You see, unity on an issue like abortion can only come about when we listen to our Guide together. As Friends, it doesn’t matter what you think of it, or what I think of it; the issue is what our Guide thinks of it. We claim to be attentive to the Light. We claim to be following our Guide. Yet when abortion comes up, the arguments I hear have very little to do with following our Guide. To me we look more like an old-time circus performer, cantering around and around the ring in our costume, one foot each on the backs of two very different horses, smiling at the crowd while we perform an impossible feat, one founded in intrinsic contradiction.
Where do Friends disagree on this subject? Most of us don’t believe in killing people, and we often cite the influence of our Guide as the source of our belief. Look at our record against warfare, violence, capital punishment, euthanasia, and so on. But I think we can all agree that aborting an embryo makes a member of the human biological species die. It's not a hamster, a tapeworm, a toe, or a fingernail clipping, after all. Yes, it’s uniquely related physically to its mother, more so than any other living creature can ever be. But equally, it’s not part of her—the placenta is a physical and philosophical barrier that is also unique and critically significant.
I'm not trying to solve issues of social justice, economics, gender politics, or the sad history of treating girls or women as second-class citizens (or non-citizens), or any of the usual historical positions. These are profoundly important topics, but they're secondary. I want to explore why that developing member of the species Homo sapiens is somehow something different from you and me, why for some Friends it is somehow not one of us.
Let me start by listing some of the traditional arguments supporting elective abortion:
Poor people are penalized by unwanted or unaffordable children. I agree. Economics do penalize poor people who can't afford to raise children, for reasons not of their choosing and not under their control. But we don't let people kill their children because they discover later they can't afford to raise them. The argument is the same, so something else must be going on.
Underage parents aren’t equipped to raise children and forgo opportunities in later life, especially single mothers. I agree. Young people do make inexperienced parents, and young single mothers give up a lot of opportunity by trying to raise children too young. But we don't kill their children at the age of ten if the parent’s inexperience or opportunity cost only becomes clear when the parents are older.
Some pregnancies are the result of rape or incest, and are not voluntary. I agree. I can think of no experience more undeserved and painful than being forced to carry and give birth to a child that was the outcome of a brutal and exploitive experience, whether one-time or the result of long-term abuse. But we don’t kill a teenager because we discover later that she was the product of a rape.
Sometimes the embryo is diagnosed as deformed or mentally subnormal. I agree. But should being born crippled deserve a pre-emptive death sentence? My Aunt Alma was born with spina bifida, and couldn’t walk, live alone, or support herself for the 94 years she lived. But she gave my own mother her first bath the day she was born, and held both me as an infant and my own infant children in her arms decades and decades later. Her life was always a burden to others, but was it worthless? Did she deserve death? Are the lives of the smiling, hardworking people with Down’s Syndrome equally worthless burdens? If so, then we should be able to gather them all up and dispose of them right now, no matter how old they are. But we don’t, because something else is important.
It’s my body and my life. The private decisions I make about my body are nobody else’s business. I’m afraid this one has holes in it too, although it’s the one that makes the most sense to me. First, we all acknowledge that society can interfere with our bodies when what we do with them poses a danger to someone else. And as a culture we acknowledge that other people can make decisions that affect our bodies, even overruling our own. We deny people the right to kill or hurt themselves, to use certain kinds of drugs, we make motorcyclists wear helmets and auto drivers fasten their seatbelts. If society has a right to overrule decisions about my body for the benefit of someone living outside it, then it has the right to overrule my decisions about my body with respect to someone living inside it, if that entity living inside me is truly a someone. The nature of that embryo is very important to this question, because if it is one of us, then an abortion affects more people than just the mother. If it is one of us.
That seems to be the key. All the arguments I have heard from Friends justifying abortion seem to hinge on the assumption that somehow, the embryo is not one of us, and can therefore be treated differently without disobedience to what the Light tells us is our duty with respect to other people. But what makes it not one of us?
