April 18, 2008

Abortion comes to life

[img id="80497" align="alignleft"] The most important social-political issue of the last 30 or more years has lain relatively dormant throughout this presidential campaign. While the Democratic candidates rush to defend a woman’s right to choose abortion at any time, the Republican candidates brandished their anti-abortion credentials and argued about who is “more” pro-life—but largely, it has been a non-issue. However, once the Democratic race is settled, the abortion issue will likely make its triumphant return into the realm of policy debate.

It is important and revealing, then, to consider Hillary Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s responses to questions about abortion in last Sunday’s annoyingly named “Compassion Forum.” Clinton’s answer was predictably political, walking a tightrope as she tried to please everyone, no matter the person’s opinion on the issue. “I believe that the potential for life begins at conception...but for me, it is also not only about a potential life; it is about the other lives involved,” the New York senator intoned gravely. This is useless. A sperm or an egg has the “potential for life”—is a fertilized human egg, which has a unique set of 46 chromosomes, no different than the sperm and egg that made it? What’s most disturbing, though, is Clinton’s certainty: Implicit in her answer is the statement that life definitively does not begin at conception.

Yet one doesn’t expect much honesty or intellectual rigor in anything that the former first lady says. True to form, Barack Obama, one of the most intellectually honest politicians in recent memory, gave a genuine, apolitical answer: “[When life begins] is something that I have not, I think, come to a firm resolution on. I think it’s very hard to know what that means, when life begins. Is it when a cell separates? Is it when the soul stirs? So I don’t presume to know the answer to that question.”

This statement is simultaneously refreshing and depressing. It’s refreshing to hear a candidate admit uncertainty about a difficult issue; too often politicians—as well as pundits, writers, and the rest of us—wear masks of certitude that they never take off. It’s depressing, though, that Obama would express doubt on the issue underlying abortion, yet still support a sweeping, and intellectually dishonest policy on the issue.

Extreme abortion-rights supporters, of which Barack Obama is one, support the right to choose abortion up until the point that the baby is completely out of woman’s birth canal. This means that partial-birth abortion—which is what it sounds like, the baby is aborted with all but his head out of the woman’s body—is in. The intellectual weakness of this position is self-evident: A baby is a baby at the moment it leaves the mother but not when the head is still in—can there be any real doubt that that it is human life worth protecting?

But hold aside extreme cases like partial-birth abortion and focus on ones in which there is doubt as to whether the fetus, or the clump of cells, is a human life. It’s this uncertainty that should create abortion foes rather than supporters. If there is doubt about when life begins, how can we choose to allow women to take these possible lives?

If you are unsure when life begins, you must decide, public policy–wise, whether to err on the side of life or to err on the side of freedom. Consider the tradeoffs: If we err on the side of life and are wrong, the cost is huge—the loss of autonomy by millions of women who are not able to make decisions about their own lives. However, the cost of being wrong for erring on the side of freedom, in this case, is even greater—the loss of millions of innocent lives. To see the uncertainty of human life and to recognize this tradeoff is at the heart of being pro-life.

Ask yourself: When does human life begin? If you can’t answer that question, then you can’t—in any reasonable, intellectually honest way—support abortion rights.

If you can, then you’re a lot smarter than me—and Barack Obama.

Matt Barnum, a Maroon Viewpoints Editor, is a second-year in the College majoring in psychology. His column appears on alternate Fridays.