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Abortion – The Right Thing To Do

I am faced with two fundamental questions: is abortion murder which is tantamount to infanticide? Is this a criminal issue or a socio-economic issue or both? 

by Ruwantissa Abeyratne
Writing from Montreal

They are like pimples on the backside of justice--disposing of the fate of people.
~ Maxim Gorky

Maxim Gorky used the word “seat” which I replaced with “backside”. And Gorky referred to teachers.

The issue of abortion has been bifurcated into two polarized camps: the conservative camp which advocates what is called “pro life” which is against abortion; and the liberal or libertarian camp which insists on “pro choice” advocating the right of the mother to decide on the fate of the fetus in her womb. This essay is not intended to take sides but is rather aimed at presenting some interesting and perhaps contentious points.

On Tuesday 14 May 2019 The Alabama state legislature – mainly controlled by conservative republicans – approved of a proposal to ban abortion in every circumstance, except in instances when the life of the mother is in jeopardy. CNN reported that the State’s Governor is expected to sign it into law. CNN goes on to opine that Alabama will become the state with the country's most restrictive abortion law and that the law will spark even more contention in the incendiary debate over the abortion issue.

In 1973 the United States Supreme Court handed down its “pro choice” decision in the case of Roe v. Wade which conferred upon a mother the right to abort a fetus during the first trimester of the pregnancy, when life of the fetus could not be sustained outside the womb of the mother. More about that later.

I commence this article in a somewhat perplexed state: wondering whether what Winston Churchill said of Russia – that it was a "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” would apply to the abortion debate: is it a political issue? Or is it a judicial issue? Should it be determined on the views of the scientific and medical professions? Are there socio-economic issues that this issue brings to bear? The abortion debate has been swinging from conservatism to liberalism, ending enigmatically in libertarianism. Everyone has had his or her point of view – particularly women from whose bodies the fetus is expelled. If anyone, they are the people who have a right to express their views on this issue. But then again do they?

Having no strong views on the matter except for an innate curiosity as to what the right thing to do in determining the right to life of a fetus, I am faced with two fundamental questions: is abortion murder which is tantamount to infanticide? Is this a criminal issue or a socio-economic issue or both? There are secondary issues that also emerge. What role should the courts play? Should it be left to the legislature to decide on pro life and pro choice?

Resolving the first is plain and straightforward. Murder is the intentional killing of a human being. In other words, it is the forceful cessation of human life of one by another. In this context, did the fetus expelled from the womb have life and was it extinguished by the abortion process? The second issue - on socio-economic considerations - is somewhat more complex where one wonders whether a parent could dispose of a fetus brought to bear by economic or social compulsion.

The Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade opted to stay neutral on the issue of when life begins and pronounced that the mother should be free to decide. Professor Michael Sandel of Harvard University disagrees and is of the view that neither the government nor the courts should be neutral in this matter which should be determined on grounds of morality and religious tradition. CNN reports the views of Dr. Joseph DeCook, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist and Executive Director of the American Association of Pro-life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a group of about 2,500 members, has explicitly said that an embryo is a living human being at the moment of fertilization. Doctor DeCook is reported to have said: “there’s no question at all when human life begins…when the two sets of chromosomes get together, you have a complete individual. It’s the same as you and I but less developed…. pregnancy begins when the embryo is implanted on the uterine wall, but we’re not talking about pregnancy, the question you have to focus on, is when does meaningful, valuable human life begin? That’s with the union of the two sets of chromosomes. You have a complete human being that begins developing.”

Abortion presents a curious dimension from a socio-economic perspective as well. Super Freakonomics (Harper Collins:2009), a book written by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner as a sequel to their earlier book Freakanomics (2005) looks at statistics and data in a manner that a conservative mind might not look at and brings to bear statistical anomalies that might get the reader to think from an entirely different perspective. Super Freakonomics shows us the hidden side of things and turns conservative perceptions on their heads.

As to why crime rates plunged in the United States in the nineties, one of the fascinating discussions revolve round the decision of the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. The Court, in deciding on a young mother’s right to abort her foetus, which was illegal in many States in the United States at that time, considered the detriment that the State would impose upon a pregnant woman by denying her the choice to abort. The result, in the mind of the Supreme Court, was bound to be a distressful life with an infant uncared for, who would grow up in destitution and deprivation. The Court was also mindful of the fact that the mental and physical health of the mother would suffer. The Court recognized the fundamental fact of anthropoid nature – that when a mother does not want a child, she usually has good reason. Therefore, the court gave a pro-choice decision, and accorded to mothers the right to abort their foetus provided they did so under medical and psychiatric care.

The authors record that in the first year after the Roe v. Wade decision, some 750,000 women had had abortions in the United States (representing one abortion for every 4 live births). By 1980 the number of abortions had reached 1.6 million (one for every 2.25 live births). The woman who was most likely to have taken advantage of the Roe v. Wade decision was, according to the authors of Freakonomics, a typically unmarried poor person, and her future child might have been 50 percent likely to have been brought up in poverty with no proper education. He would have been 60 percent more likely than the average child who had only one parent to care for him. All these factors would go to bring about a child who could easily be persuaded to take to crime. It is therefore reflected as an inexorable conclusion that, with the absence of such children, who would have turned out to be criminals, the crime rate would go down in the 1990s which would be the time the children born at the time the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down would have been teenagers.

Of course, these could turn out to be mere assumptions that are at best persuasive. The abortion issue hangs in the balance and what makes the issue a "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” is the question as to why those responsible for decision making have not considered scientific and medical opinion on when life begins. This makes confusion worse confounded.

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