The Bush administration is scrambling to issue a number of
anti-abortion rights executive orders before leaving office. This is of
course just a tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the hostile
actions that the current administration has taken to make choice and
family planning harder for women and families throughout the country.
The mainstream media and politicians — including President Elect
Barack Obama — have presented abortion as an issue on which the
country is evenly divided between two camps — pro-life and pro-choice
— and the only way to deal with the issue is to come up with a grand
compromise. However, a thorough analysis of the two platforms
demonstrates that the pro-choice stance is the compromise position and
the next administration must not negotiate away abortion rights.
One can explore this reality by looking at the specific list of
choice-related issues that the Obama administration will face, and why
he must support the pro-choice stance on them. The questions that the
next administration has to answer are as follows:
-Whether to reverse Bush’s newly implemented "Right of Conscience" view.
-Whether to overturn regulations such as one that makes fetuses
eligible for health-care coverage under the Children’s Health Insurance
-Whether to cut funding for sexual abstinence programs, and whether to
increase funding for comprehensive sex education programs that include
discussion of birth control.
-Whether to allow federal health plans to pay for abortions.
But at the heart of these questions and the Supreme Court’s decision
on Roe v. Wade that started this 3-decade long debate on abortion is a
central question: Is a fetus a human being?
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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If it is, it must possess all the characteristics of a human being, not
the least of which is independent biological viability. Merriam-Webster
defines viable as "capable of existence and development as an
independent unit." According to The Endowment for Human Development, by
21-22 weeks (5 months and one week) after fertilization, the fetus’s
lungs gain some ability to breathe air, and this is considered the age of viability
as "survival outside of the womb becomes possible for some fetuses."
However, the fetus’s dependence on the umbilical cord continues well
into the third trimester of the pregnancy. While there may be other
elements on which one can rely to determine the viability of a fetus,
the concept of independent viability remains the central characteristic
of any living organism, including human beings.
Science clearly establishes that an unborn or unhatched vertebrate
cannot be considered to be a human even after attaining the basic
structural plan of its kind – hence the term "fetus" to refer to all
vertebrates at this stage. However, there continue to be millions of
Americans who — because of their church’s teachings, genuine belief or
as an excuse to control women’s health decisions – matter-of-factly
claim that a fetus is a human being while relying on no scientific or
But even if one allows for some subjective discretion in defining
the point at which a fetus turns into a human, the pro-choice position
(one taken by the Supreme Court during Roe v. Wade
in 1973) presents itself not as the liberal position, but the
compromise position. What’s important to note about the ruling is that
while it did not declare abortion unconstitutional or force the
viewpoint of the anti-choice camp over the pro-choice camp, it also did
not force anti-choice Americans to accept the biological and scientific
definition of what constitutes a human being. The ruling rather allowed
those who believe a fetus is a human being to keep their fetuses and
carry their offspring and those who believe a fetus is not a human
being to choose whether they are socially, economically and emotionally
ready to have a child.
But that was not good enough for most ardent anti-choice advocates.
Since 1973, they have organized themselves around the ultimate goal of
overturning Roe v. Wade and force their nonscientific and subjective
definition of human being on everyone else. But in the mean time, they
have also done what they could to make getting abortion as difficult as
possible for women. Their efforts have ranged from violent means —
including bombing abortion clinics and killing doctors that perform
abortions (ironic since the criminals commit this in the name of saving
"life") — to lobbying state and federal governments to take
legislative and executive action to limit the accessibility of
abortion. They use sensational language in making their arguments —
such as calling pro-choice citizens "murderers" and showing graphic
images of abortion procedures to appeal to people’s emotions so they no
longer have to argue their point based on logic.
So how should President Elect Obama address the questions above in
the context of existing national debate on abortion? Let’s review the
questions in greater detail.
Should Obama reverse Bush’s newly implemented "Right of Conscience" view?
In the eleventh hour of his lame duck presidency, George Bush is trying
to establish a "Right of Conscience," allowing medical practitioners
and staff to refuse to participate in any practice they object to on
moral grounds, including abortion, birth control and other health care
as well. But think about the implication of opening the door of having
the doctors decide what operations to conduct and what not to conduct
based on personal moral beliefs; where would it stop? What if a doctor
decides that heart transplants are immoral? Should she be allowed to
willfully allow the patient to die? What if a doctor believes
delivering a child is immoral because the world is over-populated, or
that as long as gays do not have the right to marry and adopt children,
justice is best served by preventing everyone from having children?
