I watched last night's Daily Show this morning. Jon Stewart was interviewing Mike Huckabee, and they had agreed to debate abortion rights. I found the whole thing really frustrating to watch. Huckabee said that he felt that his "right to life" position came from a belief that every human life has value, and that every human being should be protected, "just like you and me." He said that abortion starts us down the slippery slope where it's okay to kill the elderly and infirm if they're inconvenient and expensive to their children or society.
Stewart - as the supposed champion of reproductive rights - pointed out that the elderly "don't live in our bodies" and went on a bit about the best way to reduce abortion being to make contraception more available, etc. But, as is so often the case, he seemed to share Huckabee's belief that abortion is a terrible thing, that a fertilized ovum is a child, and that as such should have some rights. He seemed to only be arguing that the right of a woman to bodily integrity and reproductive choice should - under some circumstances - trump the rights of the fetus.
How did we get to this point? Why is it that even those who claim to be in support of abortion rights seem to accept the whole "life begins at conception" crap? And it is crap. Well, it's either tautology or crap. If by "human life begins at conception" you mean, "If a human ovum is fertilized and if it implants and if the pregnancy continues and if a live human baby is born, then that baby can be said to have begun with its conception" then it's true, but meaninglessly tautological. You could easily go back further and say that that baby began with the production of sperm and the release of the egg. Or further back and say the baby began with the birth of its parents, or grandparents... It's a meaningless and arbitrary point to assign the beginning of life, but it's harmless if that's all it is.
But it's not all it is and it's not harmless. What the anti-abortion crowd means when they say "life begins at conception" is what Huckabee said last night, that the zygote requires the same protection as "you and me" - that a fertilized egg is to be considered fully human and anything that could harm it must be stopped. But does he really believe that? Does anyone? Half of all fertilized ova never even implant. That's a whole lot more "dead babies" than abortion is causing. Why isn't he out there trying to stop this wholesale slaughter? Because it would be ridiculous to try. Sometimes conception results in pregnancy and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes pregnancy results in a baby and sometimes it doesn't. Do we consider all of those "deaths"? No, of course not.
The idea that "life begins at conception" in the anti-abortion sense is a relatively new one. The Catholic Church first decided that the human soul enters at conception in 1869, and the concept has spread from there to the fundamentalist Protestant denominations that are so strong on denying women reproductive rights, as well. Which is not to say that the church thought it was okay to have an abortion before that. No, abortion was always prohibited by the Catholic Church, but the fetus wasn't considered human until "quickening." Abortion was prohibited just as other methods of controlling fertility were - because they interfere with "God's plan." This is the same rationale by which the Catholic Church orders women whose husbands have HIV to have unprotected sex with them. If God wants them to die, they die. If God wants them to have a baby, they have a baby. Now personally I think it's nothing to do with God and everything to do with controlling women's sexuality and enforcing gender roles, but their stated rationale is a spiritual one.
The vast majority of Americans rightly dismiss the idea that contraception should be forbidden because it violates God's plan. Surveys show that approximately 95% of American Catholics practice birth control. And women of all religions and orientations have come, through the efforts of second wave feminism, to learn to value our sexuality and its expression for itself. People have always had sex outside of marriage, and will continue to do so. The churches aren't winning that one.
So why is it that so many people - politically progressive people, sexually enlightened people - still seem to view abortion as evil? A necessary evil, perhaps, but they are swallowing - without even realizing they are, without even thinking about it - that "life begins at conception" crap. A whole lot of them are parents. You'd think that being a parent - knowing what it's like to have a real baby - would bring into sharp relief the difference between a baby and fertilized ovum. And for some it does. But for others, it goes the other way, because they do feel that their children were babies in some cosmic sense, in some spiritual sense, long before they were born.
I know that feeling. I suffered through years of infertility and definitely felt when I was pregnant that now there was a baby inside of me. But yk, I felt that when I thought I was pregnant and turned out not to be, as well. It wasn't about the reality of what was going on in my body. It was about the hope and sadness and longing in my heart. My children's lives began at conception, nay before. They were conceived of in my mind and that of their other mother well before they were conceived and loved from that moment to this day.
To the individual who really wants a baby, that fertilized ovum is very much a baby. A miscarriage can certainly feel like a death. And if they've been trying for a long time, even the loss of a biochemical pregnancy feels like the loss of your child. BTDT. But you know, that's about your feelings - it's not about reality. I know women who had a condition called "blighted ovum" where they were pregnant without conception. The body mistakenly thought there was a conception, an unfertilized egg implanted, they had a pregnancy of a few weeks. And then of course they miscarried, because it could not grow into a baby. Is that miscarriage less of a loss than one where there was an actual embryo? No, of course not. It's about how you feel, not about what's happening, and certainly not about who should have rights.
And that's where Jon Stewart - and many like him - gets it wrong. He said that because he has kids, because he saw them on ultrasound, he feels like they were people when they were conceived. And his feelings need to be respected. But he needs - we all need - to not impose those feelings on public policy. I think Stewart gets that - he does say he's pro-choice. But what he doesn't get, what the "safe, legal and rare" folks in general don't get, is that feelings aren't biological reality. They may be spiritual reality; it's fine if they're theological reality. But in a religiously pluralistic society, we should not be imposing our theological reality on others' physical bodies.
The problem isn't a conflict between rights of babies and mothers. The problem is that too many of us have lost sight of the fact that this