I am not a likely candidate to agree with anything the Taliban wing of the Republican party has to say about any aspect of reproduction. I support Planned Parenthood and have worked in abortion care, for Pete's sake (as Romney might say). And yet I find that I cannot prevent myself from agreeing with one particular wingnut talking point. For more, please follow me below the orange Fallopian tubes.....

I consider myself an "aspirational Buddhist". By that I mean that Buddhist is what I would choose to be, if I was willing to do the actual work involved in learning about and practicing a religion. In particular, I am drawn to the idea that all living things have moral value (spiritual value?) deserving of our respect and consideration. I believe that includes animals, plants, and yes, human zygotes.

On a trip to Bhutan (in the Himalayas), I was surprised to learn that Buddhists are not necessarily vegetarians. There is very little land in mountainous regions suitable for growing crops. So animals that can graze in the mountains are an important food source. Unless you are able to import food from elsewhere, it may not be practical to be a strict vegetarian. So it's rationalized on some level to eat meat.

On the Indian leg of the same trip, I was also surprised to learn that some Jains (practitioners of Jainism) don't eat root vegetables because it ends the life of the plant. Apples are ok, but not potatoes. There are also Jains who wear a cloth over their mouth and nose to avoid accidentally inhaling, and thus annihilating, teeny insects. For some reason antibiotics are ok, even though they end the "life" of bacteria. (maybe because the Janes' beliefs developed before microbes were discovered, and failed to evolve to include them?)

So what's the overall pattern, and how can it help us to discuss abortion? I think there are two points - first, intent matters. And second, circumstances matter.

If I end the life of a goat or a potato plant by eating it, it is not my primary goal to harm those living things. The same is true if I take antibiotics or spray Raid under my sink. All of those actions end existence that has moral value. But ending that existence is not my primary goal. My goal is to protect my own well-being. Perhaps I am morally required to be mindful that I am harming the potato plant or E. Coli. But few would argue that I am required to die, or even to be mildly inconvenienced.

The material that becomes an individual human life is "alive", it exists, and I believe it  has moral value. That existance, and that moral value, can be viewed as starting as long ago as thousands of years. That is when the mitochondrial DNA in every one of our cells was formed. It is passed down from mother to daughter interrupted only by mutations. Or perhaps we can say that an individual human life begins when the egg that will be fertilized to become that individual is formed. That would be when your grandmother was about half way through the pregnancy with your mother. It would be utterly arbitrary to say that there is no life until that egg meets a sperm. There is already "life", and some sort of moral value there. But I do think that it has an increase after it meets a sperm. And here I agree with the Rick Santorums of the world - I believe that the moral value of a fertilized egg is independent of whether that life began as a result of rape, or incest, and even whether or not it threatens the life of the mother. The moral value, or "beingness" of a living thing, is intrinsic to that thing. It is dependent on that thing's sentience, self-awareness, complexity, but not in how it came to be or where it is. A zygote in the uterus has the exact same moral value as one in a petri dish or one about to rupture thru a woman's Fallopian tube in an ectopic pregnancy.

So how can we take our beliefs about the moral value of various living things and apply them? Here is we get to the other point - circumstances matter. That's where I diverge from the wingnuts. Rape, incest, life of the mother, poverty, hardship are all cirmstances, and they matter. We can acknowledge the moral value of  a living thing, but also see that the interests of that living thing may be trumped by circumstances. Even in the strictest Catholic hospital, a woman is not required to die so that a tubal pregancy can have its full allotment of days of "life". I would argue that she is not required to endure hardship either. Not because a zygote lacks moral value; we can admit that it has that. But because the moral value is very low, and easily trumped by circumstances.

I think those of us who favor abortion rights are missing an opportunity by ceding the "right to life" aspect of it to those who are opposed. I think we can acknowledge that zygotes and cows and potatoes all have a "life" and still be in favor of giving stronger weight to other considerations.

(Edited to fix spelling of "Jains")

Originally posted to blueisland on Thu Nov 01, 2012 at 04:22 PM PDT.

Also republished by Anglican Kossacks, Abortion, and Pro Choice.

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