Having weighed in (waded in?) on most other topics you are always told to avoid, I feel it’s time to tackle abortion. As we are about to have the first anti-abortion law passed since Roe vs. Wade, the conservatives are already preparing to take their agenda further. While the current law would only outlaw so-called partial birth abortions, it starts us down the slippery slope. Partial birth abortions sound horrific by description, and would be damn hard for anyone to justify as the right thing to do. (Honestly, you have to wonder how doctors justify the procedure now.) But that’s not really the issue.

The problem comes down to “human life” vs “human choice”. This is inherent in the very names of the opposing organizations. One is pro-life, the other is pro-choice. I think we can agree, that if it weren’t for the issue of human life, that most everyone would support the pro-choice position. That is, if we were talking about a woman’s right to have her appendix removed, there would be no debate at all.

So in reality, it all comes down to what defines human life. Willfully ending a human life is murder. Destroying any other form of life is okay. It is. I can shoot squirrels for sport. I can choose to have my dog euthanized. I can have my appendix out. I can take anti-bacterial drugs. All these things are willful choices on my part to destroy another life. But what does it mean to be human?

This is a simple and yet near impossible question to answer definitively. You know it when you see it (maybe), but it’s hard to nail the definition. And for a law to be useful, it needs to define the criteria under which it applies. I don’t mean to be flippant here. This is deadly serious. And no, I don’t have an answer. But I do think there is value in at least exploring the question.

So what is a human? On the one hand, it might be easiest to cite our species. An individual with homo sapian DNA is human. Anything else is not. Case closed? Not quite. There are two criteria in that definition. First is the DNA issue. Right now, humans are relatively unique on the planet. But suppose a space ship lands tomorrow with friendly aliens offering to be our friends. They have no human DNA, so would it be okay for the conservation department to issue hunting permits? Of course not. So DNA isn’t really a criteria. The second is more subtle. The definition requires that the life be an “individual”. Otherwise, my appendix would be human life. Minimally, an individual must have a developed sense of “I”. It must recognize that the creature in the mirror is itself. It must have a level of senteince, it must be self-aware. Fair enough, but many species on Earth, including many apes and dolphins have demonstrated self-awareness. Meanwhile, human babies don’t develop self-awareness until they are many months old. Is killing a chimp murder? Is killing a 3 month old baby? So this definition doesn’t wash.

What about sentience then? What if we defined human in a more generic sense as sentient life or (to account for the 3 month old baby) the potential to become sentient? This works to a degree. It protects the newborn baby. It also protects the aliens in the spaceship and probably several other species of life on Earth which are currently unprotected. (And that might not be a bad thing.) But the “potential” problem still plagues us. A zygote is a “potential sentient being”. For that matter, an unfertilized egg, sperm, or (when cloning becomes viable) any other cells, are all potential sentient lives. This makes my appendix problematic again. Not to mention that it should be illegal for a woman to not at least attempt pregnancy each menstrual cycle and masturbation would have to be outlawed for men. It gets silly quickly.

There is always the qualifier that the life must be viable outside the mother. This would seem to take care of the zygote, appendix, and “spilled seed” problems above. But for how long? It is technologically inevitable that a completely artificial womb will be created. We can already do rudimentary cloning and in-vitro fertilization. In theory, any of the above “silly scenarios” could be crafted into sentient life. So “potential” becomes problematic.

As I said above, I have no good answer here. This is (and probably will continue to be) a highly qualitative issue. It can’t be about “life” because we can’t say what that is with any certainty. That makes it about choice. The choice of the woman, the choice of her doctors, and in all probability, the choice of the courts to resolve the inevitable grey area.

There are laws against murder, and yet we sell handguns openly. We trust that most people will make good decisions with them. Should we not trust that most women will make good reproductive choices despite the availability of abortion? It is inherently un-American to inhibit choice in an effort to assure lawful or moral compliance. At least it used to be.

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