I. Just the Facts
When I dreamt about my son, it startled me out of the unconscious assumption that this pregnancy had been my condition, my problem, my choice. There was someone else involved, someone who’d had a real, objective existence, inside my body but outside my conscious perception. Somehow I must have been aware of him, though. Or had he contacted me? And why only after the abortion? Where was the dream when that awareness might still have turned such a hideously irrevocable decision?
Science would say that hormonal signals had communicated the embryo’s maleness, and that I’d incorporated that information into a fantasy image to ease the physiological and psychological letdown post-abortion. Religion would say that his soul reached out to mine to say goodbye, I forgive you (the boy in the dream left me without blame). As to why he didn’t reach out to save his own life, I could speculate that the assumption that that relationship will continue is so bedrock built into nature that both mother and child sleep confidently nested in it, and only its severance could shock both souls awake.
Certainly the religious view feels truer, if also incomparably more painful. And certainly the scientific view, which would reduce my dream and sorrow ultimately to a screech of thwarted genes, is no less a belief. But believing is not the same as knowing. And one of the differences is that belief divides, while knowledge unites. There are some things that are self-evident: nobody argues over whether the sun comes up in the morning and goes down at night. And there are some things that have been proven beyond question: even the Vatican now agrees that the earth goes around the sun, and not vice versa, as our naked senses tell us. We call those facts. But a belief is a guess about a mystery, defended so fiercely because of its very uncertainty.
Religion cannot prove, and science cannot disprove, the existence of the soul. Religions can’t even agree about what a soul is, who has one, how many times it lives, or when it infuses a developing body. At conception? At quickening? When the fetus takes human form? At 90 days of gestation? 120 days? At viability? With the first breath? Each of these has been put forth with supreme assurance by some holy authority, which only goes to show that none of them really know what they’re talking about – any more than I know whether my son was a conscious being who reached out to me (of course he was! of course he did! the pro-lifers whisper in my right ear), or a pulsating bud of flesh that I wrapped in a grieving fantasy (of course it was! of course you did! the pro-choicers whisper in my left ear).
What I do know is that there is a huge hole in my life, a sort of Ground Zero, where my 21-year-old son would now be standing tall.
And there are some things we all know, that are either self-evident or discovered beyond doubt, about a human zygote (fertilized egg), embryo, and fetus. Here is “what nobody can deny,” as the song says, without being in denial:
-- That it’s human. What the hell else would it be? Even the idea that the early human embryo ever looks just like a fish or a pig embryo, which I quoted myself in Part I, turns out -- I’ve just learned -- to be based on a series of 19th-century drawings that were distorted, but have never been properly debunked.
-- That it’s alive, exploding with life, dividing and growing and differentiating almost from the moment the nuclei of sperm and egg fuse.
-- That until it implants in a womb, the fifth or sixth day after conception, its life is precarious, potential, provisional – and usually unknown to us (not always, though; some women swear they knew the moment they conceived).
-- That it’s the minuscule embryo, now a hollow ball of cells, that aggressively initiates pregnancy (you and I once did this, or we wouldn’t be here). Casting off the protection of the zona pellucida, the clear jelly that has sheathed the fertilized egg, it burrows nakedly into the uterine wall and announces its presence with a hormone, human chorionic gonadotropin, that signals the woman’s body to turn into a mother’s body, lush and welcoming.
-- That this overture fails an unknown percentage of the time, "up to 50%", either because the embryo isn’t fully viable or because the woman’s body is not receptive. Life really begins only with relationship. Before that, there is only potential life – a seed. (That’s why human embryos can be carefully frozen, their development suspended, as late as the hollow-ball or "blastocyst" stage.) But once it has successfully taken root, there’s something else we know about a human embryo:
-- That it has a drive to live and to become. How sensate or aware it may be at this stage is a mystery. That it intends with every molecule of its being to survive and fulfill its design is not. In fact – and it is a fact -- that drive is powerful enough to propel it eighty years into the future.
I should probably amend my statement that “we know this.” When we’re young, we don’t. We just think about “having a baby,” and maybe raising a child, from the foreshortened perspective of our own desires and life plans. This is one of the drawbacks of living in a culture that does its damndest to stay “forever young.” Only someone older, who’s taken a step back from the life cycle, can point out to you the reality that “a baby” will, barring misfortune, become a young adult, a middle-aged person, an old woman or man. I now look at the young and see how time will change their faces; I look at the old and imagine how they looked as a child. And when I think about a new embryo, and our “choice” to uproot it or harbor it, I don’t only, or even mainly, see an “innocent child.” I see that what we hold in our hands is the power to greenlight or to cancel – to make nothing -- a potentially eighty-year human life.
