Monday, September 08, 2008

Losing, and Finding, My Religion

For as long as I have been aware of the issue, I have been firmly in the pro-choice camp on abortion. I don't like the idea of abortion, but I've always been firmly feminist in my views on it.

Until, loathe as I am to admit it, this whole Sarah Palin nonsense came about.

So it was two days after her nomination came out and I was at breakfast with the Wrights, the family I currently live with. It's a very liberal family. We were discussing Palin's nomination and it got around to her choosing to have a child she knew would be afflicted with Down Syndrome. And it comes around to her "deciding not to abort the baby." Well, chalk this up to my pure-heart, but I exclaim, "So! What horrible person would have?" To which Diana's brother Will replied, "A lot of people would have. A lot of people choose to abort the fetus if it's shown it will be deformed."

And suddenly a whole world of gray intruded onto what was largely a black and white issue of rights for me. I mean, a really ugly, awful issue - but one that I felt pretty sure about, even though I don't think I would ever choose abortion. So . . . maybe it was naive of me not to realize this, but I honestly didn't know that a couple who were trying for a baby might just abort a deformed one and start anew. So I tried to form an argument against that practice while still remaining pro-choice. And I found I couldn't do it. I started to say, "Well, that shouldn't be allowed, it's still a person!" And realized - shit, that's the pro-life argument. And shit, how was I going to use that argument when I think it's okay to abort a fetus based on rape, incest, or economic hardship? Holy fuck. Where do we draw the line?

I never even considered that someone would abort a child just because the child would be deformed. Hell, I was deformed. My parents never knew it while I was in the womb. I don't think my mother had an amniocentisis done. We first knew when I was six and diagnosed with scoliosis - and then it was more extensively discovered when I was 11 and diagnosed with Arnold-Chiari Malformation. Neither of these conditions are so life-changing as Down Syndrome, but the fact remains that they are congenital abnormalities.

I feel really, really simple-minded for not being aware of this facet of the abortion issue. Indeed, as horrifying as it seems to me to abort a fetus due to genetic malformations and easy as it might be for me to now eschew abortion as the worst kind of travesty, there is still a question about what kind of life the child is going to have - the health problems, the social/mental problems, the extra burden they're going to be to their family. Even my lesser conditions required a great deal of medical care and put a lot of pressure on my family, financially and emotionally. Not to mention the social/mental health problems due to the level of maturity I forced myself to reach very quickly and the knowledge of my own mortality, which I don't think was ever meant to be so tangible to the human mind at such a young age. Am I right, Ernest Becker?

When I was little and would see a movie like The Elephant Man or The Hunchback of Notre Dame or, hell (no pun intended), even The Exorcist, I always felt that I was watching myself in those movies. I felt that their pain and burden was my pain and burden, that any kind of deformed kid is going to identify with another, regardless of the degree. "There but for the grace of God go I," as they say (and, let it be said enthusiastically, "There but for the grace of Science"). So I identify with kids with Down Syndrome and was instinctively horrified that someone would choose that option for that reason.

But after thinking on it the past week or so, it hit me that if anything, this just proves that the matter has to be decided by the individual. I got a hard, fast shove to the creamy, confusing center of this issue, but I'm still coming out as pro-choice. No one can know the right or wrong answer when it comes to this question. We can only say what we would do, what we feel would be right. I'm still not willing to decide on behalf of a million other people what the right answer is.


Philip Bertulfo said...

Reproductive-disability rights are really a very confusing, nebulous topic. There are many strange facets. It even goes beyond the notion that a couple would abort their fetus if it was found to be in some way disabled: there are actually couples who PREFER that their child is disabled.

Take the case of Gauvin Hughes McCullough, whose parents are both deaf. (They also happen to be lesbians, but I'm not calling that a disability.) Seeing as all of their friends are deaf, and they communicate primarily using sign-language, the couple sees deafness as being part of their culture. They are, to put it one way, Deaf-Americans, and would thus understandably have an easier time raising a child who was also deaf. But is it right for them to try to produce a child with a disability on purpose? Though the child will be able to communicate with his parents and their friends with ease, what about the world at large? Again, it's a very confusing, very nebulous predicament. Unfortunately, the only articles I could find about this kid are run by the irksome Christian right, but if you want to read some of the specifics (set in that classic, smarmy Christian tone), you may do so here.

I think the stance you're taking -- "We can only say what we would do, what we feel would be right." -- is the highest possible moral ground you can take on these sorts of issues. If we are talking about reproductive rights as a complete concept, then we have to accept the good with the bad, just like any of our other rights. We may agree or disagree on the underlying personal reasons behind the rights. But in order to fully maintain those rights, we must accept all personal expressions of these rights. Well, we must accept that they exist, even if we disagree with them.

Take the right to free speech, for example. I love that right. It's like in my top three favorite rights of all time. But unfortunately, in order to really stand by that right, I have to accept the fact that people are totally allowed to say awful, sexist, racist, homophobic, ignorant bullshit all the time. I think the correlation between the right to free speech and a woman's right to choose, and a couple's right to breed are thus pretty clear. We all have our own personal reasons, our own personal expressions. Given that, the best we can do is hope that we use these rights as responsibly as possible.

Lindsay Evelyn said...

I can indeed see why a deaf couple would feel more comfortable raising a deaf child, but that absolutely flies in the face of reason, in my opinion. That's astonishing. Thank you for bringing such an interesting topic to view.

Katherine said...

I'm glad that Chris mentioned this post. You have very wonderfully and eloquently given more insight into my thought that it's really amazing that Palin had the choice as well. While I don't think that it would ever happen, nor do I think it should, in theory the government could say that any fetus with a deformity must be aborted for whatever reason they think would suffice. Taking away the choice to continue to carry a child for a deformity in the fetus would be just as bad as taking away the choice to abort a fetus for rape, incest or economic hardship.

Thank you for posting this, you have helped me to be more solid in my opinion, for which I am grateful.

Lindsay Evelyn said...

Thanks, Katherine! I did the best I could to give the issue the respect it deserves.

It's funny though, because this isn't even the entry Chris was talking about. He was talking about an earlier one titled "Step Up, America," in which I basically give the exact same "I want to punch a wall" rant. I'm really pleased you got something out of what I wrote though. Who could ask for more?

David Morris said...

Great post. I think it's important to emphasize, as you I think did, that the crucial political question regarding abortion is not "Is it moral?", but rather, "Should it be legal?"

There are lots of things that we routinely believe to be immoral, but that we also just as routinely believe should remain legal--things like adultery, saying racist stuff, and violating the tenants of one's own religion (e.g. eating pork if you're Jewish). In some cases, like adultery, we believe that the activity should remain legal because government oversight of that part of our lives would be impractical or heavyhanded; in other cases, like for example desecrating the host, we believe that there should be no law banning it because such a law could only be justified by a rationale that requires commitment to a particular religion--a no-no in a secular society like ours.

In the case of abortion, I think the overriding question is: when is a fetus a human? It is a metaphysical question, one that can't be answered directly by science. So far I think the reason why abortions must remain legal is because the rationales given for granting a fetus "human status" are grounded in the beliefs of specific religions, and so do not meet the "secular condition" I mention above. If the pro-life movement could give a convincing and secular rationale for why a fetus should be considered a human--for example, if it can be shown that fetuses are conscious--then I would be convinced.

In any case, I'm glad you are able to make this distinction and question the morality of abortion in some cases even as you defend its legality. It's a distinction a lot of people miss, I think, on both sides of the debate.