(Image provided by the “Life Begins at Conception” website)
Today in America, women’s control over their reproductive choices, and the availability of related medical services, is under sharp attack. Restrictive, controlling legislation is advanced by the religious right, the same people who say they oppose “big government” and its intervention in our lives, even in our health care decisions. But in the case of reproductive rights and obligations, they turn to government to impose their religious views on society.
This is no minor incursion on personal freedom: Reproductive decisions are basic to how people live their lives. Because I am not a woman, I cannot know the the heavy burden women face in deciding whether to use contraceptives, or to terminate a pregnancy. Men can and should, however, appreciate women’s concerns and burdens, and support them in making tough reproductive decisions. In the end, these are concerns men must also share with the women in their lives. Although throughout history many religions have done so and attempted to do so, no man or woman has the right to impose their religious views on others.
Conscience and Contraception
The recently defeated Blunt Amendment to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), which was prompted by (but not limited to) religious controversy over contraception, would have provided (emphasis added):
(6) RESPECTING RIGHTS OF CONSCIENCE WITH REGARD TO SPECIFIC ITEMS OR SERVICES:
(A) FOR HEALTH PLANS.—A health plan shall not be considered to have failed to provide [the required] essential health benefits package … or [required] preventive health services … [or] to fail to be a qualified health plan, or to fail to fulfill any other requirement under this title on the basis that it declines to provide coverage of specific items or services because:
(i) providing [or paying for] coverage … of such specific items
or services is contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the sponsor, issuer, or other entity offering the plan; or
(ii) such coverage (in the case of individual coverage) is contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the purchaser or beneficiary of the coverage.
(B) FOR HEALTH CARE PROVIDERS.— Nothing in this title (or any amendment made by this title) shall be construed to require an individual or institutional health care provider, or authorize a health plan to require a provider, to provide, participate in, or refer for a specific item or service contrary to the provider’s religious beliefs or moral convictions. … [A] health plan shall not be considered to have failed to provide timely or other access to items or services under this title (or any amendment made by this title) or to fulfill any other requirement under this title because it has respected the rights of conscience of such a provider pursuant to this paragraph.
The amendment was narrowly defeated last Thursday in the U.S. Senate by a 51-48 vote. “This is just the beginning,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said of the vote: “If the government is allowed to tell people to buy health care, it won’t stop there. I wonder what’s next? This isn’t about one particular religion — it’s about the right of any American to live out their faith without the government picking and choosing which doctrines they’re allowed to follow.”
The issues are undeniably religious, not medical or substantive, and this is the kind of convoluted logic attending the insertion of religion into government. McConnell has turned the issue on its head: People need medical and health care. But this isn’t about preserving the right of patients needing care to “live out their faith” without government intervention. It’s about government intervening to permit health care providers to “live out their faith” by denying the provision of needed services to patients. That’s a bogus concern for the providers, for only the interests of consenting patients are at stake, and they must be allowed to make their own moral decisions within the law.
As this war rages, New York has come out strongly on the side of protecting the health of women against any weakening of the quality of their medical care, even when the only issue involved from the insurer’s perspective may be cost. Health insurers have been warned that “they would lose state contracts if women on Medicaid are denied their choice of higher-cost, brand-name contraceptives unless cheaper, generic methods ‘fail first'”:
The move comes after the Associated Press reported Monday that some New York Medicaid patients were told they had to switch to lower-cost contraceptives unless the cheaper measures failed, resulting in pregnancy, bleeding or nausea.
There is no such concern for the health and welfare of women, however, in an “extended conscience clause” proposed in Nebraska, designed “to ensure that those in various medical fields, from doctors to pharmacists to health care providers and mental health professionals, have the ability to object to performing any action for a patient that they feel would go against their religious beliefs.”
Like the Blunt Amendment, this bill is not just about contraception. Such legislation removes all health care and medical treatment from the protection of the law, allowing unfettered denial of abortion services and associated treatment, or any other services, medications, and treatments. That is just wrong. People who enter health care professions cannot properly be given free reign, through the exercise of the trust society bestows on them and the powers inherent in their licensed professions, to impose their religious or moral beliefs on others. They are bound instead by the law.
In states where the religious right has gained control of legislatures, there is a rash of new legislation designed to discourage women from exercising their right to terminate pregnancy. The Virginia State Senate, for example, recently passed a bill requiring a mandatory “trans-abdominal” ultrasound procedure 24 hours prior to having an abortion, following the firestorm that erupted over an earlier bill requiring a “trans-vaginal” ultrasound procedure.
