Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Is “Right to Life” an Ethical Position or a Political Tool?

I have enormous respect for those who oppose abortion because they truly accept that the sanctity of life overrides all other arguments. Very few people actually live up to this standard. In my experience, most people who use the sanctity of life as a rationale to oppose abortion readily abandon it when it is politically expedient to do so.

Those who truly embrace the sanctity of life as the overarching argument oppose the death penalty in all cases. Yet most Right to Lifers are able to rationalize that their definition of justice or their ideas about deterrence take precedence over the sanctity of life. Or they turn logic upside down by claiming executions confirm the sanctity of life! We know innocent people have been executed, that it is applied unevenly to different races, and there is no clear, uncontested evidence that the ritual killing is a more effective deterrent than less drastic measures. Some people believe the Right to Life does not apply to some types of people convicted of some crimes.

When the US invaded Iraq, a sovereign country that was not an immanent threat to the US, it used military techniques that were bound to kill innocent civilians. Estimates are that between 100,000 and 300,000 innocent civilians have died as a result of this US war of choice. President Bush, who is a Right to Lifer when it is convenient, refused to count, or even acknowledge, the civilian casualties. Some people believe the sanctity of life does not apply to civilians in countries whose government might remotely be a threat to the US.

Although there have been hundreds of deaths in US mining disasters over the past 30 years, few occurred in unionized mines, because unions put the safety of miners first and will walk off the job if safety rules are not followed. Some mine owners spare no effort to keep unions out of their mines and give generously to politicians who work to weaken safety regulations and inspections, leading to hundreds of needless deaths. Many Right to Lifers support the mine owners’ efforts to avoid safety regulations. Some people believe the sanctity of life is less important than profits.

Anti-abortionists have passed dozens of laws to try to reduce abortions. All these laws are aimed at controlling or humiliating pregnant women. None of them empower women to prevent pregnancies. Laws require women to view anti-abortion literature, to undergo (and watch) invasive procedures for viewing the fetus, to have their sexual history posted on line, and to inform their parents if they are under 18. These laws, at best, produce only a short term reduction in the number of abortions. Interestingly, there is virtually no emphasis on making fathers responsible for supporting their children or posting their sexual history on line.

Study after study after study has shown that comprehensive sex education reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases (some of which are deadly). Sincere Right to Lifers will support mandatory

Comprehensive sex education classes as a requirement for high school graduation,
Condom dispensing machines in all high schools and youth centers, and
Public service ads promoting responsible sexual behavior on prime time TV.

These measures would prevent far more abortions than all those coercive measures combined. Yet some argue that parents have the right to control what their children are exposed to, or what they are taught about sex, and so they object to mandatory sex education. Others argue against these programs because teenagers engage in sex earlier after such programs (about 6 months earlier on average). Some people believe that the right of parents to control their children is more important than saving lives and preventing abortions.

The vaccines against the human papillomavirus (HPV) help prevent cancers associated with HPV infection and therefore save lives. To be effective it must be given before exposure to HPV, which essentially means before the onset of sexual activity. Some argue against giving this vaccine to their children because it may give the appearance of encouraging sexual activity or promiscuity. Some people believe the sanctity of life does not apply to women whose sexual life offends them.

If you condone ritual killings because they might deter crime, or you condone the slaughter of thousands of innocent people because of a remote threat to the US, or you believe the rights of parents to control their children’s education is more important than preventing pregnancy, death, or disease, or you would deny the HPV vaccine to girls because you think it is immoral, then you have no right telling a woman she can not decide to have an abortion. You are a hypocrite who ignores the sanctity of life when it is inconvenient to your politics. And you have no decency if you humiliate women for making choices you disagree with.

The sanctity of life argument fails completely in those cases where the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. Even when medical science knows that both mother and fetus will die without an abortion, or where treating the mother will kill the fetus, some people insist that it is unethical to sacrifice the child to save the mother. Many reasonable people accept that there is a strong ethical argument for choosing the course that preserves the most lives.

There are those who insist that if people obeyed their particular religion’s sexual edicts (no sex outside marriage, only for procreation, or what ever), then there would be no STDs or abortions. While technically true, this is a deeply flawed argument because it denies human nature. Throughout human history societies have had sexual taboos, and in every society those taboos are frequently and repeatedly violated. Sex is a powerful, innate biological drive. As the Victorians and Shiites proved, suppression only leads to obsession. Even in societies that proscribe the death penalty for behavior deemed deviant, people still transcend the rules. No one has a right to deny opportunities to women because of their own religious sexual beliefs.

An abortion is a terrible ordeal and an extremely difficult choice for a woman to make. As a society we are hypocrites if we do not preserve the right of women to make that choice, but we must also do everything we can to empower women to avoid the necessity of that choice. Failure to do so is a failure to honor the sanctity of life.

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