This post, my first in a long time, is both longer than most previous posts, and far more personal.
The other day, I made the following post on my personal Facebook page:
Soon after, an old college friend — whom I’ve known for years to be a devout evangelical Christian — left a comment asking why I considered the meme to be “B-S”. This started a lengthy exchange that went on for most of the day, and I found myself wanting to express my thoughts on the issue as thoroughly as I could. I knew I wasn’t going to change her mind — that wasn’t my goal. I just wanted to be as clear as possible, and I found myself thinking through the issue in greater depth than I have in some time. So I’ve taken the comments I made on Facebook and pasted them below. Out of courtesy, I’ve decided to just summarize my friend’s responses.
As I said, she wanted to know why I called “bull-shit” on Sarah Palin’s post —
If there are more PP clinics in minority neighborhoods, it’s because minorities are still more likely to live in economically depressed zones, which is where the need for low-cost access to health services is greatest (and, as [another friend] also correctly pointed out, abortion is but one of the services PP provides, and it is hardly the most frequently provided one at that).
But mostly it’s B-S because of the argument that’s being constructed. This meme is suggesting that we liberals are being inconsistent — if not downright hypocritical — for supporting both PP and #BlackLivesMatter. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is about eradicating the sort of institutional racism that results in the devaluing of black lives. Which probably immediately raises the question, “But isn’t PP an active participant in that, because what could be worse than killing so many black babies?”
The problem with that question is that it doesn’t look deep enough. Why do more minority women terminate pregnancies? It’s not as if they’re being lured into PP clinics and pressured into abortion procedures. No, they, like most women who have this procedure, take a look at their lives and determine that they simply cannot provide an environment conducive to raising a healthy child. The reasons they come to this conclusion could be any number of things: low-income; low-education; poor health; unsafe neighborhood; unstable family; any number of negative circumstances. Interestingly enough, each of those circumstances can, in some way, be seen as the result of systemic, institutional racism — the very thing #BlackLivesMatter is trying to combat.
The great irony is that, maybe, by taking #BlackLivesMatter more seriously, we could remove the very source of the reasons so many minority women feel compelled to end their pregnancies in the first place.
She took issue with my suggestion that Planned Parenthood doesn’t “lure” women of color into their clinics, and instead argued that PP deliberately places clinics where they will have the “most business”. I replied —
We clearly see PP’s operations from very different angles. I conclude that they establish clinics in minority and low-income areas because that’s where there is the greatest need for services. You see that as picking locations where “they would have the most business”. You call low-cost healthcare “alluring”, whereas I consider it a necessary alternative to no care whatsoever, which is the choice that faces those at the fringes of our capitalistic society. But, that difference in our perspectives is probably inevitable since I consider PP’s work (the whole of it, not merely its abortion services) to be a positive contribution to society, whereas as you view it as participating in a great evil.
Which is really the fundamental chasm that exists between us: I simply do not consider a terminated pregnancy murder. A fertilized egg is not a human being. An implanted fertilized egg is not a human being. I simply cannot believe that and reconcile it with the staggering numbers of fertilized eggs which spontaneously abort, and the number of implanted eggs which miscarry. I cannot.
However, that is not to say that I don’t consider a terminated pregnancy a tragedy. Because what that abortion usually tells us is that a woman found herself in a position where she concluded she could not bring a child to term. I find it tragic, that in a nation this wealthy, with all its resources, that a woman expecting a child would *ever* doubt that there would be enough resources to care for that child. I would much prefer that, should a woman ever find herself unexpectedly pregnant (which would happen less if we wouldn’t make birth-control such a burden to obtain) then she would feel confident in the support made available to her when it comes time to raise her child.
Put another way, I’d take anti-abortion efforts more seriously if they were coupled with an equally ferocious commitment to addressing the conditions that make women feel that abortion is their only choice.
She then asked me the inevitable question — when do I believe a human being is a human being. She also argued that the “conditions” I mentioned are addressed by the Christian community, citing a number of clinics in her area that try to provide social support services while emphasizing alternatives to abortions. I left a rather long response —
I’m going to respond in two parts, if that’s okay, and I think I’ll tackle the easier part first.
When I talk about a “commitment to address the conditions that make women feel that abortion is their only choice,” I’m referring to what is essentially a symptom-vs.-cause breakdown of the issue. Abortions are a symptom of a larger problem: social and economic conditions that leave women in a position unable to bear a child healthily and safely. And I feel that there’s a frustrating disconnect between how the Christian community — the portion of it we’re discussing here, at least — approaches these two sides of the abortion issue.
When it comes to the symptom — the actual act of terminating a pregnancy — the approach is overwhelmingly focused on public policy. Laws restricting the number of weeks during which an abortion can be had. Or requiring providers to have admitting privileges at the nearest hospital. Or requiring (if you really want to talk about heinousness) that women undergo trans-vaginal ultrasounds before being granted permission to have the procedure done. It’s all about passing laws that make the process damn near impossible to get through. It’s using the power of legislation to burden a woman’s ability to exercise what is still a Constitutional right.