As reported by Nicholas D. Kristof, a recently effective Texas statute passed last year mandates this invasive trans-vaginal ultrasound procedure as a prerequisite to abortion. A federal judge stayed enforcement of the statute last August, but in January a three-judge panel in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the statute. Kristof reports:
Here’s what a woman in Texas now faces if she seeks an abortion: [S]he first must typically endure an ultrasound probe inserted into her vagina. Then she listens to the audio thumping of the fetal heartbeat and watches the fetus on an ultrasound screen.
She must listen to a doctor explain the body parts and internal organs of the fetus as they’re shown on the monitor. She signs a document saying that she understands all this, and it is placed in her medical files. Finally, she goes home and must wait 24 hours before returning to get the abortion. * * *
Twenty states now require abortion providers to conduct ultrasounds first in some situations, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization. The new Texas law is the most extreme to take effect so far, but similar laws have been passed in North Carolina and Oklahoma and are on hold pending legal battles.
As the Texas statute reads, any woman seeking an abortion must undergo the ultrasound procedure before she may sign the “voluntary and informed consent” to have an abortion. She then has the “option” to view printed materials, the sonogram images and the heartbeat, but she is required by law to “hear an explanation of the sonogram images” unless (a) she is pregnant as a result of rape or incest or other criminal violation, (b) she is a minor obtaining an abortion pursuant to “judicial bypass procedures,” or (c) her fetus has an “irreversible medical condition or abnormality.” The verbal explanation provided by the doctor who is to perform the abortion must cover “the results of the sonogram images, including a medical description of the dimensions of the embryo or fetus, the presence of cardiac activity, and the presence of external members and internal organs.”
Ironically, the invasive ultrasound procedure, when mandated, actually meets the Uniform Crime Report’s (UCR) definition of rape, namely, “penetration … of the vagina … with any … object … without the consent of the victim.” A woman forced to undergo this procedure could not be blamed for feeling violated. All women seeking an abortion in Texas must nonetheless undergo the procedure, even if they decline to view the printed materials or the sonograms (and if they are minors, pregnant as a result rape or incest, or have a fetus with a confirmed birth defect, even if they decline to hear the doctor’s explanation). It’s bizarre and improper to order such an invasive procedure when it is both medically unneeded and superfluous (because its results are going to be ignored).
Apart from its excessive invasiveness, moreover, such a test cannot reasonably be universally required of women not seeking the information it provides, given that women have a constitutionally protected right to obtain an abortion. In Roe v. Wade , the court held that although the states have an interest in protecting fetal life, that interest does not become compelling until a fetus is “viable,” a point placed at the start of the third trimester. The Texas statute, however, requires this procedure regardless of the stage of the pregnancy or of the presence of a heartbeat, external limbs, or internal organs — i.e., regardless of the viability of the fetus. The test must be performed even if its results would leave the doctor with little or nothing to explain.
Abortion and Religion
Statutes such as the Texas ultrasound statute, therefore, are not strictly attempts to protect viable fetal life on moral grounds, which would be valid under Roe v. Wade. They represent opposition to the termination of any pregnancy, even those in their earliest stages. Such opposition, which includes opposition to contraception that prevents implantation of a zygote in a womb, stems from the more fundamental religious tenet, now an anti-abortion mantra, that “life begins at conception.” In this circumstance, the moral concern is intertwined with supernatural beliefs.
In 1981, a Senate Judiciary Committee took medical testimony on the question of when human life begins. As Abort73.c0m proudly points out today, all of the testifying medical experts agreed that a new human life begins at conception. My wife Betty, who for many years was Director of Prenatal Diagnosis and the Cytogenetics Lab at Albany Medical Center, worked then for Dr. Ian Porter, a close friend of Dr. Hymie Gordon, a renowned pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. We watched Dr. Gordon on TV when he testified before this committee.
