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Religious conservatives, or at least the loud ones, reject the argument of a woman’s right to choose an abortion, because what is at stake isn’t merely choice, but also life. Yet many times, abortion is the only moral choice.  Not because it's "a woman's right to choose," but because — as both a personal choice and a social imperative — human life comes through the quality of life, not merely the quantity. There is a natural continuum, from simpler to more complex life, and a look at some of our behavior shows that we seem to know the difference intuitively.

At one end of the continuum are bacteria, which were the only form of life on earth for two billion years. They can, in ideal conditions reproduce — double their numbers — every fifteen to twenty minutes.  Their growth is exponential.  Taking the more conservative reproduction time of twenty minutes, this means that, under ideal conditions, one bacterium can produce 1072 bacteria in 24 hours.  For comparison, some scientists have estimated that the total number of atoms in the visible universe is between 1078 and 1080.  That lone bacterium can produce 1081 bacteria — more than the estimated number of atoms in the visible universe — in just 27 hours. Luckily, the conditions are nowhere close to ideal for bacteria.  

Animal rights movements are explicitly about honoring the quality of life for animals.  This means it is ethically, morally wrong – the animal rights activists say – to put these animals in zoos, use them for medical experiments, or stage fights where they kill one another for our entertainment (think Michael Vick).  Ethologists have produced copious observations, some available in clips on YouTube, showing that animals are capable of suffering, compassionate behavior, grieving — and some animals, from magpies and foxes to elephants, have been observed "burying" their dead, under dirt or tall grasses.  

Within our own species, we like to think we've reached the pinnacle: homo sapiens as the life form capable of the highest and most nuanced quality of life on the planet.  And most of us believe that conditions which make it impossible or highly unlikely that a human can ever achieve the quality of life of which they're capable aren't just "social problems": they are immoral; they are evil.  That's why we opposed slavery, finally gave women the right to vote, still struggle to be racially color-blind, and are beginning to understand that two people who love each other and want to make their commitment public should be encouraged -- not just permitted -- to marry, regardless of their sexual orientation.  

We try to eliminate the obstacles to more complex species' attaining the highest quality of life because these obstacles are, for these species, anti-life.  It's why we have stressed free public education, Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security, and why some other – perhaps more caring – developed nations provide health care, even free college.  We are at the opposite end of the spectrum from bacteria.

For humans, one of the cruelest obstacles to ever attaining the quality of life that can fulfill our potential is too much quantity of life.  Just see photos of the Favelas in Brazil, the slums in any major city, the people standing at intersections, begging for their day's food.  Or see the tragedy of a fifteen-year-old girl with two children, pregnant again.  One of the primary enemies of the quality of human life is too many children for mothers, too many people to stack up anywhere but in slums, too many illiterate and unskilled people because they must use all their energy merely to survive. For bacteria, as far as we can tell (or care), quantity of life is what it’s about. For human beings, quantity can easily kill quality.

This is why a safe abortion is often the only moral choice.  Sex education could help tremendously, as could an economy that would take care of "the least among us," in the phrase attributed to Jesus.  When cities like Rio de Janeiro, New York, Chicago, Calcutta and a thousand more show that overpopulation has metastasized into slums, quantity of life is killing quality of life.  Scenes of a Pope addressing millions of poor and desperate people in Mexico City, telling them they must not use birth control – this is profound ignorance, but also profound evil.  When children are having children and can't provide either for themselves or for their offspring, quantity of life is killing quality of life.  And that is not just ugly; it's evil.  

Nor could adoption solve this moral problem: first, because there aren’t enough people willing to adopt the number of uncared-for children in the world.  But secondly, because it would turn poor women into de facto breeding stock for wealthier people.  If we can’t care for the people already suffering, we have no moral right to set up systems guaranteeing to bring more into the world.  The anti-abortion laws in some religions and countries are such systems.  They harm people by not understanding that in all species we think of as "higher" — and certainly in our own species — worshiping the quantity of life kills the chance for the quality of life humans deserve.

This argument -- that conditions preventing quality of life are evil and must be opposed by all moral people and institutions -- was first and best framed by Pope Leo XIII in one of the most justly famous Catholic papal encyclicals in history: the Rerum Novarum of 1891.  There, he was dealing with the widespread use of child labor, which forced people to live like "brutes" without the resources to rise above that low quality of life.  That brilliant encyclical helped stop the use of child labor in many countries.  In 1891, Pope Leo XIII didn't imagine that overpopulation -- more children than a mother, a city or a nation can support -- would become one of the most brutal and deadly impediments to humans living the quality of life for which they were created (or, which they reached through evolution).  

Conservatives are right in saying that abortion must be seen as a moral issue, not merely "a woman’s right to choose."  But in that moral issue, they have chosen the wrong side.

