I ended up writing such a long reply to a question posed on a previous post that I’m posting it as well.
Vance from Meditations on an Eyeball asked:
Heidi, as a “pragmatic contextual ethicist with a spiritual sensibility” do you think there are situations where it would be wrong for a woman to choose to terminate her pregnancy? I am assuming that you do not reject the concepts of right and wrong because in my understanding those notions are central to the work of an ethicist. I am not expecting you to generate a black and white decision matrix, but I would be interested in your shades of grey.
It’s a strange question. I am no fan of abortion per se, and I wish that all women were in a position to welcome their pregnancies. In my desire and fantasies, the world would be a happy place, full of joy and laughter and friendship and love. I wish a lot of things, but this is the reality in which we exist.
My answer is less than systematic, but I opted out of systematic theology/philosophy when I discovered how heartless it could be. I am not an absolutist, but rather a contextual (some would say “situational”) ethicist. I believe in thoughtful analysis, including all the factors that affect the choice in a specific instance, and in ranking relative priorities – including religious beliefs, community standards, material realities, and the like. For each person, in each community, at each point in history, these might be reflected differently. We each speak from where we stand, and we are in some sense projects “under construction” for our entire lives. Although complexity and some amount of ambiguity are very anxiety-provoking for some, I find in them a source of hope. It’s not “wishy-washy” to admit that life is a complicated matter at times, and that major decisions are worth thinking through in the context through which they have arisen.
Yes, there are situations in which I believe it is ethically wrong for a woman to terminate a pregnancy. This is not an issue with easy answers. Abortion is not an easy decision to make, nor should it be. Abortion is a controversial subject for a reason.
My concern has more to do with the power of that decision – which is each woman’s to make – being taken from her. Perhaps it is unfair, but I can’t help believing sometimes that if men were the ones who got pregnant, the whole debate would be framed somewhat differently.
My own judgment is that the longer one waits – or has to wait – to terminate a pregnancy, the more problematic it becomes to do so. I would rather see an abortion done at 8-10 weeks than later. I would rather see a late-term abortion than a baby in a dumpster.
I do not approve of woman using abortion as a form of birth control, or being irresponsible about family planning in general (although men share in that responsibility, it more often than not is left up to the woman).
I do have problems with gender selection as a reason for abortion. If that is the only reason, it does not seem sufficient to me.
I have issues with women who use abortion as a way of punishing men – that’s not often discussed, but I don’t idealize people.
I wish that I could think of some way to preserve the rights of the father, but I can’t. Ultimately, the woman is the one who pays the price – with her body, with her life – and so she has to be the one who makes the decision. I think that most women involve the man who got them pregnant if they can. Sometimes a woman fears to bring a baby into the world because she doesn’t want to subject her own child to the abuse that she hasn’t been capable of escaping.
Having (like many women) been the victim of rape, it is difficult to imagine the strength that would be required to carry such a baby to term. Some people can choose to do that, and redeem the situation – for others it would be like being raped again. And then, what about the welfare of that child, born into that situation (especially if it was also an incestuous rape)?
Then there are other situations – abject poverty, drug addiction, psychologically disturbed women or those in a state of denial about whether they’ve even had sex, etc. When you are familiar with some of the seamier aspects of human existence, there are no end of examples of situations where, when you look at the entire set of circumstances, you can see the reasons why abortion might be the better choice. At the least, there should be provision for psychological and medical consultation for all pregnant woman – not to push a decision either way, but to help her make her own decision in a timely manner.
I count as friends a couple who were so opposed to abortion that they refused to do any prenatal testing – why would it matter if they weren’t going to consider terminating? (My own choice would always be to have all the available information – even if one chooses to go forward, it’s better to know in advance, and line up resources and so on. But that’s me.) Their little girl was born with what turned out to be a very serious, even fatal genetic defect. Yes, they enjoyed her, but not for very long. I don’t think they regretted their decision (although it would be difficult to admit to anyone if they did), but everyone should have a choice on whether or not to continue a pregnancy that will have disastrous consequences.
