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Vasu Murti

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Abortion and the Left

Abortion policy must be completely secular.  In 1797, America made a treaty with Tripoli, declaring that "the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."  This reassurance to Islam was written under Washington's presidency and approved by the Senate under John Adams.

The U.S. statutes against abortion have a nonsectarian history.  They were put on the books when Catholics were a politically insignificant minority.  Even the Protestant clergy were not a major factor in these laws.  Rather, the laws were the achievement of the American Medical Association.

From early in the 19th century, Americans - even lay people - were exposed to enough information about embryology to enable them to make a critical and ethically significant distinction between contraception and abortion: the former practice did not terminate a new human life, but the latter one did.  In 1827, Von Baer determined fertilization to be the starting point of individual life.  By the 1850s, medical communities were advocating legislation to protect the unborn.  In 1859, the American Medical Association protested legislation which only protected the unborn after "quickening."

A rational secular case thus exists for the rights of preborn humans.  Individual human life is a continuum from fertilization until death.  Zygote, embryo, fetus, infant, adolescent, etc. are all stages of development.  To destroy that life at any stage of development is to destroy that individual.  The real question in the whole abortion debate is not the seemingly absurd scenario of giving full human rights to zygotes, but rather the thorny question of how to legally protect those rights without violating a new mother's privacy and civil liberties.  And the right to privacy is not absolute.  If parents are abusing an already born child, for example, government "intrusion" is warranted -- children have rights.

Recognizing the rights of another class of beings limits our freedoms and our choices and requires a change in our personal lifestyle - the abolition of (human) slavery is a good example of this.  A 1964 New Jersey court ruling required a pregnant woman to undergo blood transfusions, even if her religion forbade it, for the sake of her unborn child.  One could argue, therefore, apart from religion, that recognizing the rights of the unborn, like the rights of blacks, women, lesbians and gays, children, animals and the environment, is a sign of secular social progress.  Writer and activist Jay Sykes, who once served as head of the Wisconsin ACLU, wrote: "It is on the abortion issue that the moral bankruptcy of contemporary liberalism is most clearly exposed," because the arguments used in support of abortion "could, without much refinement, be used to justify the legalization of infanticide."  The Left is divided over abortion.

In an article appearing in The Progressive, entitled "Abortion: The Left Has Betrayed the Sanctity of Life," writer Mary Meehan concluded: "It is out of character for the Left to neglect the weak and the helpless.  The traditional mark of the Left has been its protection of the underdog, the weak, and the poor.  The unborn child is the most helpless form of humanity, even more in need of protection than the poor tenant farmer or the mental patient or the boat people on the high seas.  The basic instinct of the Left is to aid those who cannot aid themselves - and that instinct is absolutely sound.  It is what keeps the human proposition going."

Writing in the Tallahassee Democrat, pro-life feminist Rosemary Bottcher, cynically observed: "I had always thought it peculiar how the liberal and conservative philosophies have lined up on the abortion issue.  It seemed to me that liberals traditionally have cared about others and human rights, while conservatives have cared about themselves and property rights.  Therefore, one would expect liberals to be defending the unborn and conservatives to be encouraging their destruction."

Rosemary Bottcher criticized the Left for its failure to take a stand against abortion: "The same people who wax hysterical at the thought of executing, after countless appeals, a criminal convicted of some revolting crime would have insisted on his mother's unconditional right to have him killed while he was still innocent.  The same people who organized a boycott of the Nestle Company for its marketing of infant formula in underdeveloped lands would have approved of the killing of those exploited infants only a few months before.  The same people who talk incessantly of human rights are willing to deny the most helpless and vulnerable of all human beings the most important right of all.  Apparently these people do not understand the difference between contraception and abortion," concluded Bottcher.  "Their arguments defending abortion would be perfectly reasonable if they were talking about contraception.  When they insist upon 'reproductive freedom' and 'motherhood by choice' they forget that 'pregnant' means 'being with child.'  A pregnant woman has already reproduced: she is already a mother."

A national poll conducted by Wirthlin Worldwide on the evening of the 1998 elections found that 38 percent of all Democrats (and 40 percent of Democrat women) oppose abortion.  A national poll released by the Center for Gender Equality (a women's think tank headed by former Planned Parenthood executive director Faye Wattleton), in January 1999, found that a majority of American women do not support legalized abortion on demand.  53 percent of female respondents to the poll said abortion should be allowed only in cases of rape, incest, to save a woman's life or not at all, up from 45 percent in 1996.

A Zogby International poll released in August 1999 found that the majority of Americans recognize that abortion destroys a new human life (52% versus 36%), oppose partial birth abortions (56.4% versus 32%) are opposed to tax-funded partial birth abortions (71% to 23%), and think parents should be notified if their minor child seeks an abortion (78%).   On secular human rights grounds, the Left should take a stand against abortion.

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