Zen Buddhism and Martial Arts

Home » Literature Archives » ABORTION: the emotional debate

Author of this essay:

Ven. Ming Zhen Shakya
June 2, 2012

ABORTION: the emotional debate
By Ming Zhen Shakya

Abortion is one of those topics that do not lend themselves to rational discussion.

That the issue is not an intellectual one is evidenced by the facile way that an individual or group can accept seemingly contradictory points of view.

There are those who oppose abortion because they regard the embryo or fetus as innocent human life deserving of the same protection as would be given a new born baby. Yet they allow the procedure for rape, incest, or a pre-natal danger to the mother's health. Given that the fetus is not complicit in its own creation and is, itself, absolutely innocent human life, it becomes difficult to reconcile its destruction with the life-protecting principles upon which anti-abortion positions are based.

Only under these three conditions does the mother's interest preempt those of the fetus. In other words, only when the mother is seen as the victim of violence or as being critically ill is she granted the vaunted status of "innocent human life deserving of protection."

There are those who favor abortion on demand because they favor "freedom of choice" specifically a woman's right to choose the fate of events occurring within her own body. And this right is given precedence over the rights of the father whose participation in the event cannot be overlooked. His rights would automatically be abolished if he had made the mother his victim, as in rape or incest; but, by definition, in all other cases the mother gave consent, if not approval, to him to proceed with the activity required to produce the pregnancy. Yet, if the father wants the child and the mother chooses to abort it, his choice is deemed irrelevant. He cannot force her to have the child. But if he does not want the child and she chooses to have it, he is forced for the next two decades to provide financial support for the child. And in his failure to pay, citizens who apparently have no rights at all in the matter, may have to support the child.

So lopsided is the question of choice regarding non-virgin births that citizens must pay doctors huge fees to artificially impregnate a woman who has a Medicaid card and whose choice need not pass beyond giving consent and approval to the medical procedure that produces technically fatherless children. Those same citizens must pay for the support of those children. They have no choice.

And there are religions, operating as tax exempt institutions, that charge ahead proclaiming themselves to be the arbiters of the issue. They lobby against freedom of choice, asserting their freedom of speech and religion to do so. Often they succeed and in making their religious point of view the law of the land, all citizens, regardless of their religious convictions or lack of them, must obey the commandment of law.

Whether or not a mother is considered to have attained the status of "a living human being," there is no consensus about the attainment of such a status in pre-natal life.

The question of when a fetus becomes a person and is entitled to protection, is not a sophomoric query. It is a legitimate question. Is an embryo a person? Is personage achieved only when the fertilized egg is safely implanted in the uterus? Does a fetus become a person when it is able to sustain its own life and live independently of its maternal host? In legal terms, an unborn child, even when it is capable of living independently, has no rights at all. To be considered a living human being a person must first be born and certified one.

If these matters were not complicated enough, the issue of preventing an unwanted pregnancy enters, whether or not it has been invited, into any discussion about solving the problem of an unwanted existing pregnancy. The adage, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," becomes "Neither prevent nor cure but maintain the status quo regardless of how undesirable that state is."

If common sense were allowed into discussions of abortion, we would all acknowledge that contraception is the single-most important aspect of the issue. There is no instance of human endeavor in which preventing a problem is not a superior strategy to that of trying to solve it once it has occurred.

Abstinence is a moral issue - one that ought to be observed by those whose community standards preclude intercourse before marriage or between those who are married to someone else. Insisting that abstinence between a husband and wife is an acceptable solution to avoiding pregnancy, is, aside from being downright silly, still a contraceptive strategy; and even more so is the specific avoidance of intercourse during those few days in the month in which a woman is considered fertile. the so-called "rhythm method."

It is difficult for anyone who had not yet attained the age of reason by 1960 to appreciate the burden of inane laws that oppressed Americans on matters of sex and the naked human body. Laws, some dating to colonial times, were stubbornly adhered to. New Jersey may have had Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study but it also had laws that prohibited tampering with a corpse - a law that made it rather difficult to teach anatomy - which is why the city of Philadelphia had five medical schools but the State of New Jersey had none. It was not until 1956 that a resident of New Jersey could attend the first in-state medical school: Seton Hall. But even in Philadelphia, the subject of birth control could not be taught in medical school. Thirty states had laws which prevented commerce in contraceptives. Condoms were contraband. The prevailing opinion was that if a person knew that no pregnancy would result from intercourse he or she would become a raving sex maniac.

