THE GREAT AMERICAN ABORTION DEBATE:  THE STRUGGLE FOR THE NATION’S SOUL

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OP-ED

Opinions are always those of the authors.

by Gennady Shkliarevsky

The Great American Abortion Debate has a long and checkered history with its ebbs and flows.  Its roots go back to the feminist movement and the sexual revolution of the 1960s when abortion became a hotly contested political issue.  The critical event in the history of the abortion debate came on January 22, 1973 when the Supreme Court of the United States issued a critical ruling in the case of Roe v. Wade that made abortions legal.  The ruling essentially annulled all existing state laws that prohibited abortions.  It also made abortion available on demand to all women based upon trimesters and fetal viability.  The 1973 decision of the Supreme Court remains to this day the most important legal statute that guarantees women access to abortion on demand.

 

The decision in Roe v. Wade did not end the abortion debate in America.  It merely turned it into the great American abortion debate.  The offensive against the statute began almost immediately after its adoption.  In the years that followed, battles over abortion moved to the state level where many local decisions tried to limit the accessibility of abortion by restricting the range of choices available under Roe v. Wade.[1]  The supporters of abortion rights mounted their own offensives that brought together prominent political and public figures, professional medical and legal organizations, human rights groups, and, of course, many common citizens’ groups that staged numerous public protests and rallies in support of the abortion rights.  The great debate has turned into a veritable competition between the abortion-rights activists—popularly known as the pro-choice movement—and those who are opposed to abortion and who have constituted themselves as the pro-life movement.

 

The battle between the two sides has not subsided over the years.  If anything, their rivalry has only increased as time has passed and is currently at an unprecedented pitch, which raises an important question:  Will this controversy ever be resolved?  Given the current political context, the answer to this question appears to be negative.

 

The main thrust of the pro-choice movement is to defend the right of women to control the reproductive choices accorded to them under Roe v. Wade.  By contrast, the pro-life movement affirms the sanctity of human life and the rights of the unborn.  Also, while the pro-choice movement includes people of faith, its arguments are essentially secular in nature and avoid references to religion.  The pro-life movement, by contrast, is profoundly religious in its orientation.  Its members frequently bring into the debate arguments from religious doctrines that appeal to Americans of faith.

 

The abortion-rights advocates argue largely from the positive law perspective.  They accept the premise that fetus is not a constitutional person and, therefore, does not require protection under constitution.  By contrast, they contend, woman is a constitutional person and, therefore, her rights to make choices related to her body have to be protected.[2]

 

Pro-lifers argue from the perspective of natural law.  They see the unborn as individuals who have certain rights, of which the right to life is paramount.  They argue that human life begins at conception and, therefore, as a human being fetus, just like the mother, warrants full protection of the law.  However, when faced with the staunch opposition from the pro-choice movement, opponents of abortion try to whittle Roe v. Wade and gain piecemeal concessions.  One of their latest attempts is to recognize the heartbeat as the moment when fetus may be regarded as the subject of law protection, which restricts the right of abortion to the first six weeks of pregnancy.  In response, the pro-choice advocates advance the argument that a woman may not even be aware of her pregnancy during the first six weeks.[3]  Not to be outdone, the abortion-rights movement tries to extend the ruling of Roe v. Wade to allow abortions beyond the period of twelve weeks.  In 2019, for example, the New York State legislature passed the bill that allows abortion “at any time when necessary to protect a woman’s life or health” speeding the time from introduction to final passage to mere thirteen days.[4]  And so it has been going back and forth with each party trying to gain advantage over its opponent.

 

Although the pro-choice and the pro-life movement appear to be diametrically opposed to each other, they do have something in common.  They both recognize the primacy of the individual as the main organizing principle of their respective perspectives—the woman in the case of pro-choice and the fetus for pro-lifers.  This fact explains why neither perspective can achieve a decisive victory.  They both use the same organizing principle.  As a result, their respective perspectives have the same explanatory power.  Therefore, neither can win this debate.  On arguments the debate is irresolvable.  Only brute force can settle the controversy.  Of course, a compromise between the two sides is not impossible, at least in theory.  However, such compromise will be very unstable and conflict prone.  As the abortion debate stands now, we face continued tensions and divisions that constantly threaten to erupt into a full-fledged conflict.

 

There are also other reasons that create more difficulties in resolving the controversy.  The recognition of the primacy of the individual is arbitrary and subjective, which makes the perspectives that make such recognition their organizing principle also arbitrary and subjective.  If a perspective is arbitrary and subjective, there is always a strong possibility that it will be challenged by another subjective and arbitrary perspective, just as it happens in the great American abortion debate.

 

The assumption of the primacy of the individual fails the test of logical justification nor empirical verification.  From the logical point of view, the assumption of the primacy of the individual is not more justified than the primacy of community.  Both are equally arbitrary and subjective.  In a way, they represent a problem that is similar to that of chicken and egg.  Some argue that since chicken lays eggs, it must be primary; while others claim that since chicken comes from the egg, the egg must be primary.  Neither of these assertions is true.  Both chicken and egg are merely specific products of the same level of organization of life that has emerged in the course of the evolution.  Even if the life of the individual starts with conception, it takes two people—in other words, a social unit—to make conception possible.  As to empirical evidence, even those who originated this assumption believed—together with Hobbes, Rousseau, and other Enlightenment thinkers–that the primacy of the individual is merely a mythic construct, not a historical fact.