That’s pretty terrifying, when you think about it. And I’m suggesting that we should think about it. I know I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of convincing the “pro-life” that early abortion should stay legal, as I still sadly believe it must. But I do think I have a chance of convincing at least some of the “pro-choice” that women should be as terrified of risking accidental pregnancy now as we were back when abortion was illegal – not out of fear of the law or the dirty scalpel, but out of understanding of what’s at stake. And that is something so much more substantial and consequential than this moment’s burning sex, even though when you’re in love, or in heat, or in need of pleasing or appeasing a male, it feels just the other way around. (I know -- I've been there, too.)
II. Moral Gray Areas
I would like to try an experiment. I want to try to find a way to talk about the value of a human life without automatically resorting to religious language. There are reasons to avoid abortion like the plague that neither contradict religious reasoning nor depend on it*, and that may speak to people whose ears and minds close the moment they hear “God” and “child-killing,” because they fear that a much larger agenda lies in wait.
People disagree vehemently over whether a human life has absolute value. That debate is not quite as black-and-white as it appears. Those who claim not to believe a human life has absolute value nonetheless act as if their own life does, while some of those who claim to believe that a human life has absolute value act as if many human lives (already born) do not. If they stopped to reflect on it, probably almost everyone would agree that in a perfect world, every life would have absolute value, but that in an imperfect (what Christians call a fallen) world, society sometimes regretfully sanctions killing, and not only the killing of enemies and felons, but even the killing of innocents -- even children.
What?? Yes, war is chock-full of such moral gray areas: “collateral damage” and “friendly fire” come to mind. (True, “civilized” warfare does not deliberately target noncombatants, but it accepts as a given that many will inevitably die.) But that is a sacrifice in a good and necessary cause, the defense of our nation, the liberation of another? Iraq is not the first war we’ve fought where that was arguable, but a stretch. And civilian casualties of war don’t volunteer to be sacrificed, any more than does an embryo that loses its whole future life so that a woman can complete her education or limit the size of her family (or have other, later children who would never have existed if that one had! Figure that one out!). I know, two wrongs don’t make a right, but it sometimes seems as if we live in a world where men’s wrongs are right and . . . it’s almost irresistible to say “women’s rights are wrong.” But that would be sloganeering, and it’s not what I mean. What I mean is something closer to the startling imagery of the Aztecs, who saw childbearing as women’s equivalent of war. The giving and taking of life, precisely because they are the most charged and world-changing of acts, are not morally simple. They are mysteries surrounded by a zona oscura, a shadowy penumbra of ambiguity, where both law and conscience struggle to make clear decisions, evaluating circumstances and weighing one life against another.
To me, early abortion exists in that twilight zone. It is a moral gray area that grows blacker with each day of gestation, as the embryo’s hold on life, and the blood bond between it and its mother, grow steadily stronger. It is a kind of self-defense – one life in precarious progress fending off a blameless hijacking by another barely begun – yet it presents the stomach-turning conundrum of self-defense against the defenseless. To define this act as either a crime or a right is too simple. It‘s a tragedy – one we should be making every effort to prevent, not by social engineering, but by personal and cultural will.
But first we have to really grasp what’s at stake. And a language for that, one that everyone speaks, can be found in our civic religion: individualism.
III. What’s an Individual?
Another thing we know for a fact about a human embryo is that it is a unique individual, one of a kind, that, by improbable chance or fate, has come into existence and will never come again.
You’ll protest that genetically, identical twins or triplets are two or three of a kind, and that obviously there’s a lot more to an individual than his or her genes. You’re right.
An individual is a tapestry woven by the shuttle of experience on the warp threads of DNA. Identical twins are not the same person because, beginning in the womb, the transcription of the genes and the wiring of their brains takes subtly different paths. Nothing ever happens the same way twice. But much is already written in the genes: the features of the face, body size and shape, temperament, talents. Even these foundation threads will be pulled this way or that by the force of environment: our faces are partly shaped by the language we speak, our talents formed or deformed by opportunity and education; even our size will be affected by physical and emotional nutrition. But something deeply essential and once-only is there from the very beginning. I keep coming back to the face: my son had a face, which I will never see. His hands had a shape: the shape of his father’s, or the shape of my father’s, which mine so exactly match. He had a calm or an excitable nature. All that was already decided, even though it was not yet fulfilled.