American society was filled with prevailing opinions. Smoking marijuana was Step #1 on the path that led to a Murder One conviction as Reefer Madness showed us. Duck and Cover was a perfectly adequate way to protect ourselves from radioactive fallout in the likely event of nuclear war. If a smoker wanted to prevent lung cancer, Kent Cigarettes offered a Micronite Filter made of asbestos. That the fear of pregnancy would save us from becoming maniacal Level 3 sex offenders made, all things considered, good sense. In terms of safeguarding citizen sanity, Connecticut set the bar highest. A married couple, at home and in their own bed, could be arrested and imprisoned for one year for using a contraceptive "device."

Those of us who were intelligent enough to accept the fact that the stork brought us, proceeded as we saw fit. Renegades reverted to tradition and as their contraceptive goal of choice tried to prevent semen from entering the cervix. They used pessaries, either objects which covered the cervix in the manner of a diaphragm, or substances which blocked the entrance. Acacia gum, tar, honey and sodium carbonate, animal dung mixed with an array of substances, and seeds from various trees were used. Since some of these substances were also spermicides, religion got involved.

For centuries churches had not seriously troubled themselves with the problems of reproduction. When even Popes fathered big and famous families there could have been little objection to the village priest's progeny. For nearly all of those centuries no one understood the facts of conception. Churchmen carved their theories out of the great monolith of misogyny. A sperm was a tiny human male that was implanted, as a seed is planted, in the matrix of the earth-female. The rest was dependent upon the quality of the female's uterine soil and the virtue of the female-farmer. If anything went wrong it was her fault. Divine judgment as to her virtue was evidenced in terms of the health and the sex of the child. A female child was the result of damage done to the male fetus. It is curious that now that all the Wonderland assumptions about conception have been dispelled, the issue is like the Cheshire Cat. The cat fades away but only its smirk remains. All the stupefying myths are erased, but their misogynistic inspiration has proven to be indelible.

The renegade second choice of contraception was the ingestion of various vegetal agents. Depending on available plants, each civilization or geographical area had its own herbal contraceptives or abortifacients, most of which were toxic. Dosage required special knowledge; and the women who could prescribe the correct dosage were held in high esteem. For the wealthy these women were considered mystical healers, for the poor they were considered witches. Such plants as silphium, asafoetida, Queen Anne's lace, willow, pennyroyal, pomegranate, myrrh, artemisia, rue, and date palm were commonly used.

Mercury was also consumed by women who wanted to end their reproductive life altogether. None of these methods was foolproof.

In the U.S., before WWII, it was easier to obtain an illegal abortion than it was to obtain a legal contraceptive. Medically safe abortions were performed, sub rosa, for those who could afford them, by cooperative physicians or other medical personnel, in country or abroad. Women who could not afford such care consulted lay 'professionals', i.e., people who were paid a nominal sum for performing an illegal and dangerous procedure, often called a "back-alley' abortion. The elimination of the fetus may have been successful, but in the days before antibiotics, subsequent infections frequently killed the mother.

After the war, the availability of antibiotics lessened the danger; but a woman's right to choose a medically sound abortion was a financial privilege; and competent medical management was still restricted to the rich, the raped, the victims of incest, and to those women whose health was endangered by a continuing pregnancy.

Attitudes began to change. During the war, women had attained a level of independence that was previously unknown. Routinely, they performed "men's work." Once the war ended, many women found themselves as war widows with children, or wives of disabled veterans. They had become the family "bread winners," and a pregnancy often meant financial ruin.

Public opinion was further influenced by a spate of high profile abortion fatalities. Choosing one among many, we have the sad case of Mrs. Doris Jean Silver Ostreicher.

