Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Abortion: One Vegetarian’s View

[Editor's Note: As a person who has never been accused of having an intelligent idea about anything, Mr. Reinhardt is constantly requested not to write about serious and/or controversial issues. Sometimes, though, he loses control of himself. Since we get this column cheap, we feel obliged to occasionally humor him. Our apologies in advance for offending you all.]

I'm a vegetarian, so naturally I'm pro-life. I'm also pro-choice. Needless to say, that combination leaves me feeling uncomfortably off-balance—kind of like a fish on horseback.

In the controversy over abortion, the positions of "pro-life" and "pro-choice" have become extremely politicized, and the emotional rhetoric may have moved both sides so far into the trees that they've lost sight of the forest. I'm not sure just where we vegetarians fit. If our track record is one of reverence for life and an unwillingness to conform our beliefs to what may be politically correct, then we just may not have a place in either one of these traditional camps.

By the time a typical abortion is performed the aborted fetus has a heartbeat, measurable brain waves, and its own circulatory system. The pro-life folks say that's enough to make abortion an act of killing babies. The pro-choice people disagree, claiming that the beginning of life can't be measured scientifically, and is therefore a philosophical and/or religious question to be answered by a woman and her doctor.

Nonsense. To my mind the pro-choice argument here represents the kind of collective guilty-conscience rationalization that would do even the meat industry proud. A fetus is obviously alive and obviously human. In an abortion it is violently killed. To argue otherwise is contrary to common sense. It is, in the popular vernacular, a large crock of peanut butter, and as a vegetarian who's opposed to killing, I'm not going to buy into it.

So, that puts me squarely in the pro-life camp, right? Well, not exactly. Even though I can empathize with the fervency they feel for their cause, these folks have some credibility problems of their own. First, while they claim to be "pro-life," for the majority that commitment ends at the doors to Planned Parenthood. There does not seem to be any concern, for example, over our nation's military activities, or over the state-sponsored killing of human beings in electric chairs or gas chambers. (Certainly there's no overriding concern with the quality of life—particularly for young women who find themselves unintentionally pregnant and want to reassert control over their own bodies.) Similarly, the commitment to end abortion itself seems to be limited to shutting the doors of the clinics and legislating morality. There's no movement to educate young people on family planning or to solve any of the social problems we all know underlie the abortion issue. Perhaps "pro-life" should more appropriately read "pro-life, as long as it agrees with my views of what's politically correct."

Another concern I have with the pro-life folks is in their "killing babies" argument. If they really believe abortion is killing babies (I think they do, and, as I say, I can't argue with them), then why don't they advocate treating it as murder? The reason, of course, is that such advocacy would be political suicide for their cause. If abortion is murder then exceptions in any anti-abortion law for rape, incest, and the health (as opposed to the life) of the mother make no sense. If abortion is murder, women who have them and their doctors ought to be tried and punished as murderers. The political system isn't ready to make these difficult choices. The pro-life people know that, and they're perfectly willing to ignore such troubling issues in promoting their cause. While they claim to want rights for the unborn, they really want only those particular rights that promote their political objectives, not the ones that might impede them.

I really get angry about the abortion issue whenever I hear the "silent scream" arguments. The pro-life people often make a point of describing how well developed the fingers and toes of the aborted fetus are, how it feels pain during the abortion, how its heart is stopped, etc. I don't disagree with what they are saying, or want to discount or suppress this information in any way. But as a vegetarian, I always want to ask the people making these arguments what they had for dinner the night before. A fetus may be a human "baby," but by any objective standard (intelligence, development of its nervous system, mobility, viability, etc.) it is a much lower life form than the cows, pigs, chickens and fish that the pro-life people legally kill for their food every day. (No, these animals don't have the "potential" to become a viable human being the way a fetus does. But if "potential" is the issue, we should outlaw every form of birth control, including abstention.)

We will always have a special concern for issues affecting the lives of our own species, I guess. Perhaps to some extent that may be natural and proper. Abortion, though, is merely part of a much larger web of interconnected issues concerning human life and, more universally, animal life on our planet. On these larger issues the political movement that calls itself "pro-life" isn't really pro-life at all. It isn't even a player.

Even though I abhor abortion, I must believe that it should remain legal and available. It is a huge tragedy every time an unwanted child is brought into this world. All too often it perpetuates a cycle of poverty, lack of self-respect, and child abuse that ultimately begets more abortions. Maybe I'm just naive, but I strongly believe that a program of educating young people before they are sexually active, making birth control widely available, and addressing underlying social problems will prevent many more abortions than the "pro-life" plan of relegating the procedure to the underworld and trying to universally impose moral values that may be contrary to human nature.

