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.