The Bush administration is scrambling to issue a number of anti-abortion rights executive orders before leaving office. This is of course just a tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the hostile actions that the current administration has taken to make choice and family planning harder for women and families throughout the country.
The mainstream media and politicians -- including President Elect Barack Obama -- have presented abortion as an issue on which the country is evenly divided between two camps -- pro-life and pro-choice -- and the only way to deal with the issue is to come up with a grand compromise. However, a thorough analysis of the two platforms demonstrates that the pro-choice stance is the compromise position and the next administration must not negotiate away abortion rights.
One can explore this reality by looking at the specific list of choice-related issues that the Obama administration will face, and why he must support the pro-choice stance on them. The questions that the next administration has to answer are as follows:
-Whether to reverse Bush's newly implemented "Right of Conscience" view.
-Whether to overturn regulations such as one that makes fetuses eligible for health-care coverage under the Children's Health Insurance Program.
-Whether to cut funding for sexual abstinence programs, and whether to increase funding for comprehensive sex education programs that include discussion of birth control.
-Whether to allow federal health plans to pay for abortions.
But at the heart of these questions and the Supreme Court's decision on Roe v. Wade that started this 3-decade long debate on abortion is a central question: Is a fetus a human being?
If it is, it must possess all the characteristics of a human being, not the least of which is independent biological viability. Merriam-Webster defines viable as "capable of existence and development as an independent unit." According to The Endowment for Human Development, by 21-22 weeks (5 months and one week) after fertilization, the fetus's lungs gain some ability to breathe air, and this is considered the age of viability as "survival outside of the womb becomes possible for some fetuses." However, the fetus's dependence on the umbilical cord continues well into the third trimester of the pregnancy. While there may be other elements on which one can rely to determine the viability of a fetus, the concept of independent viability remains the central characteristic of any living organism, including human beings.
Science clearly establishes that an unborn or unhatched vertebrate cannot be considered to be a human even after attaining the basic structural plan of its kind - hence the term "fetus" to refer to all vertebrates at this stage. However, there continue to be millions of American who -- because of their church's teachings, genuine belief or as an excuse to control women's health decisions - matter-of-factly claim that a fetus is a human being while relying on no scientific or empirical arguments.
But even if one allows for some subjective discretion in defining the point at which a fetus turns into a human, the pro-choice position (one taken by the Supreme Court during Roe v. Wade in 1973) presents itself not as the liberal position, but the compromise position. What's important to note about the ruling is that while it did not declare abortion unconstitutional or force the viewpoint of the anti-choice camp over the pro-choice camp, it also did not force anti-choice Americans to accept the biological and scientific definition of what constitutes a human being. The ruling rather allowed those who believe a fetus is a human being to keep their fetuses and carry their offspring and those who believe a fetus is not a human being to choose whether they are socially, economically and emotionally ready to have a child.
But that was not good enough for most ardent anti-choice advocates. Since 1973, they have organized themselves around the ultimate goal of overturning Roe v. Wade and force their nonscientific and subjective definition of human being on everyone else. But in the mean time, they have also done what they could to make getting abortion as difficult as possible for women. Their efforts have ranged from violent means -- including bombing abortion clinics and killing doctors that perform abortions (ironic since the criminals commit this in the name of saving "life") -- to lobbying state and federal governments to take legislative and executive action to limit the accessibility of abortion. They use sensational language in making their arguments - such as calling pro-choice citizens "murders" and showing graphic images of abortion procedures to appeal to people's emotions so they no longer have to argue their point based on logic.
So how should President Elect Obama address the questions above in the context of existing national debate on abortion? Let's review the questions in greater detail.
Should Obama reverse Bush's newly implemented "Right of Conscience" view?
In the eleventh hour of his lame duck presidency, George Bush is trying to establish a "Right of Conscience," allowing medical practitioners and staff to refuse to participate in any practice they object to on moral grounds, including abortion, birth control and other health care as well. But think about the implication of opening the door of having the doctors decide what operations to conduct and what not to conduct based on personal moral beliefs; where would it stop? What if a doctor decides that heart transplants are immoral? Should she be allowed to willfully allow the patient to die? What if a doctor believes delivering a child is immoral because the world is over-populated, or that as long as gays do not have the right to marry and adopt children, justice is best served by preventing everyone from having children? Would these anti-choice advocates be willing to accept the risk that this doctor may be the only doctor on call when they take their pregnant loved one to hospital? The fact is that anti-choice advocates only wish to defend a doctor's "right" to refuse service based on moral objections if those objections fall in line with their anti-choice agenda.
