Freedom Writer - July 1994
By Marlena Sobel
Abortion is murder.
Only a person can be murdered. Therefore, abortion is not murder
unless one considers the fetus to be a person. According to Roe v.
Wade, the word "person" does not include the unborn, and a fetus does
not have equal status with the mother until the point of viability,
or when the fetus can exist outside of the mother's womb. In addition,
according to the common law in criminal matters, the definition of
a "person" is one who has been born alive. However, in recent years
the subject of fetal "personhood" has taken alarming turns with the
passing of "feticide statutes" that allow for criminal actions for
the wrongful death of the fetus in the womb. Attempts to confer personhood
on the legal status of the fetus has expanded into the civil and medical
areas as well: there have been cases involving forced caesareans;
forced blood transfusions against the pregnant woman's religious convictions;
and some states have even gone so far as to disallow the use of "living
wills" for pregnant women. In all of these cases the "rights" of
the fetus, whether before or after the point of viability, have been
held paramount to the rights of the pregnant woman.
Unless the courts begin granting "personhood" to a fetus, abortion
cannot be considered murder. However, what would the penalties be
if the laws of the U.S. reflected the motto of Operation Rescue?:
"If you believe abortion is murder, then ACT like it's murder!" Would
women having abortions, and doctors performing them, be subject to
the death penalty?
Science says that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception.
The "genetic definition" of personhood, as developed by the evangelical
Francis Schaeffer and former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop,
holds that science proves personhood at the moment of conception.
Their argument follows that since the whole genetic code is established
when the ovum and sperm is united, and each code is unique, a unique
person is therefore created at the moment of conception. This logic
is flawed, however, because although there is a continuum from conception
to death, there is a difference between an actual person and a potential
or possible person. A fertilized ovum, or zygote, is a cluster of
cells; taking this genetic code argument to its extreme, each of those
cells is encoded with a specific DNA. If each of these cells is then
to be considered a possible human being, then any time any cell is
removed, through surgery for instance, a potential life is destroyed.
The Bible says a fetus is a person from the moment of conception.
Two passages are most often quoted to explain the theory of life from
conception. The first is Psalm 139:13-15: "For thou didst form my
inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mother's womb... My
frame was not hidden from thee when I was being made in secret, intricately
wrought in the depths of the earth." If this verse is to be taken
literally, then the Psalmist came from the ground, not his mother's
womb. The second is Jeremiah 1:5, "Before I formed you in the belly
I knew you; and before you came forth out of the womb, I sanctified
you, and I ordained you a prophet unto the nations." This verse simply
refers to the concept of God's foreknowledge, and his divine plan
for certain individuals, in this case, the prophet Jeremiah. However,
Genesis 2:7 states that "The Lord God formed man of dust from the
ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man
became a living soul." According to this verse, a fetus is not a
person -- a living soul -- until after birth, when it takes its first
Additionally, conservative Christians speak about becoming a "new
spiritual person" by being "born again," quoting John 3:7, "You must
be born again." So, if spiritual life is described as a new "birth,"
then it follows that physical life, or personhood, comes from "birth,"
not conception. Otherwise the Bible would say, "You must be conceived
Finally, the Bible never explicitly mentions abortion.
Doctors have confirmed that a fetus can feel pain.
Although this theory has received much attention through the showing
of Dr. Bernard Nathanson's video _The_Silent_Scream_, experts in the
medical field have repeatedly and vehemently established that this
is impossible. The perception of pain is a complex biological and
psychological phenomena that involves certain states of "consciousness"
that would be impossible to achieve at the time of conception. The
brain itself is composed of approximately 100 billion brain cells
called neurons. These brain neurons do not even exist prior to four
weeks in utero, and the peak period for this brain neuron development
is between two to five months in utero. There are also about 100
trillion connections between these neurons, called synaptic connections,
by which neurons pass information amongst themselves. A minimum number
of neurons must be developed in the cerebral cortex, and the interconnectivity
of these neurons is absolutely essential, before states such as sensation,
perception, and thought are really meaningful. While these synapses
start to form at about the third month, the minimum number do not
usually develop until about 31 weeks, and most are not formed until
The American Medical Association is against abortion for safety reasons.