In my preliminary research on a doctor that I was referred to once, I discovered that there was a case in which he didn’t tell client that there was something wrong with the pregnancy. He was Catholic and evidently suspected that she would abort, so he simply withheld the information – effectively depriving her of the choice. The baby had a very short, painful life – and the parents found that there was nothing that they could charge him with – they tried “wrongful death” but of course it didn’t work. This same doctor chose to inform a girlfriend of mine that he was aware of her feminist political activity while he had her up in stirrups. Incidentally, as a result of a surgery he did on her, she had to have a hysterectomy. No, I don’t think I’ll go to a doctor like that – but where is the oversight?
In my own case, I had a pregnancy where there was no heartbeat at 8-9 weeks. It was an unexpected pregnancy, but not an unwelcome one. I went through a number of tests to make absolutely sure that the pregnancy was not viable, then – on the advice of my doctor – had a D&C when the miscarriage wasn’t happening. Earlier that year, I had an ectopic pregnancy that very nearly took my life and my medical team didn’t want to see me in the emergency room again, especially not so soon. They were concerned about my health. You see, my health counts too.
Some right-wingers would consider both of these scenarios to be abortions. Some right-wingers want to see to it that doctors are not trained even to perform these very necessary procedures.
When a baby is wanted and welcomed into the world, there is no greater experience. I loved being pregnant and I love being a mom to our son. I also still grieve my two losses. I was incredibly comforted when I learned that there is no brain activity that early in pregnancy. That’s one of the reasons that I feel that if an abortion felt to be the better choice, then it should be done as soon as possible. Sometimes that’s possible, and sometimes it’s not.
There are women who have had abortions or have given their child up for adoption, and have profound regrets about having done so. Their experiences count, too, and they should be heard. However, their experiences should not be generalized onto everyone. There are many, many women who are grateful that they were able to terminate a pregnancy early and safely. For them, even living with their regrets (and I think regret and grief are entirely appropriate) they made the choice they felt they had to make.
I would like to see a process – that wasn’t tilted to either side – to help women make decisions like this. In some cases, the choices on all sides are so difficult. Generally speaking, Americans seem to be a bit undereducated on how to make ethical decisions. Listen to the experiences of others, look at rules and traditions, ask yourself how your decision might be affected if the situation were altered, how you might feel about it in a year, in five years, in twenty years, etc. List out the pros and cons of all available options to you, and rank them according to their importance. Site quietly and ask yourself, in your deepest authentic self, what the answer is for you. We tend to simplify too easily. Sometimes the question of whether something is right or wrong needs a few more steps of consideration than we are willing to give it. We allow others to do our thinking for us, far too easily and too often.
The point is that there is a wide range of situations, attitudes, and realities to consider.
I would not be so opposed to this (stacked, divided) Supreme Court decision if it had included provisions for the mother’s health and for medical judgment to override the general rule. I would not be so opposed to it if family planning centers and education were not being cut, if women (and young or poor women especially) had the care they needed to make decisions earlier. Third trimester abortions are very problematic, but I still feel that it is out of place for the government to intervene in medical decisions or to step in to override the woman’s choice. There is some question as well about the extension of abortion bans across the board – even to early pregnancy.
People opposed to abortion are free to choose not to have one.
The thought of mandatory abortions fills us with horror. Then we feel the intrusion. Because we are so divided, because abortion is such a complicated, controversial and difficult topic, I think the government oversteps its bounds here. They’ve been eroding Roe v Wade for some time, even using a murdered pregnant woman to establish a new status for the fetus – one that didn’t even exist in the religious world (as I found out when I tried to find rituals or symbols to deal with my own grief).
As I pointed out in the post, it is the height of hypocrisy to oppose abortion while promoting abstinence-only sex education and enforcing a global gag rule (in countries where HIV/AIDS is rampant, opposing condom use could be considered genocidal). It’s pretty clear that the domestic agenda is to control women (as the religious right has no problem acknowledging) and to get votes from their somewhat manipulated base. Whatever their own personal views on abortion, American women – and men too – ought to be appalled to see women’s bodies and rights used as a playing card.