You’ll say, if you’re pro-choice, that I only attribute these things to my son because I mourn him. My regret is his only reality. If I had no sense of loss, as many women say they don’t, nothing would have been lost. You’re wrong. If a tree falls in the forest and we stick our fingers in our ears, is there no sound? We can do away with a budding individual, but we can’t wish him or her away. That individuality is objective. It isn’t something we have the power to bestow or to withhold. It’s there whether we acknowledge it or not.
And then it’s gone.
One way to measure the magnitude of what’s banished by an abortion is to try to imagine your life without just one of the significant people in it: one friend, one lover, one sibling, one child. I don’t mean if they died, God forbid; I mean what if you had never known them? What if that face and voice and humor and trouble and insight had never crossed your path or woven into the texture of your consciousness? It wouldn’t be your life as you know it. You wouldn’t even be the same you. That’s what an individual is: the most life-changing thing you will ever encounter.
I used to believe, like the well-indoctrinated Ivy League student I was, that accomplishments, technological inventions, scientific discoveries, voyages of exploration, great works of art, great acts of state, were what most changed the world. I am now convinced that nothing comes close to changing the world as much as bringing a new individual into it. (And that holds for fathers as well as mothers.) Individuals are what the world is made of, and what makes the world. It’s not just that all the abovementioned accomplishments come from individuals. It’s the simple fact that each life stunningly and uniquely impacts the lives closest to it, and these impacts ripple outward, interacting to make the complex and particular patterns we call the world. Add or remove one individual, and you change everything – not only the sight and sound and story of the world, but its inner dimension, too. A human being displaces a lot of nothingness. Like a special-effects superhero leaping out of nowhere, each one shoulders apart the air, opening a boundless space where the whole universe is newly rooted, where its meaning will be uniquely relived and reworked. (That’s what we do: process meaning the way earthworms enrich soil.) When someone who was going to be here isn’t here, the air stays sealed at that spot, like the Pied Piper’s mountain, without even an x to mark the site of amputation. A whole world that would have opened up within the world remains forever closed. Am I making any sense?
So the Ground Zero in my life and heart is completely invisible. Yet among the casualties buried in that non-place are not only my son’s whole life, and the mother I would have been, but also the friends who never knew him, the cousins whose whole generation would have been reshaped by his presence, the lovers who would have loved him, the children he might have fathered, and also his ancestors on his father’s side, who are now entombed in the past, with not even a tendril to the future. My bond with Jacques’ mother is buried there: however you understand the link between her death and her grandchild’s arising (up to my karate teacher’s chilling “Jacques-san mother come your inside”), if I’d had him she would have been with me for life, and I lost her.
Of course, all this pertains to a child who, while unplanned, was not the byproduct of a casual encounter, and was not completely unwanted. Yet do we know that anyone who comes into existence is ever completely unwanted? Your parents may not be willing vessels, but might not the very fact of your origin be a sign that someone or something wants you – life, God, a pair of adoptive parents, someone you’re supposed to meet and marry, a family tree – no, two -- that wants to bud onward? (That’s something else you get as you get older: that as important as individuals are, a family is also a living organism that’s fulfilled by each new member and mutilated by each loss.) We don’t know that any of this is so, but we don’t know that it isn’t, either. We’re back in the realm of mystery, where it’s best to tread carefully.
So it’s very true to say that when we conceive or abort an individual, “we know not what we do.” We change the world. We include ourselves – so often ignorant, desirous, scared and out of control – right along with God or chance or fate or nature among the mighty powers that determine who will be here and who will not. The irony, and the tragedy, is that women and young girls are often faced with exercising this life-or-death power at just the moment when they themselves are most powerless: physically, emotionally, or culturally coerced or conned into trading sex for survival or love. Female empowerment and self-empowerment, still a half-built shambles at best, is an important part of preventing abortion. I’ll come back to that in Part III.
Right now, though, I want to focus on the question of “Who, or what, decides? Are we here by accident or on purpose?” Because it’s here that religious and nonreligious people really part ways, and here – all unawares -- that our choices about abortion come back to haunt the meaning of our own lives.
IV. The Choice
Virtually all religious and spiritual traditions teach that we are here not by random chance, but for a reason and a purpose: to do a unique piece of God’s work; to untie a particular knot in our karma; to have another shot at nirvana or salvation. The Judaeo-Christian tradition, however, adds a powerful dimension: the belief that each one of us is, so to speak, handmade and cherished by a personal God.
