Saturday, January 22, 2011

Blog for Choice - even outside the USA.

It's Blog for Choice day, and given that I have never done it before, and that it has a totally USA-focussed theme: Given the anti-choice gains in the states and Congress, are you concerned about choice in 2011? - it's a little odd that I'm giving it a shot. But the universe throws up odd coincidences and this is one of them.

We watch a fair bit of Boston Legal around here, and we watched one last night which was about abortion. The whole episode was pretty ordinary, actually, but the story about abortion was particularly ridiculous.

Short synopsis: 15 year old girl asks Alan Shore to represent her to be permitted to terminate her pregnancy because her mother won't let her. There is much agonising by Alan and Shirley Schmidt about how much an abortion stays with you forever. The mother claims the 15 year old is too young to know herself and will grow up to be pro-life. [Necessary interjection - the girl is Asian, and up until this point I'm thinking "makes a change, characters who are Asian with no particular plot reason for them to be Asian". Sadly, no.] Then it's revealed that she's only terminating the pregnancy because she's carrying a girl and Chinese people don't want girl children. Shirley tells the judge all this, and judge points out that interrogating teenagers for their reasons for termination rather defeats the purpose of giving them access to it and grants it anyway.

So, in the interests of the theme, I'll leave the race issues to the reader, along with the scientific ones (girl who is showing no signs of pregnancy at all, looking for routine abortion, and knows the gender of the baby?), and stick with the various issues of choice that came up.

One of the major themes was that pro-choice ideology hangs on Roe v Wade. Apparently this legal precedent is necessary for us to be able to believe that abortion is ok. Really? What about the vast majority of pro-choice people who don't live in the USA? I grew up pro-choice, all the while having some vague notion that Roe v Wade was about divorce settlements (I may have had it confused with Kramer vs Kramer). I also have no doubt that many, many pro-choice people within the USA feel that the moral position makes Roe v Wade necessary, not that Roe v Wade is necessary for the moral position.

Then we come to "But this decision will stay with her for the rest of her life!". Yes, that old chestnut. She's 15. She's pregnant. Whatever happens next, it will stay with her for the rest of her life. It was asserted over and again that women who have abortions "never get over it". I have no idea of actual numbers (has anyone ever done a real study?), but there definitely exist women who do get over it - who barely ever think of it again after the initial recovery period - as well as women who don't, indeed ever get over it. She has two other options - raising the child, or giving it up for adoption. Particularly in Australia we hear a great deal about how traumatic adoption is for both birth mother and child (not that I buy into that as a general truth, but the stories are there, and clearly it can be), and it's hard to consider a decision that's more likely to "stay with her for the rest of her life" than choosing to raise the child. Of course, raising the child doesn't have to be a bad thing, but for 15 year olds in countries with minimal welfare and little or no public health (like the USA), the odds are against her having an even tolerable parenting experience.

They also trotted out the "life begins at conception" thing. Yes, it does. Life begins at conception. But "life" is a pretty broad category. There is far more non-human life within my skin that there is human life. There is non-human life inside every one of my cells. We wipe out life on a monumental scale every time we take antibiotics (for example) - and not just the "evil" life that's making us sick, we're also wiping out a whole heap of our allies, the other life that keeps us humming along. So this isn't about "life", it's about "human life". At what point does a bundle of cells become a human life? The fact that these cells are reproducing themselves and growing doesn't make them a whole human being, my liver can do that, and it can do it in someone else's body. They may be capable of growing into a whole human being, unlike my liver, but they can't do it without my help - not until some point around 22 - 25 weeks, depending on available technology. I don't think biology can give us the answer to when the bundle of cells becomes "human life". I think it's a complex question, and I don't believe it's a "line in the sand" thing - it's a gradual progression from cells, to foetus, to baby and so on, and each stage brings more personhood. I don't think birth is where it ends either - I think personhood is still developing for a long time after birth, although in ever diminishing amounts.

The really sticky issue was the one of gender selection. I think this is an interesting question. We have 3 kids: boy, boy, girl. We did rather want a girl when we had the third. We did some of the things suggested to increase the odds of conceiving a girl. When we were told, by (faulty) genetic testing, that we were having a boy, we didn't consider termination. But if I believe that an individual has the right to choose whether or not they continue a pregnancy, I have to believe they have that right when they're doing it for gender. What's the difference, in terms of gender selection, between me nudging the odds, and them terminating? On the other hand, when you have a society-wide situation in which one gender is preferred over the other (and it isn't always a preference for boys, I've been told that the cost of educating boys in Japan makes people select for girls), you have a problem. I'd argue that the right solution is to address the reasons why there is a wholesale gender preference in the first place, rather than place restrictions on having the babies themselves, but sometimes that just isn't practical. In Japan, at least at one point in time, you couldn't be told the gender of the baby until 8 months, even though it was still discovered at 18 weeks. That's one way of dealing with it, I suppose.

In the end though, it all comes down to that progression from cells to a separate individual with a personality. At what point on that journey does the life become equivalent to the mother that created it? This has to be a philosophical question, and therefore will never have a definitive answer. For that reason alone, we need choice, because none of us has the right to impose our answer on someone else.

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