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Is Abortion Murder?

Here's a question it's hard to believe we even have to ask in this advanced day and age: Are millions of women, many of whom are wonderful mothers, murderers for having had an abortion?

First, I acknowledge that, being a man, I should have no place in a discussion on abortion. Aside from the fact that I can't get pregnant, it takes neither subtlety of perception nor any virtue on my part to identify with a fetus, especially when the fetus is defined in a way that upholds systems of social power dominated by men. Men's enduring challenge is now, as always, to expansively identify with other human beings, including women-not with clumps of cells living in another's body. But until the subject no longer warrants any discussion, it is necessary for men to speak up.

Is abortion murder? To answer that, we first need to examine what constitutes murder and why it is wrong. Since murder creates social disharmony, thus weakening society, and since the continuation of society has ever been assumed to be the highest good, murder was labeled bad. It would also be expected then, in our species centrism, that human beings concluded that murdering human beings is the greatest crime on earth.

Murder may be bad for other legitimate reasons, but good and bad require a preexisting standard of measure. With murder, the standard is that society is good because even a so-called inalienable God-given right to life still translates into a social right granted and sanctified because it was found to benefit society. Of course, the benefit of just any society won't do. Murdering people of other societies was never as bad, legally or religiously. Human beings do that all the time, usually for the sake of increasing a society's resources. We effortlessly glorify and divinize such murder precisely because it is done for the good of our own society - the same reason murder within our society is easily vilified.

Violence against women and children in particular elicits a visceral response that is probably linked to our instinct to preserve our species. Even if a woman is not pregnant, hurting her can potentially result in her inability to have children, who represent our future. Though the world is now overpopulated, our innate tendency to protect mothers and children across societies still voices itself in discussions regarding sexual rights. It's for this reason that we cannot be surprised at some people's instinct to grant personhood to fetuses.

Unfortunately, the instinct to safeguard our genetic code for all futurity does not make for good ethics in this case because a fetus does not yet have a social identity. It has no social responsibilities and hence cannot be afforded social rights, as the two invariably go hand in hand (unless you want to live in a fascist state). Human beings are by definition individuated beings. We naturally question the worth of living when disease or aging requires our bodies to be perennially hooked up to life support. In fact, any loss of independence is automatically interpreted as a loss of life in some manner. Conjoined twins, for example, instinctively challenge our inherent sense of individuality. But while conjoined twins are two individuals with more limitations than the rest of us, fetuses are not individuals at all because they have not yet taken any step toward individuation. They live solely due to the woman's body that houses them.

The difference, then, between a murderer and a pregnant woman who chooses not to grow a human body inside of her womb is that the former murders living, breathing, feeling, and thinking human beings - i.e. actual individuated entities - who have histories, memories, families, friends, responsibilities, hopes, dreams, and a well-developed and distinct sense of self; while the latter surgically removes a clump of organic matter that is no less "living" than a tumor and has no more individuation than a side of beef.

So who should decide whether or not a woman should have an abortion? Simple: the woman with the clump of cells growing in her body. For others to presume to be the defenders-or worse, avengers-of that fetus means they believe that by virtue of some gift of insight they can now claim an absolute and unquestionable point of view regarding its personhood, translating in their minds into a social responsibility to protect the rights of the fetus. This attitude highlights a major distinction between the so-called pro-life and pro-choice camps.

Members of the pro-life camp are self-proclaimed defenders of other people's fetuses, but they are merely seeking to impose their ideology on others. Since there is no absolute authority in this world that can unequivocally state that fetuses are persons, the pro-life self-proclamation eventually must rest on three words: "I know better." The British philosopher Bertrand Russell once called philosophy a discipline that teaches the practitioner how to suspend judgment. To those self-mystifying people who would presume to strip power from women because they have judged they know better regarding the personhood of fetuses, I have this to say: Get over yourselves.

Ronald Reagan once said, "Unless and until it can be proven that the unborn child is not a living entity, then its right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must be protected." But Reagan had it backwards. The onus of proving that the fetus is a living entity belongs to those who claim it. It is easy to claim the fetus is a living entity, which implies individuation, but impossible to prove. On the contrary, it is easy to show that the fetus is not an individual entity and does not hold social rights.

Individuation begins to develop with the first breath, and not before. In contradiction to the baseless theological assertions regarding the human soul underlying beliefs such as Reagan's, the very Hebrew language calls human souls neshamot, or breathers. The words spirit and inspiration-literally, inhalation-both stem from the Latin spiritus. Our perception of time, the fluctuations of our minds, our feeling of being, our sense of awareness, and even our allegiance to a particular body is dependent upon certain breathing patterns. Since the unborn does not breathe on its own, it is not individuated, does not have an individual sense of selfhood, and is therefore dependent for life upon the individuation of the woman, just as her arm, heart, and nose depend on her for life. It's true that the sperm, egg, stem cells, embryo, and fetus, certainly contain organic life-but these chunks of matter do not constitute an individual life separate from the pregnant woman who is performing all of the individuated living and breathing.

Fetuses, then, are not merely dependent like a diseased person who has lost some independence; they never had individuality in the first place. The fetus is part of a woman. Approaching it as a separate individual with rights can eventually lead to laws that safely relieve pregnant women of their unborn children or mothers of their delivered children against their will, all in the name of upholding the rights of our progeny. Are we then going to prosecute women who decide not to have children, or women who, through unhealthy habits or addictions, infringe on the rights of all the babies she could potentially give birth to? Are platonic relationships some form of murder because they fail to safeguard our genetic coding? Will a pregnant woman be charged with manslaughter if she accidentally falls down the stairs and loses her fetus? How can we reasonably distinguish one group of cells in her body from another and give them distinctive social rights, separate from her, when none of those cell clusters are individuated?