Originally posted to DavidsonLoehr on Thu Sep 30, 2010 at 03:30 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  One thing: (4+ / 0-)

    Not only because it's "a woman's right to choose," but because — as both a personal choice and a social imperative — human life comes through the quality of life, not merely the quantity.

    There. Fixed it for you.

    "We have to remember that Timothy McVeigh was a tea-partier before his time." -- Kossack ccyd

    by Sharoney on Thu Sep 30, 2010 at 03:36:53 PM PDT

  •  Your exponents didn't come out right (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Woody, Ice Blue, jimraff, CherryTheTart

    But I agree with your sentiments.  Abortion is a GOOD thing.

    America, we can do better than this...

    by Randomfactor on Thu Sep 30, 2010 at 03:40:13 PM PDT

    •  nor the math (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      jimraff, NY brit expat

      Bacteria who double every 20 min go though 24*3=72 doubling in 24 hours. That is 2^72. 2^10 ~ 10^3, so you get about 4x10^21 bacterium under ideal conditions. It would take almost 4 days to get one bacterium per atom assuming infinite space and food.

      •  Those esponential bacteria (0+ / 0-)

        The superscripts got dropped in DailyKos's software.  But I've read scientific papers claiming that in four days, the bacterium would produce 10 to the 266th power, which was more than the total of atoms theorized to be in the visible unniverse.  When I cross checked it, I found what looked like a consensus tha the total number of atoms in the visible universe are between 10 to the 78th power, or 10 to the 80th power.  Online sources that seemed reputable claimed that range of 10 to the 78th — 10 to the 80th.  I did the math on the bacteria doubling every 20 minutes to get the figure of 10 to the 81st power in 27 hours.

        Math and I have only a passing acquaintence,so If I got something wrong, please explain & teach me?  Thanks for the comment.

  •  A women's right to choose (12+ / 0-)

    whether or not to have children, how many to have, when to have them or not is already a moral choice based upon the right of property in ones own person; there is no reason to add a neo-Malthusian imperative to this discussion. Is it poverty that causes overpopulation or overpopulation that causes poverty? All evidence is that it is the former; getting people out of poverty will lower birth rates. Why not fight for higher wages, income, education and access to reproductive control for moral reasons rather than raise the danger of the poor overpopulating the planet? No one tries to do this action against wealthier people.

    Arguments like these wind up with people forcing the poor onto contraceptives that take their choices whether to have children or not out of their control; this leads to sterilization abuse and justifications for linking state assistance to contraceptive use or sterilizations.

    Why place it in the context of the poor breeding too much, reproductive choice is a human right; human rights are already moral issues. It is far more interesting that they oppose fully implementing the Declaration of Human Rights.

    No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable (Adam Smith, 1776, I, p. 96).

    by NY brit expat on Thu Sep 30, 2010 at 03:47:27 PM PDT

    •  Excellent point - and thanks for making me (6+ / 0-)

      reread the diary with the focus on the poor in mind. I tend to view abortion in light of the quality of life, which the diarist highlighted in the first paragraph, and which can have implications for anyone, rich or poor. For me, it all boils down to whether or not a woman is the mistress of her soul, body, and life reagrdless of her position in society.

      A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. -Greek proverb

      by marleycat on Thu Sep 30, 2010 at 04:02:46 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  This simply infuriates me, human rights are (5+ / 0-)

        moral issues, they are fundamental moral rights, why give credence to a neo-Malthusian argument, that position is a very dangerous and erroneous argument. This is a pet peeve of mine and I actually wrote something on this exact point:

        No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable (Adam Smith, 1776, I, p. 96).

        by NY brit expat on Thu Sep 30, 2010 at 04:32:28 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Yes, thank you NY brit expat (5+ / 0-)

          A Quaker testimony I once read said that the only moral solutions to the problem of overpopulation are ones we wouldn't mind enforcing on ourselves.

          Would I want to be the fifteen-year-old girl in the slums saved by the miracle of abortion on demand? No! I'd want to be the fifteen-year-old girl saved by the right to choose my own sex partners and control my own fertility. With enough resources to raise the children I do want free from disease or hunger. Yes, abortion should be my right because there's nothing closer to sacred than the right to control my own body.

          But abortion for population control? That's just layers and layers of wrong.

          •  these arguments really scare me, they are (4+ / 0-)

            invariably used against the poor and these are primarily people of colour; the link between Malthusian (conservative) arguments, neo-Malthusian (liberal), social darwinism and eugenics are too strong and have had horrible impacts on humanity. We need to support human rights as a form of morality and not fall into the trap of population control arguments.

            No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable (Adam Smith, 1776, I, p. 96).

            by NY brit expat on Thu Sep 30, 2010 at 06:19:23 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  There are Roman Catholics (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Woody, Toon, marleycat

    who follow up with the insights from your last paragraph to a pro-choice position.  The clearest exposition is probably A Brief, Liberal Catholic Defense of Abortion by Daniel Dombrowski and Robert Deltete.

