Anti-abortion extremism is in the news again. (Does it ever disappear?) As everyone knows by now, it’s because right-wing lawmakers in Alabama have advanced a law banning abortion at every stage of pregnancy – from the moment that sperm fertilizes egg. The law makes no exceptions for rape or incest.
In terms of logic, the law can easily be debunked as literally absurd. In terms of theology (and remember, the question of abortion has been shaped by theology, regardless of what we might think about that fact) the law makes God himself (sic) deserving of capital punishment. Finally, in terms of the U.S. Constitution, criminalizing abortion contradicts the First Amendment which explicitly states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
To clear the air of confusion and to clarify the concept of pro-life itself, let’s consider each one of those points.
To begin with, consider the law’s logical inconsistency. It begins by holding that abortionists are killers deserving capital punishment. Its reasoning runs as follows: (1) Abortion is murder, (2) But all murders are capital crimes; deserving capital punishment; (3) Therefore abortion-providers should be punished by execution or life imprisonment.
Strangely, the woman who seeks an abortion finds no place in that logic. I say “strangely,” because her exclusion doesn’t make sense according the syllogism just referenced. Murder is murder. And legally speaking, employing a hit-man to kill another person makes the employer guilty of conspiracy to commit murder regardless of who actually pulled the trigger. Both contractor and contractee deserve the same punishment. Since it’s the woman who employs the murderer, why not execute her or imprison her for life, the same as the abortionist?
The answer is because doing so would be absurd. It would be politically untenable.
Virtually no one in the electorate would support it – especially in the light of polls showing that 80% of Americans believe abortion should be legal. Seventy-one percent oppose overturning Roe v. Wade – including 52% of Republicans.
Imprisoning abortion-providers might be one thing. But imagine, if legislators proposed filling jail cells with all the soccer moms among those responsible for the at least 45.7 million abortions performed since 1973 and the passage of Roe. Hundreds of thousands of moms in prison for life wouldn’t make sense. It is patently absurd. It wouldn’t be acceptable to anyone.
But think a little further about those numbers. They are familiar to us, because “pro-birthers” usually employ them to train focus on the zygotes and fetuses in question. However, the numbers can also suggest something else.
Exchange the viewpoint of zygotes and fetuses for that of our mothers, wives, daughters and sisters who’ve undergone the procedure. If the fundamentalists are right, the sheer numbers mean that millions of the women we love are actually murderers. Millions of them over the last nearly 50 years have committed murder and, according to fundamentalist logic, deserve capital punishment – no less than the others on death row. Again, murder is murder. And in the case of abortion, the scale of the slaughter collectively perpetrated by the women we sleep with is beyond compare. It means that American women – women throughout the world – women in general – cooperate in mass murderers dwarfing the crimes of Hitler!
Logically speaking, all of that – treating abortion as murder, punishing abortion providers as capital criminals, refusing to do the same for the women employing them, and identifying millions of women throughout the world as evil murderers (while saying not a word about the men who impregnate them) – reduces to the absurd the position that abortion is murder.
In fact, it constitutes the very definition of logic’s reductio ad absurdum that proves the falsity of an argument by demonstrating that its conclusion is completely untenable. In other words, when you put words to it and draw the logical conclusions, the contentions of the pro-birthers sound absolutely crazy to almost everyone. Case closed.
And that brings us into the field of theology.
For Catholic moralists, commonly shared perception like that just referenced is called the “sensus fidelium.” Sensus fidelium refers to ordinary people’s conclusions about matters of faith and morals (such as abortion). It refers to conclusions based on common sense rather than the arguments of the experts including theologians. Catholic doctrine regards such agreement as infallible.
But here I’m suggesting a unique kind of sensus fidelium – one accessible primarily to women and their special ways of knowing. After all, male legislators cannot possibly understand women’s physiology, biological processes, psychology, or moral sensitivities in the same way as women.
In other words, women are a uniquely privileged reference group. However, because of the domination of theology (and politics!) by men, the latter act as if they know better than women. As a result, women are treated in effect as pre-rational children in need of direction by the culture’s patriarchs. (This, perhaps, offers another explanation of the disparate treatment of abortion-providers and women seeking abortion. The women in question are not truly responsible moral agents.)
To correct such imbalance, women of all faiths (and none) and not just Christian men should be in charge of any reasoning about and regulations of abortion. At the very least, such women deserve a decisive place at the table where theologians, ethicists and legislators discuss the question. If that were the case, another reductio ad absurdum would soon come to light – this one specifically theological. It would be that God Himself (sic) is the world’s abortionist-in-chief responsible for filling sewers with aborted babies.
What I mean is that according to medical researchers spontaneous abortion is the “predominant outcome of fertilization.” At least half of fertilized eggs are simply flushed down the toilet without their “mothers” even aware of their presence. They never knew they were pregnant in the first place.
If (as pro-birthers maintain) God is responsible for and cares about every fertilized egg, the conclusion is inevitable. God is a wholesale abortionist. Like all abortionists, he deserves the fate that death-of-God theologians declared fifty years ago.
(As a matter of fact, understanding God according to the absurdities just described might well be responsible for the rejection of his existence by rational adults. The fundamentalists themselves may have unwittingly but effectively executed him!)
What all of this means is that the recently passed Alabama law is unconstitutional, since imposes on Christians and non-Christians alike a particular religious (and therefore unproveable) theory about God’s role in the initiation of specifically personal life.
As we’ve seen, the particular theory arbitrarily holds that each fertilized egg is a unique human person with an immortal soul wedded exclusively to that particular fertilized ovum. The theory further holds that when the ovum in question dies, the soul’s God-intended purpose is forever frustrated. The world is forever deprived of the aborted-one’s unique gifts, which God cannot or will not supply through another person.
The idiosyncrasy of that position is unmistakable. As is the case with other faiths, one could easily understand early abortion as not that important in God’s grand scheme of things. A soul prevented from incarnating in one form could just as easily be imagined as appearing in another – when its time is right.
In other words, and more specifically, the theory that life begins when sperm fertilizes egg is not at all generally shared even across religions, much less by agnostics and atheists. For instance, some locate the beginning of personal life at the moment of “quickening” (when the mother first feels her baby move), others identify it with viability outside the womb, still others with actual emergence from the womb, or (as with some Native Americans) with the “painting” of the emergent child to distinguish it from animals.
Given such differences, it seems clearly unconstitutional to impose the view of one religion on an entire culture. We might expect such preference of one religious view over others from the Taliban. But it has no place in a governed by a constitution with the First Amendment quoted earlier in this essay.
The bottom line here is that in a diverse country like our own, some form of legislation like Roe v. Wade might be the best we can do. There it was determined that the pregnant woman as moral agent can decide about abortion on her own during the first trimester and in consultation with her physician during the second. In the third trimester, however, the state asserts its interest and can make laws restricting abortion to protect the woman’s health and the potentiality of human life.
However, a Roe v. Wade approach can never be sufficient for genuine pro-life advocates. For them, abortion law must be complemented by social programs that provide a welcoming atmosphere for all life forms. These would provide free counselling and pre- natal care for pregnant mothers along with post-natal services for their newborns. Job provisions would be available for new mothers along with free daycare for their pre-school children. Programs would also include low cost housing and (where necessary) help paying grocery bills. All such measures are genuinely pro-life. They not only discourage abortion; they also create a welcoming environment for new life.
However, don’t expect Alabama politicians to endorse such measures. For them, pro-life concern ends at birth. Afterwards, the burden must be assumed entirely by the mothers in question.
“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”