Tuesday, October 12, 2010


by Leslie Fish

One of the not-so-minor points in the recent presidential race was the abortion question. Obama stated that he believed in a woman's right to abortion. McCain and Palin announced that they didn’t personally believe in abortion but, if elected, they would not make a federal case of it but would leave the legality of abortion to the individual states. Still, the word went out: “If McCain gets elected, you can kiss Roe vs. Wade goodbye.” That helped tip the balance toward Obama. It’s pretty obvious that, no matter what the Family Values crowd may think, a vast number of Americans – particularly women – want to keep abortion legal. Those who don’t had best consider the following facts.

First, abortion can take place only during the first trimester of pregnancy. After that it becomes dangerous to the mother, and no doctor will do it for anything less than a direct threat to the mother’s life. Now, during the first trimester of pregnancy the object in a woman’s uterus is certainly not a “baby”; it won’t become that until the last trimester. It isn’t even properly called a “fetus”; it won’t be that until the second trimester. The proper scientific name for it is “embryo” – as in “embryonic” – and it is absolutely not a human being. It does not have a human heart or a human spine or human lungs, and it certainly does not have a human brain. For the religious-minded, consider that without a brain there is no mind, and without a mind, how can there be a soul?

Yes, an embryo is made of human tissue, but then, so are your toenails. Yes, it’s technically alive, but then, so is a virus. Yes, it will eventually develop to become a human being, but then, given enough time, so will whole species of monkeys; the only difference is time – six months versus six million years. The physical condition of an embryo is somewhere between that of a primitive worm and a salamander. Its life is certainly not worth the life, or health, or freedom, of a real human being – such as a woman – not unless you’re going to claim that women are not really human beings.

Now, on the question of the “value of life”… Ask: whose life?

No man has ever died in childbirth, but countless hundreds of millions of women have. Childbirth is not safe. It has not been safe since human beings began walking upright, and growing big brains and big skulls to hold them. Even in America today with all our boasted medical science, according to the medical actuarial tables, for women between the ages of 15 and 50, childbirth is the second most common cause of death. You don’t want to know what the first one is. (You do? All right: it’s violence – usually perpetrated by men. Childbirth is always perpetrated by men. Men have a lot to answer to women for.) Any woman who becomes pregnant is placing her life at risk. No one should be forced to place their life at risk without their consent. No one should be forced to risk their life for someone else’s beliefs. No man has the right to order a woman to risk her life for what he wants.

In any country that calls itself free, to risk your life or not must always be the individual’s choice. Therefore, to abort or not must always be the individual woman’s choice – and nobody else’s. Anything less is tyranny.



Aya Katz said...

Leslie, I like to distinguish between a human being and a person. A chicken embryo is chicken, a dog embryo is a dog, and a human embryo is genetically a human. What a human embryo is not is a person. But, for that matter, neither is a newborn. It takes years for a newborn to develop into a person. (Some never do.)

But really the issue is not the rights of the embryo. It is only the rights of the mother. She gets to decide because it is her body and her life. Even if a fully grown little homunculus inhabited her womb, she'd have the right to kick him out.

Given that this is the real point, why argue about what the embryo is or is not?

And I don't think we should blame men for this issue. Most of the people who call themselves "pro-life" that I've ever met were women. Most traditional religious people are women. (Which is not necessarily the same as saying that most women are traditionally religious. ;->)

Brian Dunbar said...

For the religious-minded, consider that without a brain there is no mind, and without a mind, how can there be a soul?


The soul, I am taught and believe doesn't live in the mind, it's just there, in the body. Sort of infused

No theologian, I understand my own faith poorly at best - hey I'm still learning. So I might have this wrong.

Aya Katz said...

Brian, the soul was considered (by some of the writers of the old testament) as the breath inside our bodies. It was the same word as "wind". The dead don't breathe, so we know their spirit has gone. Unborn babies don't use their lungs, so they have no soul yet.

But I would not try to make much of that argument.

Anonymous said...

Amen. Sing it again, sister, the Goddess is listening to you.

Anonymous said...

One reason a lot of people are against abortion is, IMO, because they want to punish women: a "bad" woman who has sex should have to "pay for her mistake;" a woman who wants to go on with her career rather than raise a child at that time deserves to be punished for her ambition, a "vain" woman who's afraid for her figure deserves to lose it, and so on.

And the most vicious people I've met who echo this are almost all women. Women are far crueler to each other than men are. When I was in HS, a girl who got pregnant wouldn't hear a word out of place from the boys, but a lot of the girls could be counted on to make her life hell. "Whore" and "slut" were some of the nicest words they'd use.

Anonymous said...