While it is true that it was the medical establishment rather than
the clergy who first supported the use of restrictive laws on abortion,
the motives for this were not necessarily for health or safety reasons.
The American Medical Association (AMA) was founded in the mid-19th
century in an attempt to enhance the status and influence of doctors;
before this time, medicine was an uncertified, unsupervised business
in which anyone could practice.
In its first decade, the AMA lobbied against abortions performed by
anyone other than licensed physicians. This assault on abortion was
motivated not by concern for the health of the woman, but rather for
the welfare of the fetus because, physicians claimed, new embryology
showed that the fetus could be human before quickening. In addition
to only licensed doctors being able to decide if an abortion would
be "morally justified," new abortion laws would also limit competition
from unlicensed competitors and serve to professionalize the practice
of medicine. It was also left up to the discretion of the doctor
to decide if and when a pregnancy posed a threat to the woman; if
so, the abortion would be allowed. There was, however, a possible
health reason for some restrictions on abortion during this time.
Up until the mid-20th century, when the use of antibiotics became
more common, abortion was considered more dangerous than bearing the
child. By the end of the 1960s, however, the AMA had joined with
a coalition of individuals and organizations to liberalize abortion
laws. Today, an early term abortion is one of the safest medical
procedures available, and, at all stages of pregnancy, abortion is
safer than childbirth.
Abortion was completely illegal in the U.S. until 1973.
Abortion was legal in the United States from the establishment of
Jamestown in 1607, until state legislatures began banning abortion
in the early 1800s. Having evolved from the British common law, abortion
was legal provided that it was performed before "quickening." Quickening
is the term used for the point where a woman first notices fetal movement,
and usually occurs at about 16-18 weeks into the pregnancy. Not only
was abortion legal, it was also not entirely uncommon, and many newspapers,
including some church publications, provided advertisements for drugs
to induce abortions. In 1821, Connecticut became the first state
to enact abortion legislation for women who had reached quickening,
but abortion before quickening did not become illegal in Connecticut
until 1860. New York, in 1828, adopted legislation that was followed
by many states between 1830 and 1850; most of these statutes dealt
more severely with abortion after quickening than before. These anti-abortion
laws were enacted for three basic reasons: a Victorian obsession to
discourage illicit sexual conduct; a health concern, because at the
time abortions were dangerous; and a newfound interest in protecting
prenatal life. By the end of the 1950s, however, a large majority
of states had banned all abortion except for instances where the woman's
life was in danger.
Abortion is used primarily as a form of birth control.
To choose to have an abortion is a very personal and very private
decision, and no one, individual or institution, has the right to
question why a woman decides as she does. There are a number of reasons
why a woman chooses to have an abortion, including her health, family
welfare, financial situation, and other personal reasons, but the
decision itself is not one that is ever taken lightly. Pat Schroeder
has an apt response to this myth: "Saying that abortion is used as
birth control is like saying why bother eating when you can have an
IV in your arm?" Her statement illustrates the point that most women
would choose, and do choose, to use contraception before undergoing
any surgical procedure. This myth also underscores the reason why
sex education and birth control should be more widely accepted and
available; if it were so, then the need for abortions overall would
Abortion is a multi-billion dollar industry.
While there are a number of private clinics that do provide abortion
services, the majority of women's health care clinics, providing a
spectrum of reproductive and health services, are non-profit and in
need of federal funding and general support from the public in order
to serve their clients. Not only do these clinics provide a variety
of services including gynecological and prenatal exams, and family
planning for both men and women, they are also the primary source
of health care for millions of women, well over four million of whom
rely on federally funded clinics. While anti-choice groups would
like people to believe that these clinics are only interested in making
money off of abortions, or in costing the taxpayers money by having
to pay for those abortions, the truth is that clinics actually save
taxpayers money by providing services and education about reproductive
freedom in an effort to prevent unintended pregnancies. These unintended
pregnancies lead to both unwanted births and abortions, both of which
cost private and public money. In 1989, for example, taxpayers were
billed $18 billion dollars in direct health and welfare costs for
teen childbearing alone. Abortion is not a multi-billion dollar business,
but trying to restrict access to and information about reproductive
freedom is costing taxpayers billions. The business of women's health
care clinics is to be able to provide a variety of services and education
to their clients; money is not the motive.
