25 Sep 2018

The Second Hardest Thing about Discussing Abortion

The hardest thing about discussing abortion is being charitable to the other side when so much is at stake. This, we must find in ourselves to do — no one can help us with it. The second hardest thing is recognizing exactly where we disagree. This is vital for productive discussions and knowing what to expect in future.

It seems to me that the fundamental disagreement is whether there are gradations of human life. This might be surprising because our discourse typically happens at a much higher level. We talk about women’s rights and the sanctity of life, but these issues fall away when we distill the one central assumption that differs between the two camps.

The pro-life movement sees human life as binary: Once a fetus has crossed some threshold, it is just as living and therefore just as precious as any other life. The pro-choice movement contends that humans can have varying degrees of life. This is crucial because once there is variation, there can be tradeoffs; and there must be cases where the life of the fetus is subordinate to other priorities. We can disagree about the details like where the threshold of life should be, or whether a mother’s life should take priority over the fetus’, but these discussions don’t affect the fundamental disagreement.

The way forward must bridge the roots of our disagreement and these are not grounded in reason. To me, the idea that there is a spectrum of life seems natural and visceral. I feel within myself different levels of living. They may not vary by much in the larger scheme of things, but I cannot help feeling less alive when I am drowsy or ill, or when I am down and lacking in initiative and energy. It is not a stretch of the imagination to extend these variations to fill a continuum between living and non-living.

The competing idea that all human life is sacred seems to be largely rooted in religion. We need for life to be imbued by a higher force to avoid viewing a fetus as a mere clump of cells but an equal party to the grace of God. I can think of no other belief system that provides a conception of life pure and large enough to make the empirical differences between a fetus and adult seem insignificant.

From this perspective, I cannot help but be pessimistic that common ground will easily be found. At the same time, it is satisfying to understand why this has been such an insurmountable issue: If you are pro-choice, how do you convince someone that this fetus, made in God’s image and completely innocent, is less worthy of life than the rest of us? If you are pro-life, how do you convince an atheist that a clump of cells has more life than an adult?

The strange thing is that both of these beliefs already exist in most Americans. Roughly 75% of Americans are religious [1] but abortion is still legal. This suggests that many people are simultaneously religious and supportive of abortion. It is this group of people and the strength of their religious convictions that will determine the future of abortion in America.

Thanks to Olivia Angiuli for feedback on this essay.

[1] Gallup Study of Religion