Beer, Nachos, and Talking Abortion

I went out for a drink last night with the Indian and the Greek. I could label them according to their professions, but they’re both engineers working at the same company, so that doesn’t work. Both are good friends, one for a few years now and the other one, hard to believe, going on twenty years. They’re ordinary guys like me, married with two children each, and once in a while we just like to take a break from our busy lives and have some quality time together at a bar. It’s a bar I frequented half my life ago as a single man, taking the time to groom myself so I could look cool drinking a Molson Dry. The glories of being older and married have afforded me the wisdom and confidence of not giving a crap what I look like when I go to a bar; in other words, it’s a lot more enjoyable now.

As my friends poured hot sauce on their nachos, I shared a cold pitcher with one friend while the other tried a blue concoction called a “Jackarita” that had mango in it. When we pressed the waitress to explain where the mango was, she told us “that’s what makes it blue.”

As usual, our conversation ran the gamut of the usual stuff: our hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens, losing badly to the Flyers, our families and the joys and occasional hardships of parenting, the Flintstones and other favourite TV shows, and at least one human rights issue that we typically don’t agree on. And when I say “typically don’t agree on” it’s by no means meant in a bad way. Like No. 5 in my list above (see the photo above with the hat and the Air France menu card), “Respect other people’s opinions, but don’t be afraid to challenge them.”

The human rights issue that took centre stage last night was abortion. I can’t even remember how we got started on the subject. I’m pro-choice: I believe a woman has the right to decide what to do with her body, and if that means have an abortion, then she has the right to do so. I do not think that abortion is a viable form of birth control; if a woman wants that, she should think of other options, from contraceptives like the pill to condoms to spermicidal foam and others. It’s not a decision that can be made exclusively by the woman, either, since doctors make the call whether or not an abortion can be safely done.

The arguments and rhetoric on either side of the debate, from pro-choice to pro-life, range from reasonable and thought-provoking to emotionally-charged, nasty and downright irrational. Thankfully I listened to the former type of reasoning last night. One friend spoke up and said that, after thinking about it for a long time, he finally decided that he was against abortion. His argument was that there has never been complete agreement on when life begins, so it was safe to assume that life begins when the egg becomes fertilized. Nowadays with advances in science, he continued, it’s hard to say when precisely a foetus becomes a human being. My other friend vehemently agreed on this, noting that his first child was born in vitro. That friend, however, admitted that when abortion should be permitted is not clearly defined and in many cases depends on the situation. If a woman’s life is in danger, or if she’s been the victim of a rape, then yes, abortion is all right, but abortion should not be used as a means of contraception.

So among the three of us we had three differing opinions: pro-life, pro-choice, and it depends. It’s a relatively accurate reflection of the way Canadians feel about the issue. A recent EKOS poll from April 2010 shows that slightly over half of Canadians favour abortion (52%), 27% pro-choice, 10% neither, and 11% who did not know or did not respond. These figures (see summary report here) have remained consistent over the past decade. As for when legal protection for human life should begin, another survey concluded the following: “a total of almost six in ten say from conception on (28%), after three months of pregnancy (20%) or after six months of pregnancy (9%). One-third of Canadians (33%) think human life should receive legal protection only from the point of birth. Ten percent offer no opinion on this question.”

The discussion last night and reading these reports has provided me with a clearer understanding of issues regarding abortion, but as usual, not much clearer direction on my opinions of it. A helpful quote from the first report notes a distinction on Canadians’ different perceptions of abortion as a moral issue and a political one:

“The abortion issue has also come up lately as an indicator of Canadians’ ideological direction,” said EKOS President Frank Graves. “A recent study commissioned by the Manning Centre suggested that most Canadians believe abortion is morally wrong. That may be true as a matter of personal moral values. However, as a political matter – whether abortion should be permitted for those who choose – the evidence is that Canadians are decisively pro-choice.”

Reading that affirmed my own thinking on the matter. As a pro-choice advocate, I have maintained the importance of giving the woman the ultimate decision on having an abortion or not, but I admit that the fuzziness of the stages of development lend themselves to ambiguity. When indeed does a life begin? Who is the “everyone” in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”? Just look at some of the stages of life and see how muddy the issue is. Does life begin at…
  • Conception, when the egg is fertilized
  • Implantation, when the egg is implanted in the womb
  • “Quickening”: when the foetus first moves in the womb
  • Aristotle’s theory, which is absurdly taken as 40 days for males and 90 days for females. Ok, so he had other, smarter contributions to our lives, but let’s forget this one.
  • Tissue separation, when the tissues in the foetus separate into different types
  • Brain activity
  • Viability of the foetus, when the foetus can live outside the womb
  • Birth

The BBC gave me that list. Slightly more helpful than “Each spermatozoon contains human DNA. They certainly appear to be living organisms. As seen in a microscope, they seem to be moving energetically with the sole motivation of fusing with an ovum,” from Religious Tolerance. The BBC site ends by mentioning a vagueness in the debate as a possible alternative to fixing a precise point: “Although it’s uncomfortable to be so imprecise, the right answer may lie in accepting that there are degrees of right to life, and the foetus gets a stronger right to life as it develops.”

In many instances, though, I don’t think it comes down to a legal or scientific matter, but most often life circumstances that have, for whatever reason, placed a woman (or a girl) in a position where she does not want to have a child. And if a woman wants an abortion, there are always ways for it to happen (safely or, regrettably, otherwise). Just read this article about an abortion clinic in South Africa that undertakes 20 abortions a week. Here’s the case of a 19-year old student who came to the clinic to abort:

“I’m still studying,” the attractive young woman, dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt, said. “I also thought of the challenges that come with being a young mother, so I believe doing this is in my best interest. And if my parents knew I was pregnant, I would have had to drop out of school.”

A pro-choice advocate would look at this case and agree with the young woman’s choice; a pro-life advocate might encourage her to keep the baby to term and give the baby up for adoption. Either option leaves the young woman emotionally wrought and could potentially ruin her relationship with her family. (She eventually got a safe abortion.) In any case where a woman anguishes over the decision to have (or to not have) an abortion, the emotional consequences are undoubtedly profound. It’s easy to say “I’m pro-choice,” but to face a situation where I choose an abortion, I doubt my conscience would be at ease with the decision I make.

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