How the Pro-Life Movement Lost its Soul

Whatever your religious or philosophical background, most of us fall for the idea that humans are special somehow, that we are more than the sum of our biological components.  Ok, you biologists out there may not agree, but the idea of the soul, whatever you may call it is an idea I sympathize with, if not fully embrace (I’ve studied a lot of biology).

Yet I do appreciate the sentiment, even so far as it reaches the unborn.  Maybe that spark, whatever it is, happens at the moment of conception.  Maybe that life is sacred, unique, suddenly, irreversibly human.  If the pro-life movement wants to argue that united gametes are life, it’s hard to argue.  We think in binary, after all, and if it’s not life, it’s certainly not death.  If there is a third category, defining it proves to be elusive. What if the spark comes first and the flesh just grows around it?

If the human soul is intangible, science is ill-equipped to disprove its existence.  That’s why it’s beautiful for us all to believe different things about the origins of humanness.  Problems occur, of course, when politics get involved.  Don’t they always?  I think the political movement claiming ultimate authority as to when life begins has taken on a life of its own.  And it all starts to fall apart when the movement fails to protect the very core of its belief system.  It fails to protect the soul.

When Donald Trump claimed last week that he thought women who had abortions, were they illegal, should be punished.  As distasteful as this idea may be, it’s not exactly illogical.  As a society, we generally accept that people should be punished for committing crimes.  But the pro-life movement responded immediately to disavow both the candidate and his statement.  He back pedaled, as politicians who speak before they think (or learn anything about the abortion debate) are wont to do, but not before being schooled on what the pro-life movement really stands for.

NPR’s Steve Inskeep interviewed Marjorie Dannenfelser of the pro-life group, the Susan B. Anthony list, about this very issue, and she made her feelings on punishing women for abortions quite clear.  “The pro-life movement has never, for a very good reason, promoted the idea that we punish women, she told Inskeep. “In fact, we believe that women are being punished before the abortion ever occurs. In other words, the early feminists believed this was the ultimate exploitation of women.”  Abortion, in other words, is punishment enough.

I hardly see this argument as pro-woman.  It implies that a woman is simply incapable of making the decision to terminate no matter how much she has thought through her options.  Apparently, Ms. Dannenfelser thinks all women should be treated like underage children, legally incapable of consenting to what happens to their own bodies.  Women should not even be respected enough to be held responsible for committing a crime.

But not only that, what about that spark we talked about?  That unique human soul that is created at conception.  The life that is so valuable that it is to be protected, even at the expense of the well-being or even the will of the mother.  If it is a human life equal to all others, how can we excuse women for being too stupid to know any better?  If a woman is convicted of killing her post-utero child, we expect her to go to jail.  So giving women a pass on abortion just illustrates that the spark, however special it may be, is not valued the same way as a human life.

I also take issue with those who try to offer compromises in terms of “exceptions.”  Many pro-lifers, trying to soften the image of absolutists, claim if a mother is raped or a victim of incest, then abortion should be allowed.  In other words, if a man was responsible for the pregnancy, then it’s ok to terminate it.  It’s only when a woman has consented to sex that an embryo is suddenly an irreplaceable human life.  Abortion is murder or it isn’t. And the pro-life movement just proved to me that it’s not.

I’m calling you out.  Your political stance is not about compassion.  It’s not about protecting babies, and it’s certainly not about protecting women.  It’s about control. And don’t bother to hide behind your religion.  Or at least not the part where it defines life as occurring at conception.  Where is that part exactly? I lost my bookmark.  Now, if you mean the part where women should be property used only for the purpose of begetting progeny, then carry on.

To those of you who do believe abortion is murder period, that egg and sperm, once united, are so special that no one has the right to end that spark of a holy zygote:  well maybe you and I can find some common ground.  Maybe we can work together to end the stigma of single motherhood, to provide evidence based sex-education for all our kids, to give every baby that is born love and a home.  If you are not willing to do that, then calling yourself pro-life is just a smokescreen for shaming and controlling women for making choices about their bodies




Will a Mosquito Change the Abortion Debate Forever?

Part of my day job is keeping track of outbreaks of infectious diseases, and I have to tell you I am losing sleep over the emergence of the Zika virus.  Zika is a mild illness related to Dengue Fever which is caused by the bite on an infected mosquito.  80% of people who contract the disease are asymptomatic, and those that do have symptoms recover quickly.  Cases reported in the United States were thought to have been contracted in South America, and it is not expected to become a serious problem here.

In Brazil, however, Zika is thought to be causing serious birth defects.  Women who contract Zika during the first trimester of pregnancy are thought to have an increased risk of giving birth to baby with microencephaly, characterized by a smaller than normal head, moderate to severe brain damage, and even death.  Nearly 4000 cases of this condition have been reported in Brazil since October in a country that saw only 150 cases in all of 2014.

Management of this crisis must take multiple forms.  Vaccine research is already underway and increased mosquito control programs are also in the works. Meanwhile, Brazil (along with Colombia) has advised that women simply do not get pregnant.

In this heavily Catholic country, access to birth control has increased a great deal over the last decade.  Just this past May, the government announced that oral contraceptives would be available at reduced cost without a prescription in both private and government run pharmacies.

How available these pills are to the poorest of Brazil’s women who are more likely to be exposed to the elements including infected mosquitos is unclear.  What we do know is that some Brazilian women will become pregnant over the next few years, and some of them will have been infected with Zika.

Abortion in Brazil is legal only in the case of rape or to save the life of the mother or if the fetus has a rare birth defect called anencephaly.  Like microcephaly, anencephaly affects brain growth, but is considered incompatible with life.  Even with these exceptions, information about legal abortions is hard to come by, and finding a provider is even more difficult. Only about 3000 legal abortions are performed annually.

Nonetheless, abortion is actually more common in Brazil than in the United States with more than 1 million performed per year.  That’s a lot of illegal abortions.  Despite the growing black market for safer pharmaceutical abortificants, back alley abortions remain dangerous.  It is estimated that a Brazilian woman dies from an illegal abortion every 4 days.

Whether or not you believe that abortion in the case of severe birth defect is a moral choice, rest assured, it’s already happening.  We can expect the maternal death rate from abortions to go up from here.  The question is just how bad will it be? Letting women bleed to death who feel unable to care for a severely handicapped child is not a solution.

If the Brazilian government is serious about preventing a generation of brain damaged children and an increase in illegal abortions, cheap pills are not good enough. Long term forms of birth control such as implants and injections must be offered to all women, especially those with little access to even basic medical care.

As these children continue to be born and need care, taxing the current medical and social services systems, will attitudes towards abortion change? In the United States, many medical personnel who were on the fence about abortion in the 1970’s became more sympathetic after witnessing birth defects in children born to mothers who had contacted  Rubella, which like Zika caused severe and often fatal birth defects.  Abortion suddenly became a compassionate choice.

It will take several years to fully realize the effects of Zika on the women of Brazil, their children, and the choices they must face.  I have no idea what I would do if I found myself pregnant under the threat of Zika.  I only know I would want to have choices.  The women of Brazil as well as the other 20 affected countries deserve choices too.