Apr. 30th, 2010

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I’m a little dismayed at how my last post (immigration and food politics) was derailed by the topic of abortion. However, all the big issues are intertwined and I’m sure we could find a link between abortion, food politics and immigration if we tried. All the comments, as well as another thread elsewhere, and my ‘at home’ reading got me thinking again about when ‘life begins.’

Two years ago I spent two days discussing abortion with tenth grade boys in a Catholic high school in California. It was a great experience – for everyone I think. I was 5 months pregnant at the time. In my preparation for the presentation I came across many differing ideas about when life begins. I think the discourse around this needs to be changed from ‘life’ to ‘personhood’, because we are not debating life, we are debating what makes a clump of cells – indisputably alive! - a sentient human entity. If life is what the abortion debate is about then the life of dividing cells, the life of a person-shaped squidlet with spine, eyes, heart and brain clump, is given a lot of weight and other creatures with similar characteristics need to be given the same consideration. This means no animal testing of any kind – rats and monkeys are easily more advanced beings than a fetus at 12 or 20 weeks gestation. This means that eating meat is murder of advanced forms of life. There are many anti-abortion* advocates who are vegetarians, but as a whole the movement needs to address the fact that what we are debating is personhood.

Personhood is more than about whether or not something is alive. Cancer cells are ‘alive,’ mosquitos are alive, that spider you squashed is alive, that chicken is alive. We are talking about placing a priority on human sentience. Now sentience is more than intelligence because I am not suggesting in any way, shape or form that the less intelligent, the developmentally disabled, the infirm, the insane, etc are less than human. So what exactly does being human mean? I would like to see the anti-abortion advocates address this issue. Is it potential for human life? In that case, male masturbation, female menstruation, birth control methods, and any sex that is not intended to procreate are hindering the potential for human life. (Hey! That’s the Roman Catholic position! At least they are consistent.) What about miscarriages? Approximately 25% of pregnancies end in miscarriage – often women just experience a heavier period, not knowing that the egg had in fact been fertilized. What do we say to those women?** ‘Potential’ is such a tricky word.

Personhood is about more than ability or potential. Whatever definition of personhood we choose says something about what we believe about humanity and its/our role in the greater picture. Many theologians who delve into this issue of personhood (theological anthropology – an area I love) talk about dignity, particularly the Catholic theologians. I think this is also a murky word. If Catholics and Evangelical and other forms of Protestants (though, again, not all) believe that life begins at conception (a belief that is enabled by modern science!) what do others believe?

Muslims (broadly, as with any large group there are bound to be many exceptions) tend to see personhood as beginning at the first sign of quickening (the first movement felt by the mother). According to David Abrams in The Spell of the Sensuous, Australian Aboriginal cultures believe that the spirit of the baby is inserted into the womb at the first quickening as well. What’s interesting is that this is usually between the 4th and 5th month of pregnancy – after the risk of miscarriage, once pregnancy has firmly taken root. This makes so much sense to me. Some Jewish traditions do not consider the baby a person until its head is outside the womb. Until that moment it has the potential (that word again!) for personhood but isn’t considered a full member of humanity until it is born.

This makes sense in a less scientific world, with less advanced medical care. So why shouldn’t we advance our standards with science? Because I don’t think our lived human experience aligns with that of science. So we can now see a baby-shaped squidlet at 8 weeks. I admit, seeing that is deeply mysterious and profound. But it is a disembodied experience: my mostly still flat belly is rubbed around with a cold instrument (or at this early stage a desexualized dildo is inserted) that produces a blurry black and white digital image. But I still can’t feel the baby. It is still experientially abstract. Our brains know, but our lived experience doesn’t. Women still miscarry – something that is considered shameful. The older I get the more I realize how many women have miscarried and how few of them speak about it. Obviously there is something shameful about this experience if we cannot speak openly about it and comfort one another.


*I have just decided to quit using the term pro-life because I think it is a misnomer. The issue isn’t life – it’s personhood. Most ‘pro-life’ advocates eat meat and are in favor of the death penalty, both of these would fall under ‘against life’ in my logic. ‘Anti-abortion’ states clearly what the group is about. Pro-choice however is more an accurate fit as it indicates that this group is in favor of… choice. I personally would never choose to abort and I feel that I share some of the reasons and emotions of the anti-abortionists, but I believe very strongly in defending this choice.

**I would be really really sad if I thought I was pregnant and miscarried. Those who are trying to have a baby are (usually) saddened no matter when the miscarriage occurs – 3 weeks or 13 weeks. But miscarriages happen for all sorts of reasons, usually ones that do in fact support life. I firmly believe that life wants to perpetuate itself so if a pregnancy miscarries there is most likely a very good natural reason for it.

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