We were both stunned by this “hearing,” because it was a sham. It was not a fact-finding endeavor, and there was no factual controversy. It collected statements by “experts” attesting to a “fact” that was never in dispute. As reported by Abort73.com, here are some of the statements of the renowned MDs who testified:
“I have learned from my earliest medical education that human life begins at the time of conception.” – Dr. Alfred M. Bongioanni, Professor of Pediatrics and Obstetrics, University of Pennsylvania
“After fertilization has taken place a new human being has come into being. [It] is no longer a matter of taste or opinion…it is plain experimental evidence. Each individual has a very neat beginning, at conception.” – Dr. Jerome LeJeune, Professor of Genetics, University of Descartes
“By all the criteria of modern molecular biology, life is present from the moment of conception.” – Professor Hymie Gordon, Mayo Clinic
“The beginning of a single human life is from a biological point of view a simple and straightforward matter – the beginning is conception.” – Dr. Watson A. Bowes, University of Colorado Medical School
None of these experts was needed to inform the Judiciary Committee of something every high school biology student, indeed every eighth grade health class student, has learned as indisputable fact – that a “new human being” comes into genetic and biological existence when a sperm fertilizes an egg and a zygote is formed. No biological controversies were unveiled at this hearing about how, among bi-sexual species, procreation takes place. Dr. Gordon himself cleverly stated: “By all the criteria of modern molecular biology, life is present from the moment of conception.” But neither he, nor any of the others (despite some efforts to drum up the appearance of controversy) testified that “life” is absent from “living” organisms and their reproductive processes at other times:
No expert testified that ova and spermatozoa are “dead.”
To the best of my knowledge, none of these witnesses attached any special significance to the first few days of the pregnancy timeline when the fertilized egg moves to the uterus and implants. However, so far as I am aware, none of them denied that “life is a continuous process” (Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Müller), or that “in development, life is a continuum” (Jonathan Van Blerkom) (Princeton.edu); nor did any of them explain the significance of “life begins at conception” as as anything other than that “a new human embryo, the starting point for a human life, comes into existence with the formation of the one-celled zygote” (Princeton.edu).
It seemed clear to us that these hearings were held to find a “scientific” basis for opposing abortion, establishing that there is something about the moment of fertilization that infuses a zygote with a significance worthy of absolute protection, with a status sufficient to justify calling its termination “murder.” Such a significance, however, is not found in biological science. Rather, it attaches to a supernatural belief not discussed in this testimony, the belief that a “soul” of a human enters the zygote at the moment of conception. This is a metaphysical matter about which there can be no evidence in the fact-based world. Nor is there any reckoning even in the supernatural realm as to whether that “soul” begins at physical conception, or is drawn from a larger spiritual cloud of some sort, or is reincarnated from another being.
The details of the origins of biological life on Earth are controversial too, but as to that issue science may rely on physical evidence. The world of science is in agreement that life has been around on Earth for over 3.5 billion years, and that over that time life has changed (evolved). I often wonder, when I visit the Grand Canyon, or Arches National Park, or any of a number of other places where the evidence of natural change is so abundant, what people who believe the Earth was created six thousand or so years ago see when they are at these same locations, and how they explain what they are seeing.
We see the world differently, them and I. Physical, biological life in the fact-based world of my reality is a continuous process, never intersecting with the fundamentalist religious world and its supernatural processes which, like the natural world, are conceptually without beginning or end.
Just as the moment of conception is paramount for the religious right, I find the viability of a fetus a more compelling fact in the abortion debate, as did a majority of the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. But my views about fetal protection are unimportant: Fetuses grow in women’s bodies and it is the right and the responsibility of women to make the tough decisions regarding their pregnancies. At some point in its development, a fetus obtains the right to independent protection, a right that may take precedence over the interests (though not, in my view, the life) of the mother. Religious, supernatural views are really unimportant as well: Ironically, the emotional anti-abortion sentiment stirred up by lifebeginsatconception.com focuses on childbirth and near-childbirth situations, not circumstances existing at the time of conception.
What the anti-abortion point of view boils down to, in my opinion, is a choice of priorities. The anti-abortion viewpoint makes the non-physical “spirit” world its ultimate priority. Ironically, once a person’s “soul” leaves the womb (through birth) its body somehow loses its importance to these people; the interest of religious fundamentalists in the quality of human life appears to decline precipitously after childbirth.
These ultra-right-wing radicals who strive to control women’s bodies and their reproductive decisions seem generally to have little interest in the real, physical world and environmental and human health. I was sickened in 2010 during the health care debate when a busload of tea party protesters came to my town to boo and shout down people who were relating their personal struggles with cancer and other serious health issues. There may as well be a strong correlation between religious fundamentalists and people disinclined to consider scientific evidence on issues such as ecology and climate change.
Are such people the same ones who oppose all abortion and insist that “life” begins at conception? If so, their attention to scientific detail is selective, and their world of supernatural beliefs is uncompromising. For such people, there may be much truth to the quip: “Life begins at conception, and ends at birth.” We must carefully guard against allowing such people to gain control over the lives of others and impose their views on those who disagree with them.
JMH – 3/6/12 (rev. 3/7/12)
(Return to the Contents Topics page.)