Abortion: A Case Study in Perspective

If you're expecting me to rant about what I think we should do about the "Abortion Situation" in this country or on this planet, you probably think I'm a lot braver than I am. I'm a little hesitant to throw out a hot button issue that impacts so many people, but it's an excellent example of how a little bit of perspective can de-foam the mouths of the world. I started thinking about this with the recent death of a young woman in Ireland who was denied an abortion. While currently what happened is unclear, her husband and many women's rights advocates believe the abortion would have been life-saving. A friend of mine brought this news to my attention, then pointed out that this happened roughly two months after the International Symposium on Excellence in Maternal Healthcare in Ireland stated "...abortion is not medically necessary to save the life of a woman". The general reaction my friend had to the combination of these two events weighed in somewhere between despair and fury. Trying not to jump to conclusions, I resolved to play the devil's advocate to all the doom and gloom. (This is something I'm striving to do more often.) To begin, I set about perusing the latest news articles in search of new information and alternate perspectives, and pretty quickly found just that.

The first piece I stumbled upon in my brief internet research was an interesting breakdown by an OBGYN of what likely happened. I think the most relevant bit for our purposes comes from this OBGYN in an update to the article:

There is no medically defensible position for doing anything other than optimal pain control and hastening delivery by the safest means possible.

So, there's some notion to support the opinion that something should have been done for the mother. Whether the something was an abortion or some form of expedited labor that cost the fetus its life isn't definitive.

Armed with this perspective I continued to sift through various articles and blog posts related to the incident. In my searches I found an interesting article by a Pro-Life doctor that, while mainly arguing that this particular tragedy is not evidence that Irish law should be changed, delves into a Christian-influenced perspective:

[I]n the situation where labour needed to be induced to save the life of a mother in an emergency (as in severe sepsis or eclampsia) I would induce it if I sincerely believed that nothing I could do would save the baby.

That seems mostly in-line with the OBGYN's sentiment that in an emergency, we need to keep in mind that in order to save the life of the mother we may lose the fetus.

As I mentioned earlier, this was the beginning of a discussion that was heavily influenced by a recent symposium decrying the use of abortions as a medical procedure. Let's go ahead and get the first big bullet point from the symposium's final report:

As experienced practitioners and researchers in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, we affirm that direct abortion is not medically necessary to save the life of a woman.

Now, there's one word that I think is pretty important in that statement that was left out of the headlines: "direct". By removing the word "direct" we were left with the implication that there is no circumstance in which the mother's life can be saved that will directly result in the loss of the fetus. Moving on to the next bullet point:

We uphold that there is a fundamental difference between abortion, and necessary medical treatments that are carried out to save the life of the mother, even if such treatment results in the loss of life of her unborn child.

At this point I feel confident that we are approaching a consistent conclusion from multiple perspectives. Medical professionals from different parts of the world expressing differing opinions on direct abortion are actually saying the same thing: treatments that result in the loss of the fetus are sometimes necessary to save the life of the mother. One of the biggest realizations we can make is that we're all closer to the same page than we may have believed. While it's easy to jump out and say "AHA! Those evil Catholic doctors at the symposium are trying to take away women's rights!" it turns out we mostly agree that life should be protected, but sometimes we can only save one life when two are in jeopardy.

The word "Abortion" is pretty heavily loaded these days, but in practice an abortion is the direct termination of a fetus. This is different from a medical procedure such as inducing labor prematurely when there is basically zero chance of survival of the fetus. That may seem nit-picky to you, but hey, words matter.

Now I'd like to zoom out a bit and approach the topic of Abortion a bit more broadly. This is a case where it seems like it's pretty difficult to get into the other person's perspective since often there is no middle ground. One of the best summations of the debate I have ever heard (though I don't recall where) is essentially:

  • Most people believe that not having a baby at all is OK
  • Most people believe that killing a 1 year old child is NOT OK
  • All of the people who fall into the above categories have widely different opinions on where OK ends and NOT OK begins

I'd like to make an assumption here: most people believe there will be cases when a woman is pregnant and bad things are happening. Sometimes doctors perform medical procedures necessary to save the life of the mother at the cost of the fetus, and this is OK. Not OK in an "oh, bum" sort of way, but OK in a "best course of action in a terrible situation" sort of way. I think it's a reasonable assumption we should all feel comfortable building from.

A schism opens up when people start having direct abortions. As someone without a medical background I feel unqualified to make a justifiable claim as to whether or not direct abortions are ever medically necessary. There is a vast wealth of medical knowledge that I cannot begin to understand, and I feel that this is out of the realm of a simple Wikipedia Jockey (or Wi-Jay, if you like). What is readily apparent, however, point out the fact that pregnancy is no joke, and presents severe risks to women's health. This is pretty much where we light the fuse and run away screaming. Ignoring fringe elements that want to investigate miscarriages and building from the assumptions we have already made we can safely say that the resistance to abortions begins around the time where the mother's health (or potential health) is put over that of the fetus.

I'm going to try and boil the debate down again, because the root argument of both sides of the debate are pretty standard:

The typical Pro-Life stance is that when one miracle sperm wins the egg race, a new life has been created. If you start with that premise, any direct abortion can be equated to putting a gun to someone's head and pulling the trigger. If you're on the Pro-Choice side of the fence, I'd like you to dig deep in your empathy glands to think about this. I don't want any straw-men arguments about the Illuminati using the TEA Party to undermine women in society, I want you to use your head. How would you feel about legislation that allowed mothers to execute their children? While being personally against it, would you be capable of chalking it up to being a woman's choice? It may seem like a simplistic argument, but to many it's an unambiguous line drawn the sand of morality.

I think summing up the typical Pro-Choice stance is a bit more complicated, but I'll propose a couple of arguments. The easiest: a fetus has the potential to be a person, but potential doesn't instill person-hood. This may seem callous to those of you on the Pro-Life side of things, but I think I've already covered this: it's listening time. If you're working under the assumption that a fetus is not a person, it becomes a bit easier to justify  direct abortion. Another popular argument is that the drastic effect of a fetus on a mother outweighs the fetus' right to life. In other words, one individual cannot impose the medical weight of pregnancy on another without the consent of the imposed. Consider the significance of anothe person attached to you, using your kidneys to process their blood, all without your consent. Now consider not being allowed to detach them without being accused of murder. Is it really fair for anyone to hold another person to this level of responsibility with such a high cost?

Having butchered those two common defenses of abortion, I encourage you to read a much more eloquent defense written by Judith Jarvis Thompson if you'd like to know more.

Abortion is not an easy thing to discuss when you take the real world into consideration. There are no magic bullets, no simple answers, and no soundbyte can possibly cover the breadth of exceptions to every rule. This level of complexity can be found in nearly any situation where someone's personal beliefs are touched on. The first thing we should do when we hear something that runs contradictory to our beliefs is to get the full story. As in the case of the Irish Healthcare Symposium, finding context is often a short-cut to finding common ground. Consider two people having a conversation over the phone: one has climbed a stepladder, the other a water tower. Without knowing where the other person is, how could they ever decide whether or not jumping off would be safe?

Human beings share an innate curiosity that sends us all looking for answers. We don't all end up at the same destination, so sometimes we have to follow one another's footsteps to understand how we got to where we are. You may lose a bit of time, a bit of patience, even a bit of comfort, but if you really want to cover the distance between you and your fellow man you just might have to approach things from a new perspective.


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Featured image from S.MiRK on Flickr.