People in the pro-life movement-self-proclaimed defenders of non-persons-undermine how we define ourselves as human beings. They challenge human rights by failing to acknowledge what makes our lives rich: individuality. Perhaps more than anything else, individuality teaches us responsibility, of which fetuses know nothing. Once babies are born, they have the responsibility to breathe, which is why parents instinctually check at night to make sure that their infants are still breathing. Since the fetus's life is dependent the woman's, however, it is the woman's to give and to take. Just like the rest of her cells, it lives off of her breath, and she and she alone is responsible for where the energies of her life's breath is directed. No one else carries that responsibility and no one else can ethically strip her of her right to fulfill that responsibility because her first responsibility is necessarily to herself. What goes on in the domain of her body is her business and under her sole authority. Indeed, a indiviudal who does breathe has no right to live in her body or off of her breaths unless she consents to it. To presume, by virtue of the sanctity of a belief system, to protect that which has no social rights and strip a woman's authority over her own body, is nothing short of fascist tyranny. If a woman willingly consents to pregnancy, then she is free. But if she is forced into it through lack of choice, she becomes a slave.

To afford a nonentity rights in a social system when that nonentity has no responsibilities, is actually a ploy to strip rights from one party and grant them to another party. Even if a woman is denied the right to an abortion in the name of the rights of a fetus, that fetus, having no rights, responsibilities, or social standing is not the recipient of those rights taken from the women. The fetus, until it begins the process of individuation with its first breath, has no capacity to receive any rights. Where did the woman's rights go, then? When a woman is not free to decide what does and does not grow in her body, what party will socially benefits from her lack of freedom? The work of raising children is severely limiting to a woman's freedom to develop her faculties in avenues other than motherhood. That is not to say raising a child or children is totally debilitating, but it can easily affect a woman's career, financial freedom, and educational opportunities-which translate into greater social responsibility, and perhaps even authority. Despite the fact that women today, outnumbering men, own roughly 1% of the world's property, generate 10% of the income, and yet fill nearly 70% of the total working hours of the human race, pro-life activists have no ethical problem with exacerbating this grave inequity.

Actually, pro-life enthusiasts contradict themselves on a number of points. They often claim that women get abortions because, in their selfishness, they don't feel like caring for a child. If that is true, I fail to see how such selfish women would make good mothers anyway. They say women need to be responsible enough to use contraception, then turn around and say that a woman who wasn't responsible enough to use contraception is yet responsible enough to be a mother. They call abortion murder then say that the very women capable of toying with idea of murder should be mothers. They also call millions of wonderful mothers who have also had abortions murderers, which is intuitively preposterous.

In truth, women who decide to get pregnant and give birth are no less self-centered than those who decide to have an abortion. They have merely positioned their sense of self to include the idea of giving birth and raising a child. Indeed, I find that women who have had abortions, knowing they are not ready to be good mothers, are thinking of both their own welfare and that of a potential child and are often the ones making great sacrifice. They may also be thinking of what is best for humanity. Popping out babies has no virtue in and of itself for its own sake, especially in this day of rampant overpopulation. The virtue is in the hard work of raising children to have expansive identities that serve all of humanity rather than narrow, self-serving viewpoints.

Further, true selfishness is embodied by the conservatives and religious fundamentalists who presume to be the defenders of other women's fetuses. Ironically, it is not for the fetus that pro-life enthusiasts fight. They fight for an idea they identify with, usually one with theological justification. In other words, they fight for themselves and their narrow worldview at the expense of others who hold the proper view. If they simply wanted to live by their belief systems which grant fetuses a self, personhood, and identity, that would be fine, as misguided as it is. But that is not enough for most of them because their moralizing ideology demands foisting their beliefs onto those that threaten their sense of self. Those same religious fundamentalists have ever been on the wrong side of history and again today, as in the past, believe they are on the right side without an ounce of ability to suspend judgment.

The greatest irony of the pro-life movement is that it makes its adherents the enemy of society they claim to be fighting. Once the non-personhood of fetuses is properly appreciated, it becomes clear that they are the only ones trying to strip others of power over their bodies. No pro-choice person asks or forces women to have abortions. They merely claim that a woman has power over her body-finally. Hence the greatest tragedy of the pro-life movement is that so many women support the misogynistic attitude propagated largely by men over the centuries, usually in the name of God-a male god. I can therefore imagine no more pathetic a figure than a pro-life woman who willingly undermines who own social power. After millennia of disempowerment by the hands of men, these women apply their social power to further disempowering their gender. Their narrow sense of identity, a form of self-hatred, is apparent in their unwillingness to accept that women have a right to their own bodies. Yet every time they have sex with a man for any other purpose than to have a child, their hypocrisy rears its head, because doing so acknowledges that people are free to engage in sex for reasons other than procreation.

Women have the right to exercise power of choice over their own bodies. Both contraception and abortion are a woman's right and the right and wrong of abortion can only be determined by the woman according to its effects on her. For some women it is a minor procedure with no side effects; for women who assign to the fetus personhood or an artificial sanctity, it may be a psychologically harrowing experience fraught with guilt. Each woman must be free to determine for herself the pros and cons of abortion. The effects on a fetus as distinguished from a woman are not only irrelevant, but their very determination requires a dehumanizing and disenfranchising attitude toward women. If power is not centralized in the individual and is instead centralized in fascistic institutions, then there is no point to life. Death is better than slavery.