Friday, February 24, 2006

Rhetoric vs. Reality

Since South Dakota recently threw down the gauntlet big-time in the greatest American political pastime - the abortion debate - I thought it might be worth a little TIA-ttention. Keep in mind, according to the most recent version of the South Dakota bill passed by that state's Senate (pending passage in the state House), it would be a crime - punishable by up to five years in prison - for a doctor to perform an abortion under any scenario other than where a woman's life was in danger. This is not a late-term abortion ban, and there would be no exceptions in situations involving rape, incest or a threat to a woman's health generally speaking (where such health issue is not life-threatening). The bill's sponsors are clear that their intent is to provide a vehicle to fast track legal challenges to Roe v. Wade all the way up to the newly reconfigured Supreme Court.

In light of this rather dramatic gesture, I wanted to turn to a facet of this debate that has been troubling me lately - hopefully some type of conversation could be sparked that would answer some questions. But first, some background. I acknowledge that people on both sides of this debate hold various nuanced positions with various justifications and permutations - but for the sake of this piece I will be oversimplifying certain concepts without the intent of insulting anyone's beliefs.

Generally speaking, those on the pro-choice side tend to view the issue in a woman's rights/libertarian context - with the suspicion that many on the other side are more concerned with controlling women and punishing women's sexuality than any other more noble calling. The anti-abortion side most frequently adheres to the belief that human life begins at conception - when sperm fertilizes egg - and therefore abortions equate to murder and thus transcend claims based on the individual rights of women. It's not anti-woman, it's pro-life.

So here's my problem, as expressed recently by Jane Hamsher at firedoglake: just how far are those that espouse the "fertilized embryo-as-human being" theory really willing to go? Are they ready to extend this belief to its logical conclusions, or is their outrage unduly focused around issues relating to women's sexuality - thus giving credence to the suspicions of many in the pro-choice camp.

Here's an ethics classroom type hypothetical worthy of getting the conversation started (via Jane):

"...if a fire breaks out in a fertility clinic, who do you save -- a Petri dish with five blastula or the two year-old child?"
Interesting, if a bit outlandish. I think it's safe to say that most people would instinctively grab the two year-old, but if one believes that those five embryos are just as human as the two year-old, surely the petri dish representing five human lives is worthier of saving. If not, why not? Is there some basis for a hierarchy whereby a fertilized egg is a human, but a two-year old is more human? If so, what is that test?

The fertility clinic hypo is worth exploring even further - especially when contrasted with the stem-cell research debate. First, stem-cells. As many of you are undoubtedly aware, President Bush attempted to thread the needle somewhat on the stem-cell question by limiting federally funded stem-cell research to existing lines of stem-cells taken from embryos already in use, but with no additional embryos to be exploited in this way. One must ask, though, if President Bush believes that embryos are human life, why not go all the way and propose banning stem-cell research outright? Isn't he condoning murder (at least under his belief system)? At the very least, shouldn't he propose banning any further research (federally funded or otherwise) using additional lines derived from embryos not currently being utilized? I can't say I see the moral clarity.

As for fertility clinics, many of you might also be aware that the process of in vitro fertilization involves the creation of many embryos to be used in attempting implantation which might lead to successful pregnancy. Implicit in these techniques is the knowledge that more embryos than necessary are created at once, in order to have back-ups on hand should the procedure fail in the initial attempts (which it inevitably does, and almost always more than once). In a related matter, embryos aren't produced on an attempt-by-attempt basis because such a frequently repeated process of embryo creation is prohibitively stressful on the health of the woman. But this raises the question: what happens to the superfluous embryos after successful implantation?

Currently, there are a variety of options depending on the clinic involved - with the ultimate choice to be determined by the parents and the clinic as a private matter. The parents can choose to use the embryos for their own additional pregnancies, donate them to other couples, freeze the embryos indefinitely, donate the embryos to stem-cell research or destroy the embryos by thawing them out. Other than the first two options, all those choices should be deemed murder by those that believe that embryos represent human life.

But oddly enough, there is no consistent voice on this issue from the anti-abortion camp and very little in the way of public outcry. Some groups, such as the Catholic church, take a consistent stand opposing in vitro fertilization. But other groups remain silent, agnostic or attempt to hide behind a push for legislation that would require embryos that are not used to be frozen indefinitely. In either instance, you don't see picket lines and demonstrations outside fertilization clinics, despite the "murder" being perpetrated within those institutions.