Would these anti-choice advocates be willing to accept the risk that
this doctor may be the only doctor on call when they take their
pregnant loved one to hospital? The fact is that anti-choice advocates
only wish to defend a doctor’s "right" to refuse service based on moral
objections if those objections fall in line with their anti-choice
The United States is a country of laws. One cannot drive through a
red light if one morally opposes traffic lights because the laws are
not written only to protect she who must follow it, but protect others
from her actions. For the same reason, doctors are not legislators and
have no right to impose their subjective moral view on everyone else.
If a physician believes that his career choice forces him to compromise
his moral beliefs, they are free to pursue other career options. Or
alternatively, he can try to lobby the Congress or the American public
to change the laws he opposes. But those physicians who decide to
remain in the field must be legally obligated to follow the laws,
whether they like it or not. The "Right of Conscience" view is an
action that President Elect Obama needs to reverse immediately after
Should Obama overturn regulations such as one that makes
fetuses eligible for health-care coverage under the Children’s Health
In order for one to be a child, one has to be a human being, and human
beings are biologically independent and viable organisms, which fetuses
are not. Therefore based on the discussion above, a fetus cannot be
considered a child, and therefore should not be eligible for coverage
under federal health insurance programs. And it is quite ironic that
the Bush administration is interested in simultaneously blocking the
passage of Children’s Health Insurance Program and advocating for
coverage of fetuses under the program. President Elect Obama cannot
allow anti-choice advocates to play politics with important programs
and reignite the social culture wars of the past in order to make
statements and advance their narrow agenda.
Men’s Rights in Abortion
It is important to discuss one aspect of abortion that President Elect
Obama must bring into the national dialogue, and that involves a
situation in which the right of a man must be protected. Pro-choice
advocates rightly point out that as long as a fetus is not biologically
viable, the woman carrying the fetus must have the exclusive right to
decide whether or not to carry her pregnancy. If both the man and woman
agree on whether to have the baby, there is no complication in the
decision-making. If the man wants the baby but the woman does not, the
man must respect the decision of the woman. But what if a married woman
decides to have the baby after finding out about her pregnancy, but her
husband does not? Should a man be forced to fulfill child support and
maintenance obligations for the child as required under Family Law?
While the right to decide whether or not to have a baby exclusively
belongs to the woman, the man should have the legal right within the
first few months of the woman’s pregnancy to choose and declare whether
or not he accepts the financial obligations as they are required of the
father under Family Law.
Should Obama cut funding for sexual abstinence programs and
increase funding for comprehensive sex education programs that include
discussion of birth control?
The goal of sexual abstinence program is to educate young people about
how to prevent unwanted pregnancy and avoid sexually transmitted
diseases (STDs). For that reason, teachers cannot teach their students
that abstinence is the only way to prevent unwanted pregnancy, because
it is not. There are many ways to have control over whether and when to
have a child, including contraception, safe sex practices, sexual
orientation and abortion. While the most comprehensive research done
on the impact of abstinence-only programs showed that they had no
visible impact in terms of delaying a teenager’s sexual activities,
latest data shows that nearly $175 million
of federal spending continues to go into these programs every year. In
comparison, teen pregnancy in the United States continues to be twice that in many European countries where comprehensive sex education is a core part of the public school curriculum. In the meantime, more than 8 out of 10 Americans
support education of both abstinence and other methods to prevent
unwanted pregnancy and STDs. As part of his short-term agenda,
President Elect Obama must push for the channeling of nearly all
abstinence-only education funding to comprehensive programs that have
both the support of the American public and have proven to be more
Should Obama allow federal health plans to pay for abortions?
Even President Clinton who supported the right to choose did not allow
any federal funds to be used to cover abortion costs. His argument was
that he did not want to use federal funds that had come not just from
pro-choice citizens, but anti-choice ones as well, toward an operation
that did not have the moral support of all citizens. While the argument
sounds reasonable, one cannot help but wonder why Presidents who use
these arguments do not apply the same logic to other policies of the
federal government. It is safe to say that most of the tax-paying
citizens in this country have a moral objection to the continuation of
the Iraq War. So why should they be forced to continue to support this
war through their taxes (which by the way is leading to the killing of
actual human beings)? The notion that anti-choice citizens should have
the right not to have their taxes used under state and federal programs
for an operation that is as legal and legitimate as any has no logical
justification. President Elect Obama must make sure that as long as
abortion remains legal, women have access to it. But as for any other
operation, limits should be placed to prevent abuse.
President Elect Obama has presented himself as a president ready to
compromise on important issues. But as he proceeds through the first
few months of his presidency, he cannot treat abortion as another issue
on which to negotiate. Instead, he has a unique opportunity to use his
political capital to fundamentally reframe the debate and permanently
establish one important fact: abortion is as legal and legitimate of a
medical operation as any, and the government needs to do what it can to
help women get educated about it and have easy and safe access to it.
This post first appeared on The Huffington Post.