Thursday, June 18, 2009

Why a medical student wants to perform abortions

In the Washington Post, a medical student writes that although she used to be against abortion (her parents are conservative Christians), she is now strongly pro-choice and even plans to perform abortions. This kind of story is heartbreaking. It's clear in her piece that the author, Rozalyn Love, has arrived at her position because of emotion rather than clear thinking -- and that's a danger pro-lifers need to be able to confront.

This is how Love begins:
If I'd passed her on the street, I probably wouldn't have known her. Her gait is a bit stiff and her left eye somehow different from her right. She's not famous, exactly, but some people might know her name: Emily Lyons. She's the nurse who survived the 1998 bombing of an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Ala.

I was 14 years old when that clinic was bombed, killing a police officer and spraying Emily's body full of hot nails and shrapnel. Back then, I lived in a small Alabama town, went to church every Sunday and was adamantly opposed to abortion. But by the time I met Emily last year, I was president of the Birmingham chapter of Medical Students for Choice, a group supporting abortion rights. Watching her walk slowly into our fundraiser on her husband's arm -- a woman who'd endured more than 18 operations -- I thought of all she'd been through and knew that I'd come to the right decision in my support of reproductive rights.

That conviction only became stronger after I read that Kansas physician George Tiller had been shot and killed in the lobby of his Wichita church a week ago.
Love is suggesting that the 1998 bombing and Tiller's murder count in favor of the pro-choice position, but it's unclear to me how that is the case.

Perhaps she is blaming the pro-life movement for these actions, but that would be absurd. Pro-life organizations (comprising probably the most peaceful social justice movement in history) uniformly and immediately condemned Tiller's murder, as they have condemned other acts of abortion-related violence.

Perhaps she thinks pro-life rhetoric contributes to such violence, but this, again, makes little sense. Just as pro-life advocates tell the truth about abortion, Martin Luther King Jr. told the truth about racial injustice. Although King was committed to peace, some blamed his truth-telling for the violent actions of others, a charge King addressed in his famous letter from the Birmingham jail.

A day or two after Tiller's murder, a U.S. military recruiter was murdered. But no one blames the strong rhetoric of anti-war groups for the actions of a few crazy radicals. Media commentators and politicians who have called George W. Bush a "terrorist" would not be held responsible for attempts on Bush's life.

In any case, the violent actions of a few have no bearing on whether or not the pro-life position is actually true -- i.e., whether abortion is the unjust killing of an innocent human being.

Love continues:
I also served as a counselor for a volunteer organization that helps victims of rape. I sat in hospital rooms with young women who would look at me and say, "I can't be pregnant. I just couldn't carry his baby." I could feel their desperation.
Rape and incest are horrible crimes, but what about the more than 99 percent of Minnesota abortions that are not due to rape or incest? Those are the abortions Love needs to defend. See this post for a pro-life response to abortion in cases of rape and incest. (A proper application of the pro-life view shows that abortion in cases of rape or incest is still unjust, and in any case, studies reveal that abortion usually does nothing to alleviate the pain of a rape victim and in fact makes things worse.)

Love continues, getting to the meat of her position:
I agree that ending an unwanted pregnancy is a tragedy. When I advocate for reproductive rights, for choice, I don't claim that abortion is morally acceptable. I think that it's a very private, intensely personal decision. But I was stunned when one of my professors, a pathologist and a Planned Parenthood supporter, told me that decades ago, entire wings of the university's hospital were filled with women dying from infections caused by botched abortions. It's clear that women who don't want to be pregnant won't be deterred by limited access to providers or to clinics. And I believe that it's immoral to let them die rather than provide them with safe, competent care.
If I understand Love correctly, she thinks abortion is a tragedy and may even be morally wrong. But this morally wrong act should be legally permitted by the state, for two reasons: one, "it's a very private, intensely personal decision"; and two, prohibiting abortion would have terrible consequences for women, i.e., they would suffer and die from dangerous, illegal abortions.

The first reason begs the question as to the moral status of the unborn entity killed by abortion. Clearly we should not permit the murder of 4-year-olds because "it's a very private decision." Love is assuming that the unborn is not a valuable human person deserving of respect and protection, like the 4-year-old; but that is the very question at issue.

Her second reason is the popular "back alley" or "coathanger" objection. A number of points should be made: The legal status of abortion does have a significant effect on the number of abortions; the statistics regarding women who died from illegal abortion were wildly exaggerated (39 women in the United States died from illegal abortion in 1972, the year before Roe v. Wade, and 24 died from legal abortion); abortion became safer for women not because it was legalized, but because of the advent of modern medicine and better techniques, etc. -- so women would not suddenly start dying were abortion to be prohibited.

Fundamentally, the back-alley argument fails because it, too, begs the question: it only makes sense if abortion doesn’t unjustly kill an innocent human person, which is exactly what a pro-choice advocate needs to establish. After all, if the unborn is a valuable human person, the back-alley argument essentially says: "Because some people may die attempting to illegally kill their children, the government should make it easy and legal for them to do so."

Undoubtedly, laws prohibiting rape make life much tougher for a rapist. But no one argues that we should repeal those laws so the rapist doesn’t have to risk his well-being and future every time he rapes an innocent woman. As pro-choice philosopher Mary Anne Warren acknowledges, "The fact that restricting access to abortion has tragic side effects does not, in itself, show that the restrictions are unjustified, since murder is wrong regardless of the consequences of forbidding it."

Love continues:
As I continue my education, my views on abortion are still evolving. Take late-term abortions. When I first heard about them, I was horrified. I remember the flyer I saw at a pro-life event that described the procedure: It claimed that when the baby's head emerges, the doctor jabs a pair of scissors into the back of its neck, severing the spinal cord. Even after I became pro-choice, this crossed a line for me. But later, I learned that this description was misleading and graphically politicized.
Here Love has her facts wrong. She equates "late-term abortions" with partial-birth abortions, but partial-birth abortion is just one particular procedure. She says she "learned that this description [of partial-birth abortion] was misleading and graphically politicized," but if she is referring to the standard description used by pro-life groups (which is not as she describes), she is simply mistaken. Dr. Martin Haskell is the creator of the technique, and he explains it himself: "The surgeon then forces the scissors into the base of the skull or into the foramen magnum. Having safely entered the skull, he spreads the scissors to enlarge the opening. The surgeon removes the scissors and introduces a suction catheter into this hole and evacuates the skull contents."

Regardless, I wonder why partial-birth abortion could, theoretically, "cross a line" for Love, given that she thinks abortion should be permissible because of privacy and the dangers of illegal abortions. Do those reasons not still apply to partial-birth abortion? How does the technique matter?

I also wonder if she realizes that the standard second trimester abortion procedure, dilation and evacuation (D & E), is certainly more gruesome than partial-birth abortion.

The bottom line is that Love's piece is long on stories that pull at the heartstrings and short on moral reasoning. She lets emotion and feelings obscure poor thinking.