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The Abortion Stalemate: Can 'I Don't Know' Break It?

Posted: 10/23/11 09:54 AM ET

When does a fetus become a human being? I don't know. Do you?

A lot of people think they do. We have heard a great deal from them since 1973 and Roe v. Wade. In the process, the two sides have fought pitched battles on a host of issues. They have made little if any progress toward dialogue with each other.

Perhaps we should start the discussion over. Perhaps "I don't know" is the place to start.

Perspectives on when human life begins have covered the spectrum over the past three millennia or so. The Greek Stoics believed that the fetus was not human till the moment of birth. Aristotle asserted that the embryo takes on a human soul 40 to 90 days after conception, depending on gender. The notion of "quickening" -- when the woman could first sense movement in her womb -- was sometimes used as a dividing line between ethical and unethical abortion. St. Augustine, in his Enchiridion, suggested that this question "may be most carefully discussed by the most learned men, and still I do not know that any man can answer it." (For more on the variety of approaches to the question, see Justice Harry Blackmun's opinion in Roe v. Wade.)

True, Augustine didn't have access to ultrasound. One might argue that today's medical technology has proven what the ancients could only guess at. But while it has informed the debate to a great degree, it cannot provide a definitive answer, because "becoming human" is not a scientific question but a spiritual or philosophical one. And who can answer any such question definitively? Even that great bastion of Christian dogma, the Apostles' Creed--to which the Church has demanded undying fealty over the centuries--starts not with "I know," but with "I believe."

So the answer to "when does a fetus become a human being?" is a matter of belief, not certainty. But before we retreat back into those beliefs, and the pitched battles that have accompanied them, perhaps we should dwell with "I don't know" for a while.

Why? Because "I don't know" can jolt us out of our timeworn certainties. Consider this: If the human status of a fetus is a matter of belief, whose belief holds sway? In a free society, can we honestly prohibit individual believers from exploring and acting upon answers for themselves? Ironically, this question describes what, on most issues today, would be called a conservative position -- leave the decision-making power closest to the local community and the individual citizen -- yet many self-styled conservatives would cringe at this choice.

"I don't know" is no easier for those in favor of legal abortion. If human life might begin at any time between conception and birth, wouldn't it be better to err on the side of caution and discourage abortions at any time, or at least earlier in the gestation cycle than we do currently? After all, conception is the first moment when all the building blocks to make a human being are in place.

"I don't know," if we take it seriously, pushes us to relax our grip on our cherished certainty -- at least long enough to consider the possibility that we may be wrong. When the certainty goes, so does the strident hostility that often accompanies it. Relieved of that anger, we have a window of opportunity to look afresh at people on the "other side" and ponder the question with them, rather than shout at them.

Gil Fronsdal, a Buddhist teacher and Soto Zen priest, suggests a meditation practice that involves adding "I don't know" to every thought. In meditation and throughout our daily lives--especially when we find ourselves judging our actions or those of others--we respond with "I don't know." "Repeating the words 'I don't know' allows us to question tightly-held ideas," Fronsdal writes. "Done thoroughly, 'I don't know' can pull the rug out from under our most cherished beliefs."

Abortion is an extraordinarily multifaceted issue, and the question of the fetus's humanity is but one (albeit an important one) among many. But if "I don't know" enabled us to explore this question together, we might build a foundation to explore the other questions as well. Who knows how far that might take us?

 

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