Not all accept that personhood begins at conception

I got an unusual letter recently from a woman who is fed up with the Republican member of Congress representing Iowa’s socially conservative fourth congressional district, but can’t support his Democratic opponent over one issue: a woman’s right to choose.

The woman considers incumbent Steve King an embarrassment for his inflammatory statements on such matters as race and immigrants, and his across-the-board tea party positions. But of his opponent, Jim Mowrer, who supports abortion rights, she wrote that she could accept abortion only if a pregnant woman’s life were in danger. “They are living human beings, from the moment of conception,” she wrote.

It’s not often that I get an anti-abortion letter that isn’t written in a snide or scolding tone, using language like “baby killer” or including pictures of aborted fetuses. Maybe the civility fades away on both sides of the issue. But hostile, self-righteous arguments make it seem futile to even try to have a rational conversation on the issue. This woman, who asked not to be named, gave me an opening at a time when abortion is a factor in many political races. So here is my open letter to her.

Dear C,

Thanks for your note. I appreciate your passion on the abortion issue and, in the spirit of dialogue, I'll try to explain why I have a different, but equally passionately held view. I share Jim Mowrer’s position on a woman’s right to choose.

The idea that the minute a sperm fertilizes an egg, it becomes a baby, is common to various religions. That was the belief in my father’s strict Hindu family of origin in Calcutta. For that reason, though he wasn’t religious, he tended to add a year when calculating how old I was.

I haven’t heard of other pro-lifers, including my Catholic in-laws, doing that. But it sort of makes sense if you really believe it, doesn’t it?

That idea of a baby springing instantly from an act of procreation has an alluring, mystical appeal. It makes sex acceptable, especially in faiths that believe sex should only be for procreation. In patriarchal cultures, motherhood has also tended to validate a woman’s very existence.

But scientifically speaking, a baby is only a baby once it is able to survive outside the womb. Though medical advances have made it possible for babies born prematurely to be kept alive, a first trimester fetus could not. That’s the point at which most routine abortions are performed.

That distinction may not matter to people whose religious convictions tell them all life is sacred from conception on. And that belief is an absolutely valid basis to choose not to have an abortion.

But in the face of these conflicting frameworks on the beginnings of life, the only reasonable role for the state is to let fetal viability be the legal cut off, and let pregnant women decide for themselves.

In a perfect world, we would have no unwanted pregnancies. In reality, if the person responsible for feeding, caring, guiding, educating and loving a child for the next 21 years at least isn’t up to the job, children can suffer. We’ve all heard of the tragic consequences when people who were unprepared to be parents, or were in unstable relationships or life situations, didn’t adequately care for their children. Some of those kids end up abused, abandoned, neglected or moved around. Every child that enters the world should be loved and cared for.

Adoption is an option, but it isn’t always easy or pain-free. Many adoptions work beautifully. I have also known children who struggled with the feeling they were rejected by birth parents, and I’ve known birth parents who suffered long-term guilt, and adoptive parents who were caught in the middle.

I appreciate that you would make an abortion exception to save the life of a mother. But to those who want the law not to differentiate between the personhood of the born and unborn, how can there be any exceptions?

Last year, 20 Republicans (and one Democrat) in the Iowa Senate, including Joni Ernst who is now running for U.S. Senate, proposed a “personhood” amendment to the Iowa Constitution. It would have recognized and protected “any person at any stage of development.” If approved, it could have outlawed abortion even in cases of rape or incest and prohibited the use of contraceptives like birth control pills and IUDs. Ernst has said the vote was just a statement of principle. But if it had passed (it was blocked in the Democratic-controlled Senate) and become part of the Constitution, abortion would have been unconstitutional and abortion doctors could have been punished.

Because we all approach the abortion issue according to our own values and realities, the law has to permit people to reach their own decisions. Much as I want no girl or woman to be faced with an unwanted pregnancy and have to make a wrenching choice, the only thing worse would be to have no choice at all, and have the government dictate one, leaving people to suffer the consequences.

Thanks for reading this.

Warm wishes,

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.