Politics

Abortion And The Wrong Question.

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South Dakota and other states are determined to lay Roe v. Wade at the feet of Chief Justice John Roberts and newly-minted Justice Samuel Alito. South Dakota is hoping for a thumbs down. They’re hoping the Supremes will let them stick a knife in Roe.

Pro-lifers claim they are defending human life. “Abortion stops a beating heart,” the bumper stickers say. “We believe in the sanctity of human life,” they say. They demand to know, as if they’ve come up with the perfectly apt question that will baffle and intimidate every opponent, “When does life begin?”

So, okay. Let’s talk about life.

Life exists all the way down at the bacterial level, maybe (though there’s some scientific debate) at the viral level. “Human life” exists in every cell of every human body. You can grow a perfectly human copy of yourself with the data encoded in the DNA of the cells you just killed scratching your head. You don’t get a baby without a fetus, you don’t get a fetus without an embryo, you don’t get an embryo without a blastocyst, and you don’t get that blastocyst unless you start with a live sperm and a live egg.

Live sperm. Live egg. Living. Undeniably human. But pro-lifers seem curiously indifferent to that human life. They aren’t trying to outlaw hot showers or the female menstrual cycle.

So, “When does life begin?” was never the right question. It was just the Right’s question.

The real question is when does a living thing acquire a right to go on living?

The uncomfortable answer is that it aquires that right when we say it does. We don’t protect skin cells – millions killed every time you take a drink of whisky or cut yourself shaving. We don’t protect fully-formed walking, talking homo sapiens when they behave badly or get in the way of our pursuit of a military objective.

We kill human cells, and we kill fully-formed humans. We knowingly risk the lives of all sorts of fully-formed humans, and do it knowing that decisions we take will doom thousands — anyone want to lower the speed limit to 10 mph? No? So you want to kill 30,000 Americans every year in car accidents?

Shall we close the mines? Should human life sacrificed for coal? Should we stop commercial fishing? All those human lives lost for swordfish? Maybe we should cease building bridges. Every time a major construction project is undertaken some actuary sits down and coldly calculates the likelihood that a human being will die for the latest freeway overpass or mall. When we rebuild ground zero in New York, someone will die doing the job, count on it. Shall we not rebuild because all life is sacred?

We make life and death calls every minute of every day. And we decide to kill, or allow the deaths of, tens of thousands, millions, of people for reasons of efficiency, profit, convenience, principle, power . . .

There are actual, living, breathing, terrified, crying children being slaughtered all over the world today. Right now, as you’re reading this. And we do nothing to save them. And then, there are collections of cells the size of a pinhead. . .

So, what is going on with the pro-life side? They aren’t protecting all human life. They’re singling out one type of human life: the blastocyst-embryo-fetus. They are playing God: deciding that a blastocyst in the womb of a woman in South Dakota is sacred, but the life of her daughter driving in a car on an interstate where the speed limit is 70, is not.

We like to talk about all human life being “sacred.” It makes us feel good. But it’s baloney. We pick and choose. We assign value. We draw little magic circles around some human life, and exclude the rest. We accept the death of this human and that, and defend the life of another. We took a shot at Al Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri, missed him and killed innocent people instead. And we would do it again, wouldn’t we? We used a missile to do the job because sending in a team would have risked the lives of our soldiers and their human lives are infinitely more “sacred” than the lives of whatever poor mother’s children got between our missile and our prey.

We play God. We play God with life all the time. “God” is a game on our X-Box.

So why exactly is the blastocyst-embryo-fetus sacred to the pro-life side? Why is this where they spend their blood, sweat and donations? I don’t know. But I suspect there is a mix of motives. I believe most pro-lifers haven’t spent five minutes thinking the issue through, they respond to emotional appeals and act out of pure sentiment undiluted by analysis. Many believe what they are told to believe by their religious authorities. Others, I believe, are motivated by an instinctive dislike of free will. Others by pure political calculation.

People are perfectly free to decide for themselves what constitutes a human life deserving of protection. We each have a little lifeboat in our imaginations, and we play God, deciding who should be saved and who should not. But we can’t kid ourselves that we aren’t playing the game. The least we owe ourselves is the truth: it’s not nature or science or some chiseled-in-granite moral code that decides who lives and who dies, which life is sacred, and which life is expendable, which cry we’ll hear and which we’ll ignore. We do that.

When night falls in the Sudan tonight, Janjaweed killers will descend on a village, snatch a child from his mother’s arms, and murder him because he has black skin. In Cambodia a child sex slave, sold into bondage by desperate parents, will be raped and will begin to die of HIV. In Guatemala, the child your cleaning lady left behind to find work in America, will die of hunger and disease. We are not going to save those children. We aren’t going to really try. We’re going to twist the joystick on our X-Box version of the God game and save a clump of cells instead.