Most Americans oppose abortion.
A number of different surveys over the years have consistently shown
that a solid majority of Americans do support abortion rights. Recently,
for example, an extensive poll was released that analyzed its findings
by religious background and educational levels: there was strong
agreement across the entire spectrum (78% to 20%) with the statement
"Abortion is a private issue between a woman, her family and her doctor;
the government should not be involved." In addition, in a poll taken
before the last election, only a sixth of the Democrats and a third
of the Republicans asked said that they wanted their party to oppose
legalized abortion. Overall, there is no doubt that although there
are differences in the degrees to which respondents support a woman's
choice, a majority of Americans support and want access to legal abortions.
Interestingly, 35.6% of the abortions performed in the U.S. involve
evangelical Christian women.
The Catholic Church has always considered abortion murder.
Contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church has not always opposed
abortion. In fact, for centuries abortion was not considered murder
-- until 1588 when Pope Sixtus V declared it so. However, only three
years later, Pope Gregory XIV revoked all ecclesiastical penalties
for abortion, provided that it took place before the soul was "animated."
The church rule therefore allowed that abortion was to be considered
murder only if performed after the soul became rational or "animated."
The time for animation was set at forty days after conception for
a male fetus, and eighty or ninety days after conception for a female
fetus. (There was no explanation how the sex of the fetus would be
determined.) It was not until 1869 that Pope Pius IX finally declared
that the Catholic Church would regard abortion at any stage as murder.
No true Catholic can support abortion rights.
Archbishop John O'Connor proclaimed in 1984 that no Catholic in good
conscience could vote for a political candidate who supported abortion
rights and that the Catholic teaching on the subject of abortion was
not divided. However, there were and are a number of prominent Catholics
in politics, the clergy, as well as the general public who have publicly
disagreed with this sentiment. Mario Cuomo, in response to O'Connor,
said in a speech at the University of Notre Dame that he and other
public officials take an oath to preserve the Constitution because
it guarantees their rights to be Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, or
whatever they choose. Of primary importance to Cuomo, as a devout
Catholic as well as a politician, is an understanding that "to assure
our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if it occasionally
produces conduct by them which we hold to be sinful."
If abortion were outlawed, all of the unwanted children would be quickly
Every child should be a wanted child. In 1990, in New York alone,
more than 62,000 children were in foster care and over 129,700 child
abuse and neglect cases were reported. While the anti-choice forces
are claiming that the answer is adoption, not abortion, the reality
of the situation is that all over the country children are being abused,
abandoned, and neglected because no one will take care of them. Many
anti-choice groups speak of warehouses full of clothes for needy children
and families who would love to adopt a "saved" child -- but how many
have actually done so? There is no reason to believe that the number
of children being adopted would change if abortion were outlawed;
there would just be a greater number of children available for adoption.
According to anti-choice groups, the right to life itself is the
greatest gift of all. However, what kind of a life do today's unwanted
Abortion is morally akin to the Holocaust.
It has become a prevalent trend among anti-choice factions to equate
the legality of abortion to the atrocity of the Holocaust. This statement
is notable only for its shock value. To even remotely equate the
two, especially in such a cavalier manner, offends not only Jews but
everyone in society who is aware of the horrors of the Nazis. Rabbi
Balfour Brickner, of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York,
said, "The Holocaust stands alone....There are no legitimate or acceptable
Marlena Sobel, a recent graduate of Suffolk Law School in Boston,
was an intern at the Institute for First Amendment Studies last summer.
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