In 1955, Doris Jean Silver of Philadelphia was the heiress to a fortune her parents made developing a chain of food markets. Still college aged, Doris Jean fell in love with a motorcycle police officer in Miami, Florida. Her parents opposed the romance; nevertheless, Doris Jean married the police officer. Under various pressures, the marriage was conflicted and Doris Jean, pregnant, came home to her parents. Her mother pressed her to have an abortion and engaged the services of a non-medical husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs. M. Schwartz, in whose apartment the abortion was performed. Doris Jean died there as a result of the procedure. A host of sensational criminal and civil actions followed.

Again, this was only one of the highly publicized and emotionally charged abortion cases that occurred during the 1950's and 60's.

In the mid-1950's, in the same year that New Jersey opened its first medical school, the G. D. Searle Company produced Enovid, "The Pill." Enovid could be prescribed only to treat menstrual disorders until finally, in 1961, the F.D.A. allowed physicians to prescribe it as a contraceptive agent.

At the same time that Enovid made its debut, Germany's Grunenthal Pharmaceutical Company produced Thalidomide which was prescribed as a cure for morning sickness. This "wonder drug" was also touted as being an all-purpose remedy for coughs, headaches, insomnia, pain, anxiety, and so on.


Xavier Alvarez

In the 1960's, worldwide, between ten and twenty-thousand babies whose mothers had been prescribed Thalidomide were born with shocking deformities. The drug had not been approved by the F.D.A. and only those American wives who were stationed in Germany with their husbands were affected. Germany was not convinced that Thalidomide was responsible for this pediatric horror; and continued to market the drugs around the world.

A large percentage of these children survived and for a few years the public's attention was on preventing birth defects rather than preventing pregnancy. (Thalidomide eventually became very effective in treating, among other diseases, Leprosy.)

But Enovid was still the Rock Star of contraception. Rival pharmaceutical houses developed their own contraceptive pills; and among women of child-bearing age, The Pill was the contraceptive of choice.

In the 1960's, there were contraceptive pills and devices available if a woman could pay for them and for the physician whose prescription was necessary or whose assistance was required, as, for example, with diaphragms. Poor women and girls who were unable to consult physicians were likely to risk back-alley abortions and to die from the procedure.

In the late 1960's, a twenty-one year old woman named Norma Nelson McCorvey of Houston, Texas, became pregnant with her third child. By any estimation, she had had a difficult life.

She had been born in Louisiana in 1947, a child of mixed ancestry which included Cajun and Cherokee lines; but her family, members of a Jehovah's Witness congregation, moved to Houston, Texas, where she was raised. The religion emphasized self-discipline, a feature that did not seem to register with her parents. Her father abandoned the family when she was thirteen; and her mother was considered a violent alcoholic.

At fourteen, Norma Nelson left high school; and at sixteen, she married Woody McCorvey. Pregnant and a victim of domestic violence, she left her husband and resumed life with her mother to have her child, a daughter. A year later, at eighteen, she had another child which she placed for adoption. When she later told her mother that she had become a lesbian, her mother cast her from her home and obtained custody of her daughter. Norma went to live with her father.

With only a tenth grade education and no employment resumÄ, she could obtain only low-paying jobs, even though, as she would later prove, she was an intelligent and sensitive person capable of much more challenging employment.

In the turmoil of the late 1960's, Norma Nelson McCorvey, like many others of her age, was sufficiently unsettled to get pregnant a third time. Being in a somewhat less than ideal position to raise a child, she went to Dallas and tried to obtain a legal abortion by falsely claiming to have been raped. Texas law permitted victims of rape and incest to have abortions, but Norma had not filed a police report about the rape allegation and she was therefore denied the procedure. She tried to obtain an illegal abortion but the "back alley" facilities available to her had just been shut down by the police.

She consulted two attorneys, Linda Coffee and Sarah Weddington, who were interested in overturning Texas's abortion laws. A suit was filed on her behalf, claiming her Ninth Amendment right to privacy had been violated. Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade, representing Texas, was named as defendant. The case ultimately went to the Supreme Court for adjudication. The Court, at the time, was considering another similar case from Georgia, Doe v. Bolton, and because the name "Doe" had already been taken, Norma's case became "Roe" v. Wade.