Whether this is an objective truth or the highest form of wishful thinking, it’s a beautiful idea – one that consoles, inspires, and spurs many believers to be better people, and that made universal democracy a thinkable ideal. (Humans can twist this idea into an excuse for evil as they can any other, but that’s not my subject here.) That this idea, whether it comes from within us or beyond us, is crucial to our spiritual evolution is expressed by my blogfriend Richard Lawrence Cohen:
“It was necessary to discover the idea of a god who loves us and cares about us—who is an individual and treasures our individuality—in order for us to become a species that treasures our own lives, the lives of our conspecifics, the lives of our sister species, the life of our planet. (And some day the life of our universe.) . . . In order to deeply feel that the person next to us, or on the other side of the battlefield, is a suffering creature as deserving of loving care as we are, it is a great help to believe that some God cares about those persons too.”
The secular and scientific worldview, by contrast, posits that chance and competition – selecting the fittest -- are the ultimate forces that determine who gets here. This is a vision of an equally marvelous but much more rough-and-tumble universe, ruled by a nature that creates extravagantly but is unaware of its creatures and indifferent to their fate, beyond equipping them to fend for themselves. In this schema, insofar as the conception of a new individual is not a completely random event, it’s seen as a Darwinian triathlon for sperm, or even a romantic choice by the egg -- “chemistry” on a microscopic scale. The interplay between chance and fitness comes into play again at each turning point in the accidental individual’s life. Nature squanders many of its creations to assure that enough of the best and the luckiest make it through, and humans are no exception. Science places us among nature’s creative and destructive forces, as well as among its successes and sacrifices. Our self-involved passions may create life but may also destroy it. Abortion is just one more pitfall in a long obstacle course the little survivor must negotiate, the way a fish fingerling has to elude the barracuda, the shark and the seine. If you’re a healthy embryo and on your way, but your mother isn’t ready to be a mother -- well, that’s the breaks, just as it would be if a car crash or virus made her miscarry. The same chance that produced the freak accident of your unique conception allowed it to happen at an inopportune time.
The key word in those last two sentences, of course, is “you.” You were there, in that embryo’s . . . “shoes” is absurd, but you know what I mean. You made it; you’re reading this. And you’re only here because at the most fragile moment in your life, a woman, whatever the state of her life, consented to give you shelter.
If you’re over 40, you owe your existence at least partly to a society that kept sex on a much tighter rein, making sure life struck as often as possible in the tight bull’s-eye of a marriage and not somewhere in the exposed outer rings. (Let’s face it: “abortion on demand” is a clean-up operation for sexual “freedom.”) And that was, for all its strictures and failures, a way of looking out for everyone – of trying to emulate God, or the idea of God. If you’re under 40, well, you’re just one of the lucky ones. In its sexual aspect (and in its economic aspect too), society came to be patterned much more on the idea of nature – of a tumble and clash of powerful, blind forces that affords no one any protection, or any intrinsic value worth protecting, beyond what they can seize for themselves or coax from another storm-tossed human. It’s not only in the womb that we’re now at the mercy of one another’s choices – choices driven at least as often by the lower registers of convenience, desperation, or greed as by the higher faculties of foresight, wisdom and compassion.
The only “choice” that matters, it seems to me, is whether we aspire in this sense to be “part of God” – and you don’t have to believe in God; Buddhists don’t – or whether we’re satisfied to be “part of nature.” And this is a “live by the sword, die by the sword” proposition. If we regard other lives as accidental and disposable, that must be true of ours, too. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t live in a universe that is meaningful when it suits us but meaningless when it doesn’t – unless we accept that others have the same power to throw us out with the trash. We can’t (although we do) declare for a random universe and then shamelessly enjoy the feeling that some event or encounter in our lives was “meant to be.” Either everybody comes with a destiny, or nobody does. You think you’re protecting and enhancing your own life by rejecting the untimely burden of another; the catch is that when you dismiss the value of any life, you cut the cosmic moorings of your own, and set it adrift on a void. That is your choice, but few who make it really follow it through to its ultimate conclusions. Maybe only suicides do. The rest of us, simply by being alive, unconsciously assume our right to life, without remembering to be thankful that a woman made that choice, or – once her body had made it – decided it wasn’t hers to make.
Ironically, I’ve had this argument with . . . my mother, who gave shelter and more (including what for) to six of us, yet who remains adamantly and unsentimentally pro-choice. She had an unplanned seventh pregnancy which she says she might have aborted, had she not miscarried. (To make things even weirder, she – and therefore, I – probably owe our existence to abortion. After her older sister’s very difficult birth, her mother, my grandmother, descended into a postpartum depression. She did not feel ready to have a second and final child for seven years. During that time, birth control being what it was around 1920, she had two abortions. At the second one, the male abortionist made a pass at her.) “What’s really wrong with abortion,” I said to my mom, “is that it violates the Golden Rule. You wouldn’t have wanted someone to do that to you.” “Oh,” she said cheerfully, “if they had, then I wouldn’t be here to know or care.” And I’m like, easy for you to say. Such self-dismissal is a privilege of the living, and an unavoidably insincere one. I was not a fan of Ronald Reagan, but I had to admit he had a point when he said, “I’ve noticed that everybody who is for abortion has already been born.”
