Monday, April 24, 2017

On Being Pro-Choice

I remember distinctly, years ago, when my very good conservative friend asked me what my position was on abortion.  At that time, oh, some thirty years ago, I did not have an opinion.  He was shocked.

So I went on a quest to figure out what I really believed.  At first, like many other republicans at the
time (yes, in those days I was a reliable republican), I was utterly horrified at the tragedy of abortion. But I also worked with a woman who had had one -- and to her, it was truly one of the hardest and most soul-searching moments in her life.  This made the issue very real to me.

I realized, from the woman I worked with, that there was a personal element. When a woman doesn't choose to become pregnant, I hardly thought it fair to require her to carry the child of her rapist -- she didn't have a choice, and yet such an ordeal would have life-long implications. Likewise, cases of incest, and the health of mother or child -- all seem to indicate that there are some cases where abortion can be justified. I landed on a position: that abortion should be allowed in the cases of rape, incest, and health of the mother or fetus.

Perhaps not coincidentally, my personal position landed exactly on the same position held by the LDS church.  I hope this wasn't confirmation bias, but it seemed reasonable.

But then, I had to also realize, "Who decides?"  And in considering this, even if I am personally opposed to abortion on demand or for convenience, I realized that this choice is not mine to make -- it's entirely in the hands of the one person who must make that choice: the woman.

I choose, therefore, to be firmly "pro-choice".  I see this position is fundamental to our values as Americans and critical to my personal faith.

Here is my journey through this issue:

The "pro-choice" position is not "pro-abortion". Can I be "pro-choice" and be against abortion "on demand"? Of course. The motivation behind "pro-choice" is to enable people to make their own choices as to what will happen with their own bodies. So pro-choice is about the freedom for women to choose what they can do over their bodies without religious or state intervention.

And yes, as long as a fetus is dependent upon a woman's body, then her choice matters, completely.

As Mormons, we should have a more enlightened position on this issue, and if we understand our own doctrine, we should be pro-choice. We do believe, firmly, that we should have our agency to choose, so the very nature of the "pro-choice" decision is in harmony with our core doctrines.  But it's not just about being Mormon here -- it's a fundamental issue that goes deep to religious belief and why such "choice" should be taken out of the hands of the State, for the "pro-life" position establishes one religious interpretation over another, and thus violates the First Amendment establishment clause.

The LDS Church has a position on abortion, that in the cases of rape, incest, and the *health* of the mother and fetus, abortion is allowed (the leadership would prefer to have the woman and man counsel with the Bishop in these cases). No woman should be forced to carry the offspring of her rapist, or of an abusive, incestuous man. No woman should be forced to sacrifice her life to preserve a fetus. There are also cases where the fetus is so non-viable that its death in utero would cause serious health risks.

We may say that such cases are rare, but there are enough of them to justify consideration of them in enforcing "pro-life" laws. Who arbitrates such things? How do you define "rape"? If a husband rapes his wife, should she have to accuse him of rape before the law before she has an abortion? What if she is dependent upon him for income?

These issues are thorny at best, and the law is a very blunt instrument to determine what a woman can do with her own body.

But there is much more here. We may say that the scriptures say, "Thou shalt not kill". Yet, what in scripture defines life? What constitutes a "life" in the law? In scripture, "life" was equated with "ruach" in Hebrew, "pneuma" in Greek, and "spiritus" in Latin -- all having the same meaning: "breath". In other words, a "life" according to the scriptures always began at birth's first "breath" and not before. (Evangelicals will raise the "before thou was formed in the womb" in Jeremiah, and the how the fetus of John the Baptist leaped in Elisabeth's womb; but these cases are ambiguous at best as to when life starts -- more on this later).

The Torah is even more specific on this. In Exodus 21:22-25, we read:
"If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."
This is the ONLY instance in scripture that refers to a woman losing her fetus: "so that her fruit depart from her" explicitly means the loss and death of the fetus. The consequence was that the man who caused the injury would pay the husband for the inconvenient loss of a potential offspring. That's it. But if an mischief follow -- that is, if the woman is then killed, then the person as then -- and ONLY then -- committed murder.

So where did this idea that abortion is wrong come from?

In Rabbinical Judaism, the Talmudic scholars postulated that life probably started before birth -- after all, a woman feels life in her womb during the second trimester, as the fetus' nervous system is beginning to operate. So, to prevent any possibility of violating the law, the Rabbinical approach was to build a fence around the law -- make it impossible to violate the law -- by restricting abortion.

Catholicism went further. To Catholics -- and hence, all protestants, the human soul does not exist before conception -- they have no belief in pre-mortal existence of humans. Thus, when a child is conceived, then a "new life" has begun to form -- one with an immortal soul. So, the logic goes, if you terminate a pregnancy, you are killing an immortal soul created by god.

This brings us to the real reason abortion is an issue in politics today. As part of the "Southern Strategy" to push Catholics and socially aware evangelicals toward the Republican party, the minds behind the Nixon and Reagan machines decided to make abortion a party issue. It was brilliant -- it forced most Catholics to move from being very socially liberal democrats to one-issue Republicans. We need to call this issue for what it is, and what Hugh Nibley called it: A Decoy.

But back to the doctrines about abortion. Mormons do not share these Jewish and Christian beliefs as to when the human soul begins. Mormons believe that the human spirit is co-eternal with god and exists before this life. Moreover, the spirit fully enters the body only at birth -- although you won't find this explicitly stated. The evidence for this is (1) that Jesus Christ visited the Nephites and Lamanites on the night before his birth, just hours or minutes before he was born over in the Jerusalem area, some nine hours ahead of the New World. (2) Temple work is never performed for still-born children. While there is no doubt that parents feel the loss of their still-born child, the church does not actually do ordinance work for them. Again, these aren't widely talked about things, but they are inherent to the doctrine.

Thus, whenever we get into a discussion as to whether abortion should be allowed or prohibited, the question comes into whether we are establishing a religion here. To prevent abortion is to establish one religious view over another. To support choice is to say that if your religion says that abortion is evil, then by all means, don't have an abortion. Pro-choice is the only acceptable alternative that separates church and state and allows us to freely exercise our religion according to the dictates of our own conscience for ourselves. We should NEVER have the right to force our religious views on others.

So as a Mormon and an American, I firmly believe that "pro-choice" is more than just a pro-abortion/anti-abortion issue. It's fundamental to the core principles of our democracy.

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