June 1, 2009

In the Mind of a Killer

Posted in Global discourse, Medical matters tagged , , , , , , , at 4:33 pm by Maggie Clark

What must it be like to live in a world where cold-blooded killers are allowed to walk the streets — where their right to kill is even entrenched in state law, and half the population supports that same purported right to take life after innocent life?

Ever since word of Dr. George Tiller’s assassination — shot in his church for performing abortions late in pregnancy — by one Scott Roeder, I’ve been asking myself this question, trying to grasp what life must be like for those who believe that a genocide is occurring throughout the world, targeting perhaps the most helpless portion of the population to date. All unborn children are crying out to be let live, the argument goes, and yet either misguided or malicious women are permitted to murder these innocents out of selfishness — aided in no small part by cold-blooded killers like Dr. George Tiller and the soulless liberal leadership that permits his kind.

What a black-and-white outlook this is on the many complexities of abortion — both its existence, and the often surprising reality of what life without state-sanctioned abortion would look like. And yet, what would you do, if you were told to think calmly and rationally about the grey areas involved in the mass murder of Jews, alongside the Roma and homosexuals, during the Holocaust of World War II? What about the slaughter of Tutsi Rwandans in 1994, or of the Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) in 1995, or of the Sudanese today in Darfur? Would you humour even for a heartbeat the notion that you have no right to stop a crime against humanity, if you could; that you just have to hope Nazi, or Hutu, or Bosnian Serb, or Janjaweed forces make the right decision and cease their slaughter of innocents?

If this is what so many pro-lifers, like the one who took Dr. Tiller’s life, believe, I can’t help but feel an immense sadness for them: what a world without representation they must feel they live in. How on earth can you discuss what makes abortion different from these “post-birth” massacres with a group of people who perceive the death of an unborn child as being equivalent to the execution of a concentration camp inmate? And furthermore, how do you use such argumentation to make extreme reactions, like the taking of one life in the hope of saving thousands of unborn ones, a thing of the past?

The really tragic part, though, comes from the reality that no one of sound mind takes delight in the process of ending life — because whatever term we use, what grows in a woman’s stomach after conception is life; and human life at that. Our differences arise solely from debating its personhood, and subsequent right to life therein. So really, there are two classes of anti-abortionism at work here: those against the legality of it, and those who wish we lived in a world where no abortions were necessary, ever. And f you took a poll, I think you’d find pro-choicers and pro-lifers alike wishing that the latter option were a reality.

This is not, however, that world. Granted, it’s filled with a lot of interesting twists and turns — like our collective discomfort with the fact that preemie babies are surviving and thriving at earlier and earlier stages in the pregnancy; or that studies note “forebrain” activity is possible to limited degrees in the last six weeks of gestation. These are twists that often make even members of the pro-choice camp nervous about the legality of late-term abortions, and where a line should be drawn on the rights of a gestating human. This discomfort even goes so far as to create its own arbitrary lines in the sand about when abortion should be legal — 12 weeks and under, 24 weeks and under; or simply, in the case of Dr. Tiller’s late term practice, abiding by the Kansas law that permits late-term abortions of “fetuses that would be viable outside the mother’s womb, but only if two independent doctors agree that not to do so would put the mother at risk of irreparable harm by giving birth” (from The Guardian).

But ultimately these lines in the sand, and how we draw them, are just that: twists, and turns. Underscoring the entire, ceaselessly nuanced debate about how to create fair and effective abortion law exists, however, two cold, hard facts:

1) We all want far fewer abortions; and

2) The legality or illegality of abortion does not change the actual abortion rate — only the number of unsafe abortions, and thus the number of women who die right along with those unborn children.

If we really were to get into debate here, I’d also bring up the fact that Plan B (an abortifacient most effective if taken up to 72 hours after intercourse), first introduced in the U.S. in 1999, has had a sizable concrete impact on clinical abortion numbers, and so indicates the power of early education, access to options, and personal choice to mitigate those uncomfortable late term abortion rates — but of course, this too deviates in part from those aforementioned facts.

Those two facts, taken in conjunction with one another, create an insightful context for that perception of fetal genocide among those who want abortion banned: In their reaction to the fact of abortion’s existence, they regard a criminal ban on such procedures as a means by which to eliminate abortion’s underlying existence. If something is bad, in other words, making it illegal must surely be the only ethical response. Some, like Dr. Tiller’s murderer, then go one further — clearly believing that a life must sometimes be taken to spare “innocent” ones: that social ethics invariably demands that all who take innocent life must be stopped at any cost. And they are condemned for this, yes — even among fellow pro-lifers.

Nevertheless, it’s not much of a stretch to say that all who seek to make abortion illegal believe that by eliminating access to legal abortion, the sad fact of abortion’s existence can somehow be reduced. And they believe this to such a vehemently moral extent that the concrete details of implementation often fall to the wayside — how else, after all, does one account for videos like this one, which asks protesters seeking to ban abortion what the subsequent punishment should be for women who then break the law, and receives no clear response?

This, then, is where the real discourse between warring camps needs to be made. Shouting about women’s rights (despite their importance; despite their relevance) only triggers counterarguments about possible rights for the unborn child, and from there a back-and-forth tirade about disputed figures and semantics invariably emerges. But accepting, embracing, and welcoming the grief that accompanies abortion’s existence? Saying to an anti-abortionist, “Yes, I also think it’s awful that we have abortion in the world; and that’s why I’m in favour of its legalization — as part of the development of a society that empowers women with choice and information long before their personal situation ever gets to that stage”?

I am by few means an idealistic person, but I do believe that if we on the side of the debate who do not perceive an institutionalized genocide all around us could just pause for a moment, to understand what it must feel like for those who every day do — and then respect those emotions enough to relate, in turn, our own, shared love for life and sadness at the imperfections in the world around us — we might actually realize a measure of harmony (never peace) in this debate which has for so long, and in so many ways, polarized even the best of us.

That’s the hope, at least, I choose to bear.