As for me, I have an opinion on this. I’m on one side. However, I would immediately change my opinion, and change sides, if one fact could be determined. That fact? The point at which a group of cells stops being just a group of cells and becomes a life.
Before that point, I’m pro-choice. Beyond that point, I’m pro-life.
Now, despite the fact that this is a very contentious issue there are some areas of universal agreement. For example, no one thinks that aborting a baby after it’s born is a choice that the mother is allowed to make. We all agree that after it’s born, it is life that can NOT be ended at the discretion of the mother. Additionally, no one thinks that a hysterectomy is killing unborn children. We all agree that before conception, it is entirely appropriate to give the owner of those cells the complete choice on what to do with her body.
The debate lies entirely in the grey area between conception and birth. If we could determine the point at which cells become a life, then that would be the ball game. The debate would be over. Unfortunately, we don’t know when between conception and birth it happens. If you believe it happens at conception, your pro-life. If you believe it happens at the beginning of the 3rd trimester, then you are pro-choice, but you support making 3rd trimester abortions illegal. If you think it only happens at birth, then you’re pro-choice throughout the entire pregnancy.
For me, since we can’t (yet) determine when life starts, the only thing left is to look elsewhere for guidance. On this question, I tend to look two places. Since we’re dealing with uncertainty, I have a tendency to look to risk analysis to help guide me. And the questions that I ask when thinking like this are:
- What are the risks associated with making abortion illegal?
- What are the risks associated with leaving abortion legal?
- Are there any hints that suggest whether it's just a bunch of cells or a life?
- In the worst case scenario, you’ve forced someone who’s pregnant to take on the responsibility of caring for a child that they’re not ready or capable of doing. This poor care will result in harm to that child and to the mother, possibly even death to the child and the mother.
- In the worst case scenario, you’ve killed someone.
- Yes. If you do nothing, you end up giving birth to a child, which everyone accepts is a life with rights.
Also, the worst case in #1 is more strongly stated than it should be. Pregnancy is a consequence of an action that was freely chosen (*). It’s really hard to describe living with a consequence of freedom as being anything other than freedom. So it’s somewhat overstated to say that we’re “forcing” anyone to care for children against their will, when they can freely choose to avoid pregnancy. Certainly we don’t consider it an imposition on the freedom of parents of born children, that we punish them when they fail to adequately care for their children. Why do we then consider it an imposition on women’s freedom to avoid childcare responsibilities if they’re pregnant?
(*) Yes, there are cases wherein the mother was raped. Clearly, in that case the mother did not freely choose. In those cases, maybe the mother should be free of the responsibility of caring for that child. Note, however, that there are more options than just abortion to alleviate such responsibilities.
Which brings me to another place I look. I am a Christian. And as such, I believe that the Bible contains a wealth of wisdom. And on this topic, there are a number of verses that are often cited to indicate what God thinks about this. I’m going to pick just one of them:
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,Many Christians use this passage to settle the issue. But I don’t think it’s that clear. First, God was talking to Jeremiah. Second, “before I formed you in the womb” could also mean before conception. There are many other verses that Christians use to demonstrate that the Bible thinks that a fetus is a life. But all of them have similar problems to the one above. Specifically that they rely on a certain interpretation of what the words imply. Now, because of my risk analysis, I tend to agree with this interpretation. But, I’ve been wrong in the past about interpreting God’s meaning, and I am pretty sure that I’ll be wrong again. It’s not that I think the Bible is wrong, but rather that what I think it means might be wrong.
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations."
My conclusion from all this is to take a somewhat unconfident stance: I *think* that life begins at conception, and as a result, I’m pro-life. But, because my opinion is not confident, I fully admit that I might be wrong. If we, at some point in the future, conclusively determine when a life starts, then as I mentioned above, before that point I will be pro-choice and beyond that point, I will be pro-life.
A clarification of my worst case scenarios:
- In the worst case scenario, you’ve created legal protection for something that is not a life. In other words, you’ve taken ownership rights over a woman’s body parts and given them to the body parts. There are many potential long term consequences to the one who has suffered misappropriation of rights:
- The mother could try to exercise an abortion on her own (e.g. coat hanger abortions), likely harming herself, possibly killing herself.
- The mother could be a bad mother and cause a lot of harm to the baby, up to and including killing it.
- The difficulty of raising a child might cause harm to the mother, up to and including killing herself.
- In the worst case scenario, you’ve taken away legal protection from something that is a life. In other words, you’ve taken the ownership rights of a life away from that life and given them to the mother. In this case, there is only one long term consequence to the one who has suffered misappropriation of rights: it is killed.