Abortion is a tremendously difficult subject to write about, particularly in an irenic tone and with care and compassion for those who have heartfelt feelings about it.
To put my cards on the table: I’m pro-choice, in that I recognize the complexity of the intersection here of women’s health, reproductive rights and freedoms, moral argumentation over the relative weight of scientific understanding of conception, gestation, “viability,” and medical advances (and the great grey area between “maybe viable” and “likely viable” depending on a host of factors) and differing faith views of the status of a fetus at differing times during a pregnancy.
I understand that, to some, a developing fetus has similar moral status as a living human being does from birth, and that to willfully terminate (all things being equal) a pregnancy is tantamount to murder. I get and respect the decision of those who hold this view to work against what they see as murder, insofar as it is respectful of the rights of others, calm and thoughtful, and within the law.
To others, there is not a similar equivalence in a moral sense between a newborn child and a gestating fetus (and in fact there are widely different opinions on the matter when you ask about it from fertilization to implantation to various stages along the way). In such cases, the moral calculus is generally not as clear cut, and many, many factors become part of the decision about whether to pursue an abortion. The history of the discussion goes deep when one looks at the legal, ethical, scientific and theological record.
In short, there is far more than enough in this debate to mount a credible argument for the latter: that women and families ought to be able to make such decisions for themselves, as part of their own health care decisions, in conjunction with their own faith and moral commitments, and respect for women as competent moral decision-makers.
This is, in fact, generally in line with the current position statements of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on abortion, though there is considerable debate and dissension from these statements–which have been a major part of recent cultural debates and schisms in our fair denomination.
I’m writing this after reading news today that the Wichita clinic once operated by murdered Dr. George Tiller, Women’s Health Care Services, will be closing for good. This means that people in Wichita who need abortion services will need to drive up to the Kansas City area for them, and that those who intend to pursue the relatively rare abortion after the first trimester (for more info, see this from the Guttmacher institute), and particularly in later stages of pregnancy, will need to find one of the two or so other doctors in the country willing to talk with them about it.
In an ideal world, abortions would be rarer than they are today. I’m on board with serious efforts to increase access to contraception, sex education, adoption efforts, and so on. I’m against tactics and laws that argue that increased barriers or access to abortion services (waiting periods, forced ultrasounds or literature, etc) will reduce abortions; these tend to render already difficult decisions more difficult and painful to make.
Generally, though, what strikes me is that Tiller’s work providing later term abortions was for women who really wanted children, but who faced horrible decisions because of major medical problems during their pregnancy. In many cases, it seems, these late term abortions enabled those who received them to get pregnant again and to have children later. That these women actually want children is generally true of those who actually have later term abortions: those who receive them don’t decide after a while that this pregnancy thing or parenting thing is not for them; they typically face a grueling decision after their hopes and dreams for a healthy delivery run smack into real world problems.
If you doubt this, read through some of the anecdotes Andrew Sullivan has been publishing over at his blog The Daily Dish. Not all of these posts I link to below exactly fit the above, but all of them add context to the complexity of such matters for women and their families. A good summary of Sullivan’s posts is provided by Kate Dailey over at the Newsweek blog The Human Condition, but some of the anecdotes and reader responses are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. (In reverse chronological order of posting. I think I got them all; hard to say).
Even if you don’t doubt this, read through them. They’re a reminder, to me, of how these matters are not black and white for people, how people agonize over such things, and how we ought to protect and support them in their decision making on this. I’m in favor of keeping abortion “safe, legal, and rare,” and in keeping later term abortions available in cases of danger to the life and health of the mother, or when there is little likelihood that bringing the pregnancy to term will enable the child to survive.
I mourn Dr. Tiller’s death. I mourn the closing of his clinic. I hurt for the women and the couples who are faced with these grueling, life-altering decisions. I pray God’s mercy and grace for all of us.
Update, January 22, 2014: I’ve updated the Andrew Sullivan links to point to the archives now residing on his new site.