I've been trying for some time to get my head around the abortion debate. The willful blindness on both sides continues to bewilder me.
I grew up in a very conservative part of the country, and I was raised in the dominant religion of the area. In junior high, I can remember my Health class having a special period devoted to abortion. We were shown pictures of fetuses at different stages of development, as well as pictures of abortions (primarily late-stage procedures). I left class, as did most of my classmates, horrified that anyone would do such a thing. It was so clear to me then that this was murder, and I couldn't believe that it was legal.
So when I hear interviews with people who say, "I would have voted for John Kerry, but I just can't in good conscience vote for someone who supports abortion," I understand where they're coming from. These are people who have deep convictions on this single moral issue.
As I grew up, however, I began to see how a woman could come to such a decision. I saw friends of mine who were raped consider killing themselves to keep anyone from finding out. I saw other friends married at sixteen, or sent away to live with relatives, or disowned by their families because they became pregnant. This was in a culture that was a model of "abstinence education". My high school Biology teacher liked to tell us that the body had a natural contraceptive - the muscle in the neck that allowed the head to shake, "no". This was charming, but allow a girl to slip up just once (under pressure, or because - heaven forbid - she liked it as much as the boys did), and she had to pay for it for the rest of her life. I knew girls who took such desperate measures as jumping off high places, hitting themselves in the stomach, drinking turpentine, and even the old chestnut of the wire hanger. None of them would do something like go to an abortion clinic - none of us even knew where to begin looking for one - what if you were seen?
All this was in a culture where the majority of the citizens had enough money to live on, more or less comfortably. What about girls and women who find themselves pregnant when they can barely keep themselves fed, or safe from abuse?
I began to see that the punitive attitude of "it should be illegal" does nothing to stop abortions from happening. It only makes them so much more dangerous to women desperate enough to seek one.
However, I'm often confused by the stance of many on the pro-choice side of the fence that abortion has no moral dimension, that a fetus is nothing but a parasite until the first moment it draws breath outside the mother's body (although I defend their right to this worldview). One can argue forever about when a fetus becomes a human being - one commenter on this posting points out that in Jewish thought, ensoulment starts "when the majority of a living baby has emerged from the mother's body" - but the fact remains that we don't know, and we may never know. Leaving that question aside, then, abortion (under the best of circumstances) still takes a major toll on a woman's body, and for that reason alone it should only be undertaken as a last resort.
But to point out that the choice to have an abortion is a heavy decision does not take away from the fact that until that being exists separately from the mother, it is - of biological necessity - the woman's choice.
My deeply religious mother (who believed abortion to be a sin) once expressed it to me this way: "That choice is between a woman and God. The government should have nothing to do with it."
As a society that must live together, however, it is incumbent upon us to try to prevent abortions where we can. And that's where I think the debate should be. How do we best prevent abortions? Making them illegal won't do it. Neither will "abstinence education". Instead, we need to do everything we can to help girls and women from having to get to that point. We do this by making contraceptives available and affordable to whoever needs them. Keep the "morning after" pill legal and readily available. I've seen more than one rape victim gratefully relieved of at least one aspect of her terror thanks to that.
For those who fear to have a baby because they live in poverty, we should do all we can to create true universal health care and a genuine safety net for the poorest of our nation.
And when all of these options fail, abortion should remain legal and, above all, safe.