Why Pro-Choice Prevailed in the USA
At the outset, it is useful to define human life scientifically. Life is simply energy-driven matter with a unique blueprint, set of instructions, or DNA that determines its development. And it is human life when conceived by humans, or stated differently, when the sperm of a human male impregnates the egg of a human female.
Just as the principles of physics govern the conception, development, and eventual demise of the universe, they govern the conception, development, and eventual demise of all life in it, including human life. The universe began to develop in time at conception, however perceived, and will continue to do so until entropy takes its toll (second law of thermodynamics): that is, time for it stops or it dies.
The same is true of all life in the universe, including human life.
Decisions about when it is acceptable to terminate human life before entropy takes its toll have been made variously throughout the history of humankind. Most of the decisions have been made with respect to human life after birth or outside the womb, including, but not limited to, those based on self-defense, survival, and deterrence to crime. In recent years, however, decisions with respect to the termination of human life inside the womb by way of abortion, especially those in the USA, have taken center stage.
For the most part, those who object to abortion base their objections on the will of God, which they accept on faith as revealed in a variety of “sacred scriptures” and teachings of prophets, priests, ministers, ayatollahs, and other clerics. The argument used most often is that abortion can only be justified if the soul has not entered the human life.
The problem with the soul argument is that it is faith-based rather than evidence-based. That is, the argument is a matter of belief without evidence that can stand up to scientific scrutiny. The predominant Christian belief is that the soul enters the human life at conception. The predominant Hindu belief is that the soul enters the human life during the seventh month after conception.
The Christian version of the soul argument is compatible with a non-religious or secular argument that abortion is not justified because the human life is viable beginning with conception. The argument is based on a broad definition of viability, that is, human life is viable if it is capable of development with help if necessary. And it is so capable from conception onward, first inside the womb with help from the mother as nature provides and after birth with the continued help of the mother, father, and others who provide support in the form of sustenance and nurture. Also, medical science plays an important helper’s role from conception onward, both inside the womb and after birth.
Viability broadly defined, however, does not leave any wiggle room for terminating human life inside the womb by way of abortion. The reason is straightforward: At no stage of development inside the womb after conception is the human life nonviable, not even in the earliest stage, however defined.
An alternative definition of viability provided the missing wiggle room. A source that articulated the alternative is the United States Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research in a publication entitled, Fetal Viability and Death (2006-05-23). The Commission stated that human life is viable if it is capable of development OUTSIDE THE WOMB with help if necessary that is independent of any integral connection with the mother and self-sustaining only with support from accepted medical treatments.
Given this narrow definition of viability and the current state of technology and medical science, those who support a woman’s right to choose the termination of a human life inside the womb by way of abortion assert that women need not feel the moral culpability often associated with it. Many of them argue that the right to abort should be limited to that of nonviable human life while others—the more militant—argue for no limitations or restrictions.
Accepting the narrow definition of viability without question, The United States Supreme Court or SCOTUS in Roe v. Wade (1973) decided that although not expressly stated in the Constitution, a woman’s right to abort a nonviable human life is implicit or implied in it. Based on “compelling arguments” presented in the case, the decision permitted states to regulate and even ban abortion after 28 weeks.
The subsequent Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992) provided even more wiggle room for aborting human life. It disassociated viability from the hard line of 28 weeks in light of advances in related medical research and technology and permitted states to place greater emphasis on "undue burden" to the mother when regulating abortion. The Court stopped short of considering "undue burden" of human life to the mother after birth or outside the womb, especially during the teenage years of that life when some form of "retroactive abortion" might be considered consistent with its ruling.
Although not available at the time the Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the research of Keith Moore and T. Persaud, which was published in The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology (Saunders 2003), provided support for the “compelling argument” that viability varies with related medical research and technology. Their research concluded that there is no sharp limit of development, age, or weight at which human life in the womb automatically becomes viable.
One of the primary problems that Moore and Persaud’s research raises about the viability argument when viability is narrowly defined is that a woman could choose to abort a nonviable human life as determined by a legislature, court, or doctor, given the current stage of related knowledge, and later, discover it was viable. Of course, she would not have done so intentionally, but the viable human life would have been terminated by way of abortion nevertheless.
More often than not, people opposed to abortion consider their religious beliefs sufficient justification for opposing it, making any other argument unnecessary, including the viability argument, regardless of whether viability is broadly or narrowly defined.
