The debate surrounding abortion has been a wedge issue in America for many years. At it’s heart is the uncertainty regarding the definition of human life and when a fetus is deemed as possessing the full rights thereof. It is an appropriate debate for our times because it exposes our limited technical knowledge and highlights the role of religion in informing people’s beliefs regarding their very existence. If science cannot fully define “life” itself, we as humans cannot convincingly lay a foundation for the claims that we make in advocating for our own rights. We can agree that all humans deserve a set of legal protections, but when presented with an example of a “semi-” human or an incomplete human, people are essentially free to make any claim they want and draw lines in every permutation imaginable.
The real question we should be asking therefore, is what are the motivations for the claims we choose to adopt? If they are all physically equivalent to the material eye, what makes a person choose to say “a fetus is a life” versus “a fetus is not”? While we can acknowledge that people utilize religion in this instance, I would argue something deeper is being engaged in this inquiry than a simple question of ‘what is your religion.’
The presence of a fetus is huge burden on the back of a woman. Especially in cases where pregnancy is not planned or expected, the realization that another life is growing inside you, one that is entirely dependent on you, is one that is often hard to come to terms with. Our dominant social narrative has placed a large emphasis on being free from restraints that hinder a person from achieving their individual dreams; conversely, carrying and raising a child or multiple children is arguably the greatest hindrance to achieving personal material success. Children necessitate sacrifice, selflessness, and a willingness to put yourself second to someone else. While men are also affected by the presence of a child, by simple virtue of the fact they are physically detached from the pregnancy process means that they still retain the freedom to bail from the responsibility if such an idea were to become agreeable to them. In that circumstance, the woman is left stuck with the entirety of the burden. It is in that context of inequality that we find activists attempting to correct the injustice, and to fix the wrongs that nature has imposed on them.
Why is it that only women bear children? Why is it that only they are forced to endure the pains of labor? Why are men free from these consequences of sexual intercourse? Why are they able to have sex freely, without this impending personal biological risk? It is true that we live in an age of sexually transmitted illnesses, but why are only women forced to contend with this extra burden?
These are the questions and grievances that laid the foundation for the Pro-Choice movement. The greatest boon to their cause was the invention of oral contraceptives; with the power to manipulate the body’s hormones, women can now claim unprecedented sexual freedom. This pharmaceutical power allows women to stand equally with men in their ability to enjoy their bodies with whomever they will. Nevertheless, not all forms of contraception work all of the time; and they still require a person to have foresight to take them prior to sexual activity. Thus, unwanted pregnancies remain a commonplace occurrence, and people often resort to abortion to retain control of their bodies and their lives. It is a last-ditch effort to maintain stability in the face of greater biological imposition.
Here we see the core values of the Pro-Choice imperative; a woman has the inherent right to enjoy sexual activity without the burden of pregnancy. Obviously, one solution for women to avoid pregnancy altogether is to simply pass on sexual relations. However, such a solution is seen as horrifically impractical, and borderline heretical as it would necessitate an even greater burden to suppress inner sexual desires. Without the option to be sexually free, women would be forced to seek intercourse in contexts which protect them from being taken advantage of. Namely, a context in which she can legally guarantee shared responsibility with her partner in an institution that is as old as civilization itself: the institution of marriage. Advocating abstinence is essentially a de facto surrender to the forces that have shaped gender roles since time immemorial. For a person advocating perfect gender equality of rights and responsibility, such a surrender is likely too humiliating to consider.
Because of this situation, women’s rights activists have decided that the correct course of action is to question the humanity of the fetus. By doubting its humanity, we are able to avoid the sticky issue of whether or not abortion is akin to murder of an individual. In the past, people simply accepted that abortion was morally wrong because we could clearly see the ontological status of a fetus; it is a creature that is transformed into a living, breathing human being, if left alone. Even if it is not a full human life itself, it commanded a level of respect beyond that of disposable material that is thrown away when unwanted.
To that end, a Pro-Life movement emerged in opposition to the direction that society was heading at the time. People, largely adhering to their religious conviction, decided that not only was a fetus deserving of rights to balance a woman’s personal rights, but that fetal life is as valuable as human life and that abortion at any point in the pregnancy is tantamount to murder of an independent human being. Life, they say, begins at conception.
Over time, this issue has caused a large rift in society and it is, to this day, a hot button issue. People on both sides believe strongly about their views, while at the same time seeing little credibility in the other’s. Pro Choicers continue to see the right of a woman to control her body as paramount, while Pro Lifers continue to argue that a fetus’s rights trumps the mother’s right to choice. What is forgotten is the question that caused all this discussion in the first place: the question of widespread sexual promiscuity which created the unjust situation for women.
Had society upheld “old morals” regarding sexual practice, then stigmatization of sex outside legal institutions would have minimized the biological discrimination that women ended up facing. It is only after the normalization of sex outside marriage did men discover that they had the freedom to sleep around and maximize their pleasures without much consequence. Certainly, women got stuck with the short end of the stick; sex for them was much more consequential. It’s no wonder why sexual promiscuity among women remained stigmatized into the modern era with labels such as “slut” and “whore” still considered effective slurs.
Yes, it is a double standard no doubt; if men are not stigmatized for this basic biological desire, why should women? While we can all agree that we have identified a legitimate problem, the solution that the Pro-Choice movement, and more broadly the feminist movements, have concocted is far from being the best answer. Continuing the destigmatization of sexual promiscuity will only lead to more problems for society as a whole, even if immediate freedom is attained. The moral dilemma of abortion is but one manifestation of this social imperative. Rather, I would argue that we should be pushing to bring back the stigma for both genders if we not only desire gender equality, but also a society that views its participants as more than just slabs of meat and flesh.
In Islam, the weight of an abortion is graded in accordance to the timeline of development. Abortion in the first 40 days since conception is viewed as something that should be avoided, but if a legitimate need were to present itself then it may be permissible however disliked. From day 40 to 120, scholars disagreed, with many stating that only extreme cases can abortion be considered. At day 120, Islamic theology states that a human soul has been granted to the fetus and abortion past this point the same as murder. However, despite this, if the life of the mother is threatened after this point, jurists argued that the life of the mother takes precedent and abortion may be performed out of necessity.
Note however, that desiring to be free from responsibility of childbearing or fearing that you would go into poverty are not considered legitimate reasons for abortion even in the early period. Doing so would be sinful. However, it is not the same as murder, which has different legal ramifications altogether.
As with any two extremes, the truth often lies in a form of balance; the fetus is not the same thing as a full human, but it is still a being that commands respect and certain rights. We should not let our desire to have sexual relations dictate our morality and code of ethics. We should be frank about our desires, and recognize when we are advocating for ourselves versus advocating for what’s right. Abortion in today’s context is largely a push by a segment of society that wishes to free itself from the consequences of poor behavior.
It is very easy to say that a woman has the right to control her body; it sounds clever and pithy, and disagreeing begs the question “so you want to control my body?” But at the end of the day, we all have to contend with forces beyond our control, even with our own bodies. We all have to recognize that our own rights are subject to limitation by the presence of other’s. Perhaps it would make more sense to claim a right of control only after we claim complete independence from the Creator that gave us our bodies in the first place. But know this: that claim will never actually be true.