The United States is a country of laws. One cannot drive through a red light if one morally opposes traffic lights because the laws are not written only to protect she who must follow it, but protect others from her actions. For the same reason, doctors are not legislators and have no right to impose their subjective moral view on everyone else. If a physician believes that his career choice forces him to compromise his moral beliefs, they are free to pursue other career options. Or alternatively, he can try to lobby the Congress or the American public to change the laws he opposes. But those physicians who decide to remain in the field must be legally obligated to follow the laws, whether they like it or not. The "Right of Conscience" view is an action that President Elect Obama needs to reverse immediately after taking office.
Should Obama overturn regulations such as one that makes fetuses eligible for health-care coverage under the Children's Health Insurance Program?
In order for one to be a child, one has to be a human being, and human beings are biologically independent and viable organisms, which fetuses are not. Therefore based on the discussion above, a fetus cannot be considered a child, and therefore should not be eligible for coverage under federal health insurance programs. And it is quite ironic that the Bush administration is interested in simultaneously blocking the passage of Children's Health Insurance Program and advocate for coverage of fetuses under the program. President Elect Obama cannot allow anti-choice advocates to play politics with important programs and reignite the social culture wars of the past in order to make statements and advance their narrow agenda.
Men's Rights in Abortion
It is important to discuss one aspect of abortion that President Elect Obama must bring into the national dialogue, and that involves a situation in which the right of a man must be protected. Pro-choice advocates rightly point out that as long as a fetus is not biologically viable, the woman carrying the fetus must have the exclusive right to decide whether or not to carry her pregnancy. If both the man and woman agree on whether to have the baby, there is complication in the decision-making. If the man wants the baby but the woman does not, the man must respect the decision of the woman. But what if a married woman decides to have the baby after finding out about her pregnancy, but her husband does not? Should a man be forced to fulfill child support and maintenance obligations for the child as required under Family Law? While the right to decide whether or not to have a baby exclusively belongs to the woman, the man should have the legal right within the first few months of the woman's pregnancy to choose and declare whether or not he accepts the financial obligations as they are required of the father under Family Law.
Should Obama cut funding for sexual abstinence programs and increase funding for comprehensive sex education programs that include discussion of birth control?
The goal of sexual abstinence program is to educate young people about how to prevent unwanted pregnancy and avoid sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). For that reason, teachers cannot teach their students that abstinence is the only way to prevent unwanted pregnancy, because it is not. There are many ways to have control over whether and when to have a child, including contraception, safe sex practices, sexual orientation and abortion. While the most comprehensive research done on the impact of abstinence-only programs showed that they had no visible impact in terms of delaying a teenager's sexual activities, latest data shows that nearly $175 million of federal spending continue to go into these programs every year. In comparison, teen pregnancy in the United States continues to be twice that in many European countries that advocate comprehensive sex education. In the meantime, more than 8 out of 10 Americans support education of both abstinence and other methods to prevent unwanted pregnancy and STDs. As part of his short-term agenda, President Elect Obama must push for the channeling of nearly all abstinence-only education funding to comprehensive programs that have both the support of the American public and have proven to be more effective.
Should Obama allow federal health plans to pay for abortions?
Even President Clinton who supported the right to choose did not allow any federal funds to be used to cover abortion costs. His argument was that he did not want to use federal funds that had come not just from pro-choice citizens, but anti-choice ones as well, toward an operation that did not have the moral support of all citizens. While the argument sounds reasonable, one cannot help but wonder why Presidents who use these arguments do not apply the same logic to other policies of the federal government. It is safe to say that most of the tax-paying citizens in this country have a moral objection to the continuation of the Iraq War. So why should they be forced to continue to support this war through their taxes (which by the way is leading to the killing of actual human beings)? The notion that anti-choice citizens should have the right not to have their taxes used under state and federal programs for an operation that is as legal and legitimate as any has no logical justification. President Elect Obama must make sure that as long as abortion remains legal, women have access to it. But as for any other operation, limits should be placed to prevent abuse.
President Elect Obama has presented himself as a president ready to compromise on important issues. But as he proceeds through the first few months of his presidency, he cannot treat abortion as another issue on which to negotiate. Instead, he has a unique opportunity to use his political capital to fundamentally reframe the debate and permanently establish one important fact: abortion is as legal and legitimate of a medical operation as any, and the government needs to do what it can to help women get educated about it and have easy and safe access to it.
This piece has been republished by RH Reality Check, A United Nations Foundation Blog, with the author's permission.