Further, the "freeze the embryos" push is a disingenuous dodge. After a certain amount of time has elapsed, those frozen embryos are no longer viable and under any definition have effectively ceased being a human life. Further, if they are humans, how is it anything near acceptable to put them on ice in perpetuity? Don't they have rights that should trump those involuntary, indefinite cryogenic imprisonments? And here's a follow up question: what if abortions could be performed so that the fetus was removed intact, unharmed and promptly frozen? Would those then be considered an acceptable procedure due the use of cryogenics?

Jane Hamsher also draws attention to a portion of this discussion about which I was wholly ignorant [emphasis mine]:
When John M. Opitz of the University of Utah testified before the President's council on Bioethics in 2003, he noted that between 60 and 80 percent of all naturally conceived embryos are simply flushed out in a woman's normal menstrual cycle in the first 7 days after fertilization, and that women never even know that conception has taken place.

(As a side note, at the same meeting, Harvard government professor Michael Sandel, also a member of the Bioethics council, noted that "If the embryo loss that accompanies natural procreation were the moral equivalent of infant death, then pregnancy would have to be regarded as a public health crisis of epidemic proportions: Alleviating natural embryo loss would be a more urgent moral cause than abortion, in vitro fertilization, and stem-cell research combined." Although I enjoy Dr. Sandel's sense of humor and appreciate the presence of a smartass on the Bioethics council, I really do, let's just chalk this one up to "God's will" for the moment and proceed with the question at hand.)
For the sake of her discussion, Jane tabled the topics raised by professor Sandel, but I think they warrant a closer inspection. If one believes that all these embryos that are terminated without outside interference are each human lives, and the "death toll" from menstrual cycle-related embryonic fatalities would eclipse all abortion, in vitro and stem cell causes by far, shouldn't medical solutions to this problem take on paramount importance? I mean, human life is human life and with so many millions of humans dying each day, I would think a little urgency would be in order. Yet the anti-abortion movement is oddly silent.

Jane anticipated the likely response by agreeing to treat these incidents as "God's will" - much like a miscarriage or similar natural cause of death for a newborn. But medical science is dedicated to thwarting "God's will" in terms of combating causes of death in many forms - be it disease, genetic predisposition or other "natural" causes. Why not here? I'm willing to concede that this might be more a matter of what issues have received national attention, but still, shouldn't this matter eventually percolate to the top of the list of items to be addressed by those belonging to the "culture of life"? If abortion is akin to genocide, menstrual cycles are a bigger villain.

Digby takes it one step further by pointing out that 81% of Americans are in favor of abortions in cases of rape or incest - a number that, by its size, must include some in the anti-abortion camp. But if one believes that the embryo created through such acts is a human life, why allow for its "murder"? Surely these same people would not condone the murder of an infant or child conceived through rape/incest after the child was born. But if the embryo is also a human, why the double standard? Although, it should be noted, the South Dakota law avoids this particular ethical dilemma by allowing no exception for rape or incest.

To be sure, there are many opposed to abortion that hold consistent, intellectually honest positions that treat all embryos as human lives. This is a perfectly justifiable stance involving spiritual beliefs and the nature of the human soul - the ultimate answers to which are probably beyond any of our capacities. I happen not to agree with that position completely, but I acknowledge that it is valid, honest and worthy of respect.

What I can't seem to get my head around, though, and where my respect tends to slip, is where people apply a selective or sliding scale concern for embryos - whereby some should be granted the full cadre of human rights (or at least the right to life) while others are treated as less than human even with respect to their right to life. Especially because these "sliding scale" proponents tend to show greater concern for the embryo where there is a woman's uterus involved, where the pregnancy in question resulted from sexual intercourse and where that woman wants to make a choice affecting the embryo in her uterus.

In this inconsistency, I believe, ulterior motives are revealed (be they consciously held, or the product of underlying attitudes and beliefs that are layered in one's subconscious). I sincerely welcome any guidance or explanation that could explain away these apparent contradictions/inconsistencies, because I am left with the distinct impression that too many in the anti-abortion camp care less about embryos and more about a woman's autonomy.

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