The vast majority of civil rights abuses are straightforward attempts by one group to deny another civil liberties. While important details of who did what to whom first may get clouded and murky with the passing of decades, centuries and millennium most of the time a powerful group enjoys a privilege or right that is denied another.
Fratricidal wars between Christian or Islamic sects, Jew and Arab, Tutsi and Hutu and an ever increasing cavalcade of frothing horse and rider revolve around one group asserting a right that is denied another. When most fights for liberty are broken down to their bare essentials we have one group who has power over another that does not wish to relinquish that control. The language may be obfuscated by claims of holy edict, manifest destiny, a need to govern the ignorant, the desire to assert a care taker role and on and on but the fact remains that most of the time one side is saying I got mine, you guys are out of luck.
(This statement in no way minimizes nor trivializes the hundreds of millions of souls who have died or been imprisoned because of deep rifts between opposing parties. Both sides may have good cause to try to control the actions of those they oppose but the fact remains that that there are countless examples where the gander decided that the sauce for the goose was most definitely not sauce for himself.)
An exception to this simple model of oppressed and oppressor is the civil rights battle that has been ongoing in the United States concerning the rights of the preborn and the right of women to do with their bodies as they see fit. In January, 1973 legal restrictions that barred women from obtaining an abortion in the U.S.A. were lifted and the right to terminate a pregnancy at will became the law of the land. This change in the legal landscape did not free oppressed from oppressors’ yoke but rather created a civil rights battle that is unparalleled in its complexity, nuances and importance.
Much of the conflict in the choice/life debate centers around the undeniable, historical fact that Western man has had a propensity to proscribe and circumscribe the behavior of women at least as far back as the exsitence of written language. We live in a time in U.S. history where freedom to define self and pursue our own brand of happiness is at an all time high. The roles of men and women are changing and becoming more equal but equality between the sexes is still a dream, though albeit a closer one than it has ever been previously. A century before unrestricted elective abortion became the law of the land Susan B. Anthony was arrested for daring to try and vote and anyone who knows any history at all understands how tenuous rights can be. This strident and essential assertion that all people be given the same legal rights is the most paradoxial aspect of the pro-choice/pro-life dispute.
The USA has a long history of granting rights to a potent minority and slowly responding to protest of injustice by extending said rights to larger and more diverse populations over time. Our country began with the right to vote restricted to land owning males of European descent. This narrow view of who should be allowed to vote slowly included greater and greater numbers until we reached the point where age of majority, citizenship and a lack of felony convictions are now our biggest impediments to universal franchise. As late as the mid 1800’s the only citizens allowed to vote in the U.S. were property owning white males but the property requirement was finally laid to rest throughout the land in 1856. In 1870 restrictions based solely on race were removed but many states created literacy tests or poll taxes to keep “undesirables” from voting. Native Americans and Asians were restricted from voting as were African Americans. In 1890 Wyoming allowed women to vote but women did not win universal franchise until the year my mother was born, 1920, when the 19th amendment was ratified. In the mid 1960’s the Voting Rights Act removed most legal hurdles from the majority of citizens having a right to vote though municipalities gerrymander districts and polling place locations to allow those in power to stay there. In 1971 the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 years of age.
Restrictions in voting are one illustration among many. Women were not allowed to own property, there were laws against people of differing “races” from marrying one another, public school educational opportunities varied based on skin color and are still disparate as a result of differences in income, housing restrictions based on race and the current struggle for marriage equality among same sex couples all serve as examples of how rights were granted to some but were only earned by all after long, hard battle. The right of a woman to determine whether she reproduces has been presented on equal legal and moral footing with these very important but basically straightforward examples of blatant discrimination. It is my contention that the argument that a woman’s right to choose is an equivalent set with the strident attacks on civil equality listed above is disingenuous because a second, innocent party is involved when elective abortion occurs.
Without exception every civilization that has ever existed puts restrictions on the taking of a human life. Even war has rules and those that disregard them can be tried for war crimes. The Lombard Laws of the seventh century put monetary values on death or dismemberment of people. Civil societies value life and give protection to humans. The less able one is to defend oneself the more important protection of that individual becomes. No one is less able to protect himself than are the preborn.