On the other hand, when it comes to root causes — social and economic inequities that disproportionately affect people of color — what is there? You mention clinics in [her area]. And while I’m certainly not about to denigrate the work they do, I will say that it’s not nearly an adequate response to the problem. Systemic issues cannot be solved at the not-for-profit level.
What I’m getting at is that the approach is entirely backwards. When it comes to treating the symptom — convincing a woman to carry a pregnancy to term — that, I believe, is most effectively accomplished at the personal level. And that can be achieved by the type of charities you mention.
But the deeper causes will only be solved through public policy. And so far, to my knowledge, the most anti-abortion Christians have not been the ones pushing for expansions of Medicaid. Or supporting coverage of birth control by health insurance plans. Or advocating for better early education funding and paid family leave. Or demanding a change in mandatory minimum sentencing laws that keep a truly disgusting proportion of young, predominantly black men in prison.
In fact, the same political bloc that works so hard to make abortion illegal seems to me to be the same bloc trying to make life for the poor even more difficult than it already is — by pushing for ever fewer weeks of unemployment benefits; by placing ever more restrictions on the uses of SNAP benefits; by submitting (at a HUGE loss to taxpayers) welfare recipients to drug-testing; and generally making life at the bottom of the economic pyramid as humiliating as possible.
That same political bloc is also at the forefront of every battle to prevent the sharing of information that would enable young people to avoid unintended pregnancies, by opposing comprehensive sex education and insisting instead that teenagers be taught only to abstain from sex altogether.
Ultimately, what I see is pattern in which a certain subset of American Christians are perfectly happy to translate their religious views into law when it will constrain other peoples’ behavior, but are terribly opposed to doing so when it might actually relieve other peoples’ suffering. I would prefer to see the opposite.
Now, for the more difficult question: when do I believe we actually become human beings?
This should actually be a short post, because my main answer is, “I don’t know.” But it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it?
First of all, there are two ways that we have to answer this question: the legal, and the spiritual. And yes, I do believe they are different and, more importantly, independent of each other.
The reason for that is a legal definition of personhood requires precision. It requires a clear, identifiable boundary between “person” and “not”. Further, it requires a shared understanding of where that boundary lies. And since it has to be shared among a population with a dizzying variety of viewpoints, it has to be maximally accommodating.
Why? Because only a maximally accommodating law will allow every person to act according to their own belief system. And the decision whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term is, ultimately, a personal decision that should be guided only, and entirely, by that person’s own belief system. (Now, if you want to change a person’s belief system, that is done through your witness, not through legislation).
Unfortunately, our country’s definition is hardly precise. If I remember correctly, it relies on the notion of “viability” which I think tends to be placed at 24 weeks. Personally, I’m drawn to our country’s early standard — that a pregnancy could be terminated up to the “quickening”, when a woman could feel the fetus moving inside her. But that’s hardly more precise, is it?
When it comes to the spiritual understanding of personhood, it gets even fuzzier. I no longer subscribe to the literally-interpreted Biblical standard of conception (ie, “you knew me in the womb”). But I do think there’s a critical point before birth where what’s there should be protected.
What is that critical point? How could I possibly pin it down? It’s like the classic paradox of the heap. You would never call a single grain of sand a heap. But if you keep adding one grain at a time, it eventually becomes something you would call a heap. When did it cross over from a collection of sand grains to an actual heap? When does a collection of splitting cells become something we call a human being?
For me, it comes down to potential. Each fertilized egg has the potential to implant. But not every one does. Each implanted egg has the potential to grow into an embryo. But not every one does. The odds in these early stages aren’t all that great. But as the process goes on, the odds get ever greater, and the potential that this collection of cells will become something we recognize as a human being only gets stronger. There’s a hidden boundary that’s crossed. It’s because of that hidden boundary that I have no problem saying to someone the morning after, “Yeah, you should probably get some Plan B” but would tell someone six months in, “Um, I think it’s a little late to be changing your mind.”
For me, that’s the beautiful mystery of human life. And, in terms of my spiritual life, I treasure that mystery. If this is to be a land of liberty, then our county’s law will allow each of us to counsel others according to our own beliefs.
Our conversation ended there since, frankly, it had gotten quite late and we both needed to call it a night. In regards to the start of human life, she reiterated her belief that it begins at conception. And as for what I identified as the root causes of abortion, she acknowledged that we simply disagreed on the role of government in peoples’ lives. Since it had gotten so late, we couldn’t pursue it any further than that.
Which is a shame, because that might be what I find most flabbergasting of all — how do people decide, “I will try to turn my religious beliefs into law for this but not for that“? In this case, how do you justify pushing for laws that prohibit abortions (knowing full well that outlawing an action certainly won’t keep it from happening), and yet insist that the adverse conditions which compel women to terminate their pregnancies should only be addressed — insufficiently, no matter how nobly — through charity? I just don’t get it.