In 1973, the Court ruled in favor of Doe and Roe - not on the issue of privacy but on the state's violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Right to Due Process. Generally speaking (since so many adjustments have been made to its ruling), balancing the needs of the state with the rights of women, the right to an on-demand legal abortion could be honored only during the first trimester of the pregnancy, i.e., before the fetus could possibly survive independently of its maternal host. Each state could enact laws governing abortion for the second trimester; and no abortion could be had in the third trimester unless the pregnancy was deemed deleterious to the mother's health.

Despite this, religious influence heavily skewed attitudes in favor of men. The actions of a few women helped to balance the attitude. Abstinence, for example, normally could apply only to males since a wife was obliged to obey her husband. The truly aristocratic Lady Diana Spencer refused to vow to obey her husband and the nuptial vows were altered in 1981 to accommodate her prescient wish when she married Prince Charles. Considering the unconscionable destruction of a victim's reputation, "No means No" did not become a serious response to acquaintance and gang rape until Jodie Foster's 1988 Oscar winning performance in The Accused. A wife's legal claim to the right to abstain from sexual intercourse was given little serious consideration until Lorena Bobbitt's 1993 "No" was overridden by her husband, and she resorted to the ultimate contraceptive and cut off his penis, an act which he and law enforcement personnel claimed was criminal, a claim which was overridden by the jury that acquitted her.

DNA evidence prevented men from denying responsibility for pregnancy, and women were able to avail themselves of a variety of methods to prevent pregnancy: diaphragms; sponges; cervical caps; intra-uternine devices (IUDs); the Pill or injectible equivalents; vaginal rings; the patch; intrauterine devices which release anti-pregnancy hormones; and implants (subcutaneous rods that steadily release anti-pregnancy hormones. And, if we accept that abortion is not involved in preventing implantation of the fertilized egg in the uterus, there is also the "morning after" pill. The spread of new and deadly sexually transmitted diseases prompted women to insist further upon the use of condoms.

The failure to prevent an unwanted pregnancy has consequences all its own. No woman can visualize herself, for example, taking a a hammer and beating to death a litter of kittens or puppies. When she reflects upon killing her own baby, she is left with considerable guilt not only for having the abortion but for having failed to prevent its necessity. The Lex Talionis applies: As Karl Menninger of the Menninger Clinic has noted, "There are certain laws governing the activity of the conscience with which we have come to be familiar from clinical experience. One of them is that the ego must suffer in direct proportion to its externally directed destructiveness. It is as if that part of the destructive instinct retained within the ego had to carry on within the microcosmos of the personality an activity precisely comparable to that which the ego is directing toward the macrocosmos outside. If the individual directs an attack of a certain nature upon some person in the environment, the conscience, or super-ego, directs an attack of the same nature upon the ego."

The form that this self-destructive response takes may be subtle as in becoming "accident prone" or "forgetful" or as gross as in drinking too much or in forming reckless romantic attachments or indulging in behaviors that cause a loss of job or the dissolution of a marriage. Sometimes the guilt is overtly felt and the woman who has had an abortion will suddenly forget the adverse circumstances that induced her to obtain an abortion and will instead become a staunch opponent of the right to obtain a medically safe abortion.

There is no question that many women have been "caught" by unexpected sexual contact, or the failure of a contraceptive method, or even by an unforeseeable family emergency. Personal responsibilities leave these women no alternative but to end the pregnancy. Also, many girls or women who actually want the baby may be literally coerced into having an abortion by their husband, boyfriend, or parent.

Vicious responses to their plight is not the answer. When people who have strong anti-abortion sentiments congregate in front of clinics in order to scream "murderer" at the women who enter them, or otherwise act to increase the painful sense of loss these women feel, they are revealing much about their own guilt in this "reaction formation" defense mechanism.

What is needed is compassion. In today's world it is not easy to be a woman and harder still to be a mother. Religion ought to respond positively to the sad circumstance and dilemma in which these women find themselves. A ritual or even a simple prayer that acknowledges the sorrow and the difficulty of their decision, and understands it, and offers hope and encouragement instead of spiteful condemnation, is more in line with spiritual objectives.

When we allow religions to impose their parochial beliefs upon all citizens, and, further, to denigrate Laws that were duly legislated and then affirmed by the Supreme Court of the land, we inflict injury that usually ends by harming ourselves.

Humming Bird
Valid XHTML 1.0 Strict