However it is viewed, though, abortion is violent and destructive. Every time it is implemented as a solution to a problem, it is an indication that the essential functions of our society have somehow failed. I can't imagine that all reasonable people wouldn't welcome an end to this practice. As vegetarians concerned with the rights of all living beings, we should strive toward that goal.

Is it possible to be both pro-life and pro-choice, without buying into the arguments of either of the political groups that claim those terms? I don't know, but I guess I'll have to give it a try.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Oh, The Disadvantages

Years ago, in the dark days of my youth, cigarette companies (gasp!) were actually allowed to advertise on television. Today we're more enlightened. Tune in for more than 5 minutes now and you'll see several fast food companies trying to hook kids on hamburgers with promises of free toys. Such progress. (What's that, you say? Something about products that kill when used as intended???)

Anyway, one of those early cigarette ads pointed out all the disadvantages of the sponsor's new, longer cigarettes, showing how they could get caught in elevator doors, make you late for your own wedding, etc. Of course by pointing out these minor disadvantages, their real purpose was to show the significant advantages of their product (more tobacco, longer smoking times, faster lung cancer).

We can play the same game with vegetarianism. Try these, for example:

Disadvantage: "No hamburgers off the grill for me."

Advantage: "I just saved 8 trees in the rain forest."

Disadvantage: "There's nothing on this menu I can eat."

Advantage: "I didn't feel stuffed [sick/guilty/poor/etc.] after eating lunch."

Disadvantage/Advantage: "Oh gosh, all my friends are going into the hospital for bypass surgery, but I wasn't invited."

You get the idea. The primary plusses and minuses of vegetarianism should be obvious to everyone—everyone except meat-eaters I guess. Sometime when you're really bored, though (like when you're reading this column, or when one of those fast food commercials comes on during your favorite show), think of some of the more subtle ways your diet/lifestyle preference has made your life both miserable and wonderful. Here are a few ideas from your fellow vegetarians to get you started:

Disadvantage: "I ordered the 'veggie special' pizza, hold the cheese please, and they charged me the full menu price. You'd think by eliminating the most expensive ingredient they could shave a few bucks off the tab."

Disadvantage: "My dinner came with soup and salad, but I couldn't eat the soup because it had a beef broth. Did they give me a discount? No way!"

Advantage: There is no restaurant in the world where the "Oysters Rockefeller" is priced less than the "garden salad."

Disadvantage: "There have been times when I've been trapped in some of the most primitive places on earth (LaGuardia Airport in New York City, for example), where civilized dining is impossible. Once, when I was eating my dinner of Burger King French fries, I looked over at the people next to me eating chicken salad. It suddenly occurred to me that this was one night when I might possibly be eating healthier if I wasn't a vegetarian!"

Disadvantage/Advantage: The only desserts the restaurant had were loaded with cows' milk and chickens' eggs. Those things seemed gross to me, so it took no willpower at all to go for the berries. I saved a thousand calories' worth of saturated fat and felt good about myself for days."

Disadvantage: "My diet's so alien to them, my friends never invite me to dinner anymore. Heck, they're a bunch of stiffs anyway."

Advantage: "When charities hit me up for money I ask: 'Will my donation be used for animal testing? Will my money be used to buy meat?' If they don't slink quickly away (they usually do), at least I know my donation will go to a good cause."

Disadvantage: "Why does soy milk have to cost more than cows' milk when, all things considered, it's much cheaper to produce?"

Disadvantage/Advantage: "When I became a vegetarian I had to learn to cook for myself. It saved me a fortune and gave me a new hobby."

Disadvantage: "I didn't want to eat butter anymore, so I switched to olive oil. It's really lousy on pancakes."

Advantage: "It's great on everything else."

Advantage: "It doesn't bother me that federal meat inspection is so shoddy."

Disadvantage/Advantage: "I ordered the vegetarian meal on my last airline flight. Not only was it vegetarian, but the margarine was salt-free, the salad dressing was oil-free, and the roll was taste-free. It was still better than what they served the meat eaters."

If you play the disadvantage/advantage game with vegetarianism long enough, a couple of things become obvious. First, whatever disadvantages you might think up aren't problems inherent in vegetarianism at all, but are merely products of our minority status in society and lack of action on the part of meat-eaters. Second, the disadvantages of vegetarianism seem trivial when compared to the advantages.

Of course they do. That's why we're vegetarians.