President Trump’s executive office, on October 2, backed the US House of Representatives ban on 20-week abortions, labeled the H.R. 36: Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. This bill, if signed into law, will outlaw termination of pregnancy past the 20-week mark, except if the pregnancy threatens the mother’s life or if it’s the result of rape or incest.
The administration rationalized their stance with their support for a ‘culture of life’ – a talking point and issue that is close to Republicans and Conservatives, alike. The Trump team also added the unborn baby’s capability to feel pain around the 20-week mark as a second reason to bolster their support for the bill. Overall, it seems that the Executive Office tried to cover both the moral and scientific bases to make a strong case.
Abortion has become a heated topic in recent times, especially in the US, with the pro-choicers pushing for more bodily autonomy and freedom of choice and the pro-lifers retreating to the traditionalist positions of respect for life – born and unborn.
While the pro-lifers have definitely ramped up their campaigning and messaging effort, the pro-choicers seem to have gone off the deep end with over-the-top rhetoric and a glib attitude towards unborn life.
My dilemma begins with the Left’s dichotomy over its show of love and compassion towards human life. On the one hand, leftists and contemporary liberals seem willing to sacrifice just about anything for the sake of the weak, the marginalized, and the vulnerable, regardless of their age. On the other hand, however, this unyielding concern seems to dry up when it comes to unborn babies.
In the Left’s vision, the birthing process is a value-added phase that represents a cut-off point, beyond which an entity becomes a human being and, thus, should be afforded rights and protection. Prior to this rite of passage, which seems to confer personhood, the entity is merely a clump of cells whose existence is made subordinate to the conveniences of the woman housing it.
I must make it terribly clear that ‘conveniences’ doesn’t include life-threatening circumstances that a woman might face on account of her being pregnant. Abortions for the sake of saving the mother’s life account for less than 1% of total abortions in the US. The overwhelming majority of abortions are performed for convenience or financial reasons. I shall elaborate on ‘life-saving abortions’ in the later part of this article.
The abortion debate as it hangs now seems to be hinging for the most part, if not completely, on the idea of personhood. The unborn entity, whether it’s a clump of cells or a human-looking organism, is still not a human as it doesn’t exhibit human traits like conscience, self-determination, free will, and other ontological characteristics, hence, hasn’t attained personhood and, thus, should be held subordinate to the mother, who does exhibit these characteristics.
In a survey of models of personhood, Bruce A. Ware describes two competing and prominent models: the functionalist model and the essentialist model. To summarize, the functionalist model confers personhood upon those who exhibit certain measurable and appreciable traits like self-determination and self-control, to name a few; and the essentialist model confers personhood based on the inherent capability to develop the traits referenced in the functionalist model.
The functionalist model runs into serious trouble as its proponents set, without justification, arbitrary indicators of human personhood. It almost seems that the model is set up in the image of its creators, leaving out everyone who doesn’t resemble them. It reflects one of the most serious and widespread elements of human condition – bias. This unfortunate setup leaves out not only unborn babies, but it also leaves the fate of comatose and vegetative patients hanging in the balance.
The essentialist model takes a holistic view of human personhood and ontological characteristics, avoiding arbitrary standards and being rational and ‘inclusive.’ The embryo, although lacking in resemblance to a mature human being in function and structure, contains the data and autonomic behavior to carry on concerted growth that leads to a fully developed human being. Somewhere in this unassuming mass of cells, there lie the seeds for human conscience and free will. Personhood is a function of these natural preponderances, manifest or otherwise.
Interestingly, such results are not seen of any other clump of cells, including, isolated cells derived from the embryo.
Cue human embryonic stem cells.
These cells are just one component of the embryo and by themselves cannot perform the mammoth task of creating a human being. They, thus, don’t constitute a person and can be manipulated for scientific research. The essentialist position is, thus, compatible with human embryonic stem cell research, in that it states that personhood arises out of the ‘ontological wholeness.’ This also follows in a post-birth human, where personhood is conferred upon the physio-psychological entity and not individual components, i.e. organs.
A civilized society places, rightfully, a huge premium on human life and should do everything it can to protect it. Laws exist, or ought to exist, not so much to protect the strong, as to protect the weak, the vulnerable, and the voiceless.
Upholding the sanctity of life will mean making abortion illegal, with an exception for safeguarding the mother’s life. While my libertarian side grimaces at the thought of this prospect, my conservative side stridently calls for government intervention to protect this divine gift called ‘life.’
This raises the questions of offspring resulting from rape/incest.
While rape is a horrid crime, the offspring of such an act bears no responsibility for the crime. Abortion should be forbidden, but the woman shouldn’t be under any duress to take custody of the baby. Adequate counseling, support, and adoption advice should be offered, which is what Crisis Pregnancy Centers are for – a lesser known, yet effective, service. What is even lesser known is that close to three-fourths of rape victims decide to raise the offspring from the act and over three-quarters of those who opt for abortion regret their decision.
In extreme situations that require picking between the mother and the unborn child, the mother should be given the preference based on the fact that she possesses the capability to give rise to another offspring that can be raised in a two-parent family and given optimum life. Saving the offspring at the expense of the mother will simply relegate the child to a less than optimum upbringing.
Abortion is a sensitive and polemical issue that causes tensions to flare up at the drop of a hat. While it has been co-opted into the political battlefield, its edifice remains steeped in the age-old debate over personhood and sanctity of life and that is where it should be fought and resolved.