Jay Fleitman: A political draw on abortion
NORTHAMPTON — Stephen Lynch, a Democratic primary candidate for the Senate, is pro-life. As this creates difficulties for him with his party’s base he is attempting a political sleight of hand by asserting his support for Roe v. Wade and continued federal funding for Planned Parenthood. His opponent on the Democratic side, Edward Markey, supported a constitutional amendment to ban abortion in the 1980s before he came to his current position as being pro-choice.
The Republicans have the same problem. Michael Sullivan has attained popularity among social conservatives for being pro-life, as has primary opponent Gabriel Gomez. But in their recent debate, both openly accepted Roe v. Wade as the law of the land. Recognizing the wide diversity of opinion among Republicans about abortion, and that a pro-life position will present difficulty in a general election in Massachusetts, they danced around this issue by asking for their party membership to back-burner abortion in favor of other issues which unite the party.
Republican candidate Dan Winslow is forthright about protecting individual liberty from government intrusion by being pro-choice, but remains wary of how this plays in a Republican primary, reminding Republicans that his position will be more acceptable to independents in the general election.
I had the same difficulty in my run for Congress in 2010. With a dedication toward preserving individual liberty in making difficult personal moral decisions, I also take the position of defending a woman’s right to make the abortion choice. The passion of pro-life advocates was always present during the campaign. The most frequent argument directed at me from the pro-life side was that as a physician, I had to recognize that science had established that life began at conception.
Being deeply steeped in science, I fully understand that science does not make such moral and legal judgments. Both the sperm and the egg that go into conception are each “alive” and the fertilized egg has a genetic makeup that is no different from what will be every single skin cell. What science does recognize is the remarkably profound God-like development that occurs when these initially blank cells differentiate into the multitude of tissues and complex structures that make up a living being.
The conundrum is, of course, at what point does this potential human life come to deserve protection by society and its laws?
There are aspects of the pro-choice position that are hard to accept as well. The most commonly applied argument from abortion-rights proponents is that each woman has dominion over her own body.
The problem is that there is a second life at stake during a pregnancy. The fetus has rented this space in the uterus at no fault of its own, and depends on this tenancy for survival.
It has landed where it is almost always through the purposeful act of the woman who carries it. Therefore, a decision to abort a pregnancy extends beyond the control over a single body, because, like it or not, the woman has a relationship to consider with the passenger she put there.
There are glaring hypocrisies on both sides. On one hand political conservatives are dedicated to constitutional protections of individual liberty, yet on the issue of abortion they are willing to subordinate freedom to this particular principle. And how can anybody who “protects life” support the application of the death penalty through a legal system which is so obviously unreliable?
On the other hand, the political left protects the right of the woman to control what happens in her body, yet will fight against the right of an individual to smoke, or as we have recently seen in New York City, to choose the size of a soft drink. The left would love to limit Second Amendment rights and remove guns from society because “they kill,” but is silent about the tens of millions of abortions which have occurred in the United States.
The vilification of one side by the other in the debate over abortion has been hard for me to understand. Pro-life advocates are dismissed as fascist-like Bible thumpers by zealous advocates of abortion rights. I find it impossible to characterize as evil people who defend this miraculous phenomena of life.
On the other side, passionate pro-life supporters will characterize those who defend choice as casual baby-killers. As a conservative, I can never minimize my respect for someone who protects individual liberty from government interference. Why then such mutual hostility?
Even if we some day come to a societal and legal agreement over this deeply disputed issue, I have to believe that it is irresolvable, with no clear right or wrong. That is why I believe that no one has the prerogative to impose their judgment on another. Politically, in a nation of liberty, the pro-choice position is correct. What I have never before admitted in public, though, is that I believe that the pro-life position may be the more moral one.
Jay Fleitman, M.D., lives in Northampton. His column appears the first Tuesday of the month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.