard an extreme liberal position on abortion, but let’s assume one for the sake of discussion: all abortions should be allowed under any circumstance.

Can we not agree that neither extreme is a viable opinion? To begin with, a fertilized egg is not a human being, and cannot develop into one unless it becomes implanted. While it is worth discussing at what point a fertilized egg becomes a human life, nothing guarantees that an egg will implant in the womb, let alone be naturally carried to term. Even when it does implant, half of all pregnancies abort naturally. In many if not most such cases, the mother is unaware either of pregnancy or that she has aborted. Additionally, if fertilized cells and zygotes are fully human as claimed, we have failed to provide them with the basic trappings of society, such as a name and social security number, not to mention a funeral if they die before birth. At the other end, unlimited abortion for any reason regardless of the stage of pregnancy is a nightmarish and morally repugnant thought. Surely we can do better than either of these extreme positions.

Much of how we view the issue of abortion depends on our appreciation of women. Here too there are extremes. Extreme anti-abortionists, often men, see the woman as completely responsible for her pregnancy. Therefore, once she becomes pregnant, it is her moral duty to bear the child and rear it to adulthood. On the other side is the viewpoint that absolutely nothing must stand in the way of a woman’s right to manage her own life, including her decision to end a pregnancy.

Here again, there are problems with both extremes. First, women rarely get pregnant by themselves. The man seems to have been left out of the picture, although he is as responsible for pregnancy as she. Second, there are a number of situations in which the woman loses control over whether she might be impregnated. Among these are forcible sex, birth control failure, and simple passion. At the other side, there is a moral question to be answered here. No woman should deal with a pregnancy lightly, and in fact, very few do.

The most extreme anti-abortion stance seems to be that women are nothing more than factories for the production of children. They have no real reproductive rights (in fact, few non-reproductive rights either) of their own, including no right to prevent pregnancy. One assumes that such extremists also believe no one should have sex outside of marriage, which is a quixotic quest at best. Fortunately, such extremely puritanical attitudes are countered by the many millions who believe and behave otherwise.

When I hear of extreme anti-abortionists I cannot help but feel that many such people are white conservatives from the midlands, and for more than a few their attitude is tinged by racism. They believe it is “those”, the irresponsible ones with dark skin, who play around, get pregnant, and think they can get rid of it with an easy abortion. This belief gets a big boost in today’s news from a religious campaign that has placed 30 billboards with the president’s image in black sections of Chicago saying “Every 21 minutes our next possible leader is aborted”. Chicago African-Americans immediately saw these messages for what they are: racist.

The focal point of the abortion debate, the lightning rod of the lightning rod, is Planned Parenthood. Almost nothing that has been said by politicians or the anti-abortion crowd regarding PP has been remotely accurate. Anti-abortion advocates view PP as an abortion mill. The fact is, three percent of Planned Parenthood’s services are for abortion. Three percent, and pregnant clients are routinely counseled about non-abortion alternatives. Other PP services are: to prevent unintended pregnancy (83%); exams for cancer; testing and treatment of STDs. It would seem that a health organization that devotes 97% of its energy to services that have nothing to do with abortion would be an unlikely focus for anti-abortionists.

About 15,000 children die each day from easily treatable conditions because of poverty. These are real living and breathing children, with loving parents who despair at their loss, not invisible collections of cells. I find it hypocritical to get so exercised about a dozen cells that may or may not become a baby while this unacceptable and tragic loss of many millions of living children is allowed to continue year after year.

Then there is the small matter of the woman’s life and health to consider. There are several medical conditions in which a woman’s life is at risk from continuing a pregnancy. Pre-eclampsia is extremely dangerous and difficult to treat, but is usually cured by abortion. There are others. To deny abortion under such circumstances is immoral.

There are also non-medical conditions in which carrying a pregnancy to term is a highly questionable plan. Few men seem to recognize the seriousness of rape, or that a pregnancy resulting from that rape is morally repugnant. Abortion may be justified if the woman feels she could not properly provide for this unwanted child, and is unwilling to surrender her body to this hated pregnancy for nine months so the unwanted child can be put up for adoption. Consider also a single mother with several children who is working and taking care of her family. She becomes pregnant by her boyfriend because of a failure of birth control. If she continues this pregnancy, she will be unable to work. She may not like it, but abortion may be the best option. (Please, no pontificating about sex. The secret is out. People have sex because they like it, not because they plan to have children.)

In passing we should also mention the so-called partial birth abortion that got conservatives so exercised not long ago. There are only two things to be said about it. First, it is an extremely rare procedure that nobody likes and is avoided if at all possible. Second, it is not done for the purpose of aborting a pregnancy. Rather, it is a surgical procedure done to save the woman.

The number of abortions has fallen steadily since 1980, but remains unacceptably high. Anti-abortionists don’t seem to recognize or approve of this trend; it seems to be all or nothing for them. Surely it would be better to work toward continuing improvement.

We should also remember why abortion became legal with Roe vs. Wade. Abortions were almost always performed under unclean conditions in secret by people who had no medical background and therefore no business performing abortions. Pregnancy prevention was far less effective than today, and there were more unplanned pregnancies. We were also more puritanical about sex. There were fewer options for a pregnant woman, and an unwanted pregnancy could have serious effects on her whole life. The total effect was that many women underwent illegal and dangerous back-room abortion procedures, some of which ended in death, many of which ended with physical damage, all of which were traumatic.

Returning to those dark times would be a terrible mistake. It would be far better to continue to improve the present trend of declining abortions by making better reproductive services and better understanding about sex more readily available.


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