By some miracle, the United States managed to get through both a presidential election and Supreme Court justice nomination without reigniting the fight over abortion. But of course, that couldn’t last forever. The great health care debate of 2009 has finally awakened the sleeping giant of the American Culture War, and the clash between pro- and anti-reproductive rights groups has resumed as fervently as ever.
For those in the pro-life camp, abortion is taking a life. It doesn’t matter if the child hasn’t been born yet or even if it’s so early in the pregnancy it doesn’t have brain waves or a heartbeat. If life begins at conception, then taking that life away before birth is the moral equivalent of prenatal homicide. A doctor that performs abortions is morally analogous to a serial killer. In short, if you follow the logical progression of this line of thinking, then society is allowing a full-blown genocide of babies to occur legally. It is a simple — but compelling — argument.
Advocates of reproductive rights have a much more diverse set of arguments. Some contend that life begins at birth. Others believe life starts at the point where the fetus is sentient or that life does begin at conception, but it is not the place of the government to prohibit abortion. Starting with this view, abortion is in no way, shape or form murder because a fetus is not the same as a human being like you or me. A fetus cannot survive outside the womb as a separate entity until very late in the pregnancy, and thus is wholly different from a fully developed, birthed human being. Additionally, women must retain sovereignty over their own bodies and pregnancies. The state has no right to intrude into the private lives of individuals, least of all someone’s uterus.
Abortions generally stem from accidental pregnancies. To keep that fetus is to bring an unwanted baby into the world with possibly devastating, psychological impacts for both parent and child. Often, these accidental pregnancies are the result of teenagers and young adults having unprotected sex. It is abominable to force someone to choose between going through a pregnancy only to give away the baby for adoption, or to penalize her indefinitely for one mistake. Banning abortion and, by extension, restricting its practice, transforms having children from a blessing to a burden.
Abortion is a zero-sum game — either human life begins at conception, in which case abortion is killing a human, or it begins after conception and it is not murder. In a debate as emotionally and often religiously charged as this one, no amount of discussion and argument will ever objectively answer the question of where life (or personhood) begins. For that reason, the focus should be on reducing the number of unintended pregnancies that lead to abortions. That means comprehensive sexual education needs to be implemented nationwide to empower teenagers and young adults with knowledge, which will to diminish the number of people engaging in unprotected sex.
This is the best way to reduce unwanted pregnancies and the abortions they engender. The only thing abstinence-only education accomplishes is sending unprepared young adults into the real world, where sex isn’t quite so taboo. A 2007 study conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services illuminates the utter uselessness of such programs. Following 2,000 children randomly assigned to receive either abstinence-only counseling or no counseling at all over four to six years, the two groups were shown to have no statistically significant differences in sexual abstinence rates, the age of first sexual encounter and the number of sexual partners. It’s about as effective as telling kids that babies come from the stork. It may be difficult for parents to let their kids learn about things like sex and contraception, but ignoring that conversation only ends up being a mistake as children grow older and the situation inevitably arises.
I may be a fervent advocate of abortion rights, but I understand the rationale of the other side and recognize the endlessness of the debate. If we are consistent with our principles, whether we are pro-life or pro-choice we can agree that reducing the number of unintended pregnancies is the only way to move beyond this battle of the American Culture War and heal the divisions in our society. Maybe then we can have a rational debate about health care policy.
Alex Schiff is an LSA freshman.