    The argument that abortion rights are consistent with our innate valuing of more complex forms of life was made by the philosopher Charles Hartshorne in Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, one of the central texts of process theology. (Process theology comes mostly out of liberal Protestant traditions, but some Catholic theologians use it, too).

  •  Very thoughtful. Of couse you are preaching (4+ / 0-)

    to a member of the choir with this. I find it perplexing that when it comes to choosing between the life of a pregant woman or that of her fetus, the anti-choicers invariably condemn the living, breathing woman who has already in some small way made a contribution to the world in favor of the fetus. Now, if the pregnant woman requests that we save her fetus, then it is her choice, but somehow it seems to me that all things considered equally, the one who already has a life outside the womb should take precedence if that is her desire.

    A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. -Greek proverb

    by marleycat on Thu Sep 30, 2010 at 03:51:52 PM PDT

  •  Should abortion services be means-tested then? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    burrow owl, NY brit expat

    Only those who can demonstrate that they are too poor to adequately provide for the child would qualify?

  •  Make abortion unnecessary, not illegal. (7+ / 0-)

    Better sex ed (NOT abstinence only crap), easy, affordable and universal access to multiple birth control methods, including long-term implants, better programs to support mothers who want to have the baby either for themselves or for adoption but can't afford it, more available and affordable child care, etc.

    Of course when you get beyond the "baby-killer" screams usually you find that many of the nutjobs on the other side also are against birth control, sex outside of marriage (for women at least), masturbation, women who work, science, and sanity.  

    To paraphrase a great man, I'd have a better conversation with a dining room table.

    New favorite put-down: S/he's as dumb as a flock of Sarah Palins

    by sleipner on Thu Sep 30, 2010 at 04:37:32 PM PDT

  •  So, that's a creepy diary. (3+ / 0-)

    You sound like that guy that shot up the Discovery Channel.

  •  idiot (0+ / 0-)

    so poverty is solved by sterilization?  I have heard it all now, what happened to the liberals who championed the plight of the poor?  And btw, ever here of adoption?  Thousands of well do to Americans travel abroad to adopt, are they causing the blight you see when too many poor homo sapiens are in close proximity?

    •  where does the diarist write about (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      i like bbq

      sterilization?  he is talking about the availability of abortion services being a good - NOT an evil - thing.

      you're reading WAY too much into it

      don't start down the effing "adoption" path.  being pregnant is no picnic, and even if the woman doesnt keep the child there are many physical difficulties involved.  women have no obligation to serve as the babymakers for other human beings

      "We struck down evil with the mighty sword of teamwork and the hammer of not bickering!" - The Shoveler

      by Pandoras Box on Wed Oct 06, 2010 at 12:46:35 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  A woman in the islands (0+ / 0-)

    My friend and his wife had two children, a girl and a boy, and they didn't really want a third. But the wife got pregnant. Oops. They discussed abortion, but it's illegal in their country, and they were afraid of a back alley abortion.

    Soon after the new baby was born, the mother moved to the U.S. and found work taking care of richer people's children. Of course, she was an undocumented worker -- she had gone underground. As a consequence, she could never fly back to her island country to see her own children, because she could never re-enter the US. She could only show her love by sending money to help pay for their school and living expenses.

    I don't know if the mother found a boyfriend in the US, but the husband found a girlfriend. Meanwhile their children grew up.

    Ten years passed and the wife got her permanent residency, allowing her to leave and return to the US. She decided to surprise her family by flying home.

    Alas, she was the one surprised, because the children told her about the girlfriend, their de facto foster mother. In a rage, the wife left her husband, and took the children to live with their grandmother when she returned to her job in the US.

    Sadly, the wife became sick and died shortly after returning to New York. Then the children clamored to return to live with the father who had been their only real parent for 10 years.

    Am I being neo-Malthusian to think that if abortion were legal in that Caribbean country, and the woman could have found a safe and legal abortion, that the family would not have been destroyed? Neither the baby nor her siblings saw their mother for 10 years, and of course, the husband and wife were in effect divorced as a consequence of the birth.

    We need to say out loud that abortion is good.

    •  The right to determine whether or not to have (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      children, when and how many to have them should be treated as a positive right ensuring that everyone have access to that right. One thing is to support and enable access to that right; another is to argue that abortion is something that should exist because the poor are breeding too much which is what the author of this diary is suggesting.

      I believe that you are advocating the first point, not the second. In that you are not advocating a neo-Malthusian position. You are advocating that people have the human right of reproductive choice. A neo-Malthusian would argue that birth control (including abortion) is a good due to the dangers of the poor breeding beyond their ability to sustain themselves. You are not suggesting that; instead you are affirming the right of people to make their choices concerning their reproduction.

      No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable (Adam Smith, 1776, I, p. 96).

      by NY brit expat on Fri Oct 01, 2010 at 07:14:09 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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