People who support a woman’s right or option to abort human life strongly object to the efforts of the opposition to impose their religious beliefs on women. They argue that the right is an issue for resolution in the civil or secular arena of American culture, an arena they insist must be kept separate from the religious arena in compliance with the Constitutional principle of the separation of state and church.
Those who oppose a woman’s right to abort human life created terminology they considered more effective in marketing their cause. They refer to their cause as Pro-life instead of Anti-abortion. Being for something—life—has greater positive connotation than being against something—abortion. At the same time, they refer to the cause of Pro-choice advocates as Pro-abortion because it has greater negative connotation.
Moreover, they refer to the human life inside a womb as an unborn child rather than a fetus. Terminating or aborting an unborn child has greater negative moral connotation than aborting a nonviable fetus—something that sounds less like a human life.
Those who advocate a woman’s right to abort human life also created terminology they considered more effective in marketing their cause. They refer to their cause as Pro-choice instead of Pro-abortion. Being for something that is supportive of a woman’s right to choose has greater appeal than being for something that is supportive of terminating or aborting human life. At the same time, they refer to the cause of Pro-life advocates as Anti-choice because it has greater negative connotation.
Moreover, Pro-choice advocates refer to the human life in the womb as a fetus rather an unborn child because the use of the term fetus sounds more like terminating a thing rather than a human life by way of abortion. In fact, people who espouse Pro-choice rarely, if ever, acknowledge that a fetus is human life.
The terminology created and used by Pro-choice advocates to make their case, and more importantly, their enthusiasm, assertiveness, and persistence has proven to be more effective in garnering the support of increased numbers of the electorate and endorsements of people in positions of economic, social, and political power.
A more substantive factor that explains the increased support of the Pro-choice cause by the electorate and people in positions of economic, social, and political power has been the slant of American education. Teachers in secondary and elementary education and professors in higher education pass on their beliefs to one generation of students after another. Like it or not, most people are simply products of what has been shoveled into them, and most of the education that has been shoveled into Americans for decades has been supportive of liberal causes, including the cause of Pro-choice.
Another more substantive factor that explains the increased support of the Pro-choice cause by the electorate and people in positions of economic, social, and political power has been the slant of reporting, analyses, and commentary by American television and print media outlets. The overwhelming number of liberal-leaning media outlets who hire those products of American schools and universities have provided the day after day reporting, analyses, and commentary that has been directly and indirectly supportive of the Pro-choice cause.
Although support by the electorate and people in positions of economic, social, and political power has been an important factor that explains the successful promotion of the Pro-choice cause, the support of SCOTUS turned out to have been the most important. In Roe v. Wade, the Court confirmed that the right of a woman to abort a nonviable human life is a Constitutional right, regardless of what may be decided at the local, state, and federal levels of government. That is, the Court made it an issue of a civil right that is guaranteed by the Constitution instead of an issue resolved by legislation in America’s democratic process.
What has not been fully appreciated by both sides of the issue is that although life inside the womb from conception on is human, it does not mean it cannot be terminated at some stage of development. As mentioned earlier, judgments as to when human life may be terminated have been made in cultures throughout the history of humankind. And the grounds for the judgments have been argued variously, including but not limited to those based on self-defense, survival, and deterrence to crime. So there is nothing new about rationalizing the taking of human life with or without Constitutional guarantees.
Although people tend to be more squeamish about terminating a helpless and innocent human life inside the womb by way of abortion, Americans have become increasingly accepting of arguments in favor of setting up conditions under which human life inside the womb may be terminated by way of abortion. Besides, helpless and innocent human life has been, and continues to be, terminated outside the womb, for example, the termination of helpless and innocent human life—collateral damage—when drones are used for the purpose of terminating terrorist leaders in the current War on Terror.
It is important to note in closing that all issues related to the abortion of human life have not been settled, for example, partial birth abortion. But the fact remains that the basic right of a woman to abort human life—with as yet not fully settled conditions—has become a woman’s civil right. SCOTUS as the final arbiter has decided the right is one implied in the Constitution.
Copyright © 2016 Frank Zahn. Published in Intellectual Conservative, February 28, 2016 - https://intellectualconservative.com/articles/why-pro-choice-prevailed-in-the-usa; The Writings of a Curious Mind: A Collection of Essays, Memoirs, and Short Stories, Vancouver Books (Kindle Edition) 2017.