The heart of the Roe vs Wade is the gross overreaching of the federal government over states rights. I'm strongly pro-life but I will strongly defend a states rights to have abortion legal. What I cannot abide is the federal government stepping in and regulating laws that are not theirs to deal with. Marijuana legalization in California anyone? Doesn't the federal government have enough of what is in it's powers to deal with right now anyway? Screw this being about abortion. Ya, Roe v Wade gets overturned you can kiss abortions in Texas goodbye, but you'd still have them in California and all the other states could duke it out in the voting booth. Then our country would begin to return to the free country it has the reputation of being.

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Aya. Actually, I'd argue that a chicken embryo is a fertilized egg, but your point on not even newborns being persons is a good one. Still, we have to draw the line somewhere, and traditionally that point is where the newborn (however born) takes its first breath.

Likewise, I'd say you're right about the woman having the right to kick out a "fully grown little homunculus". If you came home from work and found a trespasser living in your house, you'd have the right to kick him out, too -- even if he wailed that he'd die of exposure if you did. Ditto, we have the right to kick illegal immigrants out of our country, even if they howl that they have no future in Mexico. Yes, it *is* a matter of property rights, and the most basic form of property is your own body.

Hi, Brian. Okay, religion is a matter of faith, which is belief in things that can't (yet, anyway) be proven. What can be proven is that you need the physical network of a brain to grow a mind. And what is a soul supposed to be if not the mind? What's the point of having a soul if your mind doesn't go with it?

Aya, again: yes, I've seen some amazingly vicious anti-abortion women. I suspect the basic motivation is jealousy and spite: "If I couldn't be free, you can't either". I'm not surprised that most traditionally religious people are women; the major religions in the world right now are pretty obviously sexist, and a woman raised in a religious culture would have to be pretty thoroughly brainwashed to stay in it.

Hi, 'Trades. The way the federal govt. got into the argument was, technically, to defend the rights of the minority against the majority. Back when Roe vs. Wade was passed, a large minority of people in every state wanted legal abortion, but there weren't enough of them in any one state to win an election. Roe vs. Wade was a judicial end-run by making abortion a privacy issue. Considering how much privacy is under attack right now, we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss any Supreme Court decision that protects it.

Leslie Fish said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Dunbar said...

And what is a soul supposed to be if not the mind? What's the point of having a soul if your mind doesn't go with it?

The questions you ask are, I think, backwards: the soul is temporary occupant of the body and mind.

Now, I've only gotten back _into_ religion after fleeing from it when I was a teenager. At the time I had only your basic pew-ballast view of the thing.

I expect to be exploring the nooks, crannies, and mysteries of faith, religion, and Catholicism for a long time to come. I've got way more questions than answers and it's probably always going to be that way.

Your mileage - and answers - may vary (smile).

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Brian. As near as I can remember, according to Catholic doctrine, the soul is the "immortal part"/"spirit" -- but I don't recall either of those being defined very well. What I'm asking is, when the "spirit" departs from the body, does or does not the mind go with it? Since the mind is the consciousness, memory, identity et al, if the soul flits off without it, then what's the point? If the mind doesn't survive, what good is the soul?

There is massive evidence for reincarnation (the latest being a book called "Soul Survivor", about a young boy who, at a very early age, had the skills and memories of a fighter-pilot who died in WWII), and in those cases it's made clear that the mind survives. One could go so far as to say that Man *is* mind. Or, to use Aya's definition, a *person* is a mind.

Hmmm, in that case, Koko the sign-language-using gorilla (who has passed human IQ tests with a score of 90) is also a person -- even though, when asked if she was a person or an animal, Koko thought for a moment and then signed: "Damn fine animal gorilla". Given the intelligence of dolphins, they probably qualify as "persons" too.

What I find ironic is the Pope's injunctions against birth-control devices and abortion, but also against In-Vitro Fertilization. His excuse for this, IIRC, is that IVF gives humans "the power of life and death" -- which strikes me as a really weak argument. Haven't humans always had that power? Haven't we always been able to choose to mate or not to mate, to kill or not to kill? These injunctions rather suggest to me that Eric's argument is true; it's all about punishing women for being free. We'll know that's not true only when the church puts an end to priestly celibacy and starts ordaining women.

--Leslie <;)))>< )O(

Aya Katz said...

Leslie, Koko the gorilla is definitely a person. So are Kanzi and Panbanisha, two bonobos I am acquainted with. And so is Bow, my adopted son, who happens to be a chimpanzee. Bow knows he is not human, but he also knows he's a person. In my household, that distinction is very important.

That the Catholic Church is opposed to immaculate conceptions is one of life's little ironies.