Is it that the embryo isn’t a human being? Ask any zoologist what it is and you will get a simple answer: the embryo is a developing individual of the species Homo sapiens. It's a genetically complete, diploid chordate, being carried and nurtured during ontogeny across a placenta in the uterus of another member of the same species. Biologically it can’t be anything but human. Killing it kills a biological member of our species, but somehow, the embryo is not considered one of us, even so. And the existence of that placenta unarguably defines a physical boundary between the mother and the embryo that marks a distinction between two organisms. Yes, the boundary is internal to the mother, and yes, all nutrition is transferred from the mother to the embryo across it, and yes, the embryo’s life is utterly dependent upon her. But they are different creatures: blood types, skin colors, body features, half of the time even different genders. If the embryo is just a piece of tissue within the mother, then that definition must logically extend to the moment the umbilical cord is cut after birth. Having personally held five wet, squirming, and hollering newborns still definitely attached to their mother through a living, pulsing umbilicus, I find it hard to extend it that far. But that would be the necessary logical conclusion.
Is it that the embryo is still dependent on its parent, and can’t survive on its own? That can’t be it, either. Children are dependent on their parents for years, and very young ones can’t survive on their own at all, either. The difference between a very late-term foetus and a very premature newborn infant is a moment-in-time, a philosophical distinction, not a natural one. This is clearly shown by the earlier and earlier ages at which a premature baby can now be born and be expected to live as medical techniques improve. But in some circles it is acceptable to abort a late term foetus, but not to kill a premature newborn. Somehow, merely by virtue of being unborn, that organism is still not one of us.
Is it that it’s undeveloped, incomplete, and doesn’t even look very much like a human being? I’ve already addressed how underdeveloped premature infants are still treated as human beings. Does it have to already look like us to be human? Maybe it has to be pretty, as well, or have the correct number of legs and arms. If that was the case, then the adult mainframe computer operator at a university I attended wasn’t one of us either, as somehow he had been born without any arms at all. Still, he was a very knowledgeable and helpful computer operator, in spite of his status.
Is it that it's not a person that makes it okay to kill it? It’s not someone who grew up, and has a life story, and matters to someone somewhere? After all, the embryo has no connections to society that we need to honor and maintain. It has no family stories known to anybody, and is a stranger. But when an elderly stranger dies in my town, the coroner takes the body and performs certain legal procedures, spends taxpayer money making sure that the body is treated honorably, and ensures that all due process is followed that is required by the natural death of a human being. We assume he was a person, although we know nothing of his story or history. We treat him as one of us anyway.
Is it that the embryo isn’t a citizen, something with legal rights and standing administered by the government, and so it doesn’t merit equal legal status or protection? This is the usual pragmatic legal approach, where laws arbitrarily allow elective abortions in the first trimester but not later in the term. This is a distasteful compromise, what the dominant culture does. But it isn’t what Friends do, or at least, it isn’t what we are supposed to do, as I see it. I want to achieve that unity that we claim is how we make decisions. Besides, even if it isn’t a citizen, and has no legal rights in society, it still is not treated as one of us the way other non-citizens are treated. The apple pickers in my town on work visas from other countries aren't citizens, either, but I can't kill them without legal penalties. We treat them as one of us in spite of their lack of legal equality.
And as a Friend, I don’t grant my local government the right to make moral definitions for me anyway. I don’t want to hear legal definitions or arguments. I want to hear the moral ones.
And now that we’ve come to this point, I would like to hear them from members of the Religious Society of Friends. Respectfully, Friends, I would like to know what it is that makes that little blob of cells that we call an embryo something different from the Mohandas Gandhi or the George Fox that it might be destined to become. It must be different in some way, because our Society has no unity on how to treat it. But I can’t figure out what it is.
And to answer this question, I would like to hear us practicing what we preach, that we listen to our Guide, that we follow a leader larger than ourselves, that we rely on the Light, on immediate revelation to show us the Way. I want to hear the debate shift from secondary pragmatic discussions of social justice, economics, and gender politics to a primary discussion of conscience, morality, right and wrong, and the leadings from the Guide.
If the embryo is one of us, then it deserves the same consideration from the Society that we extend to condemned criminals, victims of warfare, those helpless individuals abused by social injustice, and the terminally ill woman given a secret overdose of barbiturates to put her out of her misery. If the embryo is not one of us, and doesn’t deserve that consideration, then I would like to understand why, and I would like to hear it explained in terms that we as the Religious Society of Friends can unite on.
I think we need to decide what it is we stand for, and reconcile our position on abortion with our positions on violence, peace, capital punishment, and involuntary euthanasia. I would like to achieve unity with our Guide and with each other, and begin to labor openly and charitably on this topic until we come to that unity. I want us as a Society, as a community under a Guide, as a people who claim to follow a special Light, to choose which horse we will ride, and to let the other one go.
I think it’s time.