I worry about the apparent increasing insensitivity of large numbers of people in our society (although certainly not limited to our society, or even Western society) to the wonder and mystery of life -- all life, but in particular human life. But even assuming this awesome and unfathomable quality of human life does not lead one to easy answers on the question of abortion.
It is just as arbitrary, and therefore arrogant, to assume that meaningful life does not begin until the final trimester of embryonic development as it is to assume that it begins with conception. Those who maintain that we must respect the wonder and value of life as early as conception may offer, quite rightly, as their rationale that the very potential for two united cells to develop into the fullness of a human being gives us reason to regard as awesome and wondrous even life at this very early stage. Those who suggest that it is at some later stage in embryonic development, where potential becomes significantly realized and, therefore, demonstrable, and is where respect for life as human and, hence, significantly meaningful, also present a plausible argument.
However, both positions rest upon an essentially arbitrary understanding of what can rightly be regarded as 'meaningful' life, and therefore deserving of the moral or -- even more complex -- legal protections of society. This can only lead to the conclusion that we, as mere moral and finite human beings, are not given and -- by the ultimately unanswerable nature of the issues involved -- shall never be able to answer this question.
The implication, then, of this 'agnosticism', of our recognition that we are not able to determine at what point life becomes truly significant, or 'human', is that we must approach life in its early stages with an attitude of giving it the 'benefit' of our doubts. Although this throws the weight of the argument in favor of those who would accord reverence and human significance to the simple cellular union at conception, it does not share the dogmatic and arrogant 'certainty' of most who assert the same conclusion.
This more respectfully cautious conclusion shows more respect to those who differ, assuming the latter recognize the contingency of their own position. And those who hold either position on the abortion question -- that is, the question of "At what point are we morally obligated to regard life as truly human and therefore deserving of protection?" -- should realize that one's answer to this question does not immediately solve the question of when it is permissible to abort, much less the question of when legal sanctions should be invoked to enforce the protection of 'meaningful' life, or to punish infringements of this protection.
Here one has to consider the very difficult question of "Life vis a vis life" -- e.g., the protection of the life of the mother or the life of the unborn child?, where both cannot be assured. In this circumstance, perhaps we must conclude that only the mother can decide. For anyone else -- and certainly the state -- there can be no morally 'right' answer. Far more complex are questions that weigh such matters as quality of life, whether it be the future quality of life of the mother or the future quality of life of the child. 'Complex', because we have no easy answers in regard to what kind of qualitative factors are morally worthy of our consideration, and how to rank one worthy quality relative to another when they come into conflict. This is where convenience has too often been confused with 'quality', particularly by those who argue, without qualification, for 'abortion on demand.' 'Complex', also because there are many different circumstances in which the expectant mother, and sometimes society, must weigh the issues. Therefore, being neither expectant nor a female who might become expectant, I must open the discussion at this point to others more qualified.
Beyond this, the only other requisite qualification, but an extraordinarily important one, to my thinking, for entering into this extremely important discussion, is that the participants be those who have what, I think we can say, IS a distinctly human quality: a profound sense of true mystery and wonderment in regard to all life, and particularly human life.
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