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Abortion Foes and the False Piety of Life's Sanctity

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Nothing reveals more clearly the true nature of abortion opponents than the murder of a doctor who performs the procedure.

Dr. George Tiller was killed on Sunday, May 31 in his local church, where was serving as an usher. Yes, the national anti-abortion groups condemn the murder and trot out the usual, "we denounce vigilantism" and we "work through peaceful, legal means." Nice words, but they ring hollow. Randall Terry, a founder of Operation Rescue, responded to Tiller's murder by noting that doctor, whose clinic he protested against as a "murder mill," was a "mass murderer." His concern was not for the obvious hypocrisy of a murder committed on behalf of his "pro-life" cause. No, he said, "I am more concerned that the Obama Administration will use Tiller's killing to intimidate pro-lifers into surrendering our most effective rhetoric and actions." Now that is revealing. Is murder an effective action that needs defense? Remember that Terry recently called Obama "an agent of death" for his support for a woman's right to control her own reproductive destiny.

Let us look at the rationale for many of those who oppose abortion. A primary argument rests on the notion that life is sacred. Indeed, the very term "sanctity of life" is code for opposition to abortion, supposedly indicating a pious regard for all things living. But nothing could be further from the truth. Cows, pigs, goats and sheep are alive, but killing them for food is not questioned. Hunting big game for sport is just fine. But since cows and big game are alive, the unctuous appeal to the "sanctity of life" is absurd. Plants are alive, but I suspect the "sanctity" part only applies to animals. What abortion opponents mean is that some forms of life, that only they have the right to define, are sacred, while others can be disregarded as long as they give the okay.

Perhaps, then, the "sanctity of life" really applies only to human beings. No, that does not work either because abortion foes do not view all human life as sacred; only some life. For example, killing in war is justified, as is lethal injection for convicted criminals. Opponents of abortion are almost universally in favor of the death penalty. Killing an intruder in your home is acceptable. How can one possibly hold these beliefs and claim to believe at the same time that "all life" is sacred? The contradiction is stark, and the assault on logic and reason beyond comprehension.

Pushing the "sanctity of life" becomes particularly problematic when murders are committed for the cause. Those proudly proclaiming support for the sanctity of life support nothing of the kind. The truth is that these folks believe life is sacred on a case-by-case basis, hardly a founding principle.

Nobody likes abortion. That is not the question being debated. Prevention, not abortion, is the vastly preferred method of family planning. Abortion is an invasive surgical technique, physically and psychologically traumatic, expensive, and potentially dangerous. Whereas responsible adult sex should be as frequent as desired, unwanted pregnancy should be exceptional rather than routine. Part of the adult responsibility commensurate with having an active sex life is prudent and careful use of contraception. Abortion should not be viewed as a contraceptive given the procedures emotional and physical complications. However, if an unwanted pregnancy occurs, a women's right to choose her own reproductive destiny must be protected.

Alright, let us say for the sake of argument that the sanctity of life argument really does only apply to humans, and only to some humans as defined by abortion foes. Even that concession does not lead to any logical conclusion. Abortion foes claim, as a secondary argument, that the procedure is murder based on the notion that a fertilized egg has the same suite of rights enjoyed by all humans. The belief that a few cells derived from a fertilized egg is a human being is a sad example of good intentions based on misguided notions of biology. The small ball of cells is potentially a human being, but so are eggs and sperm, even if to an unequal degree. All require certain conditions to realize the potential to become human. Ovulation and male masturbation would be acts of murder by the same logic that confers the status of humanness on a fertilized egg or early-stage embryo.

Somewhere between a just-fertilized egg and a baby about to exit the birth canal lies a distinction between potentially human and human. Because that line is difficult to draw does not mean that the line does not exist. Clearly, the division between potentially human and human is increasingly difficult to distinguish with time from conception, but even later stages of the embryo pass milestones that offer important guidelines.

In the absence of a central nervous system, the embryo is incapable of any sensation. Until a brain is formed with a functioning cortex, the embryo has no ability to form any conscious thought. Neural development begins early, but the process is slow relative to other organ systems. The three main lobes that will become the brain form by the 29th day. About six to eight weeks after fertilization, the first detectable brain waves can be recorded, but the brain is not nearly fully formed, and the cortex is little distinguished. Before eight weeks, in the absence of any brain function, the growing embryo is little different in its human potential from a fertilized egg. Abortion at this stage is therefore fully acceptable when the procedure is necessary.

Later stages of growth do not offer a sign as clear as brain development, but the fetus provides another point of determination, although one involving a higher emotional and ethical cost in the hierarchy of decision-making. Before a fetus is capable of living outside the womb at week 23, even with invasive medical intervention, the line from potential to actual human has not been crossed. Before week 23, a premature baby cannot survive. Viability between weeks 23 and 26 is uncertain. After week 26, survival is possible, although lungs do not reach maturity until week 34, and a suite of life-time medical problems can be expected. Medical advances can only push this point of viability so far back toward conception, because functioning lungs, even if not mature, must be present for a fetus to survive outside the womb. No amount of medical intervention before that point of development will change this fundamental fact of biology, which establishes a second threshold for abortion at 23 weeks. A science-fiction scenario of an artificial womb in the far future would not change this calculation of natural embryogenesis.

Beyond the point of viability outside the uterus, the threshold for when an abortion is a reasonable choice becomes significantly higher. I agree that late-term abortions are difficult to justify, except in the extreme case of rape or incest in which the victim had no access to medical care earlier in the pregnancy. But murdering the doctors performing these procedures is not the answer.

Ask yourself this question: when was the last time a pro-choice activist entered a church and gunned down a pro-life activist in front of family and friends? Is it not just a bit odd that the very people who claim that life is sacred are the ones that kill to promote their cause?

The sanctity of life argument is dead; and abortion foes who continue to spout that pious nonsense will have to become vegans who only eat plant products that do not damage in any way the parent plant. If life is truly sacred, eating any plant or animal would be counter to god's will, an idea no more absurd than claiming that eliminating an undifferentiated ball of cells is murder.

The real accessory to murder in this story is Randall Terry.