 

There is no objective reason to believe that either the individual or community is primary.  The assumption of the primacy of either of them is subjective and arbitrary; and the theoretical perspectives based on these assumptions can only be subjective and arbitrary.  The primary fact for both the individual and community is the process of evolution that has created them both.  It is the process of creation that is primary.

 

The recognition of the primacy of the process of creation is not arbitrary.  It has a logical justification.  Our perceptions of reality rely on mental constructs that we create in our mind.  Without these constructs reality simply would not exist for us.  Therefore, the existence of the process of creation is the essential condition that allows us to perceive reality.  The fact that we can create is irrefutable evidence that supports the claim for the existence of the process of creation.  The capacity to create is not uniquely human capacity.  The process of creation is universal.  This process is the source of many marvels that we observe in our universe:  from particles, atoms, and molecules to planets, stars, and galaxies, to life, humans, and civilizations.  The process of creation is what makes our universe possible and sustains it.

 

In view of these important considerations, we can safely adopt the process of creation as an objective, logically justifiable, and empirically verifiable foundation for our perspective on the problem of abortion.  The objectivity of the process of creation will guarantee the objectivity of such approach.

 

How will the issue of abortion look from the perspective that recognizes the primacy of the process of creation, rather than the individual?

 

Sexual act creates life.  It is a creative act.  As an act of creation, sexual act is an integral part of the general process of creation that makes our universe possible and sustains it.  Approaching sexual act from this perspective recognizes its universal and sacred significance.

 

As part of the universal and sacred process of creation, sexual act has three important dimensions.  It is a way of knowing intimately another human being.  Obtaining such intimate knowledge requires the recognition of autonomy, both one’s own and that of other humans, which is the foundation of morality and justice.  As all other creative acts, sexual act is the source of profound pleasure and joy—not the hedonistic kind of pleasure that gratifies individual ego, but pleasure derived from the gratification of our capacity to create.  True acts of creation generate new and more powerful levels of organization that provide access to new resources, which sustains us as individuals and human community.

 

We must change our attitude toward sexuality and sexual act.  Sexual act cannot be a form of entertainment or a source of gratification of our individual ego at the expense of other human beings.  The process of creation connects the individual and community; it is also a source of continuity between past, present and future.  From this perspective, sexuality and sexual act offer a broad space for exploring, discovering, and creating new and increasingly more powerful levels of organizing our relations with each other, with our community, and the universe.

 

This view of sexuality and sexual act should be central in our approach to sex education.  Sex education should be integral to the way we bring up our children.  The exposure of children to this important subject should not be separate from the general context in which our life unfolds—the universal process of creation.  We should make sure that young minds are aware of creation as the process that opens the path to their fulfillment and happiness.  Sexual education should not consist in mere presentation of basic biological facts—the way it is done in schools today.  A much richer context of creation in general must frame the facts about sex and sexuality.  Sex education must take place in a broad frame in which children’s experience the process of creation, both as individuals and community.

 

In exposing children to the important subject of sexuality, teachers and parents must recognize children’s autonomy.  They must know and fully understand what young minds are capable of at each stage of their development—what they can and cannot comprehend.  Sex education requires the utmost care and intense sensitivity toward vulnerabilities of children and adolescents.  Teachers and parents should never forget to target and serve first and foremost children’s spiritual needs.

 

The acquisition of knowledge about sex and sexuality cannot be a one-time event.  It must be a gradual and painstakingly meticulous process in the course of which students will have an opportunity of exploring and discovering one’s own self and building knowledge about the world that they are to master and control.  Parents and teachers should make sure that children see the connection between sexual act and the process of creation.  At all stages of their exposure to the subject of sex and sexuality, children and adolescents should be aware of the significance of the process of creation for their personal life and happiness, the life and happiness of their community and humanity as a whole.

 

Parents and teachers should help children mature into responsible adults who fully understand sex and sexual act as a wonderful and deeply rewarding gift they receive from nature—a gift that should be cherished and venerated in our personal life and in the life of future generations.  They should understand that sexual act gives them a unique opportunity to become a creator of life.  Sex and sexuality should not lead our children into the trap of unwanted pregnancies, abandoned children, hollow relations, and worse, but should enhance their life, affirm human dignity, increase their ties with each other, and nourish the soul, both their own and that of their community.

REFERENCES

[1] Adams, Jill E. “The Abortion Rights Controversy in America: A Legal Reader.” Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice 20 (May 2005): 308–20. Lindsey, Treva B. “A Concise History of the US Abortion Debate.” The Conversation, 2019. http://theconversation.com/a-concise-history-of-the-us-abortion-debate-118157.

[2] Dworkin, R. “The Great Abortion Case.” New York Review of Books 36, no. 11 (June 29, 1989).

[3] Beck, Randy. “Fueling Controversy.” Marquette Law Review 95, no. 2 (Winter2011/2012 2011): 735–50; Harmon, Amy. “‘Fetal Heartbeat’ vs. ‘Forced Pregnancy’: The Language Wars of the Abortion Debate – The New York Times.” NYTimes, May 22, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/22/us/fetal-heartbeat-forced-pregnancy.html.

[4] Murchison, William. “A Promiscuous Extension of Abortion Rights.” Human Life Review 45, no. 2 (Spring 2019): 5–9.

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Gennady Shkliarevsky is Professor Emeritus of History at Bard College, specializing in Russian and Soviet History. 

 


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