The people who really know this are not those of us who were matter-of-factly given the gift of life – we tend to take it for granted – but those who almost weren’t. Go read this birthday post by “Demi, the Jersey Devil,” who “[s]queaked through to the physical plane within an inch of my life.” Or go read this article (which I’m pretty sure I first read in The New York Times) about why so many of the teen-age daughters of pro-choice mothers are pro-life. As one adoptee told writer Steve Ertelt, “Myself and my classmates have never known a world in which abortion wasn’t legalized . . . We’ve realized that any one of us could have been aborted. When I talk about being a survivor of abortion, I am talking about it from a personal place.” These are people who have felt the breath of nonexistence on the backs of their necks. They know what’s at stake.
Am I saying, “Don’t ever have an abortion?” To give you a speed preview of Part III, first of all I’m saying, “Don’t even go there.” Do whatever it takes not to get pregnant if you’re not prepared to have a child. Abstinence? By all means! Underrated by the left! Birth control? Religiously! Underrated by the right! Plan B? The gray area’s gray area, the last line of defense short of outright abortion. And if you do your best and all three concentric rings of defense fail, consider that maybe, just maybe, someone or something wants that person here. There's no question, in retrospect, that my son was wanted in that way.
If I had had him, our lives would have been very different, and difficult. Maybe even disastrous. On the other hand, it’s quite possible that becoming a father, the thing my husband feared most, was also the thing he needed most. People have a way of finding a way. Maybe he would have risen to the occasion, and faced risky, invigorating realities that he has instead been able, and doomed, to avoid. To have our son would have been a tremendous leap of faith. We didn’t take it. And so we’ll never know
And I have to say that one factor was the culture. The law would not have stopped me from having an abortion. The culture might have – if it had told me the truth.
UPDATE: Doug Allen at Catallarchy thinks that "a case against abortion [after 9 1/2 weeks] can certainly be made without referencing religion, Catholicism, spirits, souls, etc, even once," based on scientific criteria. Hat tip: Dave Friedman.
UPDATE II: On a happier note, Marcus Cicero at WINDS OF CHANGE.NET" was always pro-choice. Then he adopted a beautiful baby daughter. Today is her first birthday -- March 24, 2005. Ask him what his position on abortion is now. "I am pro-choice. A baby can either be kept, or given to a worthy, loving family."
UPDATE III: Christopher Hitchens in SLATE, in an aside to a piece on the Terri Schiavo controversy, describes the rough center consensus that's evolving on abortion:
My own bias is very strongly for the "choose life" position. I used to have horrible and exhausting arguments with supposedly "pro-choice" militants who only reluctantly conceded that the fetus was alive but who then demanded to know if this truly was a human life. I know casuistry when I see it, and I would respond by asking what other kind of life it could conceivably be. Down the years, there has been an unacknowledged evolution of the argument. Serious Catholics no longer insist that contraception is genocide, and "pro-choice" advocates have become quite squeamish about late-term abortions.
UPDATE IV: Euan Semple at The Obvious? has seen an "utterly bloody amazing" documentary on development in the womb. "Watching twins 'playing' with each other at 11 weeks and a baby scratching its nose at 9 weeks beggars belief. . . . Puts a whole different perspective on abortion ..... " Sure does. Technology is radically shifting the boundaries of "what nobody can deny."
UPDATE V: Seeing the "Body Worlds" exhibit of actual "plastinated" cadavers leads Ann Althouse to pose some unanswered questions:
Arrayed around [the bodies a pregnant woman and the 5-month fetus in her womb] are small cases containing fetuses of different ages. As you look at each one, you see into yourself. How do you respond? Do you think there is an interesting potential person? Or is there some age point where you cannot shake the sense of recognition of a fellow human being? Some visitors see that human being in the beaker that is not even shielded in the curtained area. Others gaze coolly on every single unborn body. Perhaps that 20-week-old evokes a primal human instinct to protect that you do not now realize lies within you. Near the exit is a quote from Seneca:Death is the release from all pain and complete cessation, beyond which our suffering will not extend. It will return us to that condition of tranquility, which we had enjoyed before we were born. Should anyone mourn the deceased, then he must also mourn the unborn.