Self determination and control of our bodies is also a fundamental right. Choosing when and if to reproduce should be left to everyone’s personal edicts and conscience. It is fascinating that in the year 2014 some are still debating whether it is moral to use artificial birth control. Contraception that allows for family planning, including never planning to reproduce, is a boon to self growth, personal health, longevity and economic freedom to name a few high points. (I do not wish to deny religious, moral or other leaders the right to present their thoughts for or against artificial birth control, I merely demand that they restrict themselves to the use of persuasion rather than promoting legislation that would make artificial birth control illegal.) It is not a woman’s right to self determination that is the gray area but rather the point at which “contraception” and “family planning” are words substituted for infanticide.
In the United States partial birth abortion is legal. This means that a preborn child’s life can be legally terminated hours before full term delivery but not after. In May of 2013 Kermit Gosnell was convicted of murder because he cut the spinal column of newborns after partially delivering them. The murder conviction wasn’t reached because of the child’s age or inherent human value but rather he was convicted because the fetus became a human immediately upon delivery. This is Kafkaesque macabre machination that demonstrates the insane absurdity that is late term elective abortion. This line in the sand that separates a medical procedure from a homicide is absurd at face value. There is room to debate at what point in development humanity and the commensurate rights that accompany legal person-hood should be granted the preborn but extremely late-term partial birth abortions are an abomination. Declaring when a preborn child becomes human is important and this definition of humanity stands as the cornerstone of elective abortions morality but having mentioned it I will now move on to why the pro-choice movement is in a separate category from all other equally essential civil rights issues.
As stated earlier those that support restricting abortion must concede that what they are doing is attempting to compel a woman to carry to term a child that she does not want. The pro-life argument is that the preborn are human beings and have a right to life that supersedes the mother’s right to self determination and privacy and the accompanying fact that legal abortions result in death or disability to the mother far less frequently than does child birth. Simply put, abortion is statistically safer physically to the mother than is delivering a baby. Of course, if one believes that the preborn are people and endowed by their creator to certain inalienable rights then we must also grant that successful abortions always end with at least one dead human being.
And therein lies the problem for those of us in the middle. Fighting for civil liberty is very important but not more so than saving innocent lives. Perhaps the most horrific aspect of the choice/life debate is the attempt to simplify a complex problem and to vilify those that disagree with us. Laws that restrict what we do with our bodies must be minimized and personal freedom maximized. But arguing that elective abortion is only the business of the woman who is seeking termination equals turning a blind eye on abuse. At the point where the preborn become human society has an even greater obligation to protect that individual than it does any other because the preborn cannot speak for themselves.
Many people like to state that they are personally opposed to elective abortion but do not believe in restricting it. This is likely due to fact that the subject is complex and there is no way to rectify the opposing rights of the parties involved. Another straw-man that is bandied about is the question of how rape, incest and preborn abnormality enter into the conundrum. Without trying to be glib the answer has to be that once a preborn child is developed enough to be considered human she is entitled to the same rights her post born brother is. I have never been raped. I have never been forced to carry an unwanted child. It is not that I lack empathy for the mother but rather that I see the need for justice to be equal and even handed.
1983 marked the tenth anniversary of Roe v Wade and the opening of the flood gates that allow for the annual termination of over one million lives in the USA each year. I marked the occasion by joining the March For Life in Washington, DC wearing a large button that read “ERA NOW.” This button, which garnered me many an askew glance, was worn without a trace of irony. Civil rights for all means just that, and the insistence of some to frame this crisis as either pro-woman or anti-woman is a false dichotomy. This is not a simple right or wrong conflict and separating into opposing, warring camps does nothing to bring about a more just society.
I believe strongly that there is room for common ground within even the extreme fringes of the pro-choice/pro-life movements. Currently many on both sides insist on using inflammatory rhetoric whose main goal is divisiveness. When someone demands that everything goes his or her way we should all question if their stated position makes sense. Unrestricted abortion on the one hand and a belief that blastulas are human on the other are extreme to the point of fanaticism. As I hold life dearly I would champion far greater restrictions on elective abortion than currently exist in my country while acknowledging that restricting abortion is an affront to a woman’s right to self determination, but as I believe that human life must be protected I must champion those restrictions in an attempt to save innocent lives.
A compromise must be reached wherein the preborn are recognized as human and are thus entitled to protection. I feel strongly that this advance to recognizing the preborn as human should occur early in pregnancy. Fetal development suggests a standard of two months after conception, though this is considered liberal by those who believe humanity begins at conception and restrictive by many in the pro-choice camp. As a humanist/relativist I would champion this cause with the goal being more equal protection for all our citizens. This leaves me room to stand tall in my beliefs without condemning you for yours.