Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Forms of life

In "Exploring Religious Ethics," we're in the middle of abortion week. We started with William LaFleur and Helen Hardacre on the practice of mizuko kuyô in Japan (with a little aside on Jeff Wilson's account of its career in America). On Thursday we'll read part of "Evangelium Vitae," an articulation of Pope John Paul II's concept of "cultures of life" and of "death," and Catholics for Choice founder Frances Kissling's well-known essay "Is There Life After Roe? How to Think About the Fetus." Heavy stuff, and pushing the limits of my pay-grade. (None of my students recalled candidate Obama's use of "beyond my pay-grade" in response to a loaded question about abortion from Rick Warren during the 2008 campaign).

Kissling (below) describes a surprisingly interesting thought experiment she's presented to people - surprisingly interesting because it evidently produced quite different (and to me quite unexpected) responses among pro-choice and pro-life folks (whom she calls "antiabortionists").

Imagine a world in which it was possible to remove fetuses prior to viability from women’s bodies and allow them to develop in a nonuterine environ- ment. Perhaps they could be implanted in men or other women who want them; perhaps they could develop in a specially equipped nursery? In this world, medicine is so far advanced that this could be accomplished painlessly and without risking the health of either the woman or the fetus. Of course, this is at present largely a fantasy and by that time we would have found the ideal, risk-free, failure-free contraceptive; but let’s pretend.

What are the first five concerns and reactions that come to your mind? Is one of them the fact that this would mean fetuses need not die? My own experience in presenting this option to both advocates and opponents of abortion is that the fetus’s life is rarely a consideration. Among the most interesting reactions of those who are prochoice is a concern that some women might find the continued existence of the fetus painful for them or that women have a right to ensure that their genetic material does not enter the world. Abortion in this sense becomes the guarantee of a dead fetus, if desired, rather than the removal of the fetus from an unwilling host, the woman. To even offer women such an option is, some think, cruel. For some the right to choose abortion seems to include the right to be protected from thinking about the fetus and from any pain that might result from others talking about the fetus in value-laden terms. In this construct, it is hard to identify any value fetal life might have....

The reaction of antiabortionists to the idea that a fetus could be removed from the body of an unwilling woman is as troubling. Again, one rarely hears cries of joy that fetal lives would be saved. The focus also is on the woman. But here, the view that women are, by their nature, made for childbearing dominates. Women have an obligation to continue pregnancies, to suffer the consequences of their sexuality. It is unnatural to even think that fetuses could become healthy and happy people if they did not spend nine months in the womb of a woman. One is led to believe that, for those opposed to abortion, it is not saving fetuses that matters but preserving a social construct in which women breed. (source; pic)

What does it say that